Students and academics at RMIT this week Melbourne delivered an open letter to their Vice Chancellor Martin Bean, calling for the university to divest its $1.2 billion fund of fossil fuels, prompting these observations from 350.Org Australia chief executive office Blair Palese.

When you look at the world today it is being profoundly impacted by growing, organised and decentralised social movements – many of which didn’t exist even five years ago.

In the wake of the Global Financial Crisis – known by the rest of the world now as the Great Recession – protesters met on 17 September 2011 at a park near the New York financial district. These protests spurned a global awareness of the increasing economic inequality worldwide, and cemented in public consciousness the concept of the “1 per cent”, referring to how the majority of wealth generated is now being concentrated with only 1 per cent of the population.

The seeds were sown. Less than five years later in the US, a self-professed democratic socialist Bernie Sanders came within a real shot of winning the Democratic Party nomination, and, given the Republican aftermath, would quite likely have become president. This is in a country where for decades the very term “socialist” has been a dirty word.

Right now the Black Lives Matter movement is completely reshaping the debate in the US – and the world – forcing us to come to terms with racism and racial violence now and throughout history.

There are countless other movements having an impact concurrent to these, all of which follow the same themes of demand for justice and decentralisation, and remain largely misunderstood by a political establishment that is unable to grasp the sand moving beneath their feet.

Australia is a uniquely behind in this space. Our governments seem more interested in governing for the 20th century than facing the problems of the 21st century. Indeed, nowhere is this more obvious than our response to the coming climate change crisis.

The disheartening arc of being a climate change leader in 2010 – with a strong price on carbon and a suite of policies designed to foster the development of renewable energy – to being an international embarrassment in 2016 on climate is hard to swallow.

But while our government refuses to act, a huge grassroots groundswell is bypassing federal and many state governments and work with our public institutions to demand climate change action.

And it starts (as with many social movements throughout history) with students. Universities are much more than just institutions that hand out degrees: they are a place for public good; a place where a nation’s values and beliefs are questioned, challenged and then imparted upon the next generation of leaders.

Currently, the majority of universities around the world and in Australia invest their endowments either directly or indirectly in coal, oil and gas – the biggest drivers of global warming. The irony of such future-focused institutions investing in an industry that is driving the biggest threat to our planet is not lost on many students.

Over the past three years students have organised into “fossil free” groups and have lobbied internally to get their universities to divest from fossil fuels. When the response from most educators was muted, the students stepped up.

Across the country, students have protested at the offices of their Vice Chancellors, slept out on their campus grounds, and in some cases even bared all to pressure their tertiary educations to take note.

I know for a fact that taking such action is far from easy for these students. They do it knowing that it could impact on their academic and working careers – indeed, many students undertook these actions knowing they could face disciplinary action from their universities. But they also know that if climate change goes unchecked, the damage could be far greater: not just to themselves, but to the global community of which they’re a part.

I can’t help but feel it is unfair to rely on our younger generations – who have contributed less to the problem in their shorter lives than those of us who are older – to have to bear the load of trying to change a system that has led to the brink of a climate crisis.

In an ideal world it would be bank executives, company CEOs and politicians – who have allowed the fossil fuel industry to proliferate despite decades of evidence that we are heating up our climate – to risk their reputations and careers to tackle global warming. However, to use a rather apt metaphor: that’s a snowflake’s chance in hell.

So we owe an enormous debt to these social movements, led by students, who are fighting relentlessly to change the course of the world. Some universities have listened:  Queensland University of Technology, ANU, and La Trobe have all made moves to dump their polluting investments.

It is time for the rest of Australia’s universities to listen to their students and show leadership. And from there to use their power in society to pressure a federal government that is asleep at the wheel to tackle the biggest challenge facing our planet and future generations.