Teaching Climate Change: Best Practices

The prospect of climate change is daunting. Learning about it can be disheartening, even depressing, for students. As a result, even students who learn the basics of climate science may still fail to appreciate that humans can take actions to reduce climate changes and its impacts. To improve and reinforce climate change education, make it local, make it human, make it pervasive, and make it hopeful.

Make it local. The impact of climate change is not confined to the Arctic or to low-lying island nations: climate change is affecting us in our everyday lives and is happening in our own communities. Setting climate change in a local context is very challenging — finding unambiguous scientific evidence of human-induced change at a local level may not be possible — but regional forecasts can be helpful in showing students how climate change may affect their local communities in future decades. 

Make it human. Science is a profoundly human endeavor, and it is important for students to appreciate that it is conducted by humans, not antiseptically deposited in timeless and impersonal textbooks. Discussing the historical development of the science that produced our current understanding of climate change is useful. Even better for bringing the human dimension to the science are narratives, whether written or audiovisual, of scientists describing their research in easy-to-understand language. Richard Alley (especially in the 2011 PBS documentary Earth: The Operators’ Manual) and the late Stephen H. Schneider are two climate scientists who have been particularly effective communicators on the topic of climate change. And younger climate scientists are increasingly aware of the need for effective outreach: researchers at a local college or university may be willing to visit classrooms to talk about their work.

Make it pervasive. The topic of climate change arises naturally in classes in earth sciences, atmospheric sciences, ocean sciences, and environmental sciences, but there are opportunities to discuss climate change in biology, chemistry, and physics classes as well. Moreover, climate change education needn’t stop at the science classroom door. There are opportunities to incorporate teaching about climate change in geography, social studies, and language arts courses, for example. And many teachers are working together to incorporate climate change education throughout the curriculum. Additionally, since much learning happens outside of formal classroom settings, climate change can be a rich topic for informal science educators — working in such venues as science centers, natural history museums, zoos and parks, and “free choice” learning environments — to explore, present, and discuss.

Make it hopeful. Learning about climate change can trigger anger, fear, guilt, or hopelessness. To allay the emotional impact of learning about climate change, it is useful to integrate science with solutions. Students thus learn about possible ways to mitigate or adapt to climate change at the same time and in the same educational context that they are learning about climate change. For example, when focusing on how the Sun is the primary source of energy for the Earth’s climate system, teachers can augment their lessons on the Earth’s energy budget with discussions of the effective solar design of buildings. Of course, educators need to avoid advocating a particular solution, whether a policy or technology, that they personally support; instead, classes should discuss and assess a whole range of solutions in light of the science. A good example of how to integrate science and solutions is Energy Literacy: Essential Principles and Fundamental Concepts for Energy Education, developed by the U.S. Department of Energy in collaboration with other federal agencies and partners, which provides a framework for integrating climate science with energy concepts throughout the curriculum.

The links in Classroom Resources provide more information especially useful for educators.