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Why should I teach about climate change in social studies? + How can I do it?
Why should I teach about climate change in social studies? + How can I do it?
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Written by Guest Teacher Contributors
Updated over a week ago

Climate change and human history are inextricably linked. When I think about building and developing knowledge about the origins and impacts of climate change, I often think of the term climate literacy. To achieve climate literacy, students need to understand how humans have impacted the Earth’s climate systems and vice versa. Global human systems have had transformative impacts on land, people, and ecosystems of planet Earth. Climate literacy instruction belongs in social studies.

I created a lesson series to develop my students’ climate literacy in social studies by selecting a social studies standard related to land and resources. Then, I planned questions that promote critical thinking about human impact on land, ecosystems, and other humans. I curated a variety of data, texts, and videos from diverse perspectives for discussion and analysis.

Here is a real-world example that illustrates the process:

Standard: What exchanges were established as a result of the Age of Exploration?

  • Columbian Exchange

  • Devastating impacts on Indigenous people and ecosystems

Climate Literacy Big Idea: How did the Columbian Exchange and the Triangular Trade impact biodiversity in all continents involved?


  1. What nations participated in the Columbian Exchange? What goods were exchanged?

  2. What was the Triangular Trade? How did it impact various individuals and societies that were involved?

  3. How did the Columbian Exchange and the Triangular Trade impact the land and ecosystems of all continents involved?

These questions allow students to think critically about how human activities began to shift away from working with and cultivating nature to commodifying and exploiting it. The Columbian Exchange and Triangular Trade caused mass displacement of living beings from the continents of Europe and Africa to the Western Hemisphere. For example, dandelions, crabgrass, and domesticated animals had adverse impacts on the native plant and animal species in North America while also negatively impacting Indigenous people.

Students can learn about how invasive species create an imbalance in an ecosystem and how settlers systematically eradicated native species to make room for their agricultural practices and further displaced Indigenous tribes. These practices continued to expand and intensify with the industrialization of our economies and continued social inequality.

Consistent, thoughtful, and inclusive social studies instruction can help students build a stronger understanding of the complexities of climate change and how we can move forward while building students’ core knowledge (a key component to improving reading comprehension). Additionally, interdisciplinary units and lessons assist teachers in covering more content standards in less time, resulting in students having a wider and more comprehensive understanding of the climate emergency and the action we need.


About the Author: Brittany Jefferson

Brittany is an elementary school teacher and climate justice educator from Los Angeles. Through advocacy and education, Brittany helps caregivers and educators have critical conversations about identity, social justice, and environmental justice with their kids and students.

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