The increasing global phenomenon of storms, droughts, fires, floods, disease, and famines is inescapable. If you are not one of the millions of people experiencing these events, then you are one of the millions who watch the videos, news media reports, and rising death tolls related to these catastrophes. Students will have questions about the causes of these global phenomenon. Teachers should ensure that students develop background knowledge about the causes of severe weather events. It is necessary to explicitly teach about carbon emissions, their origins, and impacts. According to National Geographic, carbon emissions “cause climate change by trapping heat, and they also contribute to respiratory disease from smog and air pollution. Extreme weather, food supply disruptions, and increased wildfires are other effects of climate change caused by greenhouse gases.”2 By reviewing recent climate news stories and analyzing this definition, students will be able to make connections between increased carbon emissions and severe weather events.
It is important to build background knowledge about relevant climate science vocabulary. The World at 1℃ published several diagrams to explain climate change. These diagrams provide students with visual tools to organize their thinking. During the introductory lesson, each student studies a copy of “Ten Indicators of a Warming World” and works to make observations and predictions about what impact those indicators will have on the planet. Students will also benefit from analyzing the World Resource Institute’s “Cumulative CO2 Emissions: 1850-2011 (% of World Total)” and Oxfam’s “Percentage of CO2 Emissions by World Population” to reflect on their assumptions about energy use, geopolitics, population, and related socioeconomic factors. Overall, teachers can support students by teaching key vocabulary and creating opportunities for analysis and discussion of headlines, infographics, videos, and text excerpts. Students should track their questions, observations, and connections throughout their work with the more science-related aspects of this unit.
Once students have the foundational understanding that greenhouse gas emissions, specifically carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels, cause climate change, they will be ready to unpack phrases like climate crisis, climate chaos, and ultimately climate justice. Students should discuss the meaning, similarities and differences of the phrases. In addition, they can consider the reasons why the language used to describe these issues has changed over time. In their introduction to Climate Futures: Reimagining Global Climate Justice, “The Future is Ours to Seek: Changing the Inevitability of Climate Chaos to Prospects of Hope and Justice,” the authors discuss the “grim reality of climate change” and the “extreme weather events around the world, wreaking havoc and setting new records in their wake.”3 They also discuss the importance of climate justice perspectives. This discussion is crucial to students’ analyses of the unit’s dominant narratives and counter narratives that follow. The authors write,
Climate justice perspectives center the fact that the brunt of climate change falls hardest on the most poor and marginal peoples—peoples often tramped by the twin ravages of colonialism and capitalism, who demonstrate resilience despite these depredations. The rampant extraction of resources by imperial powers in colonized lands—and subsequently by local predator elites—left the land in a state of continuing impoverishment, and with depleted levels of physical and economic resources that make it daunting, if not impossible, to withstand the humanitarian and environmental crises caused by climate change. The extraction-driven industries built on the platform of colonialism by the so-called ‘richer’ nations of today have been primarily responsible for climate change. Yet these nations have made little attempt to take responsibility and atone for their destructive actions. The reckless capitalist pursuit of growth, production, and profit have propelled some to protect their lavish lifestyles with no regard for the negative consequences of their actions for the poor and vulnerable.4
This climate justice analysis demonstrates that there is not universal or equal impact when it comes to the chaos, crises, and suffering that accompanies climate change. A three-part summary of the important evidence quoted above will help students understand the big idea of climate justice and make the necessary connections to the art they will encounter and analyze in subsequent lessons.
- Poor and marginalized people, already experiencing the negative effects of colonialism and capitalism, bear the brunt of climate change.
- Fighting climate change is hard in colonized lands; not only because resources have been depleted but also because extraction by colonial powers causes further destruction.
- The so-called richer nations do not make enough effort to change their destructive systems and they fail to acknowledge the way their systems negatively impact poor and marginalized people.