Climate change is also a social studies problem

Climate change is also a social studies problem

By Molly Sinnott, OER Project Team 

Climate change is happening. But it’s such a huge problem that it can feel impossible to figure out what we can do about it. As a teacher, you face a particularly difficult challenge when it comes to climate change. Like everyone else, you worry about what you personally can do to solve a global problem. Additionally, however, you’re probably concerned about your students, who are both activated and agitated by the generational crisis facing them. Climate change is likely going to affect their lives more than ours, and their children’s lives to an even greater extent.

But there is good news. You have an opportunity both to do your own part to address a global challenge and meet your students’ needs by doing what you do best—teaching social studies. That’s because climate change is not only a science problem, but a policy and social challenge as well. The strategies needed to address this challenge combine precisely the kind of civic engagement, career development, and governmental understanding that social studies brings to young people.

To understand the opportunity better, I sat down with Jerry Price, the OSPI Social Studies Program Supervisor for Washington State, to talk about climate change and social studies. Our conversation took place just a few days after the end of the school year in Washington, and he seemed eager to talk.

Molly Sinnott of the OER Project Team and Jerry Price, the OSPI Social Studies Program Supervisor for Washington State video preview

I asked Price the obvious question: Why teach climate change?

“I think it's very simple. Number one, it’s one of the most complex problems on the planet right now. If we're going to be preparing our students to live and work and survive, we have to be providing them with information. Any teacher worth their salt is going to go the direction that their students are interested. In the majority of the United States, students are interested in this. And this is going to pique engagement, which is a good thing for everybody. It’s a no-brainer.”

Exactly. Climate change is a multidisciplinary issue that can’t continue to be relegated exclusively to science classrooms. Why? Well, the research has repeatedly shown that personal relevance is often a precursor to engagement, which is essential for real learning. But carbon cycles, atmospheric composition, and other topics presented in science classes are often difficult for students to really connect to their lived experiences. It’s hard for many students to see the connection between hard science and themselves. By engaging with climate change through the social studies, we can give students the opportunity to understand how they have the power to impact change in this area. 

“Environmental sustainability is civics, right? One hundred percent. It’s also history. It's geography. Young people very clearly see the line between the ability of the planet not to catch on fire and disappear, and their ability to be part of a society that functions. We have standards in our geography and our civic curricula that are deliberate in thinking about your place in the world and human environmental interactions,” continued Price.

And these lessons don’t live only in the abstract or future tense. “As we look at this within the context of, say, ethnic studies, we know that marginalized communities suffer exponentially more than white communities and middle-class communities do. These communities are demanding action, but those in power are not doing enough. Exploring these cultural connections and the impact of climate change on all communities is hugely important when it comes to both student and educator engagement.”

Price went on, “There’s an urgency right now that makes this attractive. Your students are hungry for this.”

That’s a theme that we noticed as we talked to dozens of teachers in developing Climate Project, a new course from OER Project designed specifically for high-school social studies classrooms. Its focus is on helping students identify what they can do to help the world reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Climate Project Extension is a three-week supplemental unit that’s available now on the OER Project website. A semester-long version of the course will be available in 2023.

preview of the climate project extension course page

Students are asking for this information; in many cases, they’re demanding it. Young people understand at a fundamental level that this is the problem of their lifetime, and that if they’re going to take on a challenge like this, they’ll need an array of tools. They want to know, “How can I understand how climate change will specifically impact my community? What kinds of solutions can my friends and I support effectively? How do we work with and through resistance to implement effective strategies?” These are social studies questions that students are poised and ready to address, and Climate Project aims to give them what they need to do just that.

About the author: Molly Sinnott is a member of the Climate Project editorial team. She was previously a classroom reading and writing teacher, specializing in supporting students to grow executive function skills. She focuses on building approachable and inclusive content for a diverse range of students.

Cover image: Student fixing in the wall a poster about environmental issues - There is no planet B. © FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images.

  • Congratulations, Molly on helping to explore this exciting new pathway for our students. As you suggest not only are our students asking for guidance but they are indeed, "demanding," it! I also respect the way you and the OER Project are helping to connect the scientific issues AND the civic engagement and policy issues we face as a society with this "complex" problem we all must face together. Luckily this year I will be teaching civics for the first time in several years and I am truly greatful to add this extension course for my students at the end of the year. Again, thanks very much for your extensive analysis here. Looking forward to sharing this with my class!