Celebrating 50 Years of Student Environmental Activism | Top Universities

Celebrating 50 Years of Student Environmental Activism

By Chloe Lane

Updated April 21, 2020 Updated April 21, 2020

April 22, 2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day: a day to demonstrate support for the protection of the environment through activism and education.

Students have always been central to the ambitions of Earth Day, with their involvement key to the movement. To honor this, we will be looking back at student political activism across the last 50 years, from 1970 to the present day. 


April 22nd – the first Earth Day

The first Earth Day in 1970 was celebrated by 1,500 college campuses. The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor led the way, attracting 50,000 participants to a five-day ‘teach in’ to educate people to demand government action for environmental protection. The week consisted of more than 125 speeches, workshops, concert and forums.

The ‘teach in’ was a massive success and was adopted by universities around the world.

These popular ‘teach ins’ attracted considerable international media coverage and led to the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency, as well as landmark legislation, such as the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act.


November 30th to December 1st – World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle

70,000 protesters – many of whom were students – shut down a WTO meeting taking place in Seattle. They used costumes, floats and blocking intersections, with the protests described as looking like a ‘street party’

The proposed meeting was to launch a new round of trade negotiations but were opposed by a group of anti-globalization protesters, who were against the economic and environmental injustices of global trade and mass globalization.  


Climate change campaigners

November 4th – People and Planet’s Carnival of Climate Chaos in London

People and Planet, the UK’s largest student network in the UK campaigning for social and environmental justice, created a Carnival of Climate Chaos, which saw over 22,000 students gathered in London to demand action on Climate Change.

This later resulted in the UK Government committing to introducing a Climate Change Bill at the state opening of Parliament.


April 14th – Step it Up rallies throughout the US 

Step It Up was a campaign from founder and scholar Bill McKibben and six recent graduates of Middlebury College in Vermont. Their aim was to get Congress to ‘step up’ and reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Using email and a basic website, McKibben and the graduates appealed to US citizens to help and received a notable response. Together they managed to organize more than 1,400 coordinated demonstrations over the 50 states.


September 21st – People’s Climate March in New York City

Many students joined the 311,000 people who participated in a large-scale climate march in New York City on September 21st. The event was organized by the People’s Climate Movement to encourage global action against climate change. 


Climate change protest

June 26th – Time is Now march in London

Students were amongst the 12,000 people who campaigned outside UK Parliament on behalf of the Climate Coalition, to demand that urgent action is taken against climate change.

July 21st – The Youth Climate March in Washington DC

Zero Hour, an environmental youth group, organized three days of climate activism to call on the US government to act on climate change.

Events included lobbying, a Youth Climate Art Festival and a protest of hundreds of students and other young people in the national mall in Washington DC.

August 20th – Greta Thunberg’s first climate strike

In August, Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, then 15, held a climate strike at her school. The strike was joined by more than 20,000 students worldwide and was the start of her global campaign to reduce carbon emissions.

September to November – Fridays For Future campaign

In September, Greta Thunberg invited students to stage school walkouts every Friday to protest climate issues.

By November, more than 17,000 students in 24 countries joined Thunberg in the weekly Friday school strikes. Thunberg started speaking at high profile events across Europe, including Poland’s United Nations climate talks.


Greta Thunberg's Fridays for Future campaign

February 15th – Worldwide climate change protests

Students around the world left school and university for the day to protest for global action on climate change. Inspired by Thunberg, the protests took place across more than 30 countries, from Sweden to Brazil, India and the United States.

August 5th – Climate activist summit in Switzerland

450 young ‘Fridays for Future’ climate activists from 37 European countries attended a summit in Lausanne, Switzerland to work on international cooperation and discuss the movement's development. 

September 20th to 27th – Climate strikes around the world

7.6 million people took part in week-long international strikes and protests around the world. These people included students, trade unions, businesses, health workers, scientists and many more, all calling for climate action. Between them, they organized 6,100 events across 185 countries.

November 23rd - Harvard Yale Football Protest

In November, 300 students from Harvard University and Yale University stormed the football pitch at halftime during the annual game between the two schools. The disruption delayed the match by nearly 30 minutes. 

The protesters wanted both universities to stop investing in oil, gas and coal companies which contribute to climate change.

This article was originally published in April 2020 .

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Written by

As Content Editor for TopUniversities.com and TopMBA.com, Chloe creates and publishes a wide range of articles for universities and business schools across the world. Chloe has a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from the University of Reading and grew up in Leicestershire, UK. 

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