Science

How to Teach Climate Change: Your Questions, Answered

By Madeline Will & Arianna Prothero — February 08, 2023 10 min read
Close up of child holding seedling during school science project.
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Teaching students about the causes and consequences of climate change is critical, experts say, especially as temperatures rise and natural disasters become more frequent and severe. But broaching the subject in class can be daunting for teachers.

After all, most teachers have little formal training on how to teach climate change, which is a complex subject that can spark feelings of anxiety or fear among students. Climate change is also politicized in many parts of the country, leaving some teachers nervous about parent or community pushback.

We—Arianna Prothero and Madeline Will—have been covering climate change and schools for EdWeek for much of the past year. We logged onto Reddit last month to answer educators’ questions about how best to teach climate change in a way that won’t leave students feeling hopeless.

These questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

I’m curious about teaching the reality that corporations have the majority of the fault when it comes to current climate harming emissions, rather than individual actions. I wonder if this contributes to some of the hopelessness in our middle schoolers. ‘The big companies aren’t going to stop, and they aren’t going to be held accountable. What good is anything I can do? What’s the point?’ I have a hard time with that because I feel it a bit myself. Any perspective or advice?

Arianna: Oh, you are not alone. I have heard this from so many educators. And it’s this very reason that many of them don’t like having students calculate their carbon footprint, because they think it sends the message that this is a problem driven by individuals and can be solved by individuals alone. On the flip side, individuals can make a difference, and some educators lean into that to combat this feeling of defeat in their students—whether it’s through school recycling and compost initiatives, cutting back on eating meat like doing meatless Mondays, etc. Other educators I’ve spoken with have helped spearhead environmental clubs in their schools to give students an avenue and guidance on doing bigger projects and advocacy work, which makes students feel like they are having a larger impact beyond their own actions. I know it’s tough for students because they can’t vote yet—or even really vote with their dollars—so it can feel like there is no way to hold the people in power accountable.

I spoke with another science teacher who has started doing an environmental action timeline with her students. She gives each decade a title, starting with the 1970s and the Clean Water Act, which she calls the “stop the bleeding” decade. Then she moves into some of the major clean up/restoration projects of the 1980s, which she calls the “clean up” decade. The point is to show her students that as a society we have actually achieved some pretty significant things in the past few decades, despite all the resistance from industry. She said that helps give her students perspective and feel a little less hopeless.

This resource, Subject to Climate, might be helpful for you, particularly the “climate solutions” tab.

Over the years as I have taught climate change, one of the issues is that the students often feel a sense of hopelessness. I’m not sure what to present to the students that would be more relevant to them to see some more immediate, impactful change at the school level. Writing to their representatives have been met with lukewarm responses. Any ideas or suggestions?

Madeline: This is definitely a very real challenge. I wrote about climate anxiety in teens, and the co-founder of the Climate Mental Health Network told me that getting out in nature can be really beneficial for people who are feeling hopeless or depressed about climate change. He suggested starting or maintaining a school garden, if that’s something that’s possible.

Some other ideas I’ve heard: taking charge of a recycling or composting initiative at school, writing letters to school board members or administrators about making the school buildings/buses greener, or doing research on and showing support for a local community issue. One teacher told us that he had his students produce a podcast about climate change where they interview experts—he said it made them feel like they were part of the solution through spreading awareness.

See also

Conceptual illustration of hand reaching into an atom and picking the planet earth
Vanessa Solis/Education Week and Frances Coch/iStock

A follow-up question: If a teacher wanted to create a garden (and let’s say that they manage to get approval), where could teachers go to find resources, funding, and/or supplies to create and maintain this? Most of us are having our budget cut or limited. So anything that is free would be ideal.

Madeline: Seed Your Future has a huge list of grants for starting and maintaining school gardens (there’s even one for installing bee hives!).

I have heard from other educators who maintain school gardens that they have successfully gotten parent volunteers to help with both manual labor and donating materials. I also wonder if a local business would be willing to help with funding or supplies.

How do you recommend schools balance conservative/climate-denial parents with their students being advocates for change?

Arianna: This is a tough one, and I’m not sure anyone has the answer. Focusing on the important real-world skills students are building through advocacy and not so much the topic of the advocacy is one approach. Advocacy—regardless of the cause—is a great way for students to learn important organizational, communication, and interpersonal skills. Students learn first-hand how government and civic institutions work and—more importantly—how to navigate within those institutions. This sets them up not only to be civically engaged adults who vote, but savvy citizens who know how to pull on the levers of power to make things happen for themselves and their communities.

As one social studies teacher told me, advocacy is how future leaders learn to lead. That same teacher told me it is important for schools to respect all the different causes students are interested in advocating for (within boundaries, of course), whether it be climate change, social justice, or pro-life causes, to name a few examples.

See also

Denver East High School students Mariah Rosensweig and Gabriel Nagel pose for portraits at City Park on Dec. 19. They have successfully advocated for Denver Public Schools to adopt a set of sustainability goals aimed at reducing the district's greenhouse emissions.
Denver East High School students Mariah Rosensweig and Gabriel Nagel pose for portraits at City Park on Dec. 19. They have successfully advocated for Denver Public Schools to adopt a set of sustainability goals aimed at reducing the district's greenhouse emissions.
AAron Ontiveroz for Education Week

As far as students go, if they are wanting to advocate around climate change, some of the greatest impact they can probably have is through having conversations with family and friends about the issue. I don’t have the full context of this particular situation, but if there is a lot of pushback to teaching about climate change, one option is to provide students with more in-depth learning opportunities through extracurricular and co-curricular opportunities, such as through after school clubs or partnerships with community organizations. On teaching about topics that can be controversial (like climate change or vaccines), here is a list of tips from educators on teaching sensitive topics.

On the list of issues to be addressed within the American education system, how much priority should be given to climate change?

Madeline: This is a great question because there are SO many issues schools have to address, especially since the pandemic. Climate change can feel like more of a long-term issue rather than an immediate priority, which is why not many districts have devoted significant resources or commitments to climate change. (According to our nationally representative survey, only 13 percent of administrators said their school or district had developed a strategic plan related to climate change. And just 30 percent said their facilities plan takes climate change into account.)

But experts have told us that it’s really vital that districts start preparing for climate change now. Schools are already seeing disruptions due to more severe weather, and that’s only going to get worse. And schools have a huge carbon footprint of their own in terms of emissions produced by school buses and buildings themselves, as well as food and plastic waste.

Experts told us that districts can make a plan and start small instead of completely overhauling their operations right away, which might make it more manageable to prioritize climate change. For example, districts can decide in advance that when their school buses are no longer fit to operate, they’ll replace them with electric buses instead of ones that run on diesel fuel. They can plant more trees on campus, which have the benefit of helping cool the air and providing shade cover to students on particularly hot days. And when it comes time to upgrade school buildings, they can do so with the goal of reducing energy emissions (and there are sources of funding out there that can help with that).

And then in terms of whether teaching climate change should be a priority, we know from our survey data that students are interested in this topic, want to know more about it, and already have a lot of feelings about it, including some anxiety.

There’s so much misinformation out there on social media, especially about this topic. How can you teach students not to believe everything they see about climate change on TikTok and Instagram?

Arianna: This is where media literacy is so important, or teaching students how to critically evaluate information they see, understand how algorithms work, be attuned to the motivations behind content creators, and know how to create and share information responsibly themselves.

And a lot of teens get information about climate change from social media! Fifty-six percent said in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey that they get some or a lot of their information on climate change from social. But the good news is, the largest share of teenagers, 64 percent, said they get some or a lot of their info on climate change from their teachers.

Here’s a page from Common Sense Media on media literacy, which might be a helpful resource. And here’s a page of media literacy resources put together by the organization Media Literacy Now.

Madeline: In addition to the resources Arianna gave, I also wanted to share this unit from the National Science Teaching Association about climate change and media literacy. It was designed by six teachers and helps students understand correlation vs. causation, identify biased language, etc.

I’m in Florida. How can I teach this without getting arrested?

Madeline: I know this can be a really sensitive subject to teach, especially in states with restrictions on what can be discussed in the classroom. I did talk to a science teacher in a conservative area who said she teaches students media/science literacy first and then lets them evaluate the evidence on climate change on their own.

For example, she’ll show them a graph of global temperatures over the past 20,000-or-so years, so they can see for themselves the dramatic increase when humans entered the picture. And then she’ll have them write an essay where they have to find evidence and data for both natural and man-made causes of climate change. She said most students find it hard to justify natural climate change and end up drawing their own conclusions—without her having to tell them what they should believe.

Are there any documentary films, podcasts, YouTube channels, etc., you would recommend teachers and students watch?

Arianna: Madeline recommends the podcast How to Save a Planet. Unfortunately it’s been canceled but there are still plenty of episodes to listen to. Maddy also said it was geared to adults so you may want to screen it before sharing with students!

I want to recommend a documentary on PBS I saw a few months ago. It’s produced by NOVA and called “Saving Venice”. And it’s about just that: building a massive contraption in the sea to keep Venice from going underwater. It’s not focused on climate change broadly like a lot of media is, but rather the very specific ramifications of climate change and environmental degradation in one place, and how people are working to save their home.

In journalism (and probably lots of other fields) we talk about using a small story to tell a big story, and that’s what this documentary does so, so well. It struck me as good supplemental material for a teacher. I would say it’s more for older students, but who knows! I’m amazed sometimes at what young kids will get into!

As I was tracking down the name of that documentary, I also found a series of short videos called “Weathered” on PBS. They appeared geared toward kids and adolescents and several of the episodes are related to climate change.

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