Student Activism is a Catalyst for Change

This article was originally published in Edinburgh University’s ‘The Student’ on the 30/09/2014. It can also be accessed online here.

Climate change. We all know the risks of doing nothing, and yet we are all guilty of doing too little. After all, having heard the global warming story a thousand times before, you wouldn’t be alone in assuming the public had lost interest. And then, from this atmosphere of apparent apathy, this weekend witnessed the largest climate change protest march in history.

In Edinburgh, thousands of local activists flooded the city centre for the People’s Climate March, in order to put pressure on delegates attending the UN Climate summit in New York this week. Parallel marches in over 150 countries worldwide saw countless protestors getting involved; well over 300,000 people took to the streets of Manhattan alone, figures which put the Occupy movement into the shade. Proving once and for all that the global public are no longer prepared to let politicians sidestep environmental issues, this is clearly a climatic moment for grassroots action on climate change.

Reflecting this, the pledges made at the New York summit do give grounds for cautious hope. Suffering acutely from pollution, China has for the first time pledged to take action on global warming, although Obama still struggles with an unwilling Congress. Yet as shown by the spectacular failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, protest marches in isolation have little impact on political wrangling. Vocal organisations such as Greenpeace and innumerable studies have made it clear for years that the public support for climate action is already there. Rather, it is the recent increase in extreme weather events such as Typhoon Haiyan and Hurricane Sandy, with their devastating economic and humanitarian consequences, which finally has leaders waking up to the reality of failing to act.

Yet we simply cannot afford to wait for the rising sea levels and drought to have arrived on our doorsteps before our leaders are galvanised into action. Therefore, in order to enact reform, the public will to have to start pushing for it harder and faster than ever before. When world leaders renege on their promises, we need to keep mass campaigns like the People’s Climate March going to show them that the public will not stop demanding change.

Fortunately, the People’s Climate March is by no means the only environmental action currently making headlines. Across the world, the campaign for fossil fuels divestment – the withdrawal of funds from fossil fuels investments – is picking up speed. In a striking and symbolic move, the heirs to the Rockefeller oil fortune divested from fossil fuels this week. In Britain, Oxfordshire County Council and the British Medical Association are leading the way. The University of Glasgow may soon follow suit; however, despite pressure from student action groups, the University of Edinburgh is hesitating on the brink of action. Stalling such as this from institutions everywhere is why we cannot let the momentum of the moment slide.

Protest marches do a crucial job in raising awareness, and proving to politicians that climate change is still very much on the minds of voters is arguably half the battle. However, the unfortunate truth is that governments remain too self-interested to take action on climate change until the consequences become too real, and too painful, to ignore. Politicians may finally be waking up to reality, but we need grassroots action to keep them on their toes until actual change, and not just the will to change, is visible through genuine action throughout the establishment.

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