Droughts in India, record high temperatures in Australia, rain bombs covering the entire city of Dallas, scores of animals perishing—it seems that every day there is news of a new extreme caused by the climate crisis. Close to 40,000 protesters from 15 countries gathered in the German city of Aachen on Friday, June 21, 2019 to raise awareness and demand that leaders around the world declare a climate emergency. These ‘Fridays for Future’ strikes started due to the brave actions of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. We are now in a state of climate crisis, and since students are leading the charge, it should be our role as educators to provide them with the information and skills vital to their understanding of the natural world. The goal of this article is to introduce the science of climate change, suggest some age appropriate approaches and teaching strategies, and give teachers some resources to help them teach about climate change with confidence.
One of the challenges language teachers face is finding resources that allow for the right language and pedagogical methods for our classes. Rather than creating an entirely new climate crisis class, infusing all courses with relevance to the climate crisis is a better way to approach the topic (Henderson, 2019). In the language classroom, many of us have the latitude to design courses in which the necessary language is taught as we introduce concepts and facts.
Let us look at how we can approach the topic at elementary, middle, and high school levels.
There are two things to keep in mind with elementary (Grades 1-6) learners: tone and vocabulary. Above all, elementary learners should be taught positive, uncomplicated aspects of nature and the environment. Conveying simple, relatable messages about nature nearest to them is the best way to strengthen their relationship to the natural world. For example, talk about a nearby park—the insects, birds, people, and pets that visit the park, and why it’s such a great place to be during the day. Finding out what students know is a great way to continually reinforce their innate love for nature (Wilson, 1984). Animals are an excellent way to teach elementary students about our connection to nature. Simply showing photographs of endangered animals can get any class talking about the need to protect their habitats. (WWF, 2019). For example, pass out animal photographs and have groups of three or four students discuss their habitats, such as arctic, rainforest canopy, jungle, or ocean. The issue of plastic, specifically ocean plastic, is another important environmental and cultural issue to tackle. Students can be encouraged to notice the many ways we use plastic and to think about ways to reduce our dependence on it.
Middle School Students
We now know for certain that climate change is happening. The October 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warned us that we only have twelve years to limit fossil fuel use before exceeding the recommended safe zone of a 1.5°C increase in average global temperatures (IPCC, 2018). Many scientists, activists, religious leaders and philosophers have talked about our moral obligation to act in the face of the climate crisis (Moore & Nelson, 2010).
As the following graph shows, the trend of stable temperature that lasted over one thousand years was followed by a rapid increase caused by greenhouse gas emissions in the 20th century. This visual is an excellent way to let students see at a glance how serious the problem is. Older students could use library books or the Internet to research what humans were doing to cause this rapid increase, with hints and useful vocabulary lists provided as needed. For younger students, it might be easier to use a gapped listening activity, with any difficult words provided and easier words as gaps.
Middle school students need to understand the difference between weather (short term) and climate (long term), not to mention the greenhouse effect. Briefly, because of increased greenhouse gases like CO2 in the atmosphere, the increasing “thickness” of the atmosphere traps more heat, thereby causing global warming. National Geographic’s ‘Global Warming 101’ YouTube channel and the relevant section from the documentary film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ provide excellent visual lessons that explain why the hottest ten years since 1880 have almost all been the last ten years. NASA’s Climate Kids website is a great place to find classroom-suitable graphics. Explain how fossil fuels like natural gas and gasoline create CO2 and have students brainstorm some common sources such as gas ranges, scooters, cars, trucks, buses, and airplanes.
Greta Thunberg has become a symbol of the climate crisis movement. Focusing on her life and her message is a great way to get students interested in the issues since she is a global role model for direct action in fighting the climate crisis. An information gap activity about her could precede, or follow, watching one of the many videos available online. A list of possible questions and answers is available as an appendix (see the link at the end of this article). The questions can be selected or altered to suit language and ability level, as indicated on the teachers’ notes. Students can also write what they think about Greta and her movement.
High School Students
At high school level, we can ask students what they think is causing climate change. One of the main causes being greenhouse gases, the next focus should be the sources of CO2 and methane (CH4) caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Our elementary school CO2 source list can expand to include shipping and construction, and livestock farming. The topic presents some difficult vocabulary, so teachers should ensure that they provide adequate scaffolding before embarking on communicative activities.
Once students understand the causes of climate change, they can start to learn about the solutions, which include solar, hydro, geothermal, and wave energy. The following activity, provided as an online appendix to this article, asks students to guess what percentage of each type of energy would be appropriate for Japan. The poster can be shown to students after completing the activity.
A good example of a solution close to home for Japanese students is Yokohama city’s plan to eliminate all internal combustion engines by 2050. The downloadable PDF (City of Yokohama, 2018) could be printed and read in groups to inspire discussion of civic transportation issues. This also covers how local and national governments can and should lead the way in developing solutions. Students could then find other examples of energy solutions and present them to each other in pairs or groups in class.
At the high school level, it’s also important to have a conversation about media literacy. In a time when memes on social media spread disinformation, students need to know how enormous commercial interests finance fake news and create doubt about climate change (Oreskes & Conway, 2012).
Make sure you debate the possibility of participating in a ‘Fridays for Future’ student strike like the one started by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish protestor who began her activism at age 15. By utilizing YouTube, you can find her three and-a-half minute COP24 speech at Katowice, Poland. Depending on the IT resources available at your school, you can also print out the text of her speech or show it on the class monitor. Students would have to add appropriate punctuation, capitalization, and make decisions on paragraphing. Quizlet.com has a word list and definitions already prepared (search for ‘Greta COP24’), so you could bookend the lesson by introducing the vocabulary and then end with a matching game.
For higher levels, students could consider cultural aspects that make it possible for hundreds of Canadian students to leave class to protest but very difficult for Japanese students to do the same. Let them know that twenty-one students are suing the American government for violating their right to clean air and clean water under the concept of public trust doctrine (Juliana v U.S., 2016).
For even higher levels, there is an excellent 16-page downloadable workshop (WWW, 2019), designed by the World Wildlife Fund in association with the Netflix series Our Planet, that could fill two or three class sessions. Some students are assigned as world leaders and have 100 billion “World Dollars” to spend. Others give briefings on energy, food, and health to lobby governments on how to best invest their fund to ensure a positive future for the planet.
The Climate Reality Project
In October this year, Tokyo will host a two-day training of former US Vice President Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. At the training, Mr. Gore will assist participants in gaining the skills, knowledge, and network necessary to solve the climate crisis. This will be a great opportunity for high school students, teachers, and others who are eager to participate and act for climate solutions.
Polls in the U.S. (Ipsos, 2019) show that teachers want climate crisis training and parents want schools to teach it. So, whether it’s in the streets or in the park, at the planned global strike on September 20th, or in the classroom on a daily basis, now is the perfect time to muster the courage, information, and support to teach about the climate crisis and its solutions—no matter what courses, ages, or levels you teach. By bookmarking online sources for climate change education, creating age-appropriate lesson plans, and collaborating via social media networks, any teacher can become confident in teaching about the climate crisis.
The appendices are available as downloadable PDF Files from the online version of this article at: http://jalt-publications.org/tlt/departments/youngerlearners.
Beginning the Climate Conversation: A Family’s Guide. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.climaterealityproject.org/blog/beginning-climate-conversatio...
City of Yokohama. (2018). Zero carbon Yokohama. Retrieved from https://www.city.yokohama.lg.jp/kurashi/machizukuri-kankyo/ondanka/jikkou/
Henderson, J., as cited in Kamenetz, A. (2019). 8 ways to teach climate change in almost every classroom. (2019). Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2019/04/25/716359470/eight-ways-to-teach-climate-cha...
IPCC (2018). Global Warming of 1.5 °C: An IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Summary for Policymakers (IPCC SR1.5). Released October 6, 2018. Retrieved from http://ipcc.ch/report/sr15/
Juliana v. U.S. (2015). Our children’s trust. Retrieved from https://www.ourchildrenstrust.org/juliana-v-us
Mann, M. E., Bradley, R. S., & Hughes, M. K. (1999). “Northern hemisphere temperatures during the past millennium: Inferences, uncertainties, and limitations” (PDF), Geophysical Research Letters, 26 (6): 759–762
Moore K., & Nelson M. (2010). Moral ground: ethical action for a planet in peril. San Antonio: Trinity University Press
Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. (2012). Merchants of doubt. London: Bloomsbury.
Stanford University. (2019). 100% Japan, Retrieved from https://thesolutionsproject.org/why-clean-energy/#/map/countries/location/JPN
Ipsos. (2019). Teachers agree that climate change is real and should be taught in schools. Retrieved from https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/news-polls/teachers-agree-climate-change-real-and-should-be-taught-schools-04-22-2019
Wilson, O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
WWF. (2019). Our planet educational resources. Retrieved from https://www.wwf.org.uk/get-involved/schools/our-planet
350.org. (2019). https://350.org/science/
Climate reality project. (2019).
Cullis, T., & Suzuki, D. (2010). The Declaration of interdependence: a pledge to planet earth. Vancouver: Greystone Books.
North American Association for Climate Education. https://naaee.org/eepro/groups/climate-change-education
Oxfam. (2018). Climate challenge for 7-11 years.
Tucker, L., & Sherwood L. (2019). Understanding climate change, Grades 7–12. National Sciences Teachers Association.
Chris Kozak has been a passionate music and ESL educator in Japan for over twenty years. He holds a Bachelor of Music degree from the University of Alberta, Canada, and teaching accreditations from a wide range of institutions and associations. He is a volunteer in Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps and gives the Nobel Peace Prize-winning presentation to explain how to take action against the climate crisis.
Marian Hara studied English Literature at Stirling University and holds an RSA EFL Diploma. She recently retired from a private high school in Tokyo, where she helped set up communicative language teaching, global studies, and writing courses, as well as piloting two teacher resource books through publication.