Written by Brenda Greene
Why is climate change important to young people’s learning? In Years 7–11, students are already experiencing rapid physical, emotional and social changes in their own lives. As they see it, climate change may be just one more disaster that no one can do anything about.
Defining climate change and global warming
Climate change means the long-term change in weather patterns for any area. Global warming means a slow increase in Earth’s temperature over long periods. During the last 100 years, Earth has warmed 1°C from a global baseline temperature of about 14°C. A change of 1°C may not sound like much but think about this. Your body temperature range is 36.1 to 37.2°C – a difference of 1.1°C. If your temperature changes even a small amount above or below this range, you become very ill. When it comes to staying alive, small changes make a big difference.
Teaching climate change in social studies
So, how to teach climate change as part of social studies? Work with your best and most relevant resources – teenagers and social media. Teaching teenagers has always been about challenging attitudes. Social media contains a lot of fake news and associated existentialist hype about global warming.
Try a social survey about the information sources that influence opinion. Teenagers are developing their own identity, establishing independence, their own self-image. They question everything. Tap into this. Challenge your students to think about who they believe and why. Use a social survey to ask, “Does climate change affect me personally? Does this influence my opinion?”
As a society, we are starting to listen more to what scientists have to say. Do your students know who scientists are, what they do and how they work? Provide a foundation for understanding how society and the students themselves perceive scientists.
Study the sources of climate protest action. Focus on what one person can do. Small changes that a lot of people made over a long period accelerated global warming. They can do the same to help reverse the trend. Brainstorm what has changed. The number of electric vehicles is increasing. People are eating more plants and less meat. The slogan “Think globally, act locally” arose in the 1970s. Study how this phrase came about and why it is relevant today.
Link causes and effects of global warming. As Earth’s global temperature increases, the frequency (number per year) and magnitude (size) of droughts, wildfires, floods and storms increase. The polar ice caps are melting and sea levels are rising. Between 1900 and 2017, sea levels rose by 16–21 centimetres. People in the Pacific Islands are migrating from their homes.
Teaching climate change in business and economics
Currently, climate change appears to be a battle between business and science. List the resources that form the basis of our economy. Describe the current business model of economic growth. Introduce sustainability and the circular economy. Focus on individual action. Explain how fossil fuels are used to manufacture nearly everything we buy. Investigate the endless new business opportunities in recovering plastic waste. Investigate alternative, safe, renewable energy sources that produce no or low waste.
Teaching climate change in geography and earth sciences
Introduce climate change and global warming. Establish definitions. We have been indirectly measuring Earth’s climate by studying rock layers (geology), fossil records (palaeontology) and ice cores (palaeoclimatology). When researchers across different disciplines shared their results, they discovered that Earth’s climate has warmed and cooled by about 3–8°C in a series of long-term cycles (every 10,000–100,000 years) over the past 800,00 years.
Put your students in the geologist’s role and investigate factors that may or may not cause global warming. Are tectonic plate movement and volcanic activity contributing? If so, do they represent a major cause?
Teaching climate change in science
Describe how meteorologists have been directly measuring Earth’s climate (eg, long-term change in temperature, rainfall, wind speed, storms) for over 100 years. At the same time, other scientists have been directly measuring changes in the ocean (oceanographers), the concentration of gases in the atmosphere (climatologists), changes in animal and plant populations (biologists) and changes in chemistry (biogeochemists).
When these different scientists shared their results, they found a relationship between the concentration of “greenhouse gases” (eg, carbon dioxide and methane) and Earth’s global temperature. Earth warmed as the concentration of greenhouse gases increased and cooled as it decreased.
This relationship was so important that hundreds of scientists from the disciplines of biology, physics and chemistry gathered at the 1979 World Climate Conference. Nearly all the scientists agreed that since industrialisation (from the 1750s), Earth’s temperature has increased more quickly than ever before.
Linking science to society
The changes that scientists have observed are so concerning that world leaders signed the legally binding, international Paris Agreement, also called the Paris Climate Accord 2015. Countries agreed to limit global warming to well below 2°C, and preferably to 1.5°C, compared with pre-industrial levels. Achieving this target means limiting the amount of atmospheric carbon to about 280 parts per million (ppm). It also means limiting the use of fossil fuels, even though they contribute significantly to the economic wealth and social stability of many countries.
World leaders met again at the United Nations Climate Change Conference 2021, also called the Conference of Parties or COP26. Emissions (the concentration of greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuels) need to decrease by almost half by 2030 to limit global warming by 1.5°C. Yet in reality, emissions are expected to rise by almost 14% over the next nine years.
In linking science to society, respond to the call for climate action and empower your students to act. List the small changes they can make every day to make a difference.