Why Students Want Action on Climate Change

Climate change is an urgent issue that impacts all of us. Learn what students are doing to push their campuses towards a positive, more sustainable future.
5 min read

Share this Article

  • Climate change is an urgent social issue that impacts society.
  • Students are demanding that schools act to address climate change.
  • Universities and students must work together to create a positive climate future.

In "Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals," Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks: "Is it possible to untangle the consequences of centuries of rapacious greed?"

Throughout the book, she narrates experiences of dolphins, seals, and other sea creatures whose habitats have been transformed and interrupted by human behavior. Her book highlights lessons that can be learned from marine mammals that could teach the human species how to be adaptable in dire circumstances.

Our planet is sending a clear message that if these trends continue, we're in trouble. And college students are receiving that message as a call to change their own behavior and demand action from their campuses.

Why Is Climate Change Important?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a body of the United Nations, recently released a report titled "Climate Change 2021: A Physical Science Basis" documenting changes in the Earth's climate. The report also includes predictions on how continued changes may impact us in the coming decades.

Compared to earlier versions of the report, there is an increased emphasis on "tipping points," which are "abrupt or irreversible changes" that can entirely alter the Earth's climate system. The report asserts that, due to human influence as a "main driver," we have reached unprecedented circumstances. There are currently more carbon dioxide emissions, warmer global temperatures, and higher sea levels than at any point in human history.

Annual wildfires continued ravaging the Western United States in summer 2021. These fires also affected the northern Midwest and Canada, bringing toxic levels of particulate matter into areas uncommonly impacted by such disasters.

A cold snap in Brazil at the end of July brought rare snowfall and freezing rain, threatening the country's major crops. And instances of torrential rain and overworked drainage systems have caused devastating flooding events in many regions, including Germany and New York City.

Student Activists Committed to Climate Action

Students like Mary Gearon, a senior at Transylvania University, are finding ways to participate in efforts to reroute the course of the climate crisis as part of their college experience. As president of the Transylvania Environmental Action League (TEAL), Mary is committed to finding ways to alert the campus community about rising climate concerns.

“I feel that many universities are going in the right direction and prioritizing not only their own green initiatives, but also through empowerment of their students,’ Gearson said. ‘Our individual mindsets and actions do matter and have sway in what happens to our world, but more emphasis on a political and economic role could encourage student activism further.”

Quotation mark

Gearon and other TEAL members are also representatives of the university's Green Revolving Loan Fund Committee. According to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, at least 217 educational institutions have green revolving fund programs, which are internal funds allocated to investing in sustainable changes and using the cost savings to self-sustain a budget for future initiatives.

Efforts at Chico State represent another example of a university and its students collaborating on sustainability efforts. Through a climate action and resilience plan, the school has mapped out steps to achieve carbon neutrality by 2030. To help in this effort, environmental policy students drafted a proposal called the Chico State Green New Decade Initiative. This initiative featured goals like achieving college affordability and incorporating education about climate justice into all fields of study.

Students are also using bolder tactics in cases where they are unsatisfied with their university's attention to climate change. A student group called Sunrise Tulane — a hub of the national Sunrise Movement — devised a concise list of demands calling for Tulane University to divest funds from major fossil fuel companies.

It's important to note that while combating climate change requires a joint effort from parties across the globe, not all communities are impacted to the same degree and in the same ways by the negative outcomes of climate change. As students engage in advocacy and activism around racial, sexuality and gender, and disability justice, there are clear links between these issues and the climate crisis.

Creating a Positive Climate Future

The IPCC report uses five potential scenarios to talk about near-term (2021-2040), mid-term (2041-2060), and long-term (2060-2081) climate futures based on different factors, such as mitigation efforts and carbon dioxide emissions reductions.

It's not just scientists who are getting involved in thinking about what an improved climate future could look like. An emerging genre of writing called climate fiction, or cli-fi, is tackling the climate crisis by imagining equitable climate progress through storytelling.

What doesn't help prevent a large-scale climate catastrophe is turning a blind eye and avoiding any discussion about the warming planet. The term "climate grief" explains an inclination to avoid thinking about climate change and feeling saddened or hopeless about our global circumstances.

This grief can result in lack of action, so it's important to address this debilitating experience to improve our overall mental, physical, and social wellness. Recommendations from a mental health professional include connecting with communities impacted by climate disasters, welcoming climate conversations at school, holding discussion groups, and using mindfulness practices to break out of thought spirals that lead us to avoid thinking about climate change.

How Students and Universities Can Address Climate Change

Taking small steps to overcome this grief can disrupt the sense of hopelessness that keeps us from taking action. Some simple changes college students can take to contribute to climate action include the following:

  • Using public transportation
  • Participating in green initiatives through sustainability offices or organizations on campus
  • Asking administrators about their plans for greener campus operations
  • Being a more conscious consumer by buying hygiene products that aren't made with harsh chemicals or clothing items that are made from low-impact fibers

Personal habits make a dent in our human influence and can be used as an educational tool for building awareness about climate change. However, individual choices are just one small element that won't lead us to climate solutions on their own.

"These universities are teaching and mentoring the future leaders of the next century," Gearon said of higher education's role in climate solutions. "And providing information about the structural changes that need to be made could aid immensely in how the next few years go."

Even when ready to take action, some may feel unsure of how they can participate in broader efforts to prevent and prepare for worsening climate changes. Plugging into larger organizations can aid students in finding roadmaps that describe how to join projects in progress.

Resources for Climate Action and Awareness

Here are a few organizations and widespread efforts that individuals can check out for resources and guidance on how to support environmental justice work:

  • Honor the Earth: Honor the Earth provides financial and organizing support to Native environmental initiatives by raising public awareness and directing funds to grassroots Native environmental groups.
  • The Sunrise Movement: Sunrise is a youth movement that aims to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process. The movement includes locally based hubs across the country.
  • Climate Justice Alliance: This member alliance of urban and rural communities places race, gender, and class at the center of frontline action for environmental justice.

With projections showing that global warming and its adverse effects will continue, it's urgent that campus communities take full responsibility for their roles in preventing the most extreme outcomes. Not only does swift action benefit us right now, it can also contribute to a future where subsequent generations are assured a habitable, thriving planet.

Meet The Student:

Portrait of Mary Gearon

Mary Gearon

Mary Gearon is a rising senior at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky. She is studying biology, but has always had a role in activism on campus. She is president of the Transylvania Environmental Action League, a Green Loan Fund committee member, and a former student government senator. Mary is always seeking ways to educate her campus community on the rising concerns of climate change. Along with focusing on education, Mary aids in discussions about sustainability with university faculty, staff, students, and administration.

Feature Image: LeoPatrizi / E+ / Getty Images