Climate Change as Perceived by High School Seniors From The USA, Russia and Argentina

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Present international studies were conducted by two researchers from Argentina and Russia. The project was initiated by Marco Kleimans, a senior student at Escuela del Mirador Buenos Aires high school. He introduced the subject of study, suggested a methodology, developed pre-assumptions, and drafted the questionnaire. Subsequent work was joined and supervised by Alexander Roslyakov (PhD in Sociology, Senior lecturer of Russian State University for The Humanities, Moscow). The authors also express their gratitude to Ms. Argine Safari (New Jersey State Teacher of the Year 2016, Pascack Valley High School Hillsdale, NJ) for help in arrangement of field surveys in the USA.

 

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Within recent decades modern industry has gradually become one of the most powerful factors negatively affecting the ecological balance and climate of our planet. However, the climate change comes rather inconspicuous into everyday life of a human. Winters grow only slightly colder in Buenos Aires, and au contraire – relatively milder in the European part of Russia in these days. Until recently though, the correlation between climate changes and human activities has only been discussed within scientific and political communities (including UN-sponsored environmental organizations), gaining little attention of the general public.

But presently environmental issues increasingly become a dominant theme in the media. More and more documentaries and movies hitting TV and cinema screens press hard on the subject of “Ecological Apocalypse”. These stories presented in a plain and widely appealing form, communicate crucially important messages. They concern changes in relations between man and science, nature and society, scientific ethics and scientific discoveries. The subject has left scientific circles and grabbed attention of the general public. Although this widely-shared understanding is limited mostly to common sense, ecological perils are viewed by people as a personal challenge. The question is whether humanity will be able to attain certain equilibrium between industry and nature. Will it curb the ecological imbalances on the Earth? The answer for how the ongoing ecological changes will affect our common future largely depends on the Generation Z, i. e., people born after 1996–1998. These are the youngsters who live in the global world with the Internet and personal computers from the very moment of birth. Values and attitudes of this generation will vector our further development and key decisions to be made in the nearest future. This is why understanding of their views and concepts is very important for grasping the perspectives of our development.

The idea of this project was to analyze views of ecological hazards and personal perception of the ecological situation among senior students of high schools in three countries. These students surveyed as a part of the research, are about to become adults. In the years to come, they will start their careers and families. However, their notions about life have already been largely formed. If we study their attitude to the climate change we may be able to predict their possible steps with regard to this problem, both on the national and global scopes.

The main issue and the program of our research were defined by this objective, while the choice of methodology and tools was based on our available resources. We were able to find an efficient solution which allowed us to plan, organize and implement in four months a research on three continents (Europe and both Americas), without major recruiting and financial investments.

The object of our research were senior students of high schools in selected high-profile urban communities in the USA, Russia and Argentina, aged 16–18, born in 1998–2000.

For our research, we selected high schools comparable in terms of prestige and quality: settled in well-off urban communities in the USA, Russia and Argentina and considered “upscale” by the students and their parents. In Russia, we approached students of schools No. 2107 and No. 1306 (Ramenki district, Moscow); in the USA, we covered Pascack Valley High School Hillsdale, NJ; and we looked at Escuela Mirador Devoto, Buenos Aires, in Argentina.

We used questionnaires with yes-no and free-answer questions as the key research tool. Overall, 128 questionnaires were collected (50 in Russia, 48 in the USA and 30 in Argentina). The answers were analyzed in a country-by-country breakdown, with the nominal results converted into percentages separately calculated for each country (the total number of responses in each country being 100%). Finally, we compared results between the countries. We cannot claim the results to be highly representative for all the high school students in the three countries. However, we believe that these results do outline the students’ values, show the degree of their environmental awareness, personal responsibility about the issue, as well as their willingness to contribute their time and effort to respond to the challenge.

The results and key findings of the research come as follows.

The breakdowns of the answers to the first question (“Do you think the Earth is undergoing a climate change?”) were similar in all three countries. The majority of respondents firmly believed that climate changes were underway (see Table 1), while around one-third of each country’s high school seniors thought that changes were probably going on.

Table 1. Answers to the question “Do you think Earth is undergoing a climate change?”

Definitely yes Probably yes Rather no Definitely no Do not know / No answer Total
USA 63.04% 34.78% 0.00% 2.17% 0.00% 100.00%
Russia 74.00% 24.00% 0.00% 0.00% 2.00% 100.00%
Argentina 73.33% 23.33% 0.00% 0.00% 3.33% 100.00%

Figure 1.

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Russian high school seniors show the highest “level of anxiety” on this issue and gave additional comments to their answers. They believe that the main cause of human-induced global warming is the anthropogenic greenhouse gas effect.

  • “These days, an incredible amount of greenhouse gas is emitted by various industries and cars, certainly affecting climate worldwide.”
  • “Industrial production creates greenhouse gas layers in the atmosphere, causing global warming.”
  • “Atmosphere of the Earth is getting hotter, causing ice caps to melt.”

Respondents also base their comments on personal observations and experience.

  • “I can see that winters in Russia are getting slightly milder: we have less snow in December and other winter months.”
  • “Winters in Moscow are now less snowy but grow rainier.”

Only one Russian student gave no clear answer, referring to a contradiction in the scientific discussion of global warming: “Some scientists believe the increase of temperature and ice melting are the results of the greenhouse gas effect, while others think that it is but a natural course of events: the Earth is still recovering from the ice period”.

The next open question encouraged respondents to give their own definition of global warming. It helped reveal the extent of their understanding of the problem. Detailed comments were received from all three countries: 47 from the USA, 48 from Russia and 30 from Argentina. Overall, their views of global warming are largely the same. Obviously, children get the information from open sources and definitely from adults but verify it with their own observations.

Yet there are specific features in every country showing through intonation of responses. For example, there were many emotionally tinged answers (“Dangerous warming of the Earth”, “A major problem that needs to be brought to attention” etc). Answers from the USA also suggested comments in the form of exact personal steps a respondent would take to protect the environment: “I want to help the environment, because it’s awful what’s happening. I always carpool to places; our family tries to save on gas emissions. I want my family to switch into using some other form of energy, and I want the US to switch into using wind turbines, water energy, energy where we are not burning fossil fuels. They’re going to run out sooner or later, and then it’ll be on my generation to solve the problem. I always recycle everything, and my family tries really hard to conserve water, conserve electricity. We’re so careful about conserving everything that we use”. Interestingly, the boy tells not only of himself but of his family, parents being the model for behavior.

Greenland Disko Bay

In Russia, almost all respondents tried to provide a rational scientific explanation: “Temperature growth across the entire Earth is caused by the greenhouse effect (according to some opinions) and leads to climate change”. Most Argentinian respondents gave accurate but rather formal answers without going deeper into the subject: “A change in the climate”.

So, what is the perception of the effect of global warming on people?

Table 2. Answers to the question “How do these changes affect people’s lives?”

Response options USA Russia Argentina
Negative 78.72% 69.39% 86.67%
Neutral 14.89% 16.33% 6.67%
Positive 2.13% 14.29% 6.67%
Do not know / no answer 4.26% 0.00% 0.00%

Figure 2.

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The majority of respondents in all surveyed countries believe that the impact is negative. Still, some have another view on the prospect of global warming. In Russia, almost one-third (32%) believe that the effects of global warming will be either neutral or positive. In the USA, 17% respondents and 13% in Argentina share this view.

To determine the predominant view of respondents, they were asked a direct question “What is / are the main reason / s why these changes are occurring?”

Table 3. Answers to the question “What is / are the main reason / s why these changes are occurring (a maximum of three options can be chosen)?”

Reasons named USA Russia Argentina
Natural processes related to the Earth 2.22% 40.82% 33.33%
Human activity that disrupts the natural ecological stability 88.89% 55.10% 66.67%
The impact the Universe has on the Earth, as well as the Sun, other planets or the Galaxy 8.89% 4.08% 0.00%

Figure 3.

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The studies revealed clear and significant differences in the perception of the cause for global warming by the young people in the USA, Russia and Argentina. In the USA the main clear belief is that global warming is human-induced. No such unambiguity is found in Russia and Argentina, with quite many young people thinking that global warming is a climate change independent from the mankind (41% in Russia and 33% in Argentina).

Table 4. Answers to the question “How fast is climate change occurring?”

Response options USA Russia Argentina
I witness the negative changes caused by climate change, and these already affect me personally 19.15% 14.29% 20.00%
I think I will suffer catastrophic consequences in the future 40.43% 38.78% 50.00%
Climate change is real, but I am convinced that there are already specialized people able to solve the problems 12.77% 14.29% 16.67%
Climate change does not affect me personally, and the changes that are taking place are so slow that my generation will not feel them 12.77% 18.37% 10.00%
I will not feel climate change at all, because along the entire history of mankind people have been able to adapt, so my generation and the next will adapt too 4.26% 12.24% 0.00%
Other (present your own view) 10.64% 2.04% 3.33%

Figure 4.

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We have already said that many children in Russia use the global warming concept to explain the observed weather. As the table shows, the majority of all respondents think that climate changes will affect them personally. Argentine high school students are the most fatalistic about that.

Respondents should choose no more than three response options.

Table 5. Answers to the question “Who are most responsible for solving the problem of global warming?”

Response options USA Russia Argentina
Top management of big firms 8.30% 21.59% 19.23%
Political leaders 16.70% 22.73% 24.36%
Religious leaders 0% 2.27% 0.00%
Celebrities (movie stars, athletes etc) 12.50% 1.14% 0.00%
Scientists 22.90% 31.82% 14.10%
Non-government organizations 8.30% 0.00% 5.13%
Each of us individually 35.40% 13.64% 32.05%
The resolution to this problem does not depend on particular persons or organizations 12.50% 6.82% 5.13%

Figure 5.

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The most obvious and illustrative is the difference of approach depending on the degree of importance of personal initiative and responsibility. In the USA 43.7% of young people believe that environmental safety largely depends on personal responsibility and public initiatives; in Argentine the percentage is 37.0%. In Russia, only 13.6% respondents share that view. Russian high school students believe that the main responsibility is on scientists; the second place by the degree of influence on solving environmental problems is shared by political leaders and big-time businessmen. American students believe that the main responsibility is on personal initiatives and individual actions, followed by scientists. Their level of expectations from politicians is low; it is even lower from businessmen’s initiatives. Argentine students share this view and put the main responsibility on individual actions, but, as Russian students, they have hopes about politicians and big business. Argentine students have little confidence in the initiatives by scientists significantly influencing the environmental situation.

Interestingly, unlike the Russians and the Argentinians, a large number of US students put responsibility for environmental protection on celebrities (movie actors, athletes etc) because they can form public opinion and therefore should be involved in ecological problems and lead other people by their example. Russian and Argentine students do not believe in celebrities for solving ecological issues.

So, how do respondents assess and understand their personal contribution to environment protection?

Table 6. Answers to the question “Does the solution to global warming depend personally on respondents?”

Response options USA Russia Argentina
Yes, I am ready to take action personally 45.45% 23.40% 40.00%
No 18.18% 40.43% 43.33%
Do not know / No answer 36.36% 36.17% 16.67%

Figure 6.

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Less than half of the respondents associate ecological issues with their private life and are ready to get involved into these issues. The weakest level of potential involvement is demonstrated by Russian teenagers, it is almost two times lower than that in the USA and Argentina.

The graph illustrates and supports prior conclusions about the impact of the cultural differences on the eco-consciousness. The level of personal responsibility among teenagers in the USA is much higher than that of respondents from Russia and Argentina. The surprising paradox is that though teenagers from Argentina believe eco-issues to depend on each individual the country shows the lowest level of credit to personal ability to improve the situation (“I know I have to, but it is none of my business” attitude), that at certain degree reveals personal involvement and low belief in the possible influence of an individual on traditional values in the society.

So what are the barriers for the eco-minded, what personal resources and interests teenagers are ready to sacrifice for the good of the commonwealth to preserve natural resources and ecology? The answer is certainly difficult to find. We outlined three possible psychological situations driven by the incentives Money, Comfort and Pleasure. The respondents were offered to make their choice in each of them.

Situation One – Money. You are to choose between two t-shirts that seem to be completely identical. However, one of these is 10% more expensive than the other one, but it meets all the ecological requirements, and it can be recycled as well. Which one would you buy?

Table 7. Answers in the Money situation

Response options USA Russia Argentina
Will buy the cheaper one 31.91% 46.94% 33.33%
Will buy the eco-friendly one 68.09% 53.06% 66.67%

As we can see the figures in the USA and Argentina are close; compared to Russia they feature near 30% more high school seniors who are psychologically ready to overpay for an eco-friendly product. Still, half of Russian teenagers are also ready to overpay for such products.

Situation Two – Comfort. You have discovered that there is a new book store in your town, which is famous for selling books completely made of recycled material, but getting there means travelling 15 more minutes than going to the nearest book shop. Would you be willing to travel longer?

Table 8. Answers in the Comfort situation

Response options USA Russia Argentina
I would travel to buy an eco-friendly book 31.91% 58.33% 56.67%
I would buy a regular book at a nearest bookstore 68.09% 41.67% 43.33%

In this case the situation changed. More than a half of Russian and Argentine high school seniors are ready to sacrifice their comfort and spend more effort. Unlike them, Americans are much less willing to waste comfort (less than one third). These might be cultural differences and habits such as practicality and high living standards that the survey generally manifested.

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Situation Three – Pleasure. You are part of an international organization that fights against the usage of agrochemicals in crop fields that harvest fruits and vegetables. Would you be ready to cut down on the consumption of these products made with these chemicals for one month?

Table 9. Answers in the Pleasure situation

Response options USA Russia Argentina
Yes, I would give up fruits and dessert for a month 82.98% 58,17% 63.33%
No, I am not ready to refuse from them 17.02% 41.83% 36.67%

The table shows obvious commitment of the USA students to sacrifice their own pleasures, Argentina and Russia holding the second and the third places, respectively. Remarkably, over a half of students in all three countries are eager to sacrifice their pleasures for a noble cause.

The overall conclusion is that Pleasure is too conventional a compromise to play an essential restriction role in the ecological behavior unlike Money or Comfort. It is evident that young people are open-minded enough to sacrifice social benefits and pleasures for the sake of ecology. The percentage of the young generation ready for personal commitment for the good of the commonwealth is quite high across all the surveyed countries.

Figure 7.

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The next set of questions dealt with the approach towards environmental education in school in various countries.

Table 10. Answers to the question “Did you study ecological problems at school?”

Response options USA Russia Argentina
Yes 36.17% 22.45% 50.00%
No 19.15% 12.24% 0.00%
Yes, but not in detail 40.43% 59.18% 50.00%
Absolutely not 4.26% 2.04% 0.00%
Do not know / no answer 0.00% 4.08% 0.00%

Table 11. Answers to the question “Do you believe it necessary to include environmental education into school curriculum?”

Response options USA Russia Argentina
Yes, definitely 67.39% 57.45% 90.00%
No, it is not really necessary 19.57% 19.15% 3.33%
Do not know / no answer 13.04% 23.40% 6.67%

Figure 8.

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According to the collected data it can be concluded that students of all three countries define school ecological education as sketchy while most teenagers across all surveyed countries admit all seriousness of the issue and are eager to study ecology and eco-safety to learn more about it. Their eco-perceptions depend on how the respondents evaluate their safety in their own home and town of residence. They were asked to do this using the 10-point scale (1 – the lowest, 10 – the highest).

Table 12. Answers to the question “On a scale from 1 to 10, how good / bad is the ecologic situation in the place where you live?” (values above 15% are highlighted)

Score USA Russia Argentina
10 6.67% 2.13% 0.00%
9 2.22% 4.26% 0.00%
8 6.67% 25.53% 3.33%
7 6.67% 14.89% 23.33%
6 22.22% 25.53% 26.67%
5 17.78% 12.77% 23.33%
4 20.00% 12.77% 13.33%
3 13.33% 2.13% 0.00%
2 0.00% 0.00% 0.00%
1 4.44% 0.00% 10.00%

The table indicates the most optimistic attitude towards the situation among Russian high school students, with Argentine high school seniors scoring the second place. In the US, estimates of the environmental situation in the areas of residence are slightly lower.

So, we examined the outlooks of girls and boys residing on three different continents. Their mindset was molded by three completely different political and economic systems, cultural codes and local traditions. The overwhelming majority of the teenage respondents from the three countries, regardless of the residency, look forward to continue their studies and pursue a career of physicians, artists, scientists or businessmen. It can be argued that in the nearest future they will be shaping, so to speak, the social strata of “the conscious”. It is them who will in many ways define the culture, political and economic decisions in their countries. Based on the facts discovered in the research, can we anticipate that the society of the future, built by the “Generation Z”, will move ecological issues to the center of public attention? Will this society be able to stop climate change and prevent a possible ecological catastrophe?

Unfortunately, this particular research gives no clear positive response.

On the one hand, over 80% of respondents are absolutely sure that ecological imbalances and climate changes have negative consequences. It can be argued that the young generation accepts the comprehensive information field related to this problem, together with the knowledge from the media and the “adult world”. One the other hand, the research shows that this issue is on the far periphery of consciousness, young people do not match it with their direct personal interests, and individual degrees of environmental anxiety are quite low. Less than one third of respondents showed the readiness to be personally involved in helping to improve ecological safety, with over 40% respondents in Russia and Argentina definitely see no point in contributing to such efforts, being certain that they cannot influence the situation in any way.

The research revealed a significant gap between a high level of awareness of ecological hazards and a low level of readiness to contribute to solving ecological problems. It also highlighted an obvious lack of purposeful ecological education aimed to interrelate the principals of environmental protection with the ethics and values of every individual and clearly explain the impact of each and every individual’s initiative and attitude on the future of our planet.

The authors are convinced that the problem is serious and should be put in the spotlight of public attention.

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