Climate Movements

Social movements are large-scale, organized efforts to achieve a social or political goal. Climate movements are specifically focused on advocating for policy, economic, and cultural shifts to tackle climate change. Social movements are usually ground-up in structure and origin, seeking to challenge existing power dynamics, societal structures, or value systems that inflict harm on people and environments.


Tarras Zellerbach-Adams

Graphic Design Lead

Student Energy


What are climate movements?

The global climate movement is a specific type of social movement that aims to drive policy shifts, economic reforms, and cultural shifts in order to address climate change. Social movements are large-scale, organized efforts to achieve a social or political goal. 12 They are usually ground-up in structure and origin, seeking to challenge existing power differentials, structures, or value systems that inflict harm on people and environments. 

When social movements gather momentum, they can attract coalitions between the founding public and organizations, political figures, or corporations. This is the case with contemporary climate activism, which has attracted support and resourcing from a wide variety of stakeholders, including the UN, government bodies, and non-profit organizations such as Student Energy.

A key trend in recent social movements is the use of digital communications technology to generate global support and mobilization. 4 Social media in particular has played a major role in the prominence of recent social movements, including the Hong Kong protests, the Black Lives Matter movement, the #MeToo movement, and Global Climate Strikes. 


Contemporary climate activism began in the 1990s, when major environmental organizations began to expand their focus from conservation into the realm of climate discourse in response to growing mainstream concern in the wake of accumulating scientific evidence, increasingly severe weather events, and the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. 

As asserted by sociologist Michael Burawoy a successful climate movement “will have to assume a global character, couched in terms of human rights since the survival of the human species is at stake.” 5


Scholars have suggested that a successful movement will involve the democratization of climate governance and greater global integration of social movements. 67 Building upon existing movements, including the globally-attended climate strikes of 2019, will give these initiatives the power to demand coordinated and progressive policies from national governments and stronger mechanisms for global governance.

Indigeous youth leadership

The place-based knowledge gathered by Indigenous communities over millennia of land stewardship is a form of expertise. Such knowledge can determine solutions to climate impacts on local and relational levels, areas that are frequently overlooked by scientific modes of inquiry. 8

The grounded expertise of Indigenous Peoples is uniquely aligned to, and in many cases synonymous with, climate activism. Some examples of Indigenous climate activists include Autumn Peltier, from Wiikwemkoong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario and Nina Gualinga from the Kichwa community of Sarayaku in the Ecuadorian Amazon. 910

Here is one way young Indigenous leaders in Student Energy’s network are taking action:

The 2019 and 2021 SevenGen Indigenous Youth Energy Summit are Indigenous youth-led gatherings in Canada that create pathways to education and foster sustainable partnership development between Indigenous youth, communities, and organizations as it relates to Indigenous ideologies of the earth. Learn more about SevenGen here.

Global YOUTH-LED Climate Movements


The Fossil Fuel Divestment movement was spearheaded by student activists who sought to transition the investment portfolios of their post-secondary institutions away from the fossil fuel industry. launched its Go Fossil Free campaign in 2012 with a memorable slogan: “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”11 

The Fossil Fuel Divestment movement incorporated direct action as a strategy, with numerous students closing down portions of their campus in widely publicized ‘sit-ins’ 121314.


Beginning in August 2018 with the sit-in protest of Swedish youth activist Greta Thunberg at her school, children and students in at least 270 cities took part in similar strikes to challenge world leaders to take action on climate change. 15


In 2019, the Youth Climate Strikes mobilized young people across the globe in large gatherings that sought to inspire political leadership on climate. The actions were organized by Isra Hirsi, Haven Coleman, and Alexandria Villaseñor and took inspiration from work done by Greta Thunberg. 

These strikes sought to incorporate climate justice, with Isra stating that those disproportionately impacted by climate change “should be at the forefront of the issue.” 16 The Youth Climate Strike on March 15, 2019 included students from 47 countries. 17


The Global Climate Strike occurred between 20 and 27 September, 2019, mobilizing an unprecedented 7.6 million people and taking place in more than 185 countries. 18 These strikes were not attended exclusively by youth, but the majority were organized by young people.

Dive deeper

Recent blog posts about Climate Movements

External resources

  1. Scott, John; Marshall, Gordon (2009), “Social movements”, A Dictionary of Sociology, Oxford University Press, doi:10.1093/acref/9780199533008.001.0001, ISBN 978-0-19-953300-8, retrieved 2020-07-07.
  2.  “social movement | Definition of social movement by Webster’s Online Dictionary”. Retrieved 2020-07-07.
  3. Glasberg, D. S., & Shannon, D. (2010). Political sociology: Oppression, resistance, and the state. SAGE Publications.
  4. Obar, J. A., Zube, P., & Lampe, C. (2012). Advocacy 2.0: An analysis of how advocacy groups in the United States perceive and use social media as tools for facilitating civic engagement and collective action. Journal of information policy, 2, 1-25.
  5. Burawoy, M. (2015). Facing an unequal world. Current Sociology, 63(1), 5-34.
  6. Stevenson, H., & Dryzek, J. S. (2014). Democratizing global climate governance. Cambridge University Press.
  7. Almeida, P., & Chase-Dunn, C. (2018). Globalization and social movements. Annual Review of Sociology, 44, 189-211.
  8. Chanza, N., & De Wit, A. (2016). Enhancing climate governance through indigenous knowledge: Case in sustainability science. South African Journal of Science, 112(3-4), 1-7.