Environmental Education

4 Strategies for Teaching About Climate Change

Teachers can integrate local, solutions-based approaches to studying climate change in a variety of subject area lessons.

March 21, 2024
Harry Haysom / Ikon Images

Students, teachers, and parents across the U.S. are calling for improved climate education in schools: In an EdWeek survey, nearly two-thirds of U.S. high school students reported a desire to learn about “how climate change will affect the future of the Earth and society.” Climate change education is necessary for a full understanding of the world and should be central to a 21st-century civic education

Many educators across the United States are already integrating climate change into the classroom. Several state-level movements in favor of comprehensive climate education are also emerging. As this momentum develops, teachers need practical tools to help them implement climate change education in their classrooms. 

finding grade-specific Climate Change resources

Teachers can leverage online resource libraries to find resources customized to their grade level and subject area. SubjectToClimate’s database includes over 2,700 free educational resources that integrate climate change into all subjects and grade levels, all of which are vetted by climate scientists. The database includes SubjectToClimate lesson plans that are written by current teachers and include elements like social and emotional learning.

All of these lesson plans are aligned to nationally recognized educational standards; integrating climate change into standards that are already being taught can reduce the burden on teachers while also ensuring that the climate concepts presented are developmentally appropriate for students. The website also provides news articles for students, professional learning opportunities (including SubjectToClimate’s three-part Climate Essentials Courses), and an interactive support center.

Teachers may also want to explore the Council on Foreign Relations’ free climate resources from CFR Education, which help connect climate topics to relevant issues in global affairs. These resources include videos, articles, infographics, and lesson plans that can expand students’ knowledge on climate change in the context of developments and dynamics unfolding around the world. CFR Education simulations help put students in the shoes of policy makers, presenting them with real-world climate scenarios from a global perspective and supporting them to identify and negotiate solutions. 

4 Ways to Teach About Climate Change

1. Focus on both problems and solutions. Climate anxiety is a growing issue among youth, and many teachers have concerns that teaching about climate change will exacerbate their students’ anxieties. To minimize this impact, climate education materials should highlight opportunities for action. These ideas about solutions will leave students feeling empowered rather than fatalistic. High school teachers could have their students participate in a mock trial modeled after a youth movement in Hawai‘i to sue the government over climate change. Another example is a lesson that helps explain how governments can respond to climate challenges, with details from the U.S. and around the world.

In addition, teachers can create opportunities to showcase climate learning beyond the classroom and empower civic learning. For example, a public service announcement created as part of a writing assignment could be shared with a local government official.

2. Connect climate change to your existing curriculum. Incorporate climate education into course curricula through topics you already teach. For example, in a lesson on conserving water, students write their own water-conservation law. The activities in the lesson fulfill social studies requirements while educating students about important climate topics. A lesson plan about the Industrial Revolution pushes students to consider their own consumption levels, simultaneously addressing sustainability issues while meeting history standards.

3. Lean on simulations and games. Simulations can help students learn about and negotiate real-world policy problems, from deforestation to carbon emissions standards. Games can help students gain a range of perspectives on an issue and engage in realistic tasks that mimic daily life. These approaches can lead to better learning outcomes, can improve skills, and are more engaging than traditional instructional methods.

4. Connect global issues to local ones. When possible, use local or place-based resources to discuss climate change issues that are happening in your state, city, or region. Many U.S. students feel that climate change does not affect their daily lives. Therefore, they are hard-pressed to place importance on learning about and taking action on climate change. It is crucial to educate your students on climate issues and movements within your region and connect these to wider national or global experiences, and vice versa. For example, a simulation on deforestation in the Amazon helps students understand how climate issues far away can impact them at home.

Showing interconnections between the globally relevant issue of climate change and visible, locally relevant issues will help students understand their context and how it connects to others around the world. For example, a lesson plan for Cancer Valley, Louisiana, shows an example of a Black community disproportionately affected by asthma, cancer, and death from Covid-19. The lesson plan is meant to spark a classroom discussion on the role of government and business in rectifying this issue, connecting environmental justice concepts to locally relevant climate concepts. Teachers could also use inquiry-based learning to show students real climate data and ask them to reach their own conclusions. 

To find information for your region, look to resources from local universities, your state’s Audubon Society website, or community-based climate nonprofits, or use the regional filters on SubjectToClimate’s resource database to find resources applicable to your locale.

Above all, incorporating climate education into your classroom does not have to be an entire unit, lesson, or class. Brief, purposeful integrations can be powerful. Whether calls for climate education come from the halls of the United Nations or from inside our neighborhoods, it’s never too late to educate about climate change and prepare the next generation to participate as informed citizens in our connected world.

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