In December, Time Magazine announced its 2019 person of the year. This person was not a national leader, religious figurehead, or politician looking sternly at the camera in an expensive suit. Instead, it was Greta Thunberg: 16-year-old Swedish girl dressed in a zip-up hoodie and sneakers.
Thunberg caught the world's attention when she skipped school in 2018 to demand stronger action on climate change from Sweden's parliament. A year later, in September 2019, millions of people across the world joined her in playing hooky from work and class in a global climate strike.
College students have gone from complaining about adults not taking action on climate change to taking action themselves.
When Time Magazine announced Thunberg as their youngest ever person of the year, the magazine's cover read: "The Power of Youth." It's no coincidence that many people involved in climate change action are young people, including college students. After all, their future depends on our collective response to this escalating crisis.
So, in September, masses of students from Los Angeles to Lagos headed to the streets for climate change protests, painting color signs and t-shirts with slogans like "There is no Planet B" and "Time is running out."
"College students have gone from complaining about adults not taking action on climate change to taking action themselves," said Janet Lorenzen, assistant professor of sociology at Willamette University.
How College Students Are Helping to Stop Climate Change
In the 21st century, environmental advocacy has evolved, becoming more widespread and louder — especially with the news that climate change's effects will intensify at a rapid pace.
Data from NASA shows that 18 of the 19 hottest years since 1884 have occurred since 2001. And it's only getting worse. Megadroughts could devastate crops, weather disasters like hurricanes will become more severe, and sea levels could rise by as much as 8.2 feet before the century is out.
With calls for climate change action increasing in urgency, activism on college campuses has amped up. Today, college students organize around climate change more passionately than 10 — or even five — years ago.
In the past, environmentally conscious students focused more on forming habits to reduce waste on campus, like establishing recycling programs or composting. Now, students focus more on taking action on environmental justice, Lorenzen said.
Data from NASA shows that 18 of the 19
hottest years since 1884 have occurred since 2001. … [S]ea levels could rise by as much as 8.2 feet before the
century is out.
"In my experience, students today are much more educated on the topic of climate change than in the past," said Daniel Horton, an assistant professor of earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern University.
"[Students] tend to arrive on campus with the knowledge that climate change is occurring … and that it requires action," added Horton, who also works with the Climate Research Group at Northwestern.
Students are not the only people on college campuses concerned with climate change, either. Universities like Washington State University and Vanderbilt University have established environmental sociology programs or departments that focus not only on the science of climate change, but on how to take social action to combat it.
Colleges have also started climate change research groups, like the one at Northwestern where Horton works. The University of Washington's research program even offers an undergraduate minor or graduate certificate in the subject.
Plus, professors are incorporating climate change into their curriculum plans, Lorenzen said. A literature professor might assign a book like Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring," for example, and social science faculty lecture about environmental economics, policy, and politics. Professors in the hard sciences often incorporate information about what to do about climate change so that students won't be left demoralized.
Turning Despair into Action
Frequently, students' motivations extend from a dark place: climate grief.
If you've ever felt an overwhelming sense of sadness, anxiety, or hopelessness about the loss of natural ecosystems and the real possibility of planetary catastrophe, then you've experienced climate grief.
"I think it's obvious even in the jokes people make about never having kids or never owning a home," said Austin Luzbetak, a doctoral student at Colorado State University. "There is a sort of dark humor around the hopelessness."
Climate grief is enough to make you want to collapse into bed, pull the covers over your head, and simply give up. But in actuality, Luzbetak says, climate grief is a mobilizing factor — one of the reasons why so many students are getting involved.
In a lot of ways, the grief fuels the activism and organizing ... Having a sense that you're doing everything you can, even amidst climate chaos, it feels like there is some hope.
That means sometimes taking unconventional approaches to activism to get others' attention. In November, students from Harvard and Yale interrupted the well-known football game between the two rival schools, storming onto the field with signs and megaphones during halftime. In December, students from George Washington University stopped traffic in the nation's capital.
Beyond protests, students have become politically active in their local and state processes. At Princeton University, students formed an initiative to propose a policy that would require a state fee for fossil-fuel based energy in New Jersey.
In Vermont, student delegates organized a Youth Congress in November, asking the state legislature to consider climate change policies. In California, teens have demanded that schools incorporate more climate change science into their curricula.
"In a lot of ways, the grief fuels the activism and organizing," Luzbetak said. "Having a sense that you're doing everything you can, even amidst climate chaos, it feels like there is some hope."
How to Stop Climate Change While in College
Looking for ways to live more sustainably and get involved in climate change action? Below you'll find some tips on how to live more sustainably in a college setting.
First, change your personal habits:
- Everyone knows to recycle. Make it easier for yourself by buying some containers from Walmart or Target; label them plastic, glass, paper, and aluminum; and put them somewhere convenient, like by your desk or under your bed.
- Did you know that plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times? Therefore, reducing your single-use plastics can make an even more significant change than recycling them. Buy a reusable water bottle. Use glass food containers instead of Ziploc bags. Buy a reusable canvas bag for the grocery store instead of using the store's plastic bags.
- Eat less meat. You don't have to give up meat entirely, but eat meat less frequently. Try to cut down on beef and dairy products especially. If you can buy meat from local, sustainable farms in your area, try that instead.
- As a college student, fast fashion stores like H&M and Forever 21 seem enticing. However, fast fashion is a big offender of carbon emissions and waste — and that $3 shirt from H&M might not last longer than a year, anyway. Try to shop at local boutiques or thrift shops instead. If you have the funds, consider paying more money for clothing that will last longer.
- Drive less. If your town has public transportation, use it. If you live on campus, walk to class. Dig out the bicycle you used to ride for fun, and start biking instead of driving.
- When you're living in a dorm room, take advantage of what you can control in terms of energy consumption. Wash your clothes with cold water. Turn off the lights when you're not in your room, and unplug devices when you don't need your charger.
All that said, as Austin and Lorenzen remind students, the most effective change comes from institutions rather than individuals changing their behaviors. This means demanding change from the governments and the world's largest corporations. Students can also fight for this change with these tips:
- Get involved with climate action groups, either on campus or locally. Consider joining groups like the Sunrise Movement or 350.org.
- Organize a disinvestment campaign and demand that your college or university takes oil and gas investments out of its endowments.
- Get involved in politics. Attend city council meetings and participate in lobby days at your state government. Try to change the laws and policies, or even propose new legislation.