Climate Change: A Call to Action

Scientists are getting more specific about the pace of climate change, warning that we have very little time left to stop it. Activists are pursuing divestment movements and boycotts. In this activity, students read about these efforts and plan their own climate-saving action.

To the Teacher

On April 10, 2014, Desmond Tutu, the retired South African Anglican Archbishop, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and anti-apartheid activist, called for people to take action to stop climate change. In an essay in The Guardian, Tutu called for "boycotts, divestment and sanctions" to halt this urgent threat to the natural environment. In this activity, students read about Tutu's essay, then  work in small groups and as a class to plan and implement their own boycott.


  • learn about boycotts and other actions to stop climate change
  • define divest and boycott
  • make an action plan to start a boycott movement
  • implement the action plan


Student Reading:

Desmond Tutu Calls for Climate-Saving Action

In recent months, scientists have been forcefully asserting that we humans are passing the point of no return when it comes to climate change. At the same time, the movement to stop carbon-emitting pollution—the main source of climate change—is gaining momentum. On April 10, 2014, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa wrote in The Guardian, "We must stop climate change. And we can, if we use the tactics that worked in South Africa against the worst carbon emitters."  Tutu, a retired Anglican Archbishop, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and anti-apartheid activist, states that not only can we stop irreversible climate destruction, "we have a responsibility to do so."
Tutu points out in The Guardian essay that there are many ways that ordinary people can bring about change. "And the good news," he writes, "is that we don't have to start from scratch." Activists are already hard at work.
Here are some examples:
Protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline
Background on the Pipeline: The proposed Keystone XL Pipeline would carry tar sands oil—which is the dirtiest, most polluting kind of oil—from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Extracting and transporting the oil may well release more carbon than actually using it for fuel, and doing so would increase carbon output at a time when we need to decrease it.  (Learn more about the Keystone XL Pipeline in the Teachable Moment lesson on the subject.)
In early March 2014, university students in Washington, DC, marched against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Many chained themselves to the fence outside the White House, and about 400 were arrested for their act of civil disobedience. President Obama has said he will decide whether to give the go-ahead to the pipeline in the first half of this year. You can read about a planned action on April 26 here and here.

Divesting from Fossil Fuel Energy Companies
As of April 2014, 300 campuses have student movements to push their colleges to divest from fossil fuel companies, and nine colleges have so far pledged to do so. In addition, 22 cities have divested, along with numerous religious organizations and foundations. You can see a full list here.

Boycotting the Corporations that Fund Fossil Fuel Energy Companies
In his essay in The Guardian, Tutu wrote this:
"People of conscience need to break their ties with corporations financing the injustice of climate change. We can, for instance, boycott events, sports teams and media programming sponsored by fossil-fuel energy companies. We can demand that the advertisements of energy companies carry health warnings."


1. Have students read the piece above about Tutu's call to action. Explain that students themselves will be deciding on and planning a boycott or other action to address climate change.
2.  Divide the class into groups of three or four. Have each group define divest, and then share their definition with the rest of the class.  Divest means to "deprive or dispossess especially of property, authority, or title." Institutions that "divest" in certain types of stock are selling that stock.
 3.  Explain that the successful movement to get American companies and universities to divest from companies that did business in South Africa was an important strategy in ending apartheid there. Ask groups to make a list of the kinds of organizations that could divest from fossil fuel producers. They can visit Fossil Free to learn about organizations that have already committed to divesting.
4. Now have student groups define boycott. Have groups share their definition with the rest of the class.  To boycott means to refuse to buy, use, or participate in something as a way of protesting; to stop using the goods or services of a company, a country, etc., until changes are made. Then ask students to do some brief research to find out when boycotts have been effective in the past.
5. Refer students to the part of the reading above that is about boycotts. Have groups discuss the following question as a first step in organizing a climate-saving boycott.

a.  What exactly are you going to boycott? Be specific. You can't just say, "Boycott sports programming that is sponsored by fossil fuel companies." That's too vague and too big. What sports programming? Define your target specifically and carefully.

Once groups have answered this question, have each group select a spokesperson. Bring together  the whole class and ask each spokespersoon to report their group's ideas.  Then facilitate a discussion to help students decide on a common boycott target. Consider using a Circles technique to allow all the students to say what they think about the different ideas. 
Then have the small groups reconvene and work on the next steps. After each step, have the groups choose different spokespeople to share their thinking, and help the class decide on the best way to go forward. Then move on to the next step.

b.  Who do you want to get to join your boycott effort? Start small and local, maybe organizing your class, then your school, and you can expand from there.

c.  What will you communicate to those you want to join the boycott to persuade them that the boycott is valuable?

d.  What is a realistic timeframe for your actions? How many people and groups do you aim to sign up for the boycott by what date? Once you know, make decisions about who will contact which individuals and groups to get them to sign on.

e.  How will you track your efforts? Look here for an example of tracking on a map, and here for an example of tracking in a list.

f.  Get publicity for your boycott. If you get everyone in your class to agree to boycott a specific product, for example, send a notice to the local news outlets telling them. If you get everyone in three classes to participate, share that with the news media.

6. Support students in following through on their plan.
7.  The boycott can go on indefinitely, but choose a time for students to debrief and share what they have learned about boycotts, about organizing political actions, and about how best to work toward change.