Understanding Climate Change

Explore the causes and effects of a warming planet with your students.

By Lynsey Peterson


Understanding Climate Change

Global warming is an environmental problem that my students are familiar with before they walk into my classroom. Not a week goes by without a mention of the issue in the media. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion surrounding global warming and its consequences. My students commonly confuse global warming with ozone depletion, or they oversimplify the science and assume that global warming is wrong based on their experience with the weather. I try to alleviate this confusion by breaking down the science of global warming and creating hands-on experiences for my students.

We start by talking about the greenhouse effect, which my students have experienced in a closed car on a hot day. The difference in the wavelengths of light and heat allow light to enter and heat up the car, but the heat cannot escape. We compare our climate to that of Mars and emphasize that without the greenhouse effect, life on Earth might not even exist. Next, we do research on greenhouse gases. Students identify the natural and human producers of each gas and the effect of the gas has on the atmosphere.

We continue our exploration by focusing on carbon dioxide. By comparing line graphs of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and global temperatures, we identify the direct relationship between the two.Students can then show the dramatic increase in carbon dioxide emissions since the Industrial Revolution. Then we compare the carbon dioxide concentrations in various gases. We fill balloons with gases such as human breath, air (using a bicycle pump), pure carbon dioxide (from a baking soda and vinegar reaction), and car exhaust (collected from my car with a cardboard funnel).  Then we bubble the gases through a straw into bromothymol blue (BTB) solutions. Carbon dioxide turns into carbonic acid when it reacts with water, and BTB is an acid indicator that turns yellow as a result. We also talk about how the carbon dioxide is produced during combustion as carbon bonds are broken.

To discuss the potential impacts of global warming, we use another name for the problem, climate change.  Because of the complex nature of weather and climate, a warming global climate does not just mean that every location will get warmer. Contrasting problems, such as droughts and flooding, will arise in different locations. There are many documentaries that illustrate the possibilities; my favorite is "Six Degrees Could Change the World" by National Geographic. 

We end the unit on global warming with hope amid the dire predictions. We discuss ways that we can reduce our carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions. Students create a public service announcement with some of the solutions. Focusing on solutions to the problem gives the students power and motivation to change the way they interact with the planet.

You can try these other ideas to teach your students about global warming and motivate them to make small changes that can make a big difference.

Understanding Climate Change:

Global Warming

Students become members of the North Carolina Environmental Management Commission. They make recommendations to the "governor" and a panel of his advisors regarding the greenhouse effect and global warming.

The Energy Debate - Global Warming

Students describe what global warming is, what causes global warming and the impact to our world. They study the threat of global warming and its relationship to the use of fossil fuels

Illuminating Climate Change: Connecting Lighting and Global Warming

Students analyze energy usage and connect energy usage to fossil fuel consumption. In this global warming and pollution lesson, students discuss what fuels are used to generate electricity and how much CO2 each fuel produces, then graph the emissions of several states and examine how people could help reduce CO2 emissions.



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Lynsey Peterson