Earth Day Young Climate Activists.
Mini-Lesson
Current Event

Reflecting on Climate Change and Ecological Grief

Use this Mini-Lesson to help students reflect on their emotional reactions to climate change, their connection to the natural world, and the power of collective action.

Published:

At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

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Activities

Activities

Climate change is one of the defining issues of our time, and it can be emotionally challenging to discuss. 

The climate crisis is causing shifts in the availability of resources and precipitating migration, which in turn impact human rights, national politics, and may increase conflict within and between countries. On a more local level, the climate crisis raises issues of justice. While every person is touched in some way by extreme weather events, flooding, or ecological loss, more vulnerable populations—who have contributed less to climate change—often bear the greatest burden. Examining the impacts of climate change with students is important, but it is also important to first help them process any feelings of helplessness, dread, or grief associated with this topic.

An increasing number of people—especially young people—are struggling with climate-related anxiety or “ecological grief,” a term used to describe feelings of loss and sadness caused by changes in the environment, the disruption of cultural practices and knowledge related to the natural world, and the anticipation of further losses as climate change progresses. 1

In a recent study, researchers interviewed 10,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 25 living in 10 different countries around the world. More than half of the respondents reported feeling “afraid, sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and/or guilty,” and 68% of respondents from the United States agreed that the “future is frightening” because of climate change. 2

This Teaching Idea is designed to help students reflect on their emotional reactions to climate change, consider their connection to the natural world, and learn about how collective action against climate change can make a difference. You can use this Teaching Idea to prepare students for further discussions on issues related to the impact of climate change on individuals or societies.

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this Teaching Idea.

  • 1Hannah Comtesse, Verena Ertl, Sophie M. C. Hengst et. al, “Ecological Grief as a Response to Environmental Change: A Mental Health Risk or Functional Response?,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, January 2021; 18(2): 734.
  • 2Elizabeth Marks et. al, “Young People's Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon,” September 7, 2021.

Depending on your students’ background knowledge, you may want to begin by sharing some general information about climate change, such as this short passage:

Climate change—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. Journalist David Wallace-Wells writes 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 either 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius above the average global temperature before industrialization. The average global temperature has already increased by around 1 degree Celsius, according to the IPCC. 2

The effect of this increase is already being felt in every region of the world through deadly heatwaves, 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 including increased water scarcity, coastal flooding, and extreme heat. 3

Ask students to reflect on the following prompt in their journals:

Once students have finished journaling, ask them to share one word or phrase from their reflection with the class, either in a Word Cloud or by using the Wraparound strategy, where each student takes a turn sharing one word or phrase without an explanation.

  • How do you feel when you think about climate change?
  • What patterns did you notice in the responses?
  • Are there any words or phrases that stood out to you? Why?

Then, ask students:

  • What patterns did you notice in the responses?
  • Are there any words or phrases that stood out to you? Why?
  • 1David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019), 4.[/footnote] [footnote=4]: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Global Warming of 1.5°C” (Switzerland: IPCC, 2018).
  • 2Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Global Warming of 1.5°C” (Switzerland: IPCC, 2018).
  • 3David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019).

Ask your students to think of a place in nature. It can be somewhere they have been or a place that they imagine. Then, ask them to close their eyes and reflect on the following questions:

  • What do you see in this place? What kind of plants or animals are there?
  • What do you smell? 
  • What sounds do you hear?
  • How does your body feel when you imagine being in this place? What emotions do you feel?

Give students a few minutes to reflect on these questions. They can write, draw, or simply reflect as they consider these questions.

Then, ask students to read Returning the Gift by Robin Wall Kimmerer, either individually or as a full class. When they’ve finished reading, ask students:

  • Do you think people will change the way they act if they feel more gratitude towards nature? Why or why not?
  • What could it look like to express gratitude toward the place you imagined at the beginning of this activity?

This activity uses a framework that legal scholar Martha Minow uses to analyze the ways in which people can make 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?” 1

To help individuals identify concrete actions to take when they “choose to participate,” Minow developed a “levers of power” framework to map out the organizations, 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 Organizations/Charities
  3. Industry/Commercial Organizations
  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 them that many people feel paralyzed 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?

For the rest of this activity, students will focus on three of the levers of power (government; nonprofit organizations; and schools and education) and think about how people can use these levers to make a difference on climate change. 

Divide your students into small groups, and assign each group one of the levers. Pass out copies of the reading Climate Change and Levers of Power to each group. Ask your students to read the excerpt associated with their assigned lever and discuss the questions following the excerpt. (Note: Instead of reading the suggested article, you can ask students to conduct their own research on their assigned lever.)

When students have finished reading about and discussing their lever of power, ask them to share what they learned with the class.

  • 1Martha Minow, "Martha Minow: Levers of Power" (video), Facing History and Ourselves.
  1. Ask students to choose one of the following prompts to reflect on in their journals or an exit card:

    • What is one question you have about what you learned today?
    • What is an action that you could take to make a difference on climate change or on another issue you care about?
    • Is your emotional reaction to climate change the same as it was when you wrote your first journal reflection? Why do you think it has either stayed the same or changed?

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Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

These are the resources from external sources that we recommend using with students throughout the activities in this mini-lesson.
The Uninhabitable Earth
New York Magazine

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Facing History and Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

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— Gabriela Calderon-Espinal, Bay Shore, NY