How Not to Teach Climate Change


Focusing on political and scientific progress seems like a good move. It communicates environmental problems while identifying potential means for addressing them. The only problem? It’s unlikely to work. (NPR)

Use our Environmental Literacy Guide for advice on about teaching climate change.

How do you NOT teach climate change? Don't scare, bore, or placate students. Photograph by Alexandra Avakian, National Geographic
How do you NOT teach climate change? Don’t scare, bore, or placate students.
Photograph by Alexandra Avakian, National Geographic

Discussion Ideas

  • According to the research profiled in the NPR article, what are the two familiar ways to teach about “depressing” subjects such as climate change or cancer research?
    • The first method outlines political failures and questions the efficacy of scientific progress, stressing personal responsibility and calls to action.
    • The second method affirms the possibilities of scientific progress and education to address social and environmental ills.


  • What are the pros and cons about the two methods of teaching?
    • Method 1: Pros
      • According to new research, the “depressing” method may encourage students to take more personal responsibility in addressing issues such as climate change. Students may “respond by seeking alternative sources of order and predictability. One such source is an individual’s ‘personal control’ over the environment, which can take the form of environmentally responsible actions, like recycling.”
    • Method 1: Cons
      • The first method often earns a “despondent” reaction from students. “I discovered my undergraduates had informally renamed my Intro to Environmental Studies class,” recalled one educator. “They called it ‘Environmental Depression’.”
    • Method 2: Pros
      • Focusing on environmental progress “communicates environmental problems while identifying potential means for addressing them.” Students don’t leave class “clinging to the last memories [they] will have of the planet as the world chooses material comfort over breathing fresh air’.”
    • Method 2: Cons
      • According to the new research, “affirming scientific progress could create the sense that the world is already orderly and predictable.” This sense of security “could thus reduce the need for personal control, thereby decreasing environmentally friendly behavior.”


  • How can you encourage your students to take personal responsibility?
    • The educator in the article sought to balance the importance of taking personal responsibility without dismissing the value of scientific and political progress. “I tell students that they can reduce their own environmental footprint through conservation, recycling, and changing consumption patterns,” and “I give examples of how individuals change laws, campaign for low carbon public transport and organize to elect officials who protect the environment.”


  • Here are some of our favorite responsibility-oriented climate-change materials:
    • Citizen Science projects: Find out more about our world, and help to understand it.
    • Earth Day: Read this encyclopedic entry to understand the international celebration of environmental health—and what we can do to join the celebration.
    • Surviving Climate Change: Watch this Picture of Practice video to see 8th-grade students address climate change and its impact on their own future.
    • Climate Action: Watch this Picture of Practice to see 6th-graders answer the question: “What can we do, personally, to stop this?”
    • Young Voices for the Planet: Watch these videos to see how everyday students are leading the fight for environmental responsibility.
    • In Your Watershed: Use this activity to better understand watershed health and what we can do to ensure watersheds are clean community resources.
    • World Day to Combat Desertification: Understand one of the biggest impacts of climate change, and what the international community is doing to mitigate it.

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