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April 1, 2024
Vol. 81
No. 7

We Can All Teach Climate Change

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Climate change is a human story that connects to the content and skills of all academic areas.

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CurriculumInstructional Strategies
We Can All Teach Climate Change Header Image
Credit: Dusan Stankovic / iStock
Students engage most passionately in learning when the work they are asked to do is both authentic and relevant to them. Today, few topics capture students’ attention like climate change. Students already know more about this topic than most teachers might imagine, in part because they are exposed daily to a “shadow curriculum” delivered through social media, news feeds, and videos.  
Because climate stories featured in such media are often sensationalized and bleak, for many young people, conceptions about climate change become inseparable from the anxiety they feel about their own lives and the planet’s uncertain future (Prothero, 2023). They can also become confused by online disinformation and dismissiveness about the climate crisis. In one high school, where I collaborate with two colleagues piloting an interdisciplinary course on climate change, students asked on the first day, “Are we the only ones who care about this?” They pressed their teachers to devote more class time to discussions about climate psychology, including research on how adolescents learn to cope with eco-anxiety and the reasons some people are skeptical of the science reporting on environmental change. 
Despite the emotional weight of climate realities and the manufactured doubt being spread by bad actors, I’ve found when working with students that most are cautiously curious; they have asked how their generation might alter the course of environmental decline and develop regenerative strategies that result in equitable outcomes for communities everywhere. Thus, as educators, we have an invitation to take up some of the most meaningful work of our careers—inviting young learners to explore climate change, solutions, and possible futures.  
Opportunities abound for all teachers to bring climate change into their curriculum because the challenges associated with our warming planet involve much more than science and technology; they are interwoven with culture, public discourse, storytelling, historical injustices, and the exercise of democratic freedoms. This means K–12 teachers can collaborate with colleagues across subject matter areas to help students inquire more deeply into issues around the environment and sustainability. Working together, we can set the bar high; teachers can ask students to think of and shape problems related to climate change on their own through different disciplinary lenses, consider regenerative pathways, and take action.
We Can All Teach Climate Change Figure 1

Climate Change Touches All Disciplines  

The story of climate change draws in events, processes, and principles from the breadth of the school curriculum as well as students’ lives (see Figure 1). Climate change isn’t a neatly compartmentalized body of knowledge but a sprawling puzzle that implicates every part of the natural and social worlds (Windschitl, 2023). Much of the public thinks that it’s about the warming effects of fossil fuel emissions building up in our atmosphere and the record-breaking weather extremes. This is accurate, but climate change also includes a cascade of effects on ocean circulation, sea levels, stressed ecosystems, air quality, agriculture, and the influence of human-amplified warming on everything we care about—everything that sustains life.
This interconnectedness means that the science involved is expansive and the essential concepts are mind-bogglingly interwoven. But at its core, climate change is a human story. People, ­communities, and entire nations are now being made vulnerable by the “downstream effects” of climate change, including the spread of disease, mass human migrations, and economic instability. Countries are scrambling to respond by investing in solutions that make society more resilient, while addressing the root causes of environmental damage.  

Climate change isn’t a neatly compartmentalized body of knowledge but a sprawling puzzle that implicates every part of the natural and social worlds.

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Like many authentic problems, climate change is multilayered and connects to all disciplines. Unfortunately, this is not reflected in what’s being taught in schools. A recent study showed that 86 percent of U.S. teachers think climate change should be in the curriculum, yet 65 percent of them say it’s not related to the subject they teach (Kamenetz, 2019). Taking the glass-half-full view, this means educators have opportunities to expand how they think this complex phenomenon intersects with their own fields of expertise—and with their students’ lives.  
To understand the climate change story, students need the tools and perspectives of multiple disciplines. How might this manifest in a few core subject areas?

Social Studies and Climate Change 

Social studies educators ask students to use understandings of the past to analyze the causes and consequences of events, and to place these events in the context of the institutions, values, and beliefs of the times when they took place. The study of people, places, and environments enables students to understand the relationships between human populations and the physical world—a key plotline of the climate change story. Students at various grade levels could do age-appropriate investigations of the effects of migration and settlement—and the impact of human activities—on the environment. These areas of inquiry help them answer a basic question even before they learn much about climate change: What factors precipitated and now sustain today's environmental crisis? 
Social studies also addresses power, authority, and governance by investigating relationships between individual rights and responsibilities, the needs of social groups, and just and unjust distribution of resources in the world. (These relationships and how they connect are represented by the environmental justice and governance elements in Figure 1.) These concepts bring to mind other questions students seek answers for, such as, What does climate change justice look like now? What might it look like in the future?

Literacy and the Arts 

Scientists know the public is not always engaged by their complicated charts and technical explanations. Literary traditions, on the other hand, focus on creative expression, narratives, and emotion in ways that STEM subjects cannot. Educators are finding that English language arts is a portal to unique forms of climate change experiences for students, especially when genres like climate fiction and modalities like podcasts, videos, and multimodal digital texts become part of the mix. Students’ imaginations are stimulated through exposure to diverse viewpoints and unfamiliar ways of looking at the world. In some schools, students now produce their own climate and environmentally themed works, uploading their writing to websites where diverse audiences are inspired by their stories. In one middle school, students explored green energy solutions and their role in the radical redesign of urban spaces. They then used digital storytelling techniques to describe being transported to the year 2040 and navigating their “new” community for a day.

Art turns abstract concepts into tangible experiences and plays a fundamental role in helping us understand and respond to climate change.

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Similarly, visual art, theater, music, and dance provide spaces for experimentation and perspective taking. Art turns abstract concepts into tangible experiences that our minds couldn’t summon up otherwise and plays a fundamental role in helping us understand and respond to climate change.

Math in Service of Inquiry 

Math educators can pick nearly any topic related to environmental change and use it to foster new levels of data literacy. Dynamic graphs, charts, and maps allow learners from elementary to high school to ask themselves what questions they could frame, like Using the data shown here, what claims could someone make? For example, data analysis that’s within reach for most secondary students can supply an answer to questions such as: How many hours of sunlight does a solar panel need to generate electricity? or Does our city have enough peak sun hours to use solar panels effectively? For middle school students, this would require instruction in writing an algebraic expression to represent real-world situations, using algebra to calculate the peak sun hours necessary to produce different amounts of energy, and evaluating the reasonableness of their calculations using real-world data (reflecting the link between data literacy and understanding solutions in Figure 1). Teachers would also have to provide background on ideas such as units used to represent the rate of energy transfer, and how maps show the shifting distribution of “peak sun hours” across the United States during different seasons. Other kinds of authentic climate-related math problems require only basic statistics—for instance, predicting how much sea ice will be present in the Arctic by the next century (including the level of uncertainty) or how fast certain diseases are spreading in response to warmer temperatures, and why. Explorations of these topics would be suitable for students from upper elementary through high school.

Collaborating Around a Theme 

Since climate change is radically intertwined with multiple school subjects, it may be best for teachers to coordinate a set of learning experiences related to their different disciplines around a climate change or sustainability theme. This should be a theme most students find compelling. For example, different teachers who work with the same group of students could devote two weeks of instruction in each of their classes to a theme like heat islands (urbanized areas that experience higher temperatures than outlying areas), exploring this issue from their varied subject matter perspectives. There are other ­possibilities, too, like the greenhouse gas emissions that the “fast fashion” industry generates or how local ecosystems are being disrupted by climate-driven invasive species. But I’ll suggest ideas here for a unit about heat islands, appropriate for secondary-level students.  
Temperature extremes are increasingly common and impact nearly every U.S. community. The past eight years (2015–2023) have been the hottest on record globally (NASA Earth Observatory, 2022), with heat waves becoming both more stifling and longer lasting. We know heat stresses the human body, increasing risk of cardiovascular events, respiratory diseases, and mental health issues. Trees can lower air temperature in the summer, partly because leaves and branches greatly reduce how much solar radiation reaches the ground (U.S. Environmental ­Protection Agency, 2008). Trees also filter out air pollution, absorb stormwater, nurture wildlife, and even encourage peoples’ sense of well-being. The ­temperature-lowering qualities of trees are ­especially important in cities, which tend to be hotter than non-urban areas.  
Not everyone, however, lives in a neighborhood in which there are a lot of trees. Across the country, sections of a city that are poorer and have more residents of color tend to be hotter—5°F to 20°F hotter in summer—than wealthier parts of the same city (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2018). Students can investigate a wide range of different questions about this reality across their classes.  
Science teachers could lead inquiries into the effects that tree canopies have on shielding surfaces like houses, concrete, and asphalt from the sun’s radiation, and the cooling they offer from water evaporating off their leaves. Key concepts could include electromagnetic radiation coming from the sun, heat absorption and emission by different kinds of materials, or transfers and ­transformations of energy.  
In math classes, students might explore different representations of heat data and population demographics, developing ways to make this information accessible to the public.  
In social studies, the explanation for why communities of color have to endure hotter temperatures is a different kind of cause-and-effect narrative. In the early 20th century, local and federal officials in many U.S. cities enacted policies that diverted investment away from minority neighborhoods in ways that created disparities in the urban heat environment. Primarily Black neighborhoods, no matter their income level, were mapped and then outlined in red, marking them as “hazardous” for housing loans. Most formerly redlined neighborhoods still remain lower-income today and are more likely to have Black or Hispanic residents. They have far fewer trees and parks to cool the air; they also have more paved parking lots and nearby highways that absorb and reradiate heat (Swope, Hernandez, & Cushing, 2022). There is a lot to study here in terms of governance, what creates a just society, and using understandings of the past to analyze the causes and consequences of human decision-making, in this case regarding privilege and misuse of power.  
Art educators could encourage students to focus on a sub-theme, such as environmental equity, around which students could develop works of their choice (street art, music, poetry, or other performances) that express emotions or allow others to imagine alternatives to current realities.  
English language arts teachers could have students read climate fiction, such as in subgenres like futurism, or nonfiction about environmental degradation in poorer areas of U.S. cities. Students could also write in varied genres about ideas like how creatures adapt to their environments, new understandings of survival, or flickers of hope that exist. Even early elementary learners can read and write about issues related to subthemes like how the Earth is warming and how people may need to adapt. Books accessible to this age include Adventures with Finn and Skip: Forest, which is an introduction to the environmental concerns facing trees in the global landscape (Kearney, 2022) and All the Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal with Climate Change (Davenport, 2021), which combines basic climate literacy with ideas for addressing emotions that arise when exploring the problems and solutions of a changing world.  
If all this sounds ambitious, consider the payoff for learners at the secondary level. Each class can be a resource for making deeper meaning about what students are studying in their other classes, rather than the content discussed in each subject matter area being isolated from other ways of making sense of it. The research on this kind of coherence is clear: when students explore big ideas using different disciplinary lenses and have multiple “ways into” complex subject matter, their learning is more robust and nuanced (National Academies of ­Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2018).

Even if the climate change learning experiences you attempt unfold in awkward or unpredicted ways, students will feel supported when a group of teachers opens the doors to this topic.

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Part of the design process for educators should include selecting common themes that address important standards for each course involved. Teachers can ask one another which of the many climate change contexts (for example, ecosystem breakdowns, weather extremes, renewable energy, activism, our food systems, mass migrations) will interest students but also require them to develop deep, durable understandings of core competencies in science, reading and writing, mathematics, social studies, and the arts.  
For some of us, it may be difficult to assemble a team of colleagues who work with the same students across all subjects. But even if two or three teachers coordinate their planning around an issue tied to climate change, students will recognize that these trusted adults are laying the groundwork for much-needed conversations about the defining challenge of their time.

Points for Planning 

If a group in your school decides to teach a unit on any climate-related phenomenon—whether on urban heat islands, fast fashion’s harmful effects, how to bring renewable energy sources to students’ own community, or another theme—consider these recommendations:
  • Before making a final decision about what you’ll teach, take a couple months to read together, considering questions like, What is the basic science behind our proposed theme(s)? What are the history and origins of this problematic situation? What are the impacts on humans, and which communities are made vulnerable? What possible solutions surface?
  • While you do this, make sure your administrative team is supportive of what you are proposing, even if your plans are just taking shape. Another thing to keep in mind at this stage is to see if there are existing units each of you teach that can be modified or even replaced to accommodate this climate change content. And ask yourselves what can be taken off your plates to free up time for this curriculum project.
  • Consider how events or situations that the community cares about can be woven into the unit. Are there opportunities to involve key ­community members or visit off-campus sites?
  • Map out, roughly, which teachers will address which content or skills. Get creative about how each teacher might ask students to draw sub-themes or ideas from other classes to build on in their own class. For example, if the theme is recycling materials to conserve energy, a social studies teacher could have students investigate the idea of replacing linear “take-make-waste” economies with circular versions in which plastics, metals, and other materials are produced with the intention of eventually reusing, recycling, or composting them.
  • Decide how you will handle conversations about emotions like climate-focused anxiety. Discuss possible tensions if there are students who might resist talking about climate change or even counter what teachers present with pseudoscience, claiming that climate change is a hoax or overblown. How can you foster students’ emotional resilience while helping skeptical classmates address climate realities?
  • Include plans to foster a sense of agency in students by engaging them in appropriate activism and advocacy around local ­environmental justice issues.
  • Plan ways for students to “step back” at the unit’s end to discuss what they learned by studying climate change through multiple lenses. Offer them a range of ways to show what they know and how their thinking has changed.

Students Need Us to Risk It 

Even if the climate change learning experiences you attempt unfold in awkward or unpredicted ways, students will feel supported when a group of teachers opens the doors to this topic. They will be heartened when you at least acknowledge how hard climate change realities can be to ­disentangle—or to fit together like a puzzle. They will be thankful you’ve taken professional risks to support their learning about changes to the world so relevant to them.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Can you think of several teachers in your school, in various subject areas, you could collaborate with to co-plan a unit around climate change?

➛ What skills and content from each of your disciplines could be incorporated?

➛ For secondary teachers: Have you found that your students are thinking about, or anxious about, climate change issues—and that they want to address them in school?

References

Kamenetz, A. (2019, April 22). Most teachers don’t teach climate change; 4 in 5 parents wish they did. NPR. 

NASA Earth Observatory (2022). 2022 tied for fifth warmest year on record.  

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. (2018). How people learn II: Learners, contexts, and cultures. National Academies Press.  

Prothero, A. (2023, January 30). Most teens learn about climate change from social media. Why schools should care. Education Week

Swope, C., Hernández, D., & Cushing, L. (2022). The relationship of historical redlining with present-day neighborhood environmental and health outcomes: a scoping review and conceptual model. Journal of Urban Health, 99(6), 959–983. 

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (2008). Reducing urban heat islands: Compendium of ­strategies.  

Windschitl, M. (2023) Teaching climate change: Fostering understanding, resilience, and a commitment to justice. Harvard Education Press.  

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