George Lucas Educational Foundation
Environmental Education

Teaching Climate Change in Social Studies

Since this issue impacts both individuals and societies on many levels, it’s a good fit for social studies as well as science classes.

October 7, 2022
Illustration showing World map on dry leaf
Boris Séméniako / Ikon Images

In writing Miseducation: How Climate Change Is Taught in America, Katie Worth visited numerous schools across the United States and in the Marshall Islands. In one school, the science teacher featured robust and engaging lesson plans about climate change, but students went from that classroom to their history class, where, in order to present “both sides” to students, the teacher showed videos alleging that global warming is a hoax. This example highlights one challenge that educators teaching climate change face.

Yet for every social studies teacher like that one, there are several others who understand the value and importance of teaching climate change to their students. Many students are living with the effects of climate disasters: wildfires, pollution, floods, drought, lack of clean drinking water. Despite the relevance and need, it isn’t always easy to bring climate change into the social studies classroom, as the topic is often positioned as one for science classrooms only.

While it’s true that the science of climate change fits most appropriately into science class, the effects of climate change directly impact human beings and thus overlap with many key topics that are highly relevant and important for learners in social studies classrooms: the movements of people (refugee crises), war, government allocation of resources, the intersection between environmental pollution and racism, the economic toll on communities of depleting resources, etc. Edutopia focused on this topic in “Teaching Climate Change Across Subjects.”

This article highlights resources that social studies educators can bring into their classrooms to teach climate change and connect it to the effect it has on communities, governance, population movements, and much more.

Social Studies–Focused Climate Change Lesson Plans, K–12 

SubjectToClimate is a site dedicated to free climate resources in all subjects and grade levels. Resources are teacher reviewed and scientist approved. Educators can search the site according to grade level and subject. Below are a few social studies resources focused on climate change and/or environmental justice, a closely related topic.

For elementary school students, there are a series of lessons on green spaces (five in total). This lesson on disappearing green spaces also explores goods and services and connects the disappearance of green spaces to environmental justice. Also for elementary students, “Into the Mind of a Transportation Planner,” in their green transportation series, explores transportation planning and involves mapping activities in connection to vehicle emissions.

Redlining & Environmental Racism” is a lesson plan for middle school learners in which students use a mapping equity tool to investigate various case studies in cities around the United States with emphasis on one of the following: asthma rates, extreme heat, pollution, and/or urban tree cover and then also look at redlining in these same areas.

Through “How Should the Federal Government Spend Our Money,” high school students dive into government spending with a lens on sustainability, exploring climate change through government action or inaction.

Using Film to Teach Climate Change in High School Social Studies 

Journeys in Film, where I work, creates free standards-based curriculum guides and discussion guides for films that illuminate global issues and communities with the goal of expanding understanding and empathy and inspiring students to engage in the world around them. The following resources from their site are appropriate for high school students.

Climate Emergency: Feedback Loops, a series of five short films (9 to 15 minutes) narrated by Richard Gere, highlights the importance of feedback loops to climate change, particularly the possibility of reversing its negative effects. Journeys in Film created a lesson plan for each of the five short films. Lesson Five in the series is focused on regreening and highlights youth activists around the world. Bringing these activists into the social studies classroom through these materials will engage and inspire students. This resource may work in some eighth-grade classrooms.

Lessons Two and Three in their curriculum guide for Francesco, a documentary film about Pope Francis, focus on the environment and the realities facing migrants, many displaced by climate change disasters. In Lesson Two, students wrestle with the question of who is responsible for environmental justice in communities and explore the possibilities of a healthy, equitable, and sustainable future.

The documentary River of Gold chronicles illegal gold mining along the Amazon River and its impact on Peru’s Amazon rain forest. Lesson Eight, titled “Faces of Activism,” is an intersectional Environmental Science/Social Studies lesson.

Created and run by the American Federation of Teachers, Share My Lesson is a free community-based site chock full of resources for educators, including “Communities on the Threshold of Change,” a lesson plan for high school students from the Global Oneness Project. The lesson plan uses the short film Santa Cruz del Islote so that students can explore the challenges facing the community featured in the film because of climate change and then consider challenges facing their own communities.

Another resource for teaching climate change is the Zinn Education Project, which features teaching activities, testimonials, and experiences in “From the New Deal to the Green New Deal: Stories of Crisis and Possibility.”

Yes, climate change can be a challenging topic to teach, and navigating it may not always be easy, but there are more and more resources and communities of support every day.

Students see the realities of climate change in the world around them on a regular basis. Resources like these help them put those realities into context and introduce them to actions and individuals working to create positive change, which can inspire and engage students in the classroom and beyond.

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