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Teaching global warming and climate change

“We are currently locked into a process that will inevitably result in bequeathing a dying planet to the next generation – and it cannot any longer be denied that we are all to varying degrees culpable.”

Mayer Hillman, 2019

Topics on this page:

  • The place of global warming and climate change in the school curriculum
  • Big geographical questions about global warming and climate change
  • Teaching about climate change
  • Teaching resources and ideas
  • Reading

The place of global warming and climate change in the school curriculum

Roberts (2023) comments that climate change is ‘one of the most urgent and challenging issues of our time, with implications for the future of humanity and the future of the planet‘. It is her view that it is a ‘moral imperative that the study of climate change should be included in the school curriculum’.

Science and geography are the two subjects in which this topic is most commonly taught. Teaching about the process of climate change was included in 2010 National Curriculum for science, but was missing in geography. However, a DfE revision in 2013 included this statement for geography at Key Stage 3:

…understand how human and physical processes interact to influence, and change landscapes, environments and the climate; and how human activity relies on effective functioning of natural systems.’

In key stage 3 science, the focus is on understanding processes. In geography the study of climate integrates physical, environmental, social and economic processes and considers the impact on people, places and environments at a range of scales. Most geography departments include these aspects of climate change in their curriculum, going beyond the formal National Curriculum requirement. Some liaise with science departments to teach collaboratively.

GCSE and A level geography have specific content about climate change, although the extent to which it is taught as an issue depends on the examination specification and how it is taught.

  • Read Roberts (2023) pp. 115-6, ‘How should climate change be included in the school curriculum?’
  • Look at this short video by Professor Dorling on Climate, water insecurity and consumption, which discusses how a changing world will increase the natural hazards that we face

Big geographical questions about global warming and climate change

Global warming, the cause of wider climate change, presents unprecedented challenges in its impact on people and environment. The core scientific evidence is clear, that global warming is occurring and that it is the result of human activity. Students need to understand the difference between the concepts of the natural greenhouse effect that enables life to exist on the planet and the human-enhanced greenhouse effect that is also known as global warming.

Climate change raises all sorts of big geographical questions to discuss with students in lessons: What is the impact? Where and who does it affect? What can we do about it? What does the future hold? It is not solely a physical geography concern, it also has social, economic and political repercussions.

Before you begin to teach this topic, review your own understanding of the key concepts, processes and terminology of climate change.

You need to be well informed about the effects of climate change on the planet and on people. Hillman (2019) puts this forcefully when he says,

‘No other aggregation of human behaviour in recorded history can begin to match the appalling legacy we are in the process of bequeathing to future generations as a consequence of our near total failure to face up to the implications of climate change.’

His article is a must-read for all geography teachers. It is powerful and hard-hitting, outlining the impact of climate change and examining numerous misleading assumptions that go inform public policies.

Teaching about climate change

In geography lessons students need to be taught:

  • The underlying physical processes in order to understand why climate change is happening
  • How and why climate in changing across the world
  • Strategies for mitigation and adaptation.

Before you begin to teach the reasons for climate change, make sure you are clear about what is known (e.g. the causes and consequences of burning fossil fuels) and what is still to be clarified (e.g. how much hotter will it become? How fast? How quickly will sea levels rise?)

Collect together evidence of current impacts that are already occurring in the world that you can use for illustrative resources (e.g. decreases in Arctic pack-ice; fierce bushfires in Australia) and in the UK (e.g. shifting seasons, torrential rain, floods and drought). Look for local examples that will make it clear to students that this affects them.

Some of the key topics to teach about climate change are:

  • The causes of global warming
  • The consequences of climate change, e.g. shifting seasons, increased flooding, drought, extreme weather and rising sea-levels
  • Reducing the impact of climate change, e.g. how to adapt and how to reduce the impact.

Be aware that some of these ideas may be difficult for students to understand. They can’t ‘see’ carbon dioxide and the implications are often too wide ranging for them to grasp easily. They may also be aware of global warming ‘denials’ as reported by the media.

COP26 was a big event during the autumn of 2021 and the stimulus activity devised by Barton and Finch Noyes (2022) is a good way to keep students mindful of personal targets to address their carbon footprint.

David Hicks has written extensively on these issues and you should read his articles in which he outlines not only why geography teachers should teach about climate change but also what aspects are most important for the next generation to know. He believes, ‘we have a duty to prepare them for a climate-changed world very different from today’. Hicks (2019) suggests using an investigative framework to study climate change.

David Hicks (2011) asks us these questions:

  • How can we teach about climate change in such a way that it does not worry or disempower young people?
  • How can we ensure that climate change is not just one more topic to ‘tick off’ in the curriculum?
  • If climate change requires a new generation of concerned and active citizens, how can we ensure that school geography contributes to this?

Ponder these three questions as you read more about teaching climate change and plan your lessons. 

Roberts believes that in studying the challenge of climate change students need to be made aware of:

  • different ways in which groups. organisations and the media present different messages (see figure 12.5)
  • issues that divide opinions and who makes the decisions at different scales(see figure12.6)
  • how disinformation can play a role in influencing opinions.

Teachers must also comply with the current legal requirements to provide a balanced view and avoid ‘promotion of partisan political views’.

Read Roberts (2023) pp. 116-9, ‘What needs to be considered in discussing issues related to climate change?’.

Roberts (2023) reminds us that some of the evidence and arguments that students might encounter when investigating climate change have been influenced by disinformation financed by powerful vested interests. Read about this on pp. 146-8, ‘Disinformation on climate change’.

TIDE is an organisation that highlight the needs of learners, the role of teachers, and the culture of schools to explore the potential of an education-driven agenda responding to the climate crisis. See the Elephant Times 4.2 Seeking Conversions – Education and Climate Crisis.

Burger et al (2023) outline how the EN-ROADS simulator can be used in the classroom. This is a free resource on a web browser and can provide students with opportunities to explore the long-term climate impacts of global policy and investment decisions. It can be used at all levels from key stage 3 to A level for decision-making activities with the whole class or with groups.

Teaching resources and ideas

Start with these resources on the GA website:

GEO resources for GCSE

GEO resources for A level

Other GA resources

  • Batchen, N. (2009) KS3 Geography Teachers’ Toolkit: Changing My World – What difference can we make to the climate?, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Bustin, R. (2021) KnowHow: An introduction to KS3 Climate Change (eBook), Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • Daley, T. and Stocking, K. (2022) Top Spec Geography: The Climate Crisis, Sheffield: Geographical Association (for A level).
  • Rayner, D. (2011) GCSE Geography Teachers’ Toolkit: Hot and Bothered?  A study of climate change, Geographical Association.
  • See Cities and Climate Change – Interactive Web Site from devongeography
  • See this interactive BBC web site, where you can enter any city into the search engine and get historical and future projections of climate and indications of potential future impacts
  • Other resources: Videos including both professional development and classroom resources.

Reading

  • Barton, R. and Finch Noyes, H. (2022) ‘COP26: You choose – climate change’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Burger, J., Clark, R., Preece, D. and Webb, H. (2023) ‘Simulated climate solutions: using the EN-ROADS simulator’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Ferreira, J. (2022) ‘Global Challenges’, Geography Subject Knowledge, Programme, Royal Geographical Society.
  • Hicks, D. (2011) ‘A sustainable future: four challenges for geographers’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hicks, D. (2015) ‘Learning to see climate change’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Hicks, D. (2018) ‘Why we still need a geography of hope’, Geography, Summer.
  • Hicks, D. (2019) ‘Climate change: bringing the pieces together’ Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Hillman, M. (2019) ‘Time to face up to the realities of climate change’, Geography, Summer.
  • Jones, V. (2019) ‘Adapting our diets for global climate change: Could eating bugs really be an answer?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Knight, A. (2019) ‘Did the European conquest of the Americas contribute to the Little Ice Age?’, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Maxfield, H. (2018) ‘The Cayman Islands coral reefs: global issues, local solutions’, Teaching Geography, Spring.
  • Morgan, A. (2008) Think Piece – Global warmingGeographical Association on-line.
  • Morgan, M. (2001) ‘Investigating environmental issues: a multimedia approach’, Teaching Geography, April.
  • Rackley, K.M. (2019) ‘Resources to teach the changing nature of climate and energy‘, Teaching Geography, Summer.
  • Richardson, K. (2022) ‘The hottest new literary genre? How can cli-fi support the teachings of climate change?’, Teaching Geography, Autumn.
  • Roberts, M. (2023) Geography Through Enquiry: Approaches to teaching and learning in the secondary school, Second edition, Sheffield: Geographical Association.
  • See Reading list for teaching ESD Key readings.