Robert Sinclair offers some ideas on how to introduce climate change lessons into the primary classroom, as part of the KS2 geography curriculum
The government recently announced a package of measures designed to revitalise geography in schools. During secondary education, interest in geography is declining – and it is an important area of study. While many of the government’s initiatives are designed for the KS3+ classroom, there is no reason why some ‘real-world’ geography issues cannot be introduced in the KS2 classroom.
What is climate change?
Recent months have seen devastation in Burma, and warnings in the UK of flooding again this summer. Climate change is having a dramatic impact on all our lives and is the greatest environmental challenge facing the world today. Rising global temperatures will bring changes in weather patterns, rising sea levels and increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather. The effects will be felt worldwide and there may be severe problems for people in regions that are particularly vulnerable.
Climate refers to the average weather experienced over a long period of time. It is different from weather. It includes temperature, wind and rainfall patterns. It is important to remember that the climate of the Earth is not static – it has changed many times in response to a variety of natural causes. Scientists estimate that the Earth has warmed by 0.74°C over the last hundred years. About 0.4°C of this warming has occurred since the 1970s.
Recent governmental reports and other statistics can leave us in no doubt that human activity is the main reason behind climate change. The main way that humans have changed the climate is through the emission of key greenhouse gases, namely: carbon dioxide (CO2), methane and nitrous oxide. The collection of these gases in the Earth’s atmosphere dramatically increases the greenhouse effect. Some statistics state that at the moment seven billion tonnes of CO2 are emitted globally each year through the use of fossil fuels. There is an additional 1.6 billion tonnes emitted through changing land use – mainly deforestation.
What does climate change mean?
Globally, some believe that mean temperatures are likely to rise between 1.1 and 6.4°C by the end of this century. But this does depend on whether (or not) we stop emitting high levels of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The raising of temperatures could result in a further rise in global sea levels of between 20 and 60cm by the end of this century, continued melting of ice caps, glaciers and sea ice, changes in rainfall patterns and intensification of tropical cyclones. For the UK, climate change means hotter, drier summers (more heat waves), milder wetter winters, higher sea levels and an increased flood risk to coastal areas. Across the globe, there will be more intense heat waves, droughts and more flooding.
Some key definitions:
What are greenhouse gases?
Greenhouse gases are the gases present in the atmosphere that reduce the loss of heat into space and, therefore, contribute to global temperatures through the greenhouse effect. We need some greenhouse gases otherwise the Earth would be so cold we couldn’t live on it. However, too many greenhouse gases, and the Earth gets hotter and hotter. The planet Venus has an atmosphere that is 96.5% carbon dioxide, which results in surface temperatures of about 467°C (872°F)!
What is the greenhouse effect?
There are two meanings of the term ‘greenhouse effect’. There is a ‘natural’ greenhouse effect that keeps the Earth’s climate warm and habitable. There is also the ‘man-made’ greenhouse effect, caused by the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels. The man-made portion of the greenhouse effect is believed by many scientists to be responsible for the global warming of the last 150 years.
What are fossil fuels?
Fossil fuels are fuels (such as coal) that are found within the top layer of the Earth’s crust. It is generally accepted that they formed from the fossilised remains of dead plants and animals by exposure to heat and pressure in the Earth’s crust over hundreds of millions of years. It was estimated by the Energy Information Administration that in 2005, 86% of primary energy production in the world came from burning fossil fuels, with the remaining non-fossil sources being hydroelectric 6.3%, nuclear 6.0%, and other (solar, wind, and wood) 0.9%. The critical thing to remember is that fossil fuels are non-renewable resources because they take millions of years to form, and reserves are being depleted much faster than new ones are being formed.
Why teach it?
We all need to understand the reasons behind climate change if we are to stand any chance of changing the bleak future predicted by scientists. If the release of greenhouse gases into the Earth’s atmosphere continues unabated then the Earth will just carry on heating up. We will experience more and more extreme weather; vast coastal areas will vanish as the water levels rise and some areas of the world will be turned to deserts. The loss of human life and suffering is unimaginable should things not change – and there is no change without knowledge.
How to teach it
So how can this complex and statistics-led topic be introduced into the KS2 classroom?
There are lots of activities that can be enjoyed within the geography lesson.
- Ask the pupils to research information about climate change using an appropriate internet search engine (or reference books) and learn how to discriminate between information from different sources. For example, a car manufacturer would write about climate change in a very different way from an environmental campaigner.
- Ask the pupils to locate places on a map that have been affected by climate change.
- Create a presentation about three places that have been affected by climate change. The pupils can select from:
- Bangladesh – In Bangladesh, there are three main rivers called the Ganges, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna as well as approximately 230 other rivers and tributaries. After heavy rains, the rivers burst their banks and there is frequent flooding. For many months the land which the people used for cultivation is waterlogged so they cannot grow crops. More recently (as a result of climate change), the floods have become worse and more frequent. In 2004 two-thirds of the country was submerged. This affected 50 million people as their homes and their staple crop, rice, were submerged or washed away and millions went hungry.
- Kenya – Kenya has recently experienced its worst drought for 20 years, leaving 11 million needing food and water. In some areas, there has been no rain for three years.
- Nepal – As temperatures increase, glaciers will melt and this will lead to more flooding. There is a particular threat of glacial lakes being unable to contain melted water and bursting resulting in catastrophic flooding in valleys.
- Peru – Due to higher sea temperatures, winters in Peru have become extreme and, for people living in the high Andes, it has had devastating impacts on their lives.
- Sudan – In Sudan, temperatures are increasing and rainfall is decreasing. As water becomes scarcer, people can no longer be self-sufficient.
- UK – In general, there may be more winter rainfall. Increases in sudden, heavy rains will make flash floods more likely. Drier and hotter summers will bring problems.
- USA – In August 2005, hurricane Katrina caused devastation to the city of New Orleans and many other towns in the southern USA.
It is also easy to extend the topic of climate change into other areas of the curriculum.
- Ask students to write a letter to their families, a local paper, or local politician recommending changes community members could make to reduce the potential impacts of climate change that they are personally concerned about.
- Alternatively, ask the pupils to write and design a poster for the school – advising their peers not to waste fuels by doing things such as turning off electric lights.
- The topic of climate change is full of statistics. The introduction to this article offers some facts and figures; ask the pupils to find more statistics relating to climate change; interrogate the data and then present the data in pie charts, bar charts or graphs.
- Ask the pupils to find out how much scientists estimate the ice at the North Pole to have reduced in size and depth.
- Ask the pupils to find out rainfall levels for their own area(s) in the UK for the last few years and make a comparison.
- As one of the problems behind climate change is the dramatic usage of fossil fuels – ask the pupils to find out what fossil fuels are and how they are formed. This can link to work done on rocks and soils. Do the pupils know the difference between renewable and non-renewable energy resources?
- Ask the pupils to find out about how we use fossil fuels to create energy and heat.
- The emission of gases into the atmosphere causes the greenhouse effect – ask the pupils to find out more about the gases causing the problem.
- One of the key indicators of climate change is ice melting. Ask the pupils to find out about how a solid (such as ice) can be changed into a liquid (such
- as water).
- Ask the pupils to find out what impact they think climate change can have on plants and animals. If areas of land suffer from higher temperatures and lower levels of rainfall – plants will die and animals will have less and less to eat. Also habitats throughout the world are being destroyed through deforestation. Ask the pupils to find out about this. What animals are being put at risk?
- How is climate change affecting polar bears at the North Pole? The ice at the North Pole is getting thinner and melting – this means that there is less ice for the polar bears to travel on in the hunt for food. The change in temperature is also disrupting the natural food chain at the North Pole. Disrupting the food chain means that the polar bears (and the other animals in the food chain) have less to eat. In the Arctic Ocean, the basic food chain is:
Algae under the sea ice are food for small organisms called plankton –> Plankton are food for Arctic codfish –> Ringed seal eat cod –> Polar bears eat ringed seals.
- As a whole class discuss how climate change affects us. Lead pupils to the conclusion that our communities have adapted to seasonal cycles and climatic conditions. Introduce the idea of potential impacts. What would happen if our climate changed dramatically? Ask the pupils to think of a climatic change and how that would affect them, such as: less snow would mean people could not ski as much; more rain would mean that pupils could not play outside as often; hotter summers might mean that water use is restricted, so swimming pools might close.
- Recycling is important in combatting climate change and global warming. Much of our rubbish is either burned (emitting gases into the atmosphere) or thrown into landfills where the rubbish releases methane gas as it rots. Ask the pupils to think about recycling. What do they recycle? How could they recycle more. Does the school have a recycling policy? If not, write one.
- Another big factor in climate change is the use of fuel to run cars. How many pupils walk to school? Do they realise that the cars they travel in are not only guzzling fuel; but also releasing gases into the atmosphere. Ask the pupils to survey modes of transport used to get to school.
Although the topic of climate change is more usually studied during KS3, there is much that can be done to introduce this topic at KS2. The earlier pupils realise that humans have an impact on their environment the better – so getting pupils to think about wasting water, throwing away rubbish that could be recycled or turning the light can only be a good thing.