Teaching the Human Dimensions of Climate Change for 30 Years

Students the world over took to the streets this fall to demand action on climate change and to school older generations about the consequences for humanity of a warming planet. Climate change education is finally coming into its own in the U.S., thanks, in part, to new science education standards, but also to the somewhat grim realization that young people are inheriting a biosphere and atmosphere very different from the ones their parents and grandparents did.

Long before the Next Generation Science Standards (now adopted in 20 states and modeled in 24 others) explicitly wrote climate change education into their benchmarks in 2013, PopEd had been making a clear connection between human activities (and numbers) to rising greenhouse gas emissions and global warming. In fact, climate change activities first appeared in the PopEd curricula as far back as 1989. That year, Bill McKibben published The End of Nature, the first book about global warming for a general audience. Our population had just topped 5 billion, atmospheric carbon dioxide was still at a “safe” concentration of 350 ppm, and the IPCC was still a year away from offering its first assessment of climate science. By 1991, PopEd had created an entire climate change unit in the first edition of its high school curriculum, Earth Matters: Studies for Our Global Future. Even before the UN climate change conferences (Kyoto, Paris, etc.), PopEd had developed a Model UN discussion framework around the topic and was engaging students on how global warming might impact different regions of the world.

Lindsey Bailey, Senior Teacher Training Manager, presents “People and Climate Change: The Data Is In” at the PopEd Leadership Institute in Wisconsin in July

Fast forward 30 years and we’re continuing to engage students and teachers on climate issues, especially with our particular emphasis—the human dimensions of climate change. This starts with an understanding of the human causes of climate change, including the seven-fold population increase over the past 200 years of industrialization.

There are many excellent teacher resources available to explain climate science, but fewer that address the role that population growth has played in greenhouse gas emissions, or that delve into how vulnerable communities are being impacted by a rapidly changing climate. PopEd takes a multidisciplinary approach to climate change education. While our lessons are a natural fit for the environmental science classroom, we are also sharing our resources with social studies teachers (geography, history, and civics) and using real-world climate and population data in secondary math classes. And because climate trends impact so many communities and ecosystems, we are addressing the cause-and-effect relationships in our lessons that focus on everything from fisheries and food production to public health, migration, and social justice.

Despite polling that shows 8 in 10 Americans now acknowledge that human activity is fueling climate change, some teachers are still reticent to address the topic, fearing a backlash from parents, especially in politically conservative areas. Even so, teachers in PopEd workshops rate our climate change lessons highly, remarking that the emphasis on presenting scientific data and allowing students to draw their own conclusions makes it easier to teach a “controversial” subject. In recent workshops in Wyoming, for example, many participants evaluated the activity “People and Climate Change: The Data Is In” as the most useful part of the workshop, and said it would make them more comfortable introducing the topic in their classrooms.

In addition to classroom lessons, PopEd also engages students on climate change issues with the World of 7 Billion student video contest and its accompanying activism kit. One of this year’s contest topics is “Improving Climate Resiliency,” inviting students to research and prepare a short video on a suggested subtheme (climate migrants, urban planning, extreme weather, or agricultural productivity) and link it to population growth. The activism kit provides guidance to students on advocating to their lawmakers, making changes in their schools and communities, and using social media to advance a cause. The students who led this fall’s Global Climate Strike offered a master class in this type of youth activism.

Educators follow along with Lindsey's presentation of "People and Climate Change: The Data Is In” at the PopEd Leadership Institute in Wisconsin in July

A Sampling of Climate Change Activities from PopEd

People and Climate Change: The Data Is In (Grades 6-8)

Students interpret various types of data (charts, graphs, photos, satellite images) from government sources, as well as articles from leading newspapers, to identify relationships between population growth, greenhouse gas emissions, temperature, ice melt, and sea level rise.

Carbon Crunch (Grades 9-12)

Students read about a “carbon budget,” create a visual comparison of carbon emissions among 14 different countries, and discover how these same countries compare in vulnerability (and coping ability) to future climate impacts including rising seas, prolonged droughts, and higher frequencies of extreme weather events.

Methane Matters (Grades 9-12)

Students diagram the causal relationships between methane production (which has increased 250 percent since pre-industrial times) and human activities (ranching, mining, rice paddies, landfills, and fossil fuel extraction).

Cap and Trade Game (Grades 9-12)

A game of strategy that simulates a cap and trade system and analyzes its successes and weaknesses as a policy to reduce pollutants and greenhouse gases.

Catching Pollution (Grades 3-5)

Students use charcoal briquettes to visualize and solve math problems on how much CO2 cars emit on typical commutes (hint: a 5-lb bag of briquettes is equal to the carbon emitted from burning just one gallon of gas).

Generating Heat (Grades 9-12)

Students graph CO2 emissions and population growth (in Excel) since 1750 and discuss trends they observe.

WorldPopulationHistory.org (Grades 6-12)

This interactive website features a population map with overlays to show changes in carbon emissions, land use, and vital statistics around the globe as the population has changed since pre-industrial times.

To explore PopEd’s teaching resources on climate change, visit PopulationEducation.org and WorldPopulationHistory.org. More information on this year’s student video contest can be found at Worldof7Billion.org.

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