Energy & the Environment: What Can We Do?

September 12, 2007

Includes an array of action opportunities for students.

1. Global Warming/Climate Change Web

(10 minutes)
a. Write the words "global warming/climate change" on a piece of chart paper with a circle around it.
b. Ask students: What thoughts, feelings, ideas come up when you hear those words? What do you know about it? What have you heard? Where did you hear this? What do you want to know? What feelings do you have? Write down all responses in a semantic web. Look at the web together and ask for any observations.
c. Then give a brief description definition of global warming:
Carbon dioxide and other gases warm the surface of the planet naturally by trapping solar heat in the atmosphere. This is a good thing because it keeps our planet habitable. However, by burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil and clearing forests of their trees we have increased the amount of carbon dioxide and as a result, we are trapping more heat in the earth's atmosphere. Scientists say this will have a major effect on the climate all around the world.
Another way of saying it:
  • The sun's radiation heats up the earth.
  • Some of the radiation that warms the earth is absorbed and some goes back into space.
  • Some of the radiation is trapped within the thin layer of atmosphere, which is a good thing because it keeps temperatures within boundaries and livable.
  • The thin layer is being thickened by global warming pollution-more infrared radiation is trapped in and heats up the earth worldwide. (When more carbon dioxide, the temperature gets warmer and more heat is trapped from the sun.)
The vast majority of scientists agree that global warming is real. It's already happening and it is the result of our activities and not a natural occurrence. The evidence is overwhelming and undeniable (which we'll discuss later).
d. Demonstrate global warming by taking a hugg-a-planet (a stuffed cloth globe) and put a piece of plastic wrap around it. Ask a student to feel it and describe what it feels like. Then, put several more layers around it (5-10 layers) and ask a few more students to tell what that feels like. What's the difference?
Explain that the plastic is the thin layer of atmosphere and as more and more carbon dioxide and other gases are emitted into the environment, that layer becomes thicker and thicker and traps the warmth in. Some people call the carbon dioxide and other gases "greenhouse gases" - because they build up and create a warming effect, just like a greenhouse. Another metaphor to use is how we layer our clothing in the winter to keep the warmth in and stay warmer for longer periods of time.
Ask if anyone has anything to add or has any questions.
Write the definition of global warming on another piece of chart paper.

2. Global Warming/Climate Change: Fact Finding

(15 minutes)
a. Warm up
Ask students: What are some things you love about nature? (Example: trees, water, animals, ice, sky, glaciers, etc) All of those things are affected by global warming—in addition to human life. Share some information which leads scientists to believe that global warming exists. (Either give pairs of students one fact sheet and have them read the facts aloud and explain in their own words, or read the facts aloud if time is short.)
  • Arctic sea ice has declined by about 10 percent and has shrunk by an area roughly the size of New York, Georgia, and Texas combined. In 1910 when it was established, Glacier National Park had 150 glaciers; today there are fewer than 30 (and they are much smaller).
  • In the Himalayas, where 40% of the people in the world get their drinking water, glaciers are melting.
  • The 10 hottest years on record occurred during the last 14 years: 1990, 1991, 1995, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005
  • In 2005, we had Hurricane Katrina. Does anyone know what that is? When Hurricane Katrina first hit ground in Florida, it was not strong-it was a Category 1 hurricane. But when hurricanes move over warm water, they get stronger - that is, the velocity of the wind increases. At the time of Katrina, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico were unusually warm-perhaps because of global warming. So Katrina's soon grew to become a Category 5 hurricane. 
  • The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes has doubled in the last 30 years.
  • The average American produce 12,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions yearly.
  • In the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth, former vice president Al Gore points out three ways in which climate change is leading to what he says is a collision between the earth and civilization:
(1) Population. The world's population was 2 billion in the 1950s. Just 50 years later, it is 6.5 billion. This creates more pressure on the earth, since all those people need food, water, and other natural resources, including energy. For the last two centuries, fossil fuel, coal, oil, and natural gas have been burned in greater and greater amounts to generate electric power, to run factories, businesses, cars, buses, trucks, to heat homes and offices. In the process, we have been emitting carbon dioxide and other gases in huge quantities.
(2) Science/Technology Revolution. Advances in science and technology are often positive-such as improvements in medicine and communications. But sometimes they create negative effects. For example, in past we used simple tools that did not emit "greenhouse gases." But now instead of using a horse for transportation, we use a car or a plane. Instead of plowing with animals, we plow with heavy-duty tractors.
(3) Our Way of Thinking: It's hard for us as a society to notice and take action when things gradually happen. We need a sudden jolt to see danger. If it's gradual, we sit there and wait for something to happen, and don't respond
  • In 1997, representatives from countries around the world met in Kyoto, Japan and came up with The Kyoto Protocol, an international treaty requiring cuts in the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. The protocol commits industrialized nations like ours to reduce these emissions by at least 5 percent below levels measured in 1990. Of the world's 193 countries, 130 ratified the Kyoto Protocol, which took effect on February 16, 2005. The United States is responsible for one-quarter of the world's total emissions. But the U.S. refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. The president views the concept of global warming as questionable. Many scientists now believe the limits called for in the Kyoto Protocol fall far short of what is needed to address the climate change problem.

3. Opinion Continuum

(15 minutes)
On one side of the classroom, post a sign that says AGREE. On the opposite side, post a sign that says DISAGREE. And somewhere in between, post a sign that says NOT SURE.
Explain that we are going to do an activity called the opinion continuum. Ask: what is an opinion? Is an opinion the truth? The facts? Can you have a different opinion than your friend or Mom and still like them?
Tell students they are going to listen to a statement and then decide whether they agree, disagree, or aren't sure (or in between) with a series of statements. Point out the signs around the room stating AGREE... DISAGREE... NOT SURE. After hearing the statements, the students should stand near the sign that matches their opinion on the statement.
Read the statements below. After each statement, give students a chance to position themselves. Then give students a minute to talk with each other about why they are standing where they are. Then ask each group of students to explain to the other groups why they are standing where they are. Afterwards, give students a chance to change their position if their view has changed.
  • Purple is a better color than blue.
  • Students should wear uniforms to school.
  • Standardized tests are a good way to determine intelligence.
  • Global warming is a very important issue.
  • The Kyoto Protocol should be ratified by the United States.
  • As individual people, we can make a difference in global warming.
  • The government should force corporations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Global warming is way too big a problem for us to solve it ourselves.

4. What Can We Do?

(10 minutes)
Ask the students to think about what can be done about the problem of global warming. They've already discussed a lot today. They are probably already doing things that help.
On a sheet of chart paper, draw a quadrant in this configuration: 





Tell the class; We are going to come up with action steps we can take in these four categories. Ask students to call out their ideas.
  • Individuals
  • Community
  • Corporations
  • Government (including political action to get our government to do things)
Write students' ideas down in the appropriate quadrants. If students don't suggest the following, you may want to add them:
  • Save electricity: turn off lights, television, computer, DVD player, stereo, use energy efficient appliances. Unplug your cell phone as soon as it has finished charging.
  • Adjust your thermostat. Moving your thermostat down just 2 degrees in winter and up 2 degrees in summer will save about 2000 pounds of carbon dioxide a year.
  • Use public transportation, walk, bike. 
  • Use cars with higher mileage and cars that are better for the environment by not using as much gas and don't pollute the air as much.
  • Explore solar, wind power
  • Plant trees. This reduces greenhouse gases because trees absorb carbon dioxide
  • Learn more about the environment. Talk to family and friends.
  • Write a letter to your senator, congressperson, president, or local officials to make urge them to pass laws aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions by companies, the government, and individuals.
  • Speak up.
  • Vote for leadership (locally and nationally) who have made a commitment to solve these problems.
  • Recycle cans, bottles, plastic bags, and newspapers. Recycling old materials uses less energy (and emits less greenhouse gases) than manufacturing new materials.
One concept to think about is....
  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

5. Group Project: Make a Subway Ad about Global Warming

(20 minutes)
Students will work in groups of 4. Have them count off and find a spot in the room to work. Give each group a sheet of chart paper and markers and show them all of the other art materials.
Tell them they are going to talk for about 5 minutes and then work together to create an advertisement in the subway, buses or other public place warning people about global warming. They are going to create a PSA (Public Service Announcement) that gives people information about global warming and that warns them about the dangers of it. Remind them that it should: (1) should be visually appealing to get people's attention, (2) give information, and (3) give people something concrete they can do.
After students complete their drawings, ask then to hang them up. Give students time to share their work with the larger group. (If there's not enough time, have students take a few minutes to do a "gallery walk" around the room to see each other's advertisements.)

6. Closing

Go around the room, asking everyone to say one thing they learned, or one thing they are going to do.

Useful websites


This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email website editor Laura McClure at: