Teacher showing students a map

Climate Change Introduction Lesson

By: Emily Rogers

Oct 12, 2022 | 16 minute read

Everyday we hear news about the devastating effects of climate change on communities all over the world. As a teacher, you know you should be teaching your students about climate change, but how can you build a climate change introduction lesson that will keep students engaged, help them understand the complexities of climate change, and encourage them to take action? It may seem like a tall order, but SubjectToClimate is ready to help! Below you will find introductory resources on climate change and ideas for how to use them in a lesson. The resources and instructions are grouped together for grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Feel free to use the lesson ideas exactly as they are written, or modify certain elements based on your class. 

Once you lay a foundation for climate change knowledge with an introductory lesson, be sure to check out SubjectToClimate’s impressive database of climate change resources and teacher-created lesson plans to keep up the momentum!

Introducing a concept as big and complex as climate change to young students may seem intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be! Using the three resources outlined below, you can create an age-appropriate climate change introduction lesson that will give K-2 students a firm understanding of climate science basics. 

Introduction to Climate Change

Grades: K, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th

Subjects: Science, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Types: Video

Introduction to Climate Change is a gently-paced animated video with subtitles providing developmentally appropriate descriptions of Earth’s atmosphere, greenhouse gasses, the creation of fossil fuels, and global warming. The video ends with optimistic and empowering ideas for how we can all help to stop climate change. 

Climate vs. Weather

Grades: K, 1st, 2nd

Subjects: Science, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Types: Lesson Plan, Worksheet

Climate vs. Weather is a sorting activity with a short article that will help students understand the differences between climate and weather. The activity includes a teacher’s guide and links to resources for further reading.

"Saving Planet Earthly"

Grades: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th

Subjects: Science, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Types: Podcast, Digital Text

“Saving Planet Earthly” is a digital picture book and the first book ClimateScience’s Earthly book series. In the story, Earthly’s friend, a South African girl named Thoko, takes Earthly to the doctor to find out why she is ill. With the aid of approachable metaphors and helpful illustrations, the book successfully outlines Earth’s climate history to explain how present-day climate change is different from other periods of change in Earth’s climate. The book includes a glossary, a world map, and a link to an audio version on Spotify.

Before learning about climate change, it is important for students to understand the differences between weather and climate. Start by asking students to describe the weather today, then ask them if they think that the weather will be exactly the same tomorrow and the next day. Most students will predict that the weather will change a little - encourage that thinking and explain that weather changes considerably from day to day, and even within the same day! Read the short article at the top of Climate vs. Weather handout and model one example of weather (e.g., “Today it is hot and humid,” “It was cold and wet on Wednesday”) and one example of climate (e.g., “In the winter it is usually very cold and snowy in Chicago” “Summers are very hot in Abu Dhabi”). Then ask students to give one example of weather and one example of climate to a partner. Students can work in pairs,  individually, or as a class to complete the climate vs. weather sorting activity. 

After the activity, teachers can ask students if they have heard the term “climate change.” Students may or may not be familiar with the term; either way, teachers can proceed by asking students to think about what the term might mean. Students can share their guesses with a partner or write them down. After students have had the chance to think about the term, show the Introduction to Climate Change video. Teachers may want to pause the video throughout or show it more than once to ensure proper comprehension. After the video, ask students what they learned about climate change and clear up any misconceptions. 

Teachers can either stop the lesson here, or continue it by looking through the glossary at the end of “Saving Planet Earthly.” Introducing these terms before reading the book will help students engage with the story. Teachers can project the digital book and read the story to the class, or have students take turns reading sentences or sections aloud. After the story, students can draw a picture or write a few sentences to explain why Earthly was feeling sick and what we can do to help Earthly feel better.

Chances are most upper elementary students have heard the term “climate change” before, but that doesn’t mean that they understand climate change, what’s causing it, or what we need to do to stop it. Explaining the many causes and effects of climate change can be overwhelming, but the following resources make it more manageable.

Local Warming at All Levels

Grades: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Types: Interactive Media

Local Warming at All Levels is an interactive data tool that gives students the chance to view bar graphs that display temperature changes in American cities and towns since 1970. The tool also shows how the city or town’s temperature change compares to temperature changes in the state and the U.S. as a whole. The graphs are available in English and Spanish and can be downloaded as JPG, PNG, or GIF files.

What Is the Greenhouse Effect?

Grades: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th

Subjects: Science, Chemistry, Biology, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Types: Video

In this animated video, students will learn how burning fossil fuels has caused an increase in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. While the greenhouse effect is vital to keeping the Earth warm enough to support life, high levels of greenhouse gases are causing global temperatures to rise. Students will learn which industries cause the most greenhouse gas emissions and what can be done to limit fossil fuel use.

Present a Climate Solution

Grades: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th

Subjects: Science, English Language Art

Resource Types: Lesson Plan, Worksheet

Present a Climate Solution is a research activity that gives students the chance to learn more about a solution to climate change and share their knowledge with others. The Teacher’s Guide provides links to information for students to use for their research. 

Hook students in by showing the data for a faraway city or town (choose something that seems removed from your students) using the Local Warming At All Levels tool. Ask students how the data makes them feel and if the information is important or relevant to their lives. Then show students their own city or town (or a nearby one) and ask them how that data makes them feel. Next, show the map of the United States located below the graph. Ask students to explain why temperatures are higher now than they were in 1970.

On the board write down these questions: “ What is climate change?” “ What causes climate change?” “What are the effects of climate change?” Ask students to share their understanding of climate change with a partner, then ask for a few volunteers to share their answers with the class. Record the answers digitally or on the board. Tell your students to think about the answers on the board as they watch Causes and Effects of Climate Change. After the video, evaluate the answers on the board and correct any that need to be corrected. Watch the video one more time. This time, have students write down the causes and the effects mentioned in the videos.

After students make their lists, ask them to think about the final part of the video, which explains how we can stop climate change. Introduce the Present a Climate Solution research activity and have students work independently or in small groups to create a poster or slideshow presentation that showcases their solution.

Most middle school students have encountered the term “climate change” and have likely heard that humans have played a role in causing it. The key to building a successful climate change introduction lesson for middle school students lies in addressing the “hows” - how do we know that climate change is happening? How do we know it is caused by humans? How do scientists know that climate change isn’t natural? Once students understand the answers to the initial “how” questions, they will be more eager to address the bigger question - how can we stop climate change?

Climate Change: How Does It Really Work?

Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science

Resource Types: Video

How Scientists KNOW Climate Change Is Real

Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science

Resource Types: Video

Climate Change: How Does It Really Work? and How Scientists KNOW Climate Change Is Real are animated videos that provide an engaging and fast-paced overview of what is causing global temperatures to rise, how this rapid change in climate is affecting life on Earth, and how scientists have been able to determine that climate change is caused by burning fossil fuels.

Scientific Consensus: Earth's Climate Is Warming

Grades: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Biology, Earth and Space Sciences

Resource Types: Article, Data

Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate is Warming is an easy-to-read article from NASA that defines the term scientific consensus and lists the many American and international institutions that have made formal statements agreeing with the scientific consensus about climate change.

Table of Solutions

Grades: 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Biology, Earth and Space Sciences, Climate Action

Resource Types: Interactive Media, Data

Table of Solutions is a comprehensive list of solutions for combating climate change. Students can click on a solution to read its methodology and learn how many gigatons of carbon dioxide the solution can be expected to either sequester or reduce between 2020 and 2050.

Without introducing the topic, play the video Climate Change: How Does It Really Work?  Then, ask students to spend 2 minutes writing down questions about climate change. Students should write down these questions as they think of them, without pausing. If they get stuck or stop writing, encourage them by suggesting question stems - such as “why do” “how are” “when will” and “what is” - to help them generate more questions. After the two minutes are up, ask students to share some of their questions with the class. Chances are, quite a few questions will be about how to stop climate change or how climate change will affect the students and their community. Tell students that there will be a chance to address these sorts of queries later in the lesson. Ask students to circle any of their questions that have to do with doubt or uncertainty about climate change. 

Play the video How Scientists KNOW Climate Change is Real. After watching the video, ask the students if it provided an answer for any of the questions they circled and discuss how the information in the video made them feel. If circled questions remain, ask students to share these questions with the class. Ask students to consider the kinds of information that might help climate change skeptics believe that it is really happening. Introduce the term “consensus” and provide some examples of consensus that will resonate with students (e.g., “we all agree that if I let go of this pencil, it will fall to the floor,” or, “we all agree that if you put an ice cube on the sidewalk on a hot day, it will melt”). Explain that scientists around the world have come to the consensus that climate change is real and human-caused. Read Scientific Consensus: Earth’s Climate Is Warming together as a class, in small groups, or individually. Ask students if they found anything in the article that was particularly interesting or surprising. 

Tell students that now that we know climate change is real and caused by humans, it is humans’ job to fix it. In small groups, pairs, or individually, students can read through the Table of Solutions and pick a solution to examine further. Students can make slideshow presentations to show how their chosen solution can help to counter climate change.

High school students may feel that they understand the basic science behind climate change, but most will still benefit from a well-rounded foundational lesson. Students at this level are ready to grasp more detailed, specific information about the scientific and societal aspects of climate change. This climate change introduction lesson will help students to brush up on climate science and use that knowledge to gain a greater understanding of how the climate crisis is affecting both the natural environment and human communities. 

Climate Change Crash Course

Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Earth and Space Sciences, Climate Action

Resource Types: Interactive Media, Video, 3 minutes, 6 seconds, Assessment

 Climate Change Crash Course is a self-paced one-hour course that uses short readings, interactive questions, graphs, infographics, and videos to keep students engaged as they learn. The course features three sections: "Climate Change," "Clean Energy," and "Towards a Sustainable Society." At the end of the course, students take a final quiz and earn a certificate. 

What Is Climate Change?

Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Earth and Space Sciences, Geography

Resource Types: Video

What is Climate Change? is a fast-paced video that combines science, geography, and history. The video explains how scientists use proxy data to learn about the climate history of the Earth and to determine that current climate change is being caused by humans. Students will learn that global temperatures are rising at an unprecedented rate, which is causing glacial retreat, sea level rise, and changes in weather patterns.

Assignment: Simulating Climate Futures in

En-ROADS (Short Version)

Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th

Subjects: Science, Social Studies, Earth and Space Sciences, Geography

Resource Types: Video

Assignment: Simulating Climate Futures in En-ROADS (short version) is a short activity that uses the En-ROADS climate simulator. Students will design a scenario that is aimed at mitigating global warming to the internationally agreed target of less than 2°C by 2100.

The Climate Change Crash Course is a perfect way to get students up to speed on the basics of climate change before the lesson. Assign each of the three sections separately (or all together) for homework or independent classwork in the days leading up to the lesson. This foundation will help students to be more receptive to the lesson.

Start the video What is Climate Change? Pause at 2:50 to ask students to write down their own definitions of climate change and global warming. Ask students to check their answers as they watch the video and pause again at 3:50 to give students time to amend their definitions. At 6:51 pause the video to check for understanding of the terms paleoclimatologist and proxy data and ask students to give a few examples of proxy data that were mentioned in the video (i.e., tree rings, fossilized bugs, deep-sea sedimentary records, ice core data). Give students 2-5 minutes to write down a few thoughts about how proxy data helps scientists understand the current state of climate change. Play the video until 9:47, then pause to ask students how the information makes them feel. Students may either share their feelings with the class, write down a few words to explain how they feel, or simply take notice of their feelings. After this check-in, ask students to write down what they think anthropogenic global warming will mean for their community, the country, and the world. Finish the video.

After the video, ask students to brainstorm global action steps that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global warming. Explain that students will be working in pairs to complete the Assignment: Simulating Climate Futures in En-ROADS (short version). If time permits, after students develop their scenarios and answer the questions, have them switch scenarios with another group and compare their scenarios, results, and answers.

Oftentimes, the hardest part of starting to teach about climate change is kicking off that first climate change introduction lesson. If you feel unsure about your own understanding  of climate change topics, be sure to check out SubjectToClimate’s professional learning opportunity database where you can find courses, workshops, and guides for teachers.  With these professional development resources, the student resources, and the suggestions in this blog, you’ll be ready to teach your students about global warming, the greenhouse effect, sea level rise, melting glaciers, extreme weather, and climate migration. Thank you for taking the first step in preparing your students to be concerned and engaged global citizens!

About the Author

Emily has a bachelor’s degree in English and French and a master’s degree in library and information science. She spent seven years teaching information evaluation and research skills as a school librarian in K-8 public schools. As a lifelong resident of Southern Louisiana, Emily has a particular interest in how climate change affects coastal regions. She hopes to connect educators with resources that will help them to teach their students about the disproportionately adverse effects of climate change on historically marginalized communities.