The Intersections of Youth, Arts, Climate Change, and Public Health

Taylor Seale, MPH, Positive Youth Development Educator

Last month, Extension colleagues from the Positive Youth Development Institute and Natural Resources Institute partnered with the Arts + Literature Laboratory to create an educational workshop for teens that centered on climate change and the arts. During the event, teens could connect with local environmental organizations, walk through The Shape of the Environment exhibit curated by local artist Lelia Byron, and could scan QR codes that gave details about each art piece with connecting Dane County climate change data and facts (StoryMap created by Extension’s Michelle Probst and Maya Walther).

According to a global survey, children and young people reported ranging emotions regarding climate change: “worry, fear, anger, grief, despair, guilt, and shame” (Hickman et al., 2021). 75% of children and young people surveyed said the “future is frightening”, and 83% said that “people have failed to take care of the planet” (Hickman et al., 2021). On a local scale at the event, teens reported wanting to learn about climate change solutions, how to influence and engage their peers and community, learn about societal and economic impacts of climate change, and how they, as individuals and those in their households, can live sustainably. When asked what steps they planned on taking to address climate change after attending the workshop, teens reported tangible steps from an individual to policy levels, such as: being more aware of wasting food at home, taking shorter showers, composting, joining a community garden and facilitating peer to peer opportunities to educate others about growing local produce, joining a local organization, and attending youth climate conferences.

It is clear that to address climate change, there is a complex, multifaceted call to action from all fields and entities to work together to initiate change. From a public health perspective, the concept of ‘One Health’ (“an integrated, unifying approach to balance and optimize the health of people, animals, and the environment”) is relatively new and highlights the much needed cross-sector collaborations between public health, veterinary, and environmental fields (One Health, n.d). However, another important field is missing and advocates are working hard for a seat at the table: the arts.

Using the arts as a way to engage in climate change advocacy can be a powerful communication, education, and outreach tool for public health and environmental professionals alike. Like the Arts + Literature Laboratory event, teens were able to engage in hands-on learning experiences about climate change through the arts, where the exhibit provided different commentaries and both global and local perspectives of its impacts. As one student said, “this challenged me and made me think outside the box”, another said “these images are striking [“The Hinterland” by Lianne Milton] and devastating…I didn’t know this was happening.” 

Using an arts and public health framework, research has shown the many ways the arts can “provide direct health benefits, create safe, inclusive, and engaging environments, support societal, cultural, and policy change, enrich research methods and practices, and strengthen health communication” (Sonke J., & Golden T. 2020). Climate change advocacy work can often feel overwhelming, daunting, and debilitating. But the arts are a natural connector that can provide space to process emotional anxieties, anger, or passiveness regarding climate change, while simultaneously can educate, raise awareness, and simplify communication across diverse socio-political communities. Further, much of the strategic messaging surrounding climate change is often targeted towards specific populations, and while helpful, there is a need for “additional communication strategies…ideally ones that are able to engage citizens irrespective of their personal ideology or identity” (Lawson et al., 2019). 

Thus, when combining youth voice and climate change activism with the arts, it can both allow youth space to process, engage in self-expression, and “foster transformative societal change that advances health and wellbeing” (Sonke et. al., 2019). Additionally, it is important to make sure youth are at the table when it comes to discussions and solutions regarding climate change, and research has shown that children and teens have the power to engage in intergenerational learning among family members to change dismissive or passive views on climate change (Lawson et al., 2019). To better shape and improve environments for youth to thrive in, there needs to be the acknowledgment and recognition from adults that youth are fully capable and knowledgeable to inform, shape, and change the environments in which they live (Ozer et al., 2020). Youth absolutely have the expertise and understanding of key issues that affect their health – like climate change – and utilizing them in shared decision making processes with adults will only better inform climate change strategies and solutions that youth will have to live with in the future. Let’s do this through the arts. 


Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & van Susteren, L. (2021a). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863–e873.

Lawson, D. F., Stevenson, K. T., Peterson, M. N., Carrier, S. J., L. Strnad, R., & Seekamp, E. (2019). Children can foster climate change concern among their parents. Nature Climate Change, 9(6), 458–462. 

One Health. (n.d.).

Ozer, E. J., Abraczinskas, M., Duarte, C., Mathur, R., Ballard, P. J., Gibbs, L., Olivas, E. T., Bewa, M. J., & Afifi, R. (2020). Youth Participatory Approaches and Health Equity: Conceptualization and Integrative Review. American Journal of Community Psychology, 66(3–4), 267–278. 

Sonke, J. & Golden, T. (2020). Arts and Culture in Public Health: An Evidence-Based Framework. University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine. 

Sonke, J., Golden, T., Francois, S., Hand, J., Chandra, A., Clemmons, L., Fakunle, D., Jackson, M.R., Magsamen, S., Rubin, V., Sams, K., Springs, S. (2019). Creating Healthy Communities through Cross-Sector Collaboration [White paper]. University of Florida Center for Arts in Medicine / ArtPlace America.

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