Teaching the Guiding Principle for informed climate decisions:

Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts.

Teaching this Guiding Principle is supported by seven concepts

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  1. Climate information can be used to reduce vulnerabilities or enhance the resilience of communities and ecosystems affected by climate change. Continuing to improve scientific understanding of the climate system and the quality of reports to policy and decision-makers is crucial.
  2. Reducing human vulnerability to the impacts of climate change depends not only upon our ability to understand climate science, but also upon our ability to integrate that knowledge into human society. Decisions that involve Earth's climate must be made with an understanding of the complex inter­connections among the physical and biological components of the Earth system as well as the consequences of such decisions on social, economic, and cultural systems.
  3. The impacts of climate change may affect the security of nations. Reduced availability of water, food, and land can lead to competition and conflict among humans, potentially resulting in large groups of climate refugees.
  4. Humans may be able to mitigate climate change or lessen its severity by reducing greenhouse gas concentrations through processes that move carbon out of the atmosphere or reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  5. A combination of strategies is needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The most immediate strategy is conservation of oil, gas, and coal, which we rely on as fuels for most of our transportation, heating, cooling, agriculture, and electricity. Short-term strategies involve switching from carbon-intensive to renewable energy sources, which also requires building new infrastructure for alternative energy sources. Long-term strategies involve innovative research and a fundamental change in the way humans use energy.
  6. Humans can adapt to climate change by reducing their vulnerability to its impacts. Actions such as moving to higher ground to avoid rising sea levels, planting new crops that will thrive under new climate conditions, or using new building technologies represent adaptation strategies. Adaptation often requires financial investment in new or enhanced research, technology, and infrastructure.
  7. Actions taken by individuals, communities, states, and countries all influence climate. Practices and policies followed in homes, schools, businesses, and governments can affect climate. Climate-related decisions made by one generation can provide opportunities as well as limit the range of possibilities open to the next generation. Steps toward reducing the impact of climate change may influence the present generation by providing other benefits such as improved public health infrastructure and sustainably built environments.

What does this principle mean?

The Guiding Principle helps to provide the context for how we can minimize impacts, build resilient communities, and protect the ecosystems that sustain us. All of the Essential Principles of Climate Literacy are framed by this Guiding Principle, which addresses the vitally important social, economic, and environmental challenges and solutions that are required in order to meet the climate challenges we and future generations face.

Why is it important?

Key concepts for teaching this Guiding Principle include the following relevant issues:

  • Although human-caused climate change is a global problem, its root cause lies in the sum of our actions.
  • Types of actions to reduce climate change can take many forms, such as emissions avoidance, land use changes, or sequestration of greenhouse gases.
  • The scale of actions can range from an individual to a community, to a nation or a grouping of nations.
  • Climate and energy policies are currently being crafted by various nations and communities.
  • The formation of new policies can involve input from citizens; the resulting policies are likely to have an effect on all of us.
  • Actions can be spurred by policy, economic incentives, a sense of environmental or social responsibility, or a combination of each of these.

What makes this principle challenging to teach?

The climate and energy challenges that society must address in the coming years and decades can be overwhelming for many learners. The scientific findings of global change research can be alarming and discouraging even for seasoned scientists. Many students, even before they fully master the science, will want to know what they can do to make a difference. Teachers are finding that weaving together science with solutions is an important strategy to avoid depressing their students.

The enormous challenge of addressing climate change cannot be overestimated. "Easy solutions" to reduce our personal impact on Earth's climate, such as changing out light bulbs, offer a good starting point when addressing mitigation strategies, however, real change will only happen with significant changes in how we use energy (example activity: Stabilization Wedges Game). The enormous challenges of responding to and preparing for global changes and local impacts of climate change cannot be meaningfully addressed by a single action. Thus, empowering students requires going beyond "ten things you can do to save the planet." Educators need to know their students in order to effectively inspire and empower them while not discouraging them.

It is also important to recognize that not all solutions, particularly policy and political ones, are appropriate to focus on in science classrooms, where learning science processes and concepts is paramount, and political debates can distract from the main goal of mastering the content. Understanding the basics of climate science is crucial in being able to make informed decisions in our current lives and into the future, and being "climate literate" means more than having a firm grasp of the science, but also appreciating the affective, emotional and behavioral dimensions involved.

How can I use this principle in my teaching?

The guiding principle for informed climate decisions touches on many disciplines: earth science, biology, human health, engineering, technology, economics, and policy. Thus there are many pieces of the curriculum into which these topics can be woven. Students can engage in projects that focus on their own communities or on international case studies. Topics can involve lifestyle changes, innovative solutions, emerging technology, or policy negotiations. Subject areas can include energy, transportation, food, agriculture, commerce, or land use.

A pedagogic technique that is particularly effective is to have students take a quantitative approach to discover the scale of the problem and thus the scale of potential solutions. For example, how many light bulbs would need to be changed in order to offset rising carbon emissions? Often the best way for students to reach an understanding is to engage them in a problem-solving activity that allows them to discover answers for themselves.

Middle school students will learn the basics of climate science and the factors that contribute to climate change. They can begin to think about ways that they will be able to reduce their own impacts. They can also understand how actions and decisions can be made at many scales - at home, in school, in communities and across nations (see the Clarkson Energy Choices Board Game or The Big Energy Gamble). For example, students could undertake solutions at home or at school, and then do basic calculations to measure the effect if every student in the country took similar actions.

In high school, students are ready for a more mature understanding of climate science and to analyze solutions. Climate solutions can be integrated into a national or international context, such as with the Stabilization Wedges Game. Case studies from other countries can be used to engage students' interest in other cultures. Role-playing activities can appeal to a variety of learning styles and can encourage students to immerse themselves into a scenario that is outside of their everyday experience.

In the introductory undergraduate curriculum, students may take the last science course of their careers (sometimes just before they graduate in order to meet the graduation requirement). Such courses can offer an important overview of science in general and climate science in particular. Student projects (such as The Lifestyle Project) and essays also offer the opportunity for students to apply the implications of the science into their field of study or other areas of their specific interest.

Some colleges and universities also offer required writing and rhetoric courses, which can provide students with further opportunities to integrate climate literacy with writing and communications skills.

Upper-level college students, whether in science, engineering, technology, mathematics, arts, humanities or business, can be encouraged to use a cross-disciplinary approach to weave together climate science, sustainability, energy awareness, social justice and related themes. Upper-level students can draw from their depth of knowledge within their field of study and synthesize information in order to examine the implications of various solutions. Students who study abroad can examine energy use and climate solutions in other cultures.

Credit: CLEAN