Teaching the impacts of climate change is supported by six key concepts:
a. Melting of ice sheets and glaciers, combined with the thermal expansion of seawater as the oceans warm, is causing sea level to rise. Seawater is beginning to move onto low-lying land, contaminating coastal fresh water sources, and gradually submerging coastal facilities and barrier islands. Sea-level rise increases the risk of damage to homes and buildings from storm surges such as those that accompany hurricanes.
b. Climate plays an important role in the global distribution of freshwater resources. Changing precipitation patterns and temperature conditions will alter the distribution and availability of freshwater resources, reducing reliable access to water for many people and their crops. Winter snowpack and mountain glaciers that provide water for human use are declining as a result of global warming.
c. Incidents of extreme weather are projected to increase as a result of climate change. Many locations will see a substantial increase in the number of heat waves they experience per year and a likely decrease in episodes of severe cold. Precipitation events are expected to become less frequent but more intense in many areas, and droughts will be more frequent and severe in areas where average precipitation is projected to decrease.
d. The chemistry of ocean water is changed by absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are causing ocean water to become more acidic, threatening the survival of shell-building marine species and the entire food web of which they are a part.
e. Ecosystems on land and in the ocean have been and will continue to be disturbed by climate change. Animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses will migrate to new areas with favorable climate conditions. Infectious diseases and certain species will be able to invade areas that they did not previously inhabit.
f. Human health and mortality rates will be affected to different degrees in specific regions of the world as a result of climate change. Although cold-related deaths are predicted to decrease, other risks are predicted to rise. The incidence and geographical range of climate-sensitive infectious diseases— such as malaria, dengue fever, and tick-borne diseases—will increase. Drought-reduced crop yields, degraded air and water quality, and increased hazards in coastal and low-lying areas will contribute to unhealthy conditions, particularly for the most vulnerable populations.
These ideas relate to the current and predicted consequences of climate change.Most people are aware of the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, which is what climate scientists predicted for a warming world. The impacts of climate change on humans and environmental systems have become a focus for resource managers, medical professionals, emergency managers, insurance companies, and military planners. A great challenge of the 21st century will be to prepare communities to adapt to climate change while reducing human impacts on the climate system (known as mitigation). Additional factors such as poverty, a lack of resources, the absence of political will, and the necessity for nations to work together add further complexity to this challenge. Many jobs and industries will be affected by the changes that are happening or are anticipated for the future.
Climate change has profound impacts at home and afar, today and in the future
- The impacts of human-caused climate change are already being seen, from polar regions, to our backyards, to communities around the world.
- Consequences of climate change will affect the biosphere on many levels, from coral bleaching, to dying forests, to species extinction.
- Human infrastructure is threatened by a changing climate, such as encroachment of coastlines, stress to the energy grid, and shifting structures as a result of melting permafrost.
- A warming climate threatens mountain snowpacks, fresh water supplies, and hydropower that serve millions of people.
- Changes in climate and precipitation patterns are impacting agriculture and food security.
- Populations that are already vulnerable in terms of sea level rise and food security are poised for the greatest hardships. Political unrest, migration of refugees, and global economic impacts are all visible outcomes. Some of these effects are already evident.
Helping students understand these ideas
Keep in mind that alarming students and the public about the impact of climate hazards, such as droughts and extreme events, can be counter-productive and cause people to ignore the warnings, feel hopeless, or succumb to denial. However, glossing over the severity of the impacts and the enormous social and environmental ramifications of climate change can lead to a society that is ill-prepared to deal with change. Finding a balanced approach and avoiding a "despair deficit" is clearly a good practice, both inside and outside of the classroom.
Another challenge for fostering public awareness for the consequences of climate change is that many of the effects are far away and may not directly touch the lives of our students in an obvious way. Two solutions to this are to use local data and examples to examine climate changes that affect your region, or to employ a case study approach that will allow students to gain a deeper sense of how these impacts will profoundly affect people and ecosystems in faraway areas.
Bringing these ideas into your classroom
Here are a few pedagogic strategies for teaching about climate impacts.
- Because climate change affects so many parts of our lives, the theme can be woven into a range of topics throughout a course or a unit. Subjects such as history, economics, or health can all touch on climate change. Climate impacts needn't only be addressed within the specific context of an earth science class.
- Student teams can investigate climate impacts on different parts of the earth system. Teams could learn how climate is affecting the cryosphere, coral reefs, birds, forests, native peoples, agriculture, transportation, diseases, national security, and many other avenues.
- A geographic approach could be used to examine impacts in different parts of the world.
- Students could write or read narrative stories about how climate affects people.
- Students could use imaginary time travel to visit the climate of the future, which would vary depending on actions we take today.
- Students could use local climate data such as temperature, snowfall, and streamflow. Similarly, students could learn about economic impacts such as maple syrup production, crop yields, and winter recreation.
- Role-playing activities could be used to explore how the climate affects people in different walks of life such as farmers, construction workers, insurance agents, or pilots.
When teaching about climate impacts, it's also a good idea to touch on solutions to climate change. Ideally, students can feel informed and empowered, rather than discouraged about the world's problems. Some possibilities include:
- Draw on case studies showing successful emissions reduction strategies.
- Explore adaptation strategies for humans, plants, and animals.
- Create an atmosphere of creativity and problem-solving as we all strive to meet this grand challenge.
- These ideas are discussed more fully on the next page, Humans can take action to reduce climate change and its impacts.
Teaching materials from the CLEAN collection
These concepts are well-represented in the CLEAN resources. One way to narrow the search is to look for a specific type of impact like melting ice and permafrost, sea-level rise, extreme weather, or impacts to plants and animals. Alternatively, you can search by regions, like the US Southwest or US coastal areas.
Despite the best efforts of the CLEAN team to keep our teaching materials up-to-date, impacts to the climate system are changing rapidly. Be sure to seek up-to-date graphics and data to supplement some of these activities.
- Loss of Arctic sea ice has been making a lot of headlines. The Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes lesson plan allows students to analyze and explore this topic with graphing and hands-on activities.
- What if the Ice Shelves Melted? - This hands-on lesson from ANDRILL involves making a model of Antarctica and then using their model to explore the impact of potential ice shelf melting and break-up.
- Investigating Coral Bleaching Using Real Data - This sequence of 5 activities uses real-world data to understand how scientists monitor coral bleaching events.
- Ten Signs of a Warming World is an interactive website that provides descriptive information and data related to ten compelling climate indicators.
- Extreme Ice - This is a classroom activity designed to accompany the Extreme Ice movie that captures stunning images of glacial retreat. Links to the activity and the video are included.
- The activity Inland Fish and Warming Waters offers a way to look at impacts to local species and habitats.
- Advanced high school students can do in-depth analysis of coral reef health: Using Data to Identify Hot Spots and Predict Bleaching Events. An easier analysis of coral bleaching is presented in Coral Bleaching: A White Hot Problem.
- Liz Hadly Tracks Impact of Climate Change in Yellowstone is a video that illustrates impacts to Yellowstone National Park's ecosystems. Examples include pine bark beetles and drought.
- To lighten the mood, take a break with Weather Girl Goes Rogue. This humorous video suggests what might happen if a weather forecaster reported the weather in the context of climate change.
Related Pedagogic Methods:
- Tools like Google Earth allow students to examine faraway effects of a changing climate in Google Earth Tours of Glacial Change.
- Predicting the Effects of Climate Change on Soil Loss examines soil erosion, climate change, and agriculture.
- Glacier (?) National Park - Students take a mathematical approach to analyze the loss of glaciers in this iconic national park.
- Estimating How Much Sea Level Changes When Continental Ice Sheets Form is a quantitative exercise to calculating sea level rise and fall. This video about Meltwater Pulse 2B would be a good accompaniment.
- Predicting Glacial Futures is a a case study that explores ice loss from the Greenland ice sheet by way of outlet glaciers that flow into the ocean. Students do basic calculations and learn about data trends, rates of change, uncertainty, and predictions.
Find activities and visuals for teaching this topic
2014 National Climate Assessment Report summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future. The report can be explored by region and uses clear, simple messages to streamline the findings.
Climate Impacts on Human Health from the US EPAHow Much is Sea Level Rising? - This page from the Skeptical Science website provides clear answers to common questions and misunderstandings about climate change.
Arctic Climate Impact Assessment from the Union of Concerned Scientists, this article describes observed climatic changes as well as predicted impacts. Topics include sea ice, ecosystems, albedo and sea level rise.
Science Reinforces Human Role as Climate Change Impacts Accelerate - This report from the World Resources Institute presents a summary of scientific findings about the impacts of climate change.