Educators often say that books can teach us so much. What lessons can young people learn from fiction about coping with climate change? Quotes from climate fiction inspired this collection of interdisciplinary activities that can be adapted for different age groups. Each lesson includes quotes to illustrate the concept, prompts for work and discussion, and an extension project to challenge students or for longer timeframes.
Additionally, we encourage you to draw on your students’ current knowledge of the climate crisis. Their awareness of this issue is an excellent starting point for engagement and uplifts student voice. Have them consider the following prompt for journaling, essay writing, or sharing and discussion:
Through your own experiences or readings, what are any lessons you’ve learned for how to handle, or respond to, the climate crisis?
Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash
Lessons included in this bundle:
- Take climate change seriously. Tell stories that activate emotions. Stay focused for the long haul.
- Appreciate the beauty of ecosystems. Recognize the excess we live in now, even as many live in scarcity. Cultivate a wider perspective.
- Rely on each other and strengthen relationships. Connect to different types of people. Hold onto your values.
- Pay attention to what is actually happening. Be careful not to lie to yourself.
- Change happens slowly but then all at once. Prepare in advance.
- Sometimes you have to take action by yourself. Fight creatively.
- Appreciate challenges. Expect change and adapt.
Take climate change seriously. Tell stories that activate emotions. Stay focused for the long haul.
“Imminent, at the speed of people, is too late. The law must judge ‘imminent’ at the speed of trees.” – Richard Powers, The Overstory
Ask the class whether they think people care about climate change or take it seriously in their daily lives. If not, ask why not. Ask for examples. Write down students' ideas.
Share this quote: “People can’t think statistically. People are hardwired to think in terms of narratives.” – Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock.
- Review key vocabulary (statistics and narratives). Ask students why narratives might be more powerful than statistics.
- Review students’ charted ideas and have them brainstorm responses or solutions. What are some examples of stories that can help us care more about climate change?
Extension: Invite students to research existing and future climate problems and write their own fictional stories about how those problems might affect their own lives in the future.
Appreciate the beauty of ecosystems. Recognize the excess we live in now, even as many live in scarcity. Cultivate a wider perspective.
“At first, she didn’t see them, or she did, but only the few that were separated from the mass and drifting free against the silken scrim of the branches. But Cooper, grinning, pointed straight ahead and there they were, long garlands of butterflies descending from the treetops, their wings folded, each a link in the chain… She tried to count them, because that was what she was here for, but there were just too many.” – T.C. Boyle, Blue Skies
Take a nature walk and have students work in small groups to identify one plant of their choice. (The useful app PlantNet is free.) Have students sketch the plant or write about what they see.
Research the plant:
- Is it native to your area?
- Does it prefer wet clay, dry sand, or newly disturbed soil?
- What is its life cycle?
- Is the plant a preferred host for any insects or birds?
- Are those creatures thriving or disappearing in your area?
- How long has this plant and its food web existed in your local area?
Have each small group report back to the class what is most special and important about their plant.
Discuss: What do you think most people’s attitude is toward plants in daily life? What do you think people don’t realize about plants and insects? How do you think the world would change if people paid more attention to what’s around them?
Extension: Share this quote and review new vocabulary as needed: “She saw for the first time the way we fill our homes with macabre altars to the live things we’ve murdered—the floral print of the twin mattress in her childhood bedroom, stripped of its sheets when she soiled them… A rock on a window ledge, cut flowers stabbed in a vase, wreath of sprigs nailed to the front door—every house a mausoleum, every house a wax museum.” – Claire Vaye Watkins, Gold Fame Citrus
Discuss: Is it true that we are more interested in fake plants or pictures of plants than in living plants? Why might we think this way?
Rely on each other and strengthen relationships. Connect to different types of people. Hold onto your values.
“When we've lost the strength to save ourselves, we somehow find the strength to save each other.” – Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman, Dry
Share this quote: “Suppose you go with some friends to the park to have a picnic… if you witness a group of children drowning in the lake and you continue to eat and chat, you have become monstrous.” – Jenny Offill, Weather.
Discuss: Is this true? Have you ever known of someone who saved a person they didn’t know? Why do you think they did it? How does this quote apply to climate change?
Independent writing or whole group discussion:
- Who do you have in your life that would do anything for you, or that you would do anything for? How do they show they care about you or vice versa?
- Have you ever been in a bad situation, accident, or natural disaster, and someone helped you that you didn’t expect? How did they help? Why do you think they helped you?
- What do you want to say to the past generations whose choices have caused climate change or the future generations who will be growing up in a changed world?
- What can we do to support each other through difficult times?
Have every student share one sentence of their choice aloud from their writing today. Then have them write a quick thank-you note to a person who means a lot to them.
Extension: Read the YA novel, Dry, by Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman, quoted above. Discuss: How did characters in the book support each other? Why can it be difficult for people to be caring or generous when disaster strikes? What would you do in a situation like this? Why?
Pay attention to what is actually happening. Be careful not to lie to yourself.
“The physics of marine ice cliff instability doesn’t give two f— about what’s politically realistic.” – Stephen Markley, The Deluge
Share this quote: “It looked like the great heat wave would be like mass shootings in the United States— mourned by all, deplored by all, and then immediately forgotten….” – Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future.
- Why might people want to ignore the reality of a changing climate or pretend it isn’t happening?
Have students write or share about a time they lied to themselves to avoid seeing what was actually happening in their lives, the lives of friends or family, or the world.
Discuss: Why do we lie to ourselves? When we avoid the truth, how does it make us feel? What would happen if we paid attention to what is actually happening? Why is that sometimes difficult to do? Why might people lie to themselves about climate change? What effects would that have?
Extension: Have students research current climate news through a reputable source such as http://climate.gov or https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/. Make posters that share an important fact or message about the current situation.
Change happens slowly but then all at once. Prepare in advance.
“You never knew which split second might be the zigzag bolt dividing all that went before from the everything that comes next.” – Barbara Kingsolver, Flight Behavior.
Share this quote: “When something drastic happens, there's a lag time…You're spending so much time wrapping your mind around the problem, you don't realize what you need to do until the window to do it has closed.” – Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman, Dry.
Ask students if they have ever experienced “something drastic” in their life– maybe a pivotal moment in a sports game, or an unexpected event, positive or negative. How did they deal with it? What was that experience like?
Even when a change or opportunity comes suddenly, there may be experiences that have somehow prepared us in advance. Help students consider ways that they may have prepared (consciously or unconsciously) to deal with “something drastic” before it happened. For example, how did they practice for a big sports moment without ever knowing when it would come? How did those preparations help?
Discuss: What are the most likely climate threats in your local community: drought, fire, heat, storms, floods? Other indirect threats to community livelihood or stability? How can students prepare mentally, socially, or physically to face them?
Extension: If there have been any serious weather events in your students’ recent history, research any preparation that your community might have done before the event and investigate how that work turned out. Was it successful in saving lives? Why or why not?
Sometimes you have to take action by yourself. Fight creatively.
“As far as authority is concerned, calm people quietly dying is a lot easier to deal with than angry people fighting for their lives.” – Neal Shusterman and Jarrod Shusterman, Dry
Share this quote: “The greatest flaw of the species is its overwhelming tendency to mistake agreement for truth.” – Richard Powers, The Overstory.
Discuss: Why might it be hard to take action if most others disagree with you? Has that ever happened to you? How do you keep persisting in doing what you think is right if no one agrees with you, or it seems like you keep failing?
Explain: Sometimes being a leader means not everyone will agree with you or support you. You may need to think “outside the box.” The goal of this activity is to come up with the most imaginative and creative ideas for fighting climate change. In self-selected groups, invite students to brainstorm “out-of-the-box”, even silly, ideas for fighting climate change. These could be engineering ideas, protest plans, financial schemes, or something else entirely.
If needed, shared this example: In “The Day it All Ended” by Charlie Jane Anders, a tech company programs its gadgets with a secret climate-change-fighting function, but doesn’t reveal that right away. The CEO reveals: “If we had just come out and told the truth about what our products actually did, people would rather die than buy them…But if we claimed to be making overpriced, wasteful pieces of s— that destroy the environment? Then everybody would need to own two of them.”
Have groups present their ideas to the class. Alongside sharing their silly ideas, invite students to consider which ideas could be implemented in their homes or at school.
In closing, share this quote: “You strike your match and it gets blown out, so you strike the next one and that gets blown out too… But you gotta keep lighting them, right? Because you just don’t know which one is going to ignite the blaze.” – Stephen Markley, The Deluge
Extension: Help students research and compare-contrast various types of climate activism currently happening. For a start, consider Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement, Our Children’s Trust, Ende Gelände, Fridays for Future, #NoDAPL, Loss & Damage Youth Coalition.
Appreciate challenges. Expect change and adapt.
“[People in the past] fought so hard to keep a world that was not meant to stay the same… The structures [the people of the future] built would bend and break, and they would make new ones. There would be nothing so precious that they couldn't begin again. And again.” – Lily Brooks-Dalton, The Light Pirate
Margaret Atwood wrote, “It's not climate change, it's everything change.”
- Discuss: Besides the climate, what other things will climate change likely affect in our lives? As a whole class, brainstorm and chart.
- Discuss: Why might people want these things to stay the same? Why might people have trouble adapting to these changes?
Share this quote: “It was better to live somewhere obviously dangerous, because it kept you on your toes.” – Neal Stephenson, Termination Shock.
Discuss: Do you think there are any places that will be safe from climate change in the future? Do you think it is better to live in a place that is obviously dangerous or secretly dangerous? Which kind of place do you live in currently?
There’s a saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Do you think it’s easier for young people to make changes than old people? Why or why not? What advice would you give older generations about how to adapt to the new challenges a changing climate brings? How could the young and old work together to respond to climate change?
In closing, share this quote: “The man rolls over onto his back, face-to-face with the morning sky. ... Even here, homeless, he thinks: “Nothing will be the same.” The spruces answer: “Nothing has ever been the same.” “We're all doomed,” the man thinks. “We have always all been doomed.” “But things are different this time.” “Yes. You're here.” The man must rise and get to work, as the trees are already doing.” – Richard Powers, The Overstory
Extension: Have students choose a novel about climate change (perhaps one of those quoted here) and read it. What new lessons can you learn from how the characters respond to climate change?