• 12,000+ students from 44 GEMS schools in UAE and Qatar complete online survey
• Landmark survey invites young people aged 10+ to share views on climate change
• Students send powerful messages to world leaders gathering in Dubai for COP28
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates: Close to two thirds of young people feel that not enough is being done to combat climate change, one in two lack confidence that the world will be able to stop climate change, and less than half feel a sense of optimism about the future.
That's according to a November 2023 survey conducted by GEMS Education that gauged the views of a total of 12,019 students aged 10 and above currently attending 44 GEMS schools across the UAE and Qatar.
As Dubai welcomes delegates from around the world for the United Nations' COP28 climate change conference, the GEMS Student Climate Change Survey reveals that the overriding message from young people in the region is unequivocal: they demand that world leaders do better, they demand action, and they demand it now.
Commenting on the results of this landmark survey, Asha Alexander, Executive Leader – Climate Change at GEMS Education, said: “Young people are at the forefront of climate change activism today and it is our duty to heed their clear demands that leaders do better and that they do so now.
“As children discuss and debate the topics around climate change, they are clearly concerned by the inaction, as they will be the generation that will bear the brunt of climate change. The survey highlights students' uncertainty over whether nations and leaders will make the right choices.”
The power of education
The survey underscores the important role of education in raising awareness about climate change and inspiring action. Just over a quarter (25.9 per cent) of students said school is their main source of information about climate change – the second largest segment after 37.7 per cent of respondents who pointed to ‘social media' as their main source of information.
An overwhelming 78.5 per cent of respondents believe that climate change is human induced, with 18.3 per cent unsure. A majority 87.6 per cent say that climate change should be taught in schools, while 61.4 per cent are satisfied that they are learning enough about climate change, 29 per cent want more to be taught, and the remaining 9.6 per cent favour less.
Asked whether they have changed their behaviour or taken action to combat climate change as a result of what they have learned at school, an encouraging 61.6 per cent of students replied in the affirmative. This effectiveness of the sustainability efforts in GEMS schools is further reflected in the four in five students who indicated that they have been actively involved in their schools' sustainability-related activities.
A commanding 97.4 per cent of respondents said that they are aware of climate change at varying levels, 29.6 per cent describing themselves as ‘very aware', 45.4 per cent as ‘aware', and 22.5 per cent as ‘somewhat aware'.
Just over half of respondents (51.5 per cent) said that they talk about climate change with their friends and peers – 4.7 per cent ‘all the time' and 35.1 per cent ‘often'. But the conversation is not limited to school: 56.1 per cent discuss climate change with family and at similar frequencies – 4.5 per cent ‘all the time' and 38.6 per cent ‘often'.
Worryingly, this level of awareness and discourse about the environmental challenges facing the world has not come without a toll. A not insignificant 28.2 per cent of students surveyed indicated that thinking about climate change has had a negative impact on their mental health and wellbeing. An even larger 31.9 per cent answered ‘yes' when asked whether they or a member of their family have ever been directly impacted by the results of climate change.
These results provide schools and educators with food for thought as they look to balance much-needed climate change education with emotional and wellbeing support for students as they come to terms with the impact and potential long-term consequences of climate change.
Ms Alexander explained: “The reality of climate change will influence where students decide to live, how they use transportation or how much they travel, and what they buy as consumers. As an education provider, we are working to embed climate literacy in all our schools in an attempt to positively influence and change individual choices and behaviours.
“To date more than 5,000 teachers at GEMS Education have acquired climate change certification through UN CC:Learn, thereby enabling them to educate our students better through a sound understanding of climate science. It is also important to acknowledge and validate students' feelings of anxiety, and so we raise awareness around these issues to help them understand why it is important to take action.”
The way ahead
Students' views on the work being done to combat climate change vary according to geography and macro-micro perspective. On a local community level, 50.4 per cent of respondents feel not enough is being done. This contrasts with the 67.1 per cent who believe the UAE is doing enough on a national level. Zoom out further to a global perspective, and the picture becomes less positive, with 64.5 per cent of students saying the world is not doing enough.
When respondents were asked to identify the biggest obstacle to combating climate change, the response was mixed: 29.7 per cent (the largest segment) pointed to the ‘fossil fuel industry'; 28.7 per cent to a ‘lack of awareness'; 22.3 per cent to today's ‘modern lifestyle'; and 13.2 per cent said ‘governments/politicians' most stood in the way of climate action.
Nevertheless, most young people have not yet lost hope. More than three quarters of students (77.9 per cent) have varying degrees of confidence that COP28 will result in positive change – 18.3 per cent are ‘very confident', 36.1 per cent ‘confident', and 23.5 per cent ‘somewhat confident'.
Similarly, 14.8 per cert of students said they are ‘very confident' that the world will be able to stop climate change, with 28.8 per cent ‘confident', and 33.5 per cent ‘somewhat confident'. Still, more than 1,500 respondents (12.6 per cent) said that they are ‘not at all confident' in humanity's ability to turn things around.
When it comes to assessing their own future, more students expressed optimism than pessimism, with 43 per cent either ‘very optimistic' (16.6 per cent) or ‘somewhat optimistic' (26.4 percent), versus 25.9 per cent declaring themselves either ‘very pessimistic' (8.7 per cent) or ‘somewhat pessimistic' (17.2 per cent). The largest segment with 31.1 per cent remained on the fence, however, being ‘neither pessimistic nor optimistic'.
Voices of a generation
Prompted to share their messages to world leaders gathering in Dubai for COP28, the students surveyed did not hold back. Some voiced their dismay and anger at the lack of action among nations, others put forward their solutions and recommended next steps.
“Listen to the voices of scientists, activists, and communities directly affected by the consequences of climate change,” said a student at GEMS Our Own Indian School. “Empower and involve them in the decision-making processes, as their insights and experiences are invaluable in crafting effective policies and strategies.”
“To risk this planet's future for development today is not only foolish, but downright selfish,” was the view of a student at GEMS Cambridge International School – Abu Dhabi. “Generations to come will pay the price of the unsustainable methods we use today to fulfil our wants. Development that comes at the price of a ruined future is only temporary, for the adverse effects of climate change will reverse all that was erected through the burning of fossil fuels.”
A student at GEMS Our Own High School – Al Warqa'a asked: “In the face of looming climate crises, will you be remembered as leaders who met the challenge with courage and conviction, or as those who let the chance for salvation slip through their grasp?”
“Actually implement change and hold corporations accountable for their climate crimes!” implored a student at GEMS Wellington School – Qatar. “Stop focusing so much on economic growth and money, because that's not going to matter if we can't even live on our planet!”
“Stop promising and talking. Start doing,” was the simple message from a GEMS Dubai American Academy student.
“We are at the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairytales of economic growth,” said a student at GEMS Cambridge International Private School – Sharjah.
From among the thousands of responses, two words stood out, repeated again and again by children of all ages, simple yet strong and full of power:
Education for Sustainable Development (ESD)
ESD is a priority focus for GEMS schools, with the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) successfully integrated in every school's curriculum. Indeed, in October 2023, GEMS signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the UAE's Ministry of Education to design and implement green education initiatives and integrate environmental sustainability topics into UAE schools.
Through the problem-based learning approach, GEMS students are regularly and meaningfully engaged in critical thinking discussions about the complexities of climate change, exploring the ethical, economic, and political aspects of climate solutions. Students participate in hands-on activities, projects, and initiatives related to environmental sustainability and climate action, allowing them to see the impact of their actions and be part of the solution.
Across the GEMS network, students young and old have the opportunity to be involved in a wide range of initiatives. These include community engagement projects, tree-planting and clean-up days such as Plant a Legacy and Plogging, climate action workshops in art and design, events such as Mock United Nations Climate Conference (Model COP), guest speaker series, environmental debates, youth climate summits, sustainable innovation showcases, and climate hackathons.