The purpose of this guide is to help teachers find ways to integrate climate and sustainability concepts in their classrooms—in ways that will enrich and enhance the classes and help meet learning goals.

Sustainability concepts are inherently complex and well-served by interdisciplinary approaches, so we also include ideas on how that could work. Equally important, it’s essential that these topics be covered in core subjects in which all students participate, not just environmental science or other elective courses.

It’s important for schools to be leaders in raising community awareness of global warming and climate change. As the Bethlehem Area School District (PA) put it:

We believe educational institutions have a special responsibility to demonstrate leadership in their communities as responsible stewards of shared environmental resources. We further believe the potential for adverse health, social, economic and ecological effects resulting from climate change are real….

School districts that proactively address environmental concerns better serve their students and their communities. These school districts provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to address the critical, systemic challenges faced both locally and globally.

Bethlehem Area School District Climate and Sustainability Commitment, adopted April 2014

We are not trying to provide a curriculum or even individual units or lesson plans—our goal is simply to provide a variety of entry points that can help teachers integrate climate and sustainability issues in your classroom. Adapt the information you find here to fit your classes and your students. It’s not an addition to what you have to cover—it’s a way to help meet learning goals and to enrich and enhance your classes, a framework that can help you reach goals for student learning and skill development.

This is not just for science teachers! In fact, a pure science perspective may fail to develop the social, ethical, and political contexts that are critical to understanding this issue. This guide provides context and information for teachers in any subject area to feel comfortable with these topics—background information and sources on global warming’s causes, impacts, and social-justice implications. We also include sample ideas for engaging students in every subject area.

It’s also worth mentioning that people tend to use the terms global warming and climate change interchangeably. To clarify, global warming is the direct result of more heat being trapped by higher levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, causing slow increases in temperature. The warmer land and oceans cause climate change that we experience directly. So global warming and climate change aren’t exactly the same, but they both refer to the same phenomena.

Measuring GHG Emissions

Why measure your school’s emissions?

Many students are familiar with individual ‘carbon footprints.’ While these can be useful, a GHG inventory measures the footprint of the institution and makes it easier to see that global warming and climate change are systemic problems that need action by institutions, organizations, and government, not just individual choices. A GHG inventory also helps make the concepts more visible and understandable. (Of course, school districts should inventory their GHG emissions and publish the results as a way to increase community awareness, but many don’t do this.)

Most importantly, it is a good starting point for students to explore what can be done to reduce emissions, to begin a deeper engagement with the ideas of sustainability, and to develop critical-thinking skills that will enable them to play a role in solving the emerging problems. It can also help students develop their skills in their research, data collection and analysis, teamwork, reporting, and presentation across subjects.

Because the inventory is based on internationally-recognized protocols, it is a well-defined and practical project that has many opportunities for students to explore and engage; it is even quite possible to guide students to complete the inventory themselves. We provide the School GHG Calculator to simplify the process.

Since this isn’t just for science teachers, we have included a brief overview of the greenhouse effect, Earth’s carbon cycle, sources of emissions, principles of GHG measurement and accounting, and ideas for using the results to create change. (Since this guide will be used in a variety of settings, we highlighted some potential vocabulary words and provided reasonably concise definitions; whether these are appropriate for your class depends on the academic level of students and the subject matter you are covering. There’s also a quick refresher on the metric system.)

A GHG inventory is only one step towards raising awareness and promoting a sustainable future. It uses real data about one’s own school, so it provides a neutral, factual way to initiate discussion of sustainability in all subject areas. At the same time, the multiple and interdependent elements of sustainability provide a powerful framework for learning about and understanding social, political, and economic systems, as well as quality-of-life issues and new ways to solve problems.

Many students understand that global warming and climate change, and the need to live more sustainably, are real problems that affect or threaten their futures. This can help some students engage more easily and fosters skill development. The focus on using what they learn to create change in their own school and community can also increase their interest, so a GHG inventory is not only an initiating activity to get discussion started—it’s also a good basis for culminating activities that raise awareness in the school and in the community.

Warning: even as we enter 2021, you may encounter climate skeptics—students, parents, or colleagues who doubt that global warming is real or caused by human activity. The resources listed throughout this guide can help you deal with any such situations.

Interdisciplinary Approaches and Sustainability

Because global warming and climate change affect all sectors of thought and life, they, like other sustainability concepts, are inherently complex and are well-served by interdisciplinary and inquiry-based approaches that bring out the complexity of whole systems and the interdependence of the various parts. Some teachers report that integrating climate and sustainability into their subject area helps them meet curriculum goals and that many students nd these discussions relevant to their futures.

An individual field or subject may address some aspects of a question, but an interdisciplinary approach — a systems-thinking approach — provides additional entry points, encourages critical thinking, and integrates multiple perspectives, thus helping develop a more complete understanding. Ideally, individual subject-area teachers will coordinate their work—but one teacher can also bring out the various perspectives. This is doubly important when exploring sustainability, global warming, and climate change, because these topics involve multiple disciplines and fields of knowledge—and the various perspectives are important to help students develop meaningful understandings of these complex topics.

The Ideas for Teachers – Individual Subjects section gives examples of ways that climate change and sustainability can enhance nearly every subject area. (You will probably see some things that seem obvious to you, because this is written for teachers with a wide range of experience who are teaching at different grade levels.)

Teachers of younger students have emphasized that it’s important to build students’ awareness of nature and the environment, develop their ability to express their observations, and help them ask critical questions about what they see. (The guides for individual subjects were developed with secondary schools in mind, but teachers of younger students are also encouraged to look through the individual subject areas, because many of those ideas could be used to generate activities for younger students.)

A school greenhouse gas inventory provides excellent opportunities for interdisciplinary approaches—and reaching out to other teachers helps spread the word (and the work!), while bringing new perspectives and ideas to the topic.

Topic Suggestions by Subject

  • Art, Communication, English, Journalism, and Writing teachers can help students explore the scientific and human aspects of global warming and climate change— and can help them get the word out to the larger school communities in ways that are effective. Here’s a chance to explore and develop techniques in ways that help promote sustainability.

  • Economics & Business teachers can help develop understanding of how our economic system is increasingly affected by global warming and climate change—and also encourage some activities that increase the problems. These topics are likely to promote some real engagement with important economic ideas.

  • Family & Consumer Sciences (aka Home Economics) teachers can help students explore ideas to save energy, reduce global warming and climate change, and eat in ways that promote sustainability and health—and are directly relevant to their futures!

  • Government teachers can help sort what’s happening with government action and inaction here in the U.S. and throughout the world. This can help teachers develop their students’ understanding of how governments work.

  • Health teachers can help build understanding of the health impacts of global warming and climate change (and other environmental health issues, especially local concerns), an area that can be very interesting to students of all ages.

  • History teachers can help promote understanding of how our knowledge about global warming has developed over time and its relation to other events. Using the lens of history helps students see how current events are shaped—and how we are writing ‘future history’ every day.

  • Math teachers can help students develop an understanding of the complex mathematical relationships involved in carbon emissions, the global warming potential of different substances, and how the GHG emissions inventory spreadsheet works and why it is set up the way it is. In the process, they not only use many mathematical concepts and skills, they develop students’ understanding of the critical role of mathematics in the real world.

  • Science teachers (including Astronomy, Biology, Chemistry, Environmental Science, and Physics) teachers can really help students technically understand how global warming works; how greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are produced; how global warming produces climate change; connections to energy, agriculture, and deforestation; and the nature of feedback loops and ‘tipping points.’ Having students look at a real-world problem such as global warming can deepen their understanding of the importance of science and as a guide to sound policy development.

  • Social Studies (including Government and History) teachers can help students grasp the complex ways that human society affects and is affected by global warming and climate change, including big-picture questions about climate justice, our use of energy, our industrialized food system, government regulation, and consumerism.

Sources and links to additional resources.