This guide points K-12 educators to the best sites for teaching about climate change: several that offer first rate background material, and othersthat include detailed lesson plans and experiments. It begins with Top Ten Things You Need to Know about Global Warming and a note about why there is so much controversy surrounding this issue.
Climate change is a great topic for students to study because it integrates so many subjects: energy, environment, geography, politics, chemistry, biology, economics, and more. It requires students to use analytical tools and math skills, and to exercise their abilities to research, think and understand complex issues. The web sites reviewed in this guide offer everything you need to create your own unit on climate change and global warming.
There are a number of widely held misconceptions about climate change, and unfortunately, these are reflected in some of the educational materials available on the web. It is therefore crucial for teachers to educate themselves and their students with accurate information and be careful not to reinforce common but incorrect notions. The following primer is a good place to begin.
Certain gases that trap heat are building up in Earth's atmosphere. The primary culprit is carbon dioxide, released from burning coal, oil and natural gas in power plants, cars, factories, etc. (and to a lesser extent when forests are cleared). The second is methane, released from rice paddies, both ends of cows, rotting garbage in landfills, mining operations, and gas pipelines. Third are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and similar chemicals, which are also implicated in the separate problem of ozone depletion (see #5 below). Nitrous oxide (from fertilizers and other chemicals) is fourth.
#2 Earth's average temperature has risen about
1 degree F in the past 100 years and is projected to rise another
3 to 10 degrees F in the next 100 years.
#3 There is scientific consensus that global warming
is real, is caused by human activities, and presents serious challenges.
#4 There's a difference between weather and climate.
#5 The ozone hole does not cause global warming.
#6 Global warming will have significant impacts
on people and nature.
#7 Sea level has already risen due to warming and
is projected to rise much more.
#8 Saving energy and developing alternative energy
sources would help.
#9 An international agreement known as the Kyoto
Protocol has been negotiated to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but
the US is not participating in it.
#10 Protecting the world's climate by stabilizing
atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases will require enormous
reductions in current emissions.
With such strong scientific consensus that global warming is real and is largely due to human activities, why is there so much controversy in the press and among the public? Why do some people keep insisting it is just an unproven theory? Some reasons involve communication breakdowns, but even more important is the deliberate campaign by special interests, including some in the fossil fuel industry, to undermine or cast doubt on the science.
Climate science can be confusing and is not easily explained in sound bites or brief newspaper articles. Many well-intentioned reporters are ill equipped to get the story right and their mistakes are often perpetuated as other reporters use previous articles as source material for new ones. Partly as a result of such problems, many people erroneously believe that global warming is caused by increased heat entering the atmosphere due to ozone depletion caused by CFCs.
In addition, most scientists discuss their research in terms that the public cannot easily understand. They also use some words that mean different things to a lay audience than they do to scientists. For example, when scientists speak of "aerosols," they are referring to tiny atmospheric particles, while to lay people, an "aerosol" is a spray can.
But the most significant reason for the controversy is that some special interests have mounted an active campaign to raise doubts and create confusion about this issue. For legitimate and other reasons, a very small number of scientists raise questions about whether warming has or will occur. When they do, special interests work hard to amplify and distribute the views of these "contrarians" in order to create confusion among the press, policymakers and public and give the impression that there is still a major scientific debate about the reality and causes of climate change. (Note: not all fossil fuel companies are implicated in this disinformation campaign. Some, in fact, have acknowledged the scientific realities and are taking steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions [see a list of such companies at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change]).
Given all this confusion and controversy, it is particularly important that teachers and students have access to reliable information about climate change. It is our hope that this teachers guide will be of some assistance toward that end.
You can get up to speed on climate change issues quickly and efficiently at this site from the US Environmental Protection Agency. "Frequently Asked Questions" (FAQ) is a good place to begin. Another good section, "In the News," offers brief summaries of the latest developments in climate science and policy and provides links for further details. "Publications" provides links to authoritative reports from the top sources. "Outreach" offers a variety of very useful fact sheets (basic to advanced) to get you and your students started, as well as brochures that deal with particular aspects of the subject, such as "Climate Change and Birds" and "Climate Change and Public Lands." One fact sheet, "Straight Talk on Global Warming," deals with some of the most common misunderstandings and misrepresentations about the issue.
The "Outreach" section also includes publications that deal with policies and technological strategies for reducing human-induced climate change. Links to online tools are provided for calculating emissions reductions from various strategies. These tools can easily form the basis of classroom activities such as calculating carbon dioxide emissions reductions from walking to school instead of being driven, thus helping students relate personally to this global scale issue. The glossary is quite extensive and fairly technical and is a great resource for teachers and more advanced high school students.
A much simpler and far less comprehensive glossary for younger students can be found at EPA's Global Warming Kids Page. Elementary and Middle School students will find this page an accessible place to begin. It includes simple explanations of the issues and characterizes scientists as "climate detectives" searching for clues in ice cores, tree rings and satellite data. It also provides links and games to appeal to younger students.
This is an excellent resource for information on climate change from the United Nations, World Meteorological Organization, and five other international agencies. The 63-page guide (downloads in pdf) is clearly written in plain English, and offers comprehensive information on the science of global climate change, potential impacts, adaptation and mitigation strategies, and policies. This policy emphasis - what the world is doing about climate change - sets this material apart. Data charts, including greenhouse gas emissions and their sources, are another useful feature. This thorough guide was updated in the summer of 2001 with information from the latest reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading authority on the subject. Note: International units are used in this guide, so take this opportunity to familiarize your students with converting degrees Celsius to Fahrenheit and metric measurements to English ones (e.g., meters to feet).
Additional Technical Resources
Teachers and older students who want more detailed technical information and a global perspective can go directly to the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was organized under the auspices of the United Nations and represents the combined wisdom of the world's leading climate scientists. "Summaries for Policymakers" are available on line for the three working groups of the IPCC: I. the scientific basis of climate change, II. impacts, adaptation and vulnerability, and III. mitigation, as well as several special reports.
To gain a better understanding of what global warming will mean for the United States, visit the site of the US National Assessment of the Potential Consequences of Climate Variability and Change. The 150-page "Overview" report, "Climate Change Impacts on the US," is full of information and is written in accessible language, while the much longer "Foundation" document is a more technical report with scientific references. Both deal with climate change and its projected impacts on each region of the US and on five key sectors: agriculture, water, human health, forests, and coastal areas and marine resources.
The Pew Center on Global Climate Change is an independent, non-partisan organization dedicated to providing credible information and innovative solutions to addressing climate change. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and other sources, the Center produces reports by leading experts on climate change science, economics, policies, and solutions. It has also enlisted dozens of major companies in an effort to use the power of the marketplace to address climate change. The website offers an excellent set of resources that are useful for teachers and more advanced students, from the full text of the Center's reports, to current articles and editorials, to lists of sites for more information.
The UCS has produced a set of teaching materials designed to accompany "Global Warming: Early Warning Signs"- a science-based world map depicting local and regional consequences of global climate change. The map can be found at www.climatehotmap.org/. While UCS and the other organizations that produced the map are advocacy groups that call for policy actions on climate change, the lesson plans in the UCS Curriculum Guide are scientifically accurate, pedagogically sound, and do not reflect a bias. Rather, they encourage students to collect and analyze data and draw their own conclusions.
The 30-page Curriculum Guide is geared towards grades 9-12, but individual exercises are adaptable to other grade levels. Each activity is structured to include an initial "Engagement" exercise, one or more steps of a student "Exploration" project, and ideas for extended study. The activities align with National Learning Standards for Science, Geography, Social Studies, Language Arts, Environmental Education, and Technology, and the specific standards addressed by each activity are identified.
The web resources suggested for teacher and student use are authoritative and first rate.
Four activities are presented:
The Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Program is part of the US Department of Energy's strategy to understand global climate change. The lesson plans available at this site were designed for middle school grade levels, but can be modified by the teacher for both the high school and elementary levels. The lesson plans include objectives, materials needed, important points to understand, preparation steps, and procedures. These are fairly traditional science experiments but are of good quality and scientific accuracy.
The 40 lesson plans cover a variety of basic climate issues such as the composition and structure of the atmosphere, why the Earth is hotter at the equator, and the reasons for the seasons. The lessons also delve into the details of climate change and its impacts; for example, there are several lessons that illustrate why sea level rises in a warming climate. Teachers can choose from among these 40 lessons and develop an excellent series on climate change. Background information is needed for most lessons and is provided at the site. It is thorough without being overwhelming, though teachers may have to help some students in understanding the more technical information. The site also gives two quizzes (one basic and one more advanced) to test students understanding. These are graded instantly on line, with each answer explained.
Another excellent resource on the ARM site is the list of frequently asked questions sent in by students, along with answers from an ARM scientist. A tremendous amount of information can be found in these answers and they respond to very common questions and misconceptions among students and the public in general. Some answers also identify additional websites as sources of further information. The section "Cool Sites" offers a good selection of additional resources on the web.
After learning about climate change, some students may want to know what they as individuals can do about it. This site from Environmental Defense offers 20 simple steps to reduce an individual's contribution to global warming and gives the approximate carbon dioxide reduction attained by taking each step. While Environmental Defense is an advocacy group that supports strong measures to mitigate climate change, the suggested actions are simply those that are widely recommended to reduce energy use and its environmental impacts.
Climate and weather have long been important science subjects. Increasing concern about human activities altering Earth's climate makes these ever more relevant areas of inquiry. Finding high quality background materials and lesson plans can be a challenge. Sorting through the plethora of information posted on the Internet, some of dubious quality, is notoriously difficult.
Internet searches for climate change education materials yield hundreds of websites, many of which are poor in quality. Some reflect a bias that global warming is either not occurring or is nothing to be concerned about. Others reflect an opposite bias: that every harmful weather event is caused by global warming and that the effects of climate change will be cataclysmic everywhere. Still others contain major or minor scientific errors.
It is therefore essential to determine the credibility of any information you come across. What is the source? For example, weather reporters of local television stations are not leading authorities on climate change. And some groups with green sounding names, like the Global Climate Coalition, are actually lobbying and advocacy arms of some in the fossil fuel industry. If you come across "The World Climate Report," for example, you'll see that it bills itself as "the nation's leading publication covering the breaking news concerning the science and political science of global climate change." But in fact, it presents a view that is radically contrary to the scientific consensus on this issue. It is published by the "Greening Earth Society," whose mission, funded by some in the fossil fuel industry, is to discredit the science of climate change and prevent action on this issue.
In addition, many errors of scientific fact are extremely widespread, and because they have been repeated so often, they can be easily mistaken for truth. Examples of widespread errors include confounding the issues of climate and ozone, and mistakenly citing polar ice cap melting as the leading cause of current sea level rise due to warming. The bottom line: use extreme caution when choosing materials from the web and always carefully consider the source.
Susan Joy Hassol, 2000-2002