How To Talk To Your Pupils About Climate Change

 Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, began skipping school in 2018 to pressure lawmakers to act against climate change. She is one of many young climate activists around the world who are working with their communities, building movements and calling on governments to take responsibility and respond to the climate crisis. These young activists have successfully gained attention and built movements of activists calling on governments to take responsibility and respond to the threat of climate change. On 15 March 2019, an estimated 1.4 million young people in at least 123 countries participated in climate change protests and school strikes. Then, just over five months later, this number more than doubled: on 20 September an incredible 4 million people took to the streets in over 163 countries in what is thought to be the largest climate protest in history. As the numbers show, this activist movement is gaining more and more momentum: young people are standing up to climate change and demanding that others do the same.

This Teaching Idea explores the reasons why young people are calling for action against climate change and strategies they can use to make a difference on this issue or other issues they care about; it roots some of its activities in methods outlined in Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, which encourages us to reflect on our connection to the natural world as a means of inspiring action.

  1. Encourage Young People to Reflect on What They Are Grateful For

    • First, tell students that they will be thinking about their relationship to others and to the planet by considering what they are grateful for. Encouraging young people to reflect on what they are thankful for is, according to Joanna Macy’s spiral that reconnects, a vital first step towards understanding our relationship with the natural environment. The thought being that expressing gratitude reminds us of our interconnectedness with fellow human beings and the planet itself.

    • Begin the lesson by asking students to journal on the following prompts:

      • One relationship that I am grateful for in my life is . . .
      • One place that feels important to me is . . .
      • My favourite season in the year is . . .
    • Give the students an opportunity to share their ideas, first with each other and then with the class in a Think, Pair, Share.

  2. Establish a Safe Space

    Now that students have gathered their thoughts, tell them you are going to do a group brainstorm. Tell students: Let’s put words on the board that represent the feelings that we think may be in the room when we discuss climate change. At this point, we will just list and not comment on them.

    Next introduce the subject of climate change. We believe that conversations about climate change should be conducted in a safe space. The following activities are designed to create that space.

    • Start with a journal prompt: Tell students that the following writing exercise is a private journal entry that they will not be asked to share with anyone, so they should feel free to write their most honest reflection. Have students take several minutes to complete this sentence:

      I mostly feel ____________ when discussing climate change, because _________.

    • Now look at the list. Ask students:

      • What do the words have in common? (The words are usually mostly, but maybe not all, negative.)

      • What else do you notice? (The words may not just be surface observations; they may be deeply personal feelings.)

      • Do you have any other important reflections? (The words represent a wide and varied range of responses.)

      • Which of these feelings are most valid? (They are all valid. You may want to acknowledge that this is a rhetorical question, but it is important to validate everyone’s feelings.)

      • Where do these feelings come from? (Media outlets, conversations, etc.)

    • It’s important for teachers and students to acknowledge that these feelings are in the room and that they need not be afraid of them. Each person should be allowed to enter this conversation wherever they stand without being judged or shut down. Everyone needs to feel free to participate without fear.

  3. Why Are Young People Organising against Climate Change?

    • Begin by sharing some general information with your students about climate change:

      Climate change, which is caused by heat getting trapped in the earth’s atmosphere by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, is accelerating rapidly. While greenhouse gases have always been part of the atmosphere, climate scientists have established that their concentration has increased dramatically due to emissions from human activity. Indeed, as journalist David Wallace-Wells highlights in his book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, “more than half of the carbon exhaled into the atmosphere by the burning of fossil fuels has been emitted in just the past three decades.”1

      Most climate proposals aim to prevent the earth from warming more than 2 degrees Celsius above the global average temperature before industrialisation. The average global temperature has already increased by around 1 degree Celsius, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

      The effect of this increase is already being felt in every region of the world through deadly heat waves, desertification, decreased agricultural productivity, more extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. If humans do nothing to reduce emissions, we will be well over 2 degrees before the end of the century. Wallace-Wells writes that even a 2-degree rise in temperatures will have catastrophic consequences for hundreds of millions because of water scarcity, unliveable cities, and extreme heat. (To read more of Wallace-Wells’ reporting on climate change, see his New York Magazine article The Uninhabitable Earth.)

    • Ask your students:

      • How does climate change connect with you personally?

      • How has climate change been appearing in the news?

      • What do you know about how people are responding to evidence that the climate is changing?

    • Then, play the video of Greta Thunberg’s TED Talk, The Disarming Case to Act Right Now on Climate Change, for your students. You can also distribute copies of the transcript, available on TED’s website. After watching the video, discuss with your students:

      • Why do you think so many climate activists today are young people?

      • What perspectives on climate change do you think young people can offer that are different from those of older generations?

      • What strategies does Greta use to gain attention about climate change? Do you agree with her use of these strategies? What choices and actions do you think we need to make to combat climate change?

      • How does Greta see her diagnosis of Asperger’s as an advantage in her work as an activist?

      • What, according to Greta, is the relationship between hope and action relating to climate change?

  4. Give Students the Opportunity to Creatively Engage with the Climate Crisis

    • Ask students to first imagine what sort of world they would like to live in the future. This could be done in a Rapid-fire Writing task, or in a journal reflection. If useful, provide your students with the following prompts:

      • If I was Prime Minister, to solve the climate crisis, I would . . .
      • In fifty years time, I would like to see a world that . . .
      • In the future, the natural world will be viewed as . . .
    • Give the students an opportunity to share their ideas, first with each other and then with the class in a Think, Pair, Share.
  5. How Can Young People Make a Difference on the Issue of Climate Change?

    Note: You can organise this activity as a full-class discussion. Alternatively, you can write each lever on a piece of chart paper and post the chart paper around the room. Divide your class into seven groups, and assign each group a different lever to start. After they have discussed their first lever, they can rotate to the next one, and so on, until each group of students has had a chance to discuss each lever.

    • This activity uses a framework employed by legal scholar Martha Minow to analyse the ways in which people can bring about social change. She observed that one of the biggest barriers that individuals face in getting involved is that it is hard to know what actual steps to take:

      Often times we see something that's unjust and we wonder, “Where do I go? What do I do?”2

    • To help individuals identify concrete actions to take when they “choose to participate,” Minow developed a “levers of power” framework to map out the organisations, institutions, and technologies that can enable us to strengthen the impact of our voices and our actions. The levers include:

      1. Government (National, State, Local)
      2. Nonprofit Organisations/Charities
      3. Industry/Commercial Organisations
      4. Professional Media
      5. Social Media/Internet
      6. Schools and Education
      7. Influential Individuals (Authors, Lecturers, etc.)
    • Briefly explain Martha Minow’s framework to your students. Share with your students that many people feel paralysed when they think about climate change because it is such a big issue, and it can feel like our individual actions will not make enough of a difference. Ask your students:

      • Do you ever think about taking action on climate change or another issue that impacts your community?
      • What obstacles do you think can make it difficult for you or other young people to act on issues that you care about?
    • Explain to your students that understanding “levers of power” can help them think of ways to act for change. Introduce each lever of power to your students and then discuss the following questions:

      • What can each group or lever do to combat climate change?
      • What strategies can young people use to influence each lever?

Extension: Climate Change and Inequality

Climate change is affecting everyone, but it has an even greater impact on groups of people already suffering from structural inequalities. You can discuss the following articles with your students to introduce them to the ways in which climate change and inequality interact, both with communities and on an international scale:

  1. Climate Justice (University of Colorado Boulder’s Environmental Center)
  2. Why the Climate Crisis Could Signal the End of Equality Including LGBTQ Rights (Extinction Rebellion & Penguin)
  3. See What Climate Change Means for the World’s Poor (National Geographic)
  4. 'Racism Dictates Who Gets Dumped on': How Environmental Injustice Divides the World (The Guardian)

Additional Resource

Our unit 10 Questions for Young Changemakers helps students explore strategies that they can use to change the world.

Citations

  • 1 : David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Allen Lane, 2019).
  • 2 : Martha Minow, “Levers of Power” (Lecture), Day of Learning from Facing History and Ourselves and Project Zero, Cambridge, MA, March 13, 2015.

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