Initial Publication Date: October 10, 2010
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Teaching about the role of human actions is supported by seven concepts:

a. Climate information can be used to reduce vulnerabilities or enhance the resilience of communities and ecosystems affected by climate change. Continuing to improve scientific understanding of the climate system and the quality of reports to policy and decision-makers is crucial.

Humans cause climate change, and humans can address climate change too.

Climate change can be a tough topic to teach. But talking about the solutions can bring a hopeful message to the classroom and empower students. It's essential that students understand the types of actions we can take, and the scale at which these changes are necessary. Humans need to reduce emissions of heat-trapping gases, while also preparing for impacts, planning for resilient communities, and protecting the ecosystems that sustain us. Addressing climate change will be a monumental a challenge, and no doubt some of today's students will be instrumental in designing and implementing future solutions.

It is vital that students understand solutions

Actions to address climate change are already happening all around us. The multifaceted nature of solutions and adaptations offer many avenues for exploring these topics in the classroom.

  • Although human-caused climate change is a global problem, its root cause lies in the sum of our individual actions.
  • Types of actions to reduce climate change can take many forms, such as emissions avoidance, land use changes, or sequestration of greenhouse gases.
  • The scale of actions can range from an individual to a community, to a nation, or a grouping of nations.
  • Climate and energy policies are currently being crafted by various nations and communities.
  • All citizens, including students, can provide input into new policies; the resulting policies are likely to have an effect on all of us.
  • Actions are not always driven by policy. Some corporations are taking actions to address climate change even without being required to do so.
  • Actions can be spurred by policy, economic incentives, a sense of environmental or social responsibility, or a combination of each of these.

Helping students understand these ideas

The climate and energy challenges that society must address in the coming years and decades can be overwhelming for many learners. The scientific findings of global change research can be alarming and discouraging even for seasoned scientists. Many students, even before they fully master the science, will want to know what they can do to make a difference. Teachers are finding that weaving together science with solutions is an important strategy to avoid depressing their students.

The enormous challenge of addressing climate change cannot be overestimated. "Easy solutions" to reduce our personal impact on Earth's climate, such as switching to efficient light bulbs, offer an excellent starting point when addressing energy use, however, real change will only happen with significant shifts in how we generate and use energy (example activity: Stabilization Wedges Game). Solutions always need to be evaluated in terms of their ability to scale up and be implemented in a meaningful and practical way. Educators can leverage the knowledge, values, and experiences of their students to keep them inspired and challenged.

Solutions are frequently interdisciplinary and span science, engineering, economics, and policy. Examining the realities of integrating solutions into our society are potent ways to teach these topics. That said, educators should exercise care with policy discussions and avoid political debates that can distract from the main goal of mastering the content.

Ultimately, if students are facile in their understanding of solutions, they will be able to evaluate choices on the basis of multiple factors, and can weigh advantages and tradeoffs. This type of critical thinking is essential for making informed decisions and solving complex problems - skills that all students will need as engaged citizens.

Bringing these ideas into your classroom

Our responses to climate change touch on many disciplines: earth science, biology, human health, engineering, technology, economics, and policy. Thus there are many places in the curriculum into which these topics can be woven. Students can engage in projects that focus on their own communities or on international case studies. Topics can involve lifestyle changes, innovative solutions, emerging technology, or policy negotiations. Subject areas can include energy, transportation, food, agriculture, commerce, or land use.

A pedagogic technique that is particularly effective is to have students take a quantitative approach to discover the scale of the problem and thus the scale of potential solutions. For example, how many light bulbs would need to be changed in order to offset rising carbon emissions? Is it possible to plant enough trees to soak up excess CO2? (See activity Atmospheric Carbon: Can We Offset the Increase? ) Often the best way for students to reach an understanding is to engage them in a problem-solving activity that allows them to discover answers for themselves.

Teaching materials from the CLEAN collection

More than many other aspects of climate literacy, many of these activities span several grade levels

Middle school

  • Carbon calculator activity can be used with some basic calculations to measure the effect if every student in the country took similar actions.
  • Plant for the Planet offers an upbeat example of a young student who rallies his community and other children to plant millions of trees to offset emissions.
  • The EPA's guide to Technologies that Reduce Greenhouse Gases offers a student-friendly summary of many different forms of renewable energy.
  • In the Renewable Energy Living Lab: Energy Priorities, students explore real data about renewable energy potential in their state using a mapping tool developed by National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
  • The Green Revolution is a series of 10 short videos featuring scientists, research, and green technologies.
  • In Are You An Energy Efficient Consumer? students engage in an activity that heightens the awareness of consumer choices and energy efficiency. They also track their own energy usage and identify ways to reduce it.

High school

  • There are several lesson plans that incorporate a renewable energy mapping tool from the National Renewable Energy Labs, called Renewable Energy Living Lab. These lessons evaluate feasibility, cost, and environmental impacts of installing renewable energy, and they are a way to bring engineering and design into the subject.
  • The Stabilization Wedges Game and the related Carbon Wedges interactive are helpful for illustrating the scale of changes needed to accomplish significant emissions reduction.
  • This Carbon Footprint and Carbon Calculator activities use two different versions of EPA's carbon calculator.
  • The Energy Lab is a simulator that allows students to meet projected energy demand while also minimizing atmospheric CO2.
  • Solutions to climate change are sometimes mis-characterized as something that is only relevant to "green" industries and people. Richard Alley's video illustrates the military's approach to the subject with The Pentagon and Climate Change and Khaki Goes Green.
  • Four Generations of Green offers a vignette of a family dairy that infuses sustainable practices throughout their operation.


Find activities and visuals for teaching this topic

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Project Drawdown - Solutions This is the most comprehensive, quantitative list of actions to reduce human-caused climate change. It's easy to read, updated periodically, and indispensable!

Reducing Risks Through Adaptation Actions from the 2018 National Climate Assessment. Adaptation refers to actions taken at the individual, local, regional, and national levels to reduce risks from even today's changed climate conditions and to prepare for impacts from additional changes projected for the future.

Reducing Risks Through Mitigation Actions from the 2018 National Climate Assessment. This chapter assesses recent advances in climate science and impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability research that have improved understanding of how potential mitigation pathways can avoid or reduce the long-term risks of climate change within the United States.

Additional Resources

Video about this Principle

Inclusive Climate Teaching Guidance