Climate Corner: Generation Z speaks out

Jul 1, 2023

Jean Ambrose

   I recently participated in a national conversations project — Local Voices for a Fair Workforce Transition — that seeks to better understand the life experiences of those in communities most reliant on fossil fuel jobs. 1.7 million people in the United States work in fossil fuel sectors including oil, gas, and coal operations. With the local economy shifts to focus on renewable energy, significant numbers of existing jobs will be threatened or radically transformed during the transition.

The Deloitte Corporation provides services globally to CEOs and Boards of Directors of many of the world’s largest companies. Deloitte is studying how to best advise those running companies large and small about how to navigate the climate crisis. They understand that the only way to learn about the problem is to hear from those at the local level most directly affected by the change.

The MOV was part of a project in five states – Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and WV. We held 10 conversations, which will be available to the public through an online portal as part of the Local Voices Network. It was a breath of fresh air to have a respected corporation that spans the globe want to know about our Appalachian hopes and fears for this “green transition.”

One conversation that was a highlight for me was with five Parkersburg High School students. Their views were a window into the mindset of Generation Z , “zoomers” born between 1996 and 2012.

Those with deep family roots in the industry described tensions among the generations in their families, some who could remember 50 years ago when there were many mining jobs . For those whose families were not part of the history of the industry, the issue was more clear cut: coal is not sustainable we know more about the devastating effects on the environment, and we have to change.

Having coal in your family didn’t necessarily set the students up to think like their parents or grandparents. They referred to the story of Homer Hickham and the movie October Sky, made out of his book, Rocket Boys. When Russia put the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, in orbit on Oct 4, 1957, youth in WV like people across the country, stayed up late to see the satellite cross the night sky. The movie, October Sky, portrayed how distressed the whole town became over a group of boys experimenting with building and shooting off rockets. The boys desperately wanted to be part of the space race and the opportunities for learning and careers, but their ambitions were seen as a threat, upending the familiar patterns of sons following their fathers into the mines.

The PHS students saw a similar connection to why they thought differently from their parents. “I think the reason we are so much more aware is because we have access to the internet and resources to learn more. It provides us with more knowledge than our parents could have had at our age.”

The group agreed that “our generation is a lot more open to newer ideas, even if our grandparents or parents have different views. We can go back and forth with each other about what we think through social media. Even if our parents don’t agree, it allows us to understand things more than they could in past generations. So we can really look at everything and see what we actually think based on all evidence.”

“Through Social media we can look at places all around the world and see how its affecting them there. We see the consequences more and realize that we do need to change.”

“We’re still growing up, so we still have minds that can change. Just as our parents and grandparents grew up knowing that coal and gas and oil kept society moving, our generation has realized the maybe coal isn’t’ the best idea anymore We need to switch for future generations.” “People should be more open-minded about changing.”

When asked where they thought we’d be in ten years, students thought there were lots of opportunities to use wind and water power here but they were skeptical that much would change. They were looking ahead 20 years, when their generation could get into power to change things. In a survey done by Deloitte two years ago, climate change and environmental issues were a major concern for 76% of young people born between 1996 and 2012 with 43% being afraid it is too late to repair the damage done to the environment.

Despite this, the students were hopeful. “I’m glad there are people that are willing to listen to us. We have different opinions than those of the West Virginia government. I don’t feel our opinions are being represented enough in our government.

What did the students want people to know about west Virginia? “Although it’s a small state that is typically very conservative, we do have different viewpoints. We have people who want to support climate change, a lot of young people.”


Jean Ambrose is trying not to be a criminal ancestor.