Youth perceptions of climate change and climate action in Waterville, Maine

By Mariel Ferragamo1, Melody Larson1, Peter Brown1, Loren McClenachan2,‡

1Colby College Environmental Studies Program
2Associate Professor of Environmental Studies, Colby College, Waterville ME
Corresponding Author. Email:


Climate change poses a major threat to human society with a disproportionate effect on young people. Although youth involvement in climate action is increasing, there is a lack of youth voices in the climate change narrative. Therefore, documenting youth perceptions of climate change is important for incorporating these key stakeholders, and improving social mobilization for climate action. We used interviews and surveys with high school students in Waterville, Maine to evaluate how students perceive climate change and engage with climate action. Over half (61%) of surveyed students ranked the importance of climate change as 8 or higher on the 1-10 scale. One quarter (26%) indicated that climate change is “the most important issue facing [their] generation” and 58% of interviewees reported thinking about it daily. Overall, students associated the current state of the environment with more negative than positive emotions, but the Maine environment was perceived more positively than that of the globe. While interviewees identified small-scale environmental actions that they took in their everyday life to reduce climate change, such as reducing waste or increasing personal energy efficiency, they felt they had no ability to influence or make necessary large-scale changes. Many narratives demonstrated a disconnect between personal action and local or global environmental issues. Students expressed interest in learning about climate change problems and solutions, but communicated a notion that their high school curriculum lacked substantial integration of this subject area. Almost half of survey respondents reported that they were interested in participating in an organized climate action event in the future, such as a climate strike. Students in Waterville appear to be invested in the issue of climate change and they have an important voice to contribute to the discourse regarding action and policy.

Keywords: Community-based research, Climate Action, Climate Change, Emotion, Maine, Youth


Anthropogenic-induced climate change is increasingly disrupting earth system functions and human society (Antilla, 2005; Leiserowitz, 2006; Egan & Mullin, 2017). In recent decades the US public’s support for acknowledging the existence of climate change and recognizing that action is necessary has grown. In 1986, 39% of the national population admitted familiarity with the concept, growing to 90% in 2006. In 2010, 28% of the population reported worrying about climate change “a great deal” (Brulle, 2012; Nisbet & Myers, 2007). However, understandings of climate change differ based on various sociodemographic factors, including cultural influences, education, access to media/communication, geographic region, and the environment and industries in which one is surrounded (Brechin & Bhandari, 2015; Lee et al., 2015).

Maine is a state known for its natural resources and relative lack of development, with 89% of its land covered by forest (Butler, 2017; Frumhoff et al., 2007). Despite having a large amount of protected land and few emission-heavy industries which gives the impression that environmental threats are low, Maine is at the forefront of many climate impacts. For example, the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than other parts of the world’s oceans (Mills, 2013), which will lead to changes in economically important fishing and tourism industries (Steneck et al., 2011; Maine Office of Tourism, 2018). In addition, climate change is predicted to have an impact on the forest ecosystems that make up a large portion of the state, decreasing biodiversity and changing distribution of forest types (Tang & Beckage 2010).

As climate-driven environmental changes occur, youth are realizing that they will soon be faced with the negative effects. Including those who will bear the brunt of climate change is a key component of citizen action efforts, as they will be tasked with taking climate action for future decades (Mitchell et al., 2008; MacDonald et al., 2013). Environmental and health issues attributable to climate change are increasingly common, and in a business-as-usual scenario are likely to become more persistent in the future (Costello et al., 2009). This positions youth to have a stronger cause for minimizing damage that will affect them for years to come, more so than any other generation. However, youth are largely excluded from most climate conversations across all demographics (Haynes & Tanner, 2015). One way to involve youth is through developing and disseminating personal narratives, a powerful tool for social mobilization for climate action that also contributes to the field by filling gaps that are often overlooked by the research community (Harper et al., 2012; MacDonald et al., 2013; Moezzi et al., 2017; Hedley, 2018).

To aid in filling this gap in youth representation in climate conversations in Maine, we set out to determine the perceptions of climate change and action held by high school students in the central Maine municipality of Waterville. We interviewed a subset of students from Waterville Senior High School, and surveyed the population of the entire school to evaluate the perceptions of the state of the environment and climate change discussion in local youth. This project aims to provide a model for youth perspectives to be added to climate research efforts and determine if youth have seen the impacts of climate change in their daily lives and lifetimes. We also intend to highlight the means and topics that motivate youth involvement based upon their understandings of climate change and what aspects of the issue they are most passionate about.



Our research data was gathered via two methods: a survey administered to the entire Waterville Senior High School population (n=499) and in-person conversational interviews (n=19) with a subset of students recruited from the school. The survey was used to obtain broad information about the student population’s overall perceptions of climate change and climate action, while the interviews were used to obtain more in-depth responses. Our survey and interview questions were approved by the Colby College Institutional Review Board (IRB).

The survey asked students to indicate their opinion of how important they believe climate change to be on a scale of 1 to 10 (little to utmost importance), and asked participants to list emotions attributed to the current state of the environment (Appendix 1). We compiled all responses and consolidated terms by combining different conjugations of emotions and combining synonyms (Appendix 2). For consolidation of synonyms, the term that received the most responses is the term into which others were consolidated. For example, a large proportion of students said they were “angry,” though many said they were “mad,” and some replied “furious.” All were categorized under the emotion of “anger.”

We recruited interview participants during the meeting of the school’s environmental club (called the Green Team). The club’s faculty advisor also invited all high school students interested in participating to be interviewed. These interviews were semi-structured, with a mix of questions with a fixed set of possible responses, and open-ended questions (Appendix 3). We followed up where appropriate with additional questions. The interviews were transcribed with the help of the online transcription program, developed by Liang and Fu (2018), and then analyzed by examining key words, phrases, and emotions associated with the state of the environment and climate change. Our goal was to capture the most common ideologies offered by students to weave a collective narrative of Waterville youth discussing the environment. This included broad concepts, emotions, specific actions, and hopes for the course of future plans. We quantified our results by counting each time specific keywords were mentioned across all interviews in order to highlight the most common terms in student lexicons when discussing the environment in conversation (Appendix 4). This gave an understanding of various buzzwords, developing terms, and existing trends that are currently most used by surveyed youth when considering the climate. We followed the methodology of MacDonald et al. (2013) to create flowcharts connecting and describing youth perceptions of climate change impacts, emotional responses, and their perceived ability to affect climate action.



We received 285 completed surveys, which accounts for 57% of the student body. Additionally, we received 99 partially completed surveys, which we also included for the subset of answered questions. We conducted in-person interviews with a total of 19 students, 15 of which were recruited through their participation in the Green Team, and 4 were recruited through the general invitation to the student body.

Student concern for climate change

The schoolwide survey revealed climate change is a highly important issue to most students. When asked to rank the current importance of climate change on a 1-10 scale, 10 was the value with the most responses, 26.6% (n=74), and was labeled “the most important issue facing [their] generation.” Of the responses to this question, the mean rank was 7.4 and the median was 8; the majority, 61% (n=173), of students ranked climate change at 8 or higher on the 1-10 scale (Figure 1a). Interviews supported this view of the importance of climate change; of the 19 students interviewed, 11 interviewees mentioned constantly thinking about climate change. Only 1 interviewee stated not thinking about it often, while the other 7 think about it at least weekly (Figure 1b). Many students attributed the reason for thinking about climate change often to its constant presence in the news and on various social media platforms.

When asked if students experienced changes in the environment over their lifetimes, 11 of our 19 interviewees expressed observing changes (Appendix 5). Five students responded that they had not experienced change, but referred to hearing about and discussing such occurrences with those who had directly experienced change. The remainder (n=3) reported not experiencing or hearing about changes. Most often, students cited noticing seasonal irregularities including snowfall pattern (n= 4) or extreme temperatures (n=4). Seldom were ecological changes observed, such as habitat loss (n=1), or fluctuation in wildlife populations (n=1) (Appendix 5). Individuals also expressed a heightened sense of environmental concern among their peers in recent years. A student speculated this increase correlated with Green Team membership more than doubling since the previous school year. When asked to identify key climate change topics, interviewees cited significant global burdens like rising temperature (n=9) and melting ice (n=6). Responses also included changing weather, sea level rise, and pollution.

Figure 1. a) The number of student responses (n=285), per response to the question, “How would you rank the current importance of climate change?” with 1 signifying ‘not important’ and 10 signifying ‘the most important issue facing my generation.’ b) Number of student interviewee responses (n=19) to how often they personally think about climate change.

Climate change elicited a wide variety of emotions among students, the majority of which were negative (Appendix 2). Just 5.5% (n=40) of responses involving the status of the world’s environment were positive. When students thought about their emotions concerning the status of the world’s environment, the most common responses were ‘sad,’ ‘anger’ and ‘scared’ (Figure 2a). In contrast, 20% of responses were positive concerning Maine’s environment. When thinking about Maine, ‘sad’ and ‘anger’ were still in the top three, but ‘happiness’ was also associated with Maine’s environment (Figure 2b). Surveys and interview responses revealed many students associated happiness with Maine’s environment because they believe it is in better standing than other places globally. Of the 19 students interviewed, 6 described Maine as cleaner and less polluted compared to the world, while China and New York City were examples mentioned (n=7) of less environmentally clean locations. Some interviewees believe Maine is effective in addressing environmental issues (n=4).

Figure 2. a) Students’ top emotions associated with the current status of the world’s environment. b) Students’ top emotions associated with the current status of Maine’s environment.

Climate actions

Some emotions students associate with climate change led individuals to act against climate change in their everyday life (Figure 3). Activities on a personal scale like recycling, waste reduction through reusable products, and increasing energy efficiency were determined as the climate action they take in their own lives. Some interviewees shared that although they believed their impact to be small, they were devoted to making these changes in their own lives: “There’s not a lot I can do, but I will do as much as I can, even if it’s just the small roles…” When asked about their thoughts on climate action in interviews, students also mentioned these smaller personal scale activities as what climate action meant to them (n=9). Other interviewees associated climate action with protests and specifically, the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg (n=4). When discussing climate change and action, students also emphasized the need for global and domestic institutional changes. Individuals stated climate change is “not being addressed enough,” yet they expressed frustrated sentiments that they lack authority or agency to effect change (Figure 3). Specifically, an interviewee said:


“…things really need to change, but people who have realized that don’t really have the power to do it. Be it like me or people around my age… because we don’t really have [the] power or the means to really do much.”


Students’ broad perceptions of climate change impacts led them to an impression that they had the inability to make influential changes (Figure 3). The interviewees frequently mentioned they are “only” in their teenage years and therefore could not create meaningful change to help with large scale problems. One student stated, “…the issue…is [that] making immediate change [in] one’s life is difficult…change is not instantaneous, it’s a progression. It…doesn’t happen, you know, right now. It takes time.” Some interviewees did mention small scale initiatives they were interested in (e.g., helping to reduce waste at the restaurant they worked at over the summer) but still thought they couldn’t implement their ideas because they were too young for people to listen to them. Although interviewed students cited taking small climate actions in their everyday lives such as recycling, which were inspired by their understanding of climate change impacts, they thought these actions to be largely insignificant (Figure 3). For example, one interviewed student stated:


“I try to waste…as little as possible…and…not use as much electricity, [but] as of right now, there’s not much I can do other than in my household…, unless I like went out and…worked for a company or something…to make…a large impact.”


While these students recognized that the initiatives they partook in were examples of climate action, they also defined climate action as being something larger than their personal action and something necessary at the global and domestic institutional levels (Figure 3). In particular when asked about thoughts on climate change one interviewee stated, “…global policy is needed. I…think about how it’s not just a United States problem or even a North American problem it’s everybody’s problem.”

Figure 3. Flowchart representing the lack of authority and agency interviewees felt in regards to climate action and the relationships they described between this and their perceptions of climate change, the emotions attributed to climate change, their perceptions of climate action, and the actions they take in regards to climate mitigation. Perceptions, emotions, and actions regarding climate are summarized by the three terms most commonly identified in interviews.

While a few interviewees mentioned protests as a form of climate action, the survey revealed students are split almost evenly on the desire to participate in a climate action event like a strike (Appendix 6). Only 5% of surveyed students reported that they have participated in a climate action event although many reported interest in attending such an event in the future.

Influence and education

Students responded that they were influenced by and influential to various sources. Commonly cited influences were friends or parents, school faculty, members of the Green Team, and news outlets. Some students (n=4) named the Green Team faculty coordinator as their main inspiration (Appendix 7). When asked about their impact on others, students mentioned having an effect on their friends, parents, and faculty. Many respondents added that Green Team’s efforts, such as the “green tips” they give out once a week during homeroom are a strong outlet for personal impact. A small proportion of interviewees (n=2) responded indicating that they do not influence others to act against climate change, but expressed that they wished they could be influential.

While most interviewees recognized their influence as a Green Team member, they also expressed a need for further participatory action and education, wishing more people understood climate change’s importance. One student said, “[Climate change] is a really, really big problem that some people are working on, but I feel like as a whole, we don’t think about [it].” Most students (n=14) believed climate change was covered infrequently and insufficiently in biology or chemistry class. Although they reported a lack of an environmental class offered at school, a majority (n=14) stated learning about important environmental issues online or through social media. Some students discussed following news accounts on platforms such as Instagram. Interviewees also expressed news in various formats such as TV, online articles, or social media accounts as main sources of environmental information (n=10).


High school students in Waterville, Maine were acutely aware of recent media narratives regarding climate change. They frequently mentioned large-scale, more abstract concepts when asked what they associated with climate change. Along with this awareness, they also ranked climate change as one of the paramount issues they currently face and will navigate in the next few decades. In terms of climate change impacts in Maine, most students believed that their state was a good example of a healthy environment, often citing the abundant forests and low amount of pollution in the state.

Knowledge of large-scale environmental changes inspired students to take action in their everyday lives, in addition to joining the high school’s Green Team. In this club, students brainstorm ideas to mitigate climate change locally and work on projects to take action against climate change. Although most students mentioned the same few actions, such as recycling and turning off the lights, the projects they take part in with Green Team expand on their individual actions. They acknowledged that numerous people fighting against climate change in a small way is an important part of making change. However, students often shared that they are frustrated and sad about the state of the environment, wishing that they were able to have a larger impact. They do not feel like they have the authority to help act against climate change in a meaningful way. We attribute this rationale to their understanding of significant and abstract environmental issues juxtaposed with the feeling of daily sustainable actions having a minimal impact. A lens of bias may also be added through the news students receive through social media exacerbating their perception of environmental events to be overwhelmingly negative. Despite this lack of agency felt by students, the Green Team appears to offer students an opportunity to collaborate and make larger-scale changes in their school and community. During our time talking with the students in the club, they have been working to create public service announcements to help spread awareness about the school’s space for sustainability improvement as well as working with the school district to transition to powering the high school by solar energy.

Since most students explained in their interviews that there is little to no coverage of climate change in their classes, another possible reason that students think they don’t have agency is that they have a very narrow sense of the environmental problems occurring in the world. If climate change is discussed, it is limited and primarily in science classes. This low amount of knowledge about environmental issues could contribute to students’ lack of perceived options for climate action. Additionally, science classes serving as the predominant educational discussion surrounding climate change may demonstrate a lack of ability for other educational disciplines in solving or discussing climate issues. This lack of integrated education could be a reason that some students believe they cannot be involved in climate solutions because they do not plan to become scientists. A wider variety of environmental problems or solutions could be tackled by students if they had a broader understanding of the issues as well as an established forum to talk about said issues.

Our results support a limited but growing field of research on youth responses to climate change across communities. For example, despite expressing similar emotions in regards to climate change, Inuit youth population in Rigolet expressed greater regional awareness of the effects of climate change (MacDonald et al., 2013; Haynes & Tanner, 2015) than did the Waterville youth we interviewed. Furthermore, other researchers have found that multimedia and digital storytelling raises awareness of climate change among youth, which parallels what some Waterville Senior High School students said of the influence of media sources with regards to their information about climate change and climate action (Manfredini, 2017). Further research should expand the scope of research on youth emotions and actions in order to include this important demographic in the climate change narrative.


Acknowledgements: We are grateful for the assistance of Prof. Gail Carlson of Colby College in the planning stages of this project and for providing connections to Waterville Senior High School. We are also immensely grateful for the help Julie Letourneau provided us with to conduct this research at the high school. Additionally, we are thankful for all students who participated in interviews or in the survey as well as students of the Green Team who donated their time distributing and collecting surveys.


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Appendix 1. The survey administered to all students of Waterville Senior High School.


Circle your grade:        9th       10th       11th     12th


How would you rank the current importance of climate change? (1 = not important, 10 = most important issue facing my generation)


1         2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10


What three emotions do you attribute to the current status of the environment in Maine?








What three emotions do you attribute to the current status of the environment in the world?








Have you participated in an organized event centered on environmental awareness (For example, a climate strike such as on September 20th when students gathered in Portland, Maine to demand climate action)?


⃞ Yes       ⃞ No


If not, do you wish you could have?


⃞ Yes       ⃞ No


Would you consider yourself an environmentalist (a person who is concerned with or advocates for the protection of the environment)?

⃞ Yes       ⃞ No

Appendix 2: Consolidation of terms from Survey Responses.


Emotions attributed to the current state of the world’s environment:

Anger = anger and angry, mad

Alarmed = alarmed and alarm

Annoyance = annoyed, annoying, annoyance

Anxiety = anxiety, anxious

Concern = concern, concerned

Confusion = confused, confusion, bamboozled

Depression = depressed, depressing, depression, very depressing

Desperation = desperation, desperate

Disappointment = disappointment, disappointed

Disgust = disgust, disgusted, disgusting

Don’t care = don’t care, don’t really care

Excitement = excited, excited for change

Fright = frightening, frightful

Frustration = frustrated, frustrating, frustration

Happiness = glad, happy, happiness, happy sometimes, little happy

Hope = hope, hope of change, hopeful

Hopeless = hopeless, lacking hope

Irritation = irritated, irritated that people don’t care

Nervous = nervous, nervous of extinction

Overwhelmed = overwhelmed, overwhelming

Sad = sad, sadness, big sad, sadness for animals, sometimes sad, sorrow, upset, kind of upset I guess, really upset, upsetting

Scared = scared, scary, kinda scared, very scared, fear, fearful

Stress = stress, stressed, stressful

Terrified = terrified, terrifying

Worry = worry, worried, worrisome, very worried, worrying

Emotions attributed to the current state of Maine’s environment:

Anger = anger, angered, angry, mad

Annoyance = annoyance, annoyed, annoying

Anxiety = anxiety, anxious

Boredom = bored, boredom, boring

Concern = concern, concerned

Confusion = confused, confusion,

Disappointment = disappointment, disappointed

Disgust = disgusted, disgusting

Encouragement = encouraging, encouraged

Excited = excited, exciting, excited to act

Frustration = frustrated, frustrating, frustration

Happiness = happy, happiness, happy relaxed

Hope = hope, hope of change, hopeful a bit hopeful

Joy = joy, joyful

IDK = IDK, unsure, I don’t know

I don’t care = don’t care, don’t really care, I don’t really care, couldn’t care less

Proud = proud, proud of what Maine is doing

Sad = sad, sad because it is cold, sadness, upset, upsetting

Scared = scared, scary, scared for the environment, fear

Overwhelmed = a little overwhelmed

Worry = worried, worrying, worriful

Relaxed = relaxed, relaxing


No response = left blank, crossed out, “N/A”, “no answer”, “none”, “nothing”

Appendix 3. The guiding questions asked to each participant of the interviews.


When you hear the term climate change what comes to mind?

    1. What feelings does climate change evoke?

When you hear the term climate action what comes to mind?

How often do you think about environmental issues?

Can you describe the natural environment’s role in your everyday life?

Have you noticed any changes in the environment around you over the course of your life?

What do you believe is the most important environmental issue?

How do you take action against climate change in everyday life?

How do you influence people around you to take action against climate change?

Who influences you?

How is climate change covered in your classes?

How does living in Maine shape your view of the environment?

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

How do you learn about important environmental issues? What is your source, parents, newspaper, social media?

Appendix 4. Table representing how often different common words or phrases were brought up in conversation during all student interviews.


Word Frequency of Mentions
Environment 31
Green 30
Plastic 19
Recycling 17
Oceans 15
Pollution 11
Nature 11
Clean 11
Melting 8
Animals 8
Global 8
Carbon 8
Action 8
Weather 7
Impact 7
Reusable 6
Sadness 6
Temperature 5
Greta Thunberg 5
Emission 5
Energy 5
Worry 5

Appendix 5: Table of responses of observed environmental changes from interview question “Have you noticed any changes in the environment around you over the course of your life?”


Environmental change observed Number of interviewees who observed change
Snow coming later in the year and an increase in snow 4
Increase in extreme weather, both summer and winter 3
Increase of heat in the summer 1
Habitat and species loss 1
Decrease in lake and river levels 1
Unspecified change 1

Appendix 6. Surveyed students’ responses regarding climate action events.

Appendix 6 (a). Percent of yes and no responses to survey questions: (1) Have you participated in an organized event centered on environmental awareness? (2) If not, do you wish you could have? (3) Would you consider yourself an environmentalist? (n=285).


Survey Question % of Yes responses % of No responses
Participated in organized event on climate awareness? 4.9 94.4
Wish you could have participated? 48.4 45.6
Consider self environmentalist? 53 44.2


Appendix 6 (b). Responses to survey questions “Do you wish you could have participated [in an organized event on climate awareness]?” and “Would you consider yourself an environmentalist?” represented as the percent of students that answered these questions in different combinations.

Wish you could have participated?
Yes No

Consider self environmentalist?


Yes 38.6% 11.2%
No 9.1% 33.7%

Appendix 7. Table representing the number of times students in interviews mentioned influencing or being influenced by certain parties.

Students influence Students are influenced by
Friends 13 2
Family 5 7
School Faculty 1 4
News/Media 0 3
Green Team 1 5