So you want to teach about climate?

Here’s how I do it.

Elissa Levy
Jun 22 · 7 min read
Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

On July 1, the high school where I teach will officially become The High School for Climate Justice. We’ll be the first public school in the nation with “climate” in our name (according to this site).

In preparation for the new name, our administration and staff have taught ourselves (a) the science and policy issues behind climate change and climate destabilization, (b) the injustice that occurs when underserved groups are disproportionately impacted by climate change, and (c ) how to lead our students toward deep understanding and productive action. I hope that this article will help you to embrace climate pedagogy and to disentangle the panoply of climate education resources out there. We need to teach our students about our climate, even if it’s not yet required by our state.

According to NPR, the most common reason (by far) that teachers don’t teach climate change is that “It’s not related to the subject(s) I teach.” So let’s get that misunderstanding out of the way first:

  • Climate change is language and literature because people are affected and their stories must be told.
  • Climate change is history because our species’ need for progress via industrialization led us to this critical juncture.
  • Climate change is math because only through data analysis and extrapolation can we predict the consequences of our actions and proposed solutions.
  • Climate change is art because art is an outlet for frustration, a means of inspiration and mobilization, and a way of finding beauty in it all.
  • Climate change is physical education because we connect with the earth through our bodies; we are physically debilitated when we heat our planet.
  • Climate change is science … well, this one is the most obvious. Science gives us a body of research to explain the problem and envision solutions.

I’m not the first person to say this (or the second, or the third). If you go to the Teacher’s Climate Guide, you can just pick the subject area you teach and see high quality climate curricula designed specifically for your subject. Seriously.

In my physics classes, I’ve begun to incorporate climate science wherever I can. In physics, energy is a logical inroad to talking about climate. When my students develop their concept of energy, they infer the types of energy around us: light, heat, chemical, motion, gravitational (being high up), etc. We explain how energy can transfer between types and between systems, but it cannot be created or destroyed. My students’ mental models of energy enable their comprehension of climate change.

Here’s the logic: if the planet is getting hotter on average, then there must be more heat energy in our atmosphere. So I ask my students: where does this heat energy come from? Answer: the sun. But the sun has been shining on us for 4.5 billion years, so what makes the past 100 years different? Why is the planet warming now? Answer: there are more greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. The gases trap energy from the sun, energy that would otherwise escape into outer space. (I let the chemistry teachers discuss how the molecular structure of greenhouse gases results in their absorption of relevant electromagnetic frequencies.)

Then we discuss the effects. First, there’s the warming itself: lethal heat, extinct species, bleached coral, receding glaciers, rising seas, expanding deserts, etc. Second, there’s extreme severe weather. Most high school students lack a mental map for chaotic systems. They don’t understand why weather is so difficult to predict and how climate change exacerbates extreme weather events. I choose to teach chaos theory in my high school physics class even though it’s not a typical high school topic because so many processes in our lives (weather included) are deterministic from the laws of physics but unpredictable for all practical purposes. In other words, a small difference in starting conditions produces a huge difference in outcomes (aka the “butterfly effect”). Weather patterns are inherently chaotic, and climate change exacerbates extreme weather: droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, etc. For more on the science, this is a great article.

Example of an extreme weather event: June 4, 2021, NYC hailstorm outside my apartment

Now students are motivated to understand why greenhouse gases are increasing (short answer: people) and what we can do about it (short answer: lots of things but it’s hard).

So what can we do with our students? My biggest takeaway from my research and partnerships is that there is a ridiculously large amount of high-quality, vetted climate instruction resources out there. I’ve always known that good teachers write good lessons while great teachers “borrow” great lessons. This is truer in climate instruction than in any other domain I’ve seen.

Below is a table that organizes the best climate resources I’ve come across by the domain of instruction. My suggestion is to just pick a place to start, go for it, and iterate over time. (Click here for a pdf version of the image, with clickable links.) And if you want an even bigger compilation of links that will take many months to review in depth, check out the CRETF-generated Climate Resource Toolkit.

Some climate education options: click here for a pdf version with clickable links

Definitely poke around with these resources, but my biggest advice if you want to teach about climate change is not to wait. Don’t wait until you’ve had time to read everything out there. Don’t wait until you feel ready to teach this. Nobody is ready to teach this. But we do it anyway because our climate is already changing, and we don’t have the luxury of time. Choose a way in and take the leap.

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

And in case it’s helpful, every climate change conversation I’ve had with students falls under one or more of these categories:

  1. What’s happening to our climate? Warming. Since the industrial revolution, we have increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases by over 200%. These gases trap solar energy that would otherwise escape to space, which warms our planet and destabilizes our climate and weather patterns.
  2. Whose fault is it? People. Our agricultural and industrial processes directly generate greenhouse gases. Is it the companies who are at fault? Yes, but also: if a given company minimized emissions, then their profit margins would decrease, they would go out of business, and other environmentally destructive companies would take their place. So then is it the government’s responsibility to regulate the companies? Lobbying groups push for climate legislation, but it’s hard for legislators to get on board: if they go against their constituencies then they may lose their seat and thus their platform for future impact. If it were straightforward to pinpoint a culprit and hold them accountable, then we’d be farther down the path to resolution. Billions of people care, but it’s a collective action problem.
  3. What should we do about it? Advocate. We do need to minimize our own consumption as much as we can, but the real impact will come if we get climate-protecting legislation passed in all nations. The best overall solution map I’ve seen is in En-ROADS by Climate Interactive. The Drawdown book also contains comprehensive solution proposals, some of which are quite nuanced and creative. To get these solutions implemented, we must lobby. And we must also lobby to support those who are disproportionately affected by climate change, through financial and other forms of relief.
  4. How can I process my climate anxiety? Collaboratively. At a recent workshop, my assistant principal and I presented on school partnerships related to climate change education. A participant asked us how we help students deal with climate anxiety (that is, an overwhelmed feeling of futility that emerges when climate understanding sinks in). My honest response was that it hasn’t been an issue for me yet: I am just beginning to teach my students about climate. More than half of my New York City high school students hadn’t heard of climate change or global warming before this year. They don’t see it on the news. Their friends and families don’t talk about it. Their former teachers haven’t taught it. One of my students asked last week, “If this is such a huge problem, how come I’ve never heard of it?” I hope this question arises less in the future. As our climate reality sinks in, I will lean hard on my SEL training, knowing that climate anxiety will be yet another trauma that my students must collaboratively process in my classroom.
  5. Are there environmental issues that aren’t caused by climate change? Yes. The Irish potato famine was a consequence of large-scale agricultural practices. The urban heat island effect (cities being hotter than their surroundings) arises when there’s pavement and minimal greenery. Climate change often exacerbates these environmental issues, but it doesn’t cause them. Climate change deniers will capitalize on unintentionally misleading statements, unfortunately — so it’s important to be clear about which environmental issues are caused by climate change, and which are not.

Whether you approach it from the science, the solutions, the stories, or the advocacy, climate change belongs in your classroom. I grew up reading The Wump World, and now my son is reading it, too. It’s a great book, but I wish it weren’t true. Let’s help the next generation fix the problems we created.

Note: I plan to keep updating these resources. I know I’ve only begun to explore what’s out there. Please comment if there’s something you think I should add. I’m also eager to collaborate to make my lessons better, so don’t hesitate to reach out for a partnership of any sort.

There have been literally dozens of colleague-collaborators who helped me find the resources linked here. Among others, I want to thank Suzy Hanafy, Katie Kantz-Durand, Ben Otto, Dave Blattberg, Kim Swanson, Steve Serling, Ingrid Buntschuh, Sarah Pidgeon, Angela Flynn, Katie McCarthy, Bonnie Ralston, and Marc Cesare.

Photo by The New York Public Library on Unsplash

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Elissa Levy

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I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at aoapodcast.com | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors