Climate Change Activism on College Campuses

College students stand at the intersection of youth climate activism and emerging academic research detailing the disruptions to come.
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Anne Dennon
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Anne Dennon covers higher education trends, policy, and student issues for BestColleges. She has an MA in English literature and a background in research strategy and service journalism....
Updated on May 6, 2022
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  • College campuses are hotbeds for social change and scientific innovation.
  • Both of these roles are vital in the story of climate change action.
  • Driven by anxiety for the future, students are on the frontlines of environmental activism.

When Time magazine announced its youngest-ever person of the year back in 2019, this individual was not a politician, a religious leader, or an entrepreneur. It was then-16-year-old Greta Thunberg, in a zip-up and sneakers — a climate activist. The magazine cover read: "The Power of Youth."

It's no coincidence that many involved in climate change action are young, including college students. According to youth activists, it's their future that depends on our collective response.

Thunberg caught the world's attention when she skipped school in 2018 to demand stronger action on climate change from Sweden's parliament. Thunberg's skolstrejk för klimatethas inspired millions of students across the world to play hooky over a series of concerted global climate strikes. The next is planned for March 25.

Brandishing slogans like "There is no Planet B" and "Time is running out," students are among the most vocal and virulent of climate activists, demanding changes on campuses, from corporations, and from governments.

"College students have gone from complaining about adults not taking action on climate change to taking action themselves."

— Dr. Janet Lorenzen, sociology professor at Willamette University

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According to Dr. Janet Lorenzen, a sociology professor at Willamette University, "College students have gone from complaining about adults not taking action on climate change to taking action themselves."

How College Students Are Taking Action on Climate Change

As scientists have issued more intense warnings of pending climate disruption, environmental advocacy has grown more intense. This is true on college campuses, as well.

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 says.

"In my experience, students today are much more educated on the topic of climate change than in the past," says Dr. Daniel Horton, an earth and planetary sciences professor at Northwestern University.

"[Students] tend to arrive on campus with the knowledge that climate change is occurring … and that it requires action," adds Horton, who also works with the Climate Change Research Group at Northwestern.

And students are not the only people on college campuses concerned with climate change.

Hundreds of college leaders have pledged to reach carbon neutrality and establish climate resiliency — preparedness for whatever climate changes are thought to threaten the region where their institution is located. Colleges are also working to spread climate literacy through curriculum.

At universities worldwide, many fields of study directly impacted by climate, like STEM and the natural sciences, have already centered climate literacy in the coursework. They have also used the intersection between a given field and climate change to inform hybrid programs. Colleges including Washington State University and Vanderbilt University offer environmental sociology programs that focus not only on the science of climate change but on how to take action to combat it.

But it isn't just the science curriculum that's in for a rewrite. Climate literacy is cropping up everywhere in college courses — from architecture to economics, from sociology to literature.

Climate literacy is cropping up everywhere in college courses — from architecture to economics, from sociology to literature. The rationale is that college should prepare every graduate for the future.

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The rationale is that college should prepare every graduate for the future. And if climate change will impact every industry and every life, students should have the knowledge and tools at the ready. To this end, climate literacy is increasingly included in colleges' core curriculum and is even trickling down into secondary education.

Beyond providing education, colleges serve another function that is important for climate change. Colleges produce research. Much of the emerging climate change research is conducted by college professors. Also, colleges themselves form consortiums and climate change research groups, like the one at Northwestern where Horton works.

Turning Climate Grief Into Climate Change Action

College students' motivation to fight climate change often comes from a dark place — a sense of anxiety about the future popularly termed climate grief.

"I think it's obvious even in the jokes people make about never having kids or never owning a home," says Austin Luzbetak, a doctoral student at Colorado State University. "There is a sort of dark humor around the hopelessness."

While climate grief may make students ponder the milestones they could miss, Luzbetak considers climate grief a mobilizing factor, and a big reason why so many students are getting involved.

"In a lot of ways, the grief fuels the activism and organizing," Luzbetak says. "Having a sense that you're doing everything you can, even amidst climate chaos, it feels like there is some hope."

That involvement sometimes means taking unconventional approaches to activism to get others' attention — like Thunberg's school strike, or that time students from Harvard and Yale interrupted the well-known football game between the two rivals, storming the field with signs and megaphones.

Students are showing up at protests in droves, but they have also become politically active in their local and state processes.

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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, asking the state legislature to consider climate change policies. In California, teens demanded that schools incorporate more climate change science into the curricula.

How to Address Climate Change While in College

Looking for ways to go green 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 containers and labeling them plastic, glass, paper, or aluminum. Then put them somewhere convenient, like by your desk or under the kitchen sink.
  • 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 (preferably stainless steel or glass) water bottle. Use glass food containers instead of zip-close plastic 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.
  • If 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 Luzbetak and Lorenzen remind students, the most effective change comes from institutions rather than individuals.More important than the lifestyle tweaks is systemic change from the world's governments and corporations. Students can play a big role in this fight:

  • Get involved with climate action groups, either on campus or locally. Consider joining groups like the Sunrise Movement or
  • 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.