Social Change and the Climate Crisis: Toward a Sustainable Future

Mary Lou Finley, Antioch University

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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


Global warming, and the climate change it is precipitating, is requiring massive social change in order to meet the challenge of building a sustainable society for the future. How to bring about the needed changes within the short time frame is a serious challenge for every community nationally and world-wide.

In this project students will explore community and governmental efforts responding to the climate crisis. The activity will draw on classical sociological theories of social change as well as theoretical frames from the study of social movements. Students will investigate efforts to bring change in their local communities, exploring the work of governmental bodies, social activist groups, and other institutions.

Learning Goals

The goals of this activity provide an opportunity for the students to gain hands-on research experience in the community; increase their understanding of the applicability of theories of social change; and, further information about climate change.

Learning Outcomes: Begin with developing skills in careful observation. Develop skills conducting qualitative research, and linking in-class ideas with community practice; and, practice skills in observing social change and learn to see it in the framework of theories of social change.

Context for Use

It could be used in a class on social change, a social problems class, or an environmental studies class utilizing a sociological perspective.

Timeframe:This project would best serve as the term project for a class. It would be best to assign it at the beginning of the course, including assigning student teams; gather progress reports in class as the term progressed; and then have students present at the end of the term.

Description and Teaching Materials

The Assignment

Students will form teams of four to five people to investigate how various community groups are addressing climate change. We will be seeking to understand how social change happens at the community level. We will be utilizing the climate change crisis as the focus, and seek to see how communities are working toward sustainability as they confront global warming and its consequences. This activity will give students new lenses through which to view events and processes in their communities as well as ideas about how social change happens.

Learning Activities

Preliminary Activities

Study of theories of social change: evolutionary theories of change; conflict theories; systems theories; social policy approaches to change; and, social movements approaches to change.

Activist perspectives: building a social movement; and sociological perspectives on social movements.

Readings on the climate crisis and the need for rapid action: selection from Ross Gelbspan, Boiling Point.

Readings on gathering qualitative research data in community settings: Corrine Glesne and Alan Peshkin, Becoming Qualitative Researchers: An Introduction. Chapter 4: Making Words Fly: Developing an Understanding from Interviewing. (White Plains NY: Longman, 1992.) pp 63-92

Preliminary Assignments

An assignment on utilizing qualitative research, particularly intensive community interviews, to gather data on a topic.
Read selection from Glesne and Peshkin on qualitative research (see above).

Instructions for Students:
Interview a friend, neighbor, or fellow student about a community issue they are likely to know something about. Write up a 2-3 page research report stating your research method, the data you collected, and your analysis of the meaning of that data. Be prepared to discuss what you learned about doing interviewing from this assignment.

An assignment on climate change/the climate crisis and community change. *Read, Finley, ML, Shaping the Movement in Ignition: How to Fight Global Warming and Spark a Movement, Waage and Isham (eds.)

Instructions for Students:
Identify changes you see happening in the community which are efforts to address climate change. Make a list of things you know about, have seen, and/or have read about. We will compare lists in class, and learn about how to identify actions which are a part of the effort to address climate change.

Teams will have in-class meeting time to choose the site for their project and to decide how to organize the research work.


Students will join together in teams of four to five people. Each team will be asked to:

1) Choose an organization or governmental body to investigate. (In a small class, potential groups should be organized as follows, with teams being assigned to a particular category and then asked to choose a group from that category.)

  • Social movement groups
  • Governmental organizations/departments/bodies
  • Business groups
  • Universities
  • Religious organizations
  • other nonprofit organizations
  • Consulting/think tank groups
2) Investigate:

  • In what ways is this group contributing to social change addressing the climate crisis? How effective does this change seem to be? How rapidly is it progressing? What are the opportunities, what processes are involved? What are the obstacles to change, and what are the group's strategies to deal with those obstacles? Is this group aiming to change the behavior of individuals?
Students will gather this information by interviewing staff members or volunteers in the relevant organization, reading plans, proposals and public information materials from the group, and, if possible, attending public meetings of the group.
  • Pick one of the models of social change, and discuss this group's work in terms of this model. For example, does this group's work fit into the frameworks of making change through social movements? Social policy and government action? Do economic incentives play a part? Will this be systems change? Evolutionary change? Is this a conflict-oriented approach to change?
  • In light of your investigation, what creative ideas did you discover being utilized to move toward sustainability in regard to climate change? What barriers and obstacles did you see to making the changes necessary for sustainability, and what ideas can you offer about ways to overcome those obstacles? Utilize ideas from the models of social change to suggest places to look for strengths, creative solutions, and obstacles.
3) Prepare a panel presentation for the class regarding their findings, to be presented during the next-to-last week of the class.

4) Prepare a written paper describing research methods used, findings, and analysis of the data.

In the final week of class, work with the material gathered to see the different ways in which change can happen, utilizing one or more of the models of social change to guide the analysis.

Teaching Notes and Tips


Assessment criteria/criteria for "good work", including engagement with "big ideas."
Students will be assessed on their collective ability to:
  • Gather useful information
  • Discuss their findings in terms of a model of social change
  • Discuss their findings in terms of both strengths and weaknesses of the approach they investigated in moving toward sustainability, toward a future which minimizes the impact of climate change.
Informal Assessment Strategies:
Informal progress reports in class from the teams, discussing what is working in their information gathering and any obstacles they are encountering, in an effort to provide a group consulting session, so that students can suggest avenues to pursue to each other.

References and Resources

Community partners/community resources: Groups which may be chosen for the team investigations include the following (in the Seattle area).
  • City of Seattle: Mayor's Climate Change Initiative
  • City Council
  • King County government
  • University of Washington Climate Impacts Study Group
  • State Legislature
  • Governor's Office
  • Moontown Foundation-Seattle group organizing green jobs for the economically disadvantaged. (
  • Sierra Club
  • Climate Solutions
  • Climate Dialogues
  • Sightline
  • Sustainable Ballard, Sustainable South Seattle, and other neighborhood sustainability groups
  • Antioch University, President's Climate Challenge
  • Other universities
  • Local businesses with climate initiatives
  • Construction industry, green building groups
  • Solar Washington
  • Religious groups and climate justice initiatives
  • Environmental justice groups

Written material:

On climate change:

Andres Edwards, The Sustainability Revolution: Portrait of a Paradigm Shift, Gabriola Is. BC: New Society Publishers, 2005.

Mary Lou Finley, "Shaping the Movement" in Ignition: What You can Do to Fight Global Warming and Spark A Movement, Jonathan Isham and Sissel Waage (eds.) Washington: Island Press, 2007.

Rosanne Friedenfels, Social Change: An Anthology, New York: General Hall, Inc, 1998.

Tim Flannery, The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005.

Ross Gelbspan, Boiling Point: How Politicians, Big Oil and Coal, Journalists, and Activists Have Fueled the Climate Crisis-and What we Can do to Avert Disaster. New York: basic Books, 2004.

Jay Inslee and Bracken Hendricks, Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy, Washington DC: Island Press, 2008.

Bill McKibben, How to Fight Global Warming

Eban Goodstein, Fighting for Love in the Century of Extinction: How Passion and Politics Can Stop Global Warming, Burlington: University of Vermont Press, 2007

Van Jones, The Green Collar Economy: How One Solution Can Fix our two Biggest Problems, New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Ronald Libby, "Introduction: Expressive Interest Groups" in Eco-Wars: Political Campaigns and Social Movements, New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

James Gustav Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008

On social change, social policy, social movements:

Moyer, Bill with Joanne McAllister, Mary Lou Finley and Stephen Soifer, Doing Democracy: the MAP model for Organizing Social Movements, Gabriola Is., BC: New Society Publishers, 2001.

Friedenfels, Roxanne, Social Change: An Anthology Dix Hills, New York: General Hall, 1998.

On social research methods:

Lofland, John and Lofland, Lynn, Analyzing Social Settings

Corrine Glesne and Alan Peshkin, Becoming Qualitative Researchers: An Introduction. Chapter 4: Making Words Fly: Developing an Understanding from Interviewing. (White Plains NY: Longman, 1992.) pp 63-92


On social change:

A Force More Powerful: series on nonviolence and change
On global warming/climate change/the climate crisis
An Inconvenient Truth
Global Warming: The Signs and the Science, hosted by Alanis Morissette, South Carolina Educational Television, PBS Home Video, 2005