Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum

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In Memory of Gary Braasch: Inspiring Advocate for Nature and Humankind

Photo credit: Lynne Cherry

Photo credit: Lynne Cherry

Written by Catherine Stimac, Executive Producer, Educational Production of Oregon Public Broadcasting 

Award-winning photojournalist and ecosystem advocate, Gary Braasch offered the world a vast collection of photographs that expose the beauty and complexity of the natural world and transmit a passion for and delight in nature. Gary worked tirelessly to document and preserve what he saw through this view finder.

Gary’s work and philosophy are featured in Essential Lens: Analyzing Photographs across the Curriculum, produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) for Annenberg Learner.

The production team at OPB and staff at Annenberg Learner were stunned and saddened by the recent news of Gary’s death. He died in March 2016 doing what was most important to him — photographing the effects a warming climate was having in precious ecosystems around the world. He had been snorkeling and documenting coral bleaching at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia for the Australian Museum and its Lizard Island Research Station. “He was a great man, and he died doing what he loved to do,” his son, Cedar Braasch said of his father.

Gary was a consultant to, subject of, and photographic contributor to Essential Lens. His work appears in the photo collection Earth, Climate, and Change: Observing Human Impact. Essential Lens provides rights-cleared photos and lesson plans, and guides teachers on using photographs to help students sharpen their observation and analytical skills while learning about important issues in our global community.

Photo credit: Lynne Cherry

Photo credit: Lynne Cherry

Gary recorded landscapes and species at risk due to receding glaciers, rising sea levels, eroding coastlines, and other effects of global warming. Gary’s work appeared in the New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and Life, among many other publications and productions, including the Al Gore film “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Producer Beth Harrington profiled Gary’s work in the online video Evidence (begin at 12:24 min.). “Gary was a lovely, amiable man but he also imparted a great sense of mission when he spoke of photography. I’m in awe of the dedication it took for him to return, again and again, to places all over the world to do his repeat photo work,” said Harrington. “But, of course, that was just one aspect of his extremely high caliber work. He gave us a view of our world that few others could have provided. We’ve lost a great agent for understanding and change.”

Gary also spent a great deal of time educating the public, teachers, students, and especially policymakers using his photographs as the undeniable evidence. To broaden the impact of this work Gary was a founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers. Gary explained the contribution of photography to the campaign against climate change in the video Evidence: “This idea of having a long term view of the landscape, and being able to tie it to what the scientists are saying… I’m trying to connect people to the process…so they can see the changes that are happening and have some sense of the time scale.”

Photo credit: Lynne Cherry

Photo credit: Lynne Cherry

In addition to his photography, Gary’s work includes publications on global warming: Earth Under Fire, How Global Warming is Changing the World; a website World View of Global Warming; and a book for young audiences co-authored with his friend and colleague the writer/ illustrator Lynne Cherry, How We Know What We Know About Our Changing Planet: Scientists and Kids Explore Global Warming, which won 15 awards including the American Association for the Advancement of Science Best Middle-School Science Book of the Year.

Cherry and Braasch founded Young Voices on Climate Change to champion youth solutions to the climate crisis through the “Young Voices for the Planet” film series, aired on public television stations via American Public Television.

With Gary Braasch’s passing, the world has lost one of its greatest advocates for nature and for humankind. We encourage you to read more about Gary via the links above and to watch his interview in the Essential Lens video Evidence. Most importantly, take the time to look and learn from his photographs and share the story that they tell with your colleagues and your students.

Framing climate change: When textbooks cloud the issue

HabPlanet_12_surfacetempimageWorld leaders are meeting in Paris this week to negotiate a new agreement on slowing global climate change. Many observers say the chances for success are good: more than 180 countries have already pledged to take steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But a recent study published in the journal Environmental Education Research suggests that U.S. text books are not teaching American students accurately about the scope of global climate change or the risks that it poses.

The study authors analyzed four sixth-grade earth science textbooks adopted in California to see how the texts described climate change. They found that although 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activities are causing current warming, the books did not reflect this high level of certainty. Instead they made statements such as: “Some scientists believe that human activities can affect the climate of our planet,” obscuring both the strong consensus among scientists about impacts of human action and the fact that those impacts are occurring now. All four books also pointed out that “some” scientists believed current warming was due to natural variations in Earth’s climate. Only two texts listed specific actions that humans could take to slow climate change, and none specifically told students what they could do.

“The message was that climate change is possibly happening, that humans may or may not be causing it, and that we do not need to take immediate mitigating action,” the authors observed. This view, they contended, misrepresented the state of climate science. It also poorly described what scientists do: the texts often said scientists believed or thought certain things instead of describing how researchers analyzed data and drew conclusions from it.

What can teachers do to present a more accurate understanding of climate science? The study authors, Diego Roman of Southern Methodist University and K.C. Busch of Stanford University, offer some strategies:

  • Clarify what is known and unknown. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fifth assessment report, published in 2013, states unequivocally that “Human impact on the climate is clear,” and describes many observed changes on land and ocean systems. Journalists covering the Paris conference have also written stories quantifying the impacts of climate change since 1997, when nations last tried to negotiate a global treaty to slow warming.
  • Explain the role of uncertainty. Two factors influence the strength of IPCC findings: the quality of the evidence (limited, medium or robust), and levels of agreement among scientists (low, medium, high). Statements expressing the panel’s confidence in various outcomes reflect specific judgments of how likely they are: for example, “virtually certain” means a probability of 99 to 100 percent, and “very likely” means 90 to 100 percent. Section 12 of The Habitable Planet, “Earth’s Changing Climate,” explains how scientists measure and analyze impacts of climate change to discern the human role. (Note, however, that the IPCC observations described in The Habitable Planet are drawn from an earlier report; the 2013 report linked above reflects the panel’s most recent statements and how Earth is warming and what impacts can be measured.)
  • Discuss the role of humans as agents in causing climate change. Roman and Busch argue that many texts obscure the human role in climate change by attributing rising emissions to abstract processes such as burning fossil fuels, without ever explaining who is doing the burning. Making the human role explicit leads to discussions about what humans can do to help solve the problem.

Beyond understanding climate science, deciding how society should respond to climate change is a social and political process. The California Education and the Environment Initiative, supported by the Annenberg Foundation, presents environmental science within a broader context of history and human development. To adjust to a changing climate, humans will have to develop better ways of sharing resources and protecting the most vulnerable nations from impacts like drought and floods. The Paris negotiations are just the first step.

Displaced by Disasters

Floods, fires, earthquakes, and other natural disasters have driven humans from their homes throughout history. The problem is growing as world population rises and millions of people move to mega-cities, many of which are located in vulnerable areas. According to a recent report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a non-government research organization in Geneva, Switzerland, 27 million people on average have been displaced each year since 2008 by natural disasters.


Image from Earth Revealed.

Climate change is worsening the problem by raising sea levels and increasing the frequency of catastrophic storms. U.S. students may remember images from Superstorm Sandy in the fall of 2012, which flooded large sections of lower Manhattan and caused at least $50 billion in damages. Climate analysts have calculated that if global carbon emissions continue to rise at their current rates, about 2.6 percent of the world’s population (177 million people) will live in areas that are at risk from regular flooding by 2100. No country is safe, but the greatest risk is in Asian nations such as Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Bangladesh, where large fractions of the population live in areas that are vulnerable to coastal flooding.

Human vulnerability to disasters can be studied from several science perspectives. Unit 24 of Annenberg Learner’s Earth Revealed geology series focuses on coastlines, where the energy of ocean waves meets rocky landmasses of the mainland. Use this video to discuss issues that people living near shore should consider, such as erosion and how far back from the water to build. For more information on flood risks, the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program develops flood-hazard maps for U.S. communities that can be viewed online, along with videos from flooded communities.

Many people live in areas where they know there is significant risk of floods, wildfires, or other natural disasters. In unit 25 of Earth Revealed, see how scientists are studying the San Andreas Fault and residents of San Francisco have adapted to the risks of earthquakes in the Bay area. Teaching Geography, workshop 2, “Latin America,” part 2, discusses the risks that people living near Mount Tungurahua in Ecuador face. In addition, the Volcanoes interactive explores our ability to predict volcanic eruptions and steps that people can take to reduce the danger of living near active volcanoes.

Many cities threatened by rising seas are considering ways to adapt and make themselves more resilient in the face of floods and storms. One widely-cited example is the Netherlands’ Room for the River program, which is creating open spaces where the Rhine River can spill over during floods without threatening local communities. In New York City, a program called Rebuild by Design is proposing flood-protection strategies for the New York region, including protective berms around Manhattan and restored marshes and oyster reefs in New York Harbor to absorb the impact of storms.

At the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, an upcoming exhibit called “Sink or Swim” will examine human responses to coastal flooding around the world, from sea walls to floating schools. The exhibit, which runs from December 13, 2014 through May 3, 2015, will show “how communities are rising up to meet the challenges” of climate change in densely populated coastal zones worldwide, says Annenberg Foundation Chairman of the Board, President and CEO Wallis Annenberg.

Citizen Science Tuesday: Monarchs Journey North

Written by Lisa Feldkamp, senior coordinator, new science audiences, The Nature Conservancy
Reposted with permission from Cool Green Science, The Science Blog of The Nature Conservancy (October 21, 2014)

liatris_01_aug2014_800What is Journey North and Why Should You Participate?

Migrating monarchs are one of nature’s wonders — they can travel up to 500 miles in just three days on their 2,500 mile journey from Mexico to Canada and back again over the course of a year.

And they’re also one of the few creatures that gains weight during migration — from 60mg of lipids (fat) when they start their southward migration to 140mg by the time they reach Mexico—because they glide on the wind instead of flapping.

“They’d never make it to Mexico otherwise,” explains Elizabeth Howard, founder and director of Journey North, which works to track monarch migrations. “In flapping flight, they would burn enough fat that they would starve in just 44 hours. Soaring and gliding they can go for 160 hours.”

But there’s a lot we still don’t know about monarchs. Which is why Journey North is looking for your citizen science observations on the backyard behaviors of this iconic and threatened insect.

Why is Journey North Important?

Monarchs are currently completing their journey south to their overwintering grounds in Mexico. But the migrations get more difficult with each passing year.

The migration and the butterflies are in danger because of threats like climate change and changes in agriculture that have limited the amount of milkweed, a key plant for monarch conservation

In recent years, the population has declined dramatically.

Your observations can help scientists determine the abundance of monarchs and find out if they are overwintering in new locations. The data could help them answer questions like, how do monarchs know when to go to Mexico, how do they know where to fly, and why do monarchs migrate?

Answering questions about when butterflies travel, where they go, and whether or not the timing of their migrations has changed could help scientists to understand how climate change impacts their journey.

It could also help in advising when and where people should plant milkweed.


Monarch Butterfly Migration Map Fall 2014. Courtesy of Journey North.

Journey North is also an excellent source of materials and facts for teachers and kids interested in the monarch migration. Even if they don’t pass by your area, you can track their progress on Journey North.

You can find out how to tell a male from a female or hear the story of a monarch that was blown off course all the way to England!

That’s not common, of course. In fact, migrating monarchs seem like they’re on a mission, according to Howard.

“It’s incredible the way they ‘beeline’ towards Mexico during fall migration,” she says. “When you see a migrating monarch, you know it. No matter how many times I see it I’m amazed. They fly overhead as if following an invisible roadway. One at a time, often a few minutes apart, they follow the same flight path.”

How Can You Get Involved in Journey North?

If you live where there are monarchs, just submit your sightings online.

If you aren’t sure where to find monarchs, here are two pro tips from Howard:

a. Find Nectar

If you want to see fall migration, find a large source of nectar. The best places are farm fields with blooming clover, alfalfa, sunflowers, etc. Stick around until sunset, watch the monarchs carefully, and you’re likely to see them gathering into an overnight roost.

b. Look for Little Butterflies

To find a field that’s rich with nectar you can drive around in your car. Watch for little butterflies — like sulphurs and cabbage whites — flitting above the flowers. They are much more numerous than monarchs and so are good clues that flowers are producing nectar and monarchs might be present.

Keep up with the monarch news or watch the maps to find out when monarchs come through your area.

There are many other things that you can do at home to help monarchs. For instance, plant milkweed, provide nectar plants, and avoid pesticide use.

Follow along with the migration online and get ready to record your observations for next year’s journey north!

Is there a citizen science project that you think deserves more attention? Contact Lisa Feldkamp, lfeldkamp[at]tnc.org or leave a comment below with a link to make a recommendation for Citizen Science Tuesday.

Opinions expressed on Cool Green Science and in any corresponding comments are the personal opinions of the original authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Nature Conservancy.

– See more at Cool Green Science blog. 

Ocean Science: Start Shallow, Go Deep (Part I)

HP_3_1_oceansWhile memories of the beach are still fresh in students’ minds, ocean science offers many hooks for seasonal lessons in all of the sciences. Oceans cover more than 70 percent of Earth’s surface and contain 97 percent of all water on the planet. But according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the lead federal agency for protecting and managing the ocean, more than 95 percent of the underwater world has yet to be explored. Ocean scientists often point out that we know more about the surface of the moon than of the ocean floor. That’s true even though the ocean produces much of the air we breathe (from photosynthetic plankton, kelp and algae) and much of the food on our plates.

Many ocean life forms and events that are most familiar to students occur at the surface or in waters relatively near the surface, which are the focus of this post. Next month’s post, “Ocean Science: Start Shallow, Go Deep (Part II),” will explore science concepts in deep waters and on the ocean floor.

For biology classes, fall is a prime season to study migrations. Gray whales make one of the longest migrations of any mammal: roughly 5,000 miles each way between waters off Mexico in winter and the Arctic in summer. Currently the whales are still feeding in the Arctic, but soon they will start moving south to their winter breeding grounds. Learn about gray whales’ feeding habits and track their progress south on the Journey North web site. For more species consult Ocean Tracks, which shows the movement of elephant seals, white sharks, Bluefin tuna and albatrosses in the Pacific Ocean.

Fall is also high season for hurricanes, which are driven by heat transfer from warm ocean waters to the atmosphere. The U.S. National Weather Service’s official hurricane seasons for the Atlantic and Eastern Pacific oceans extend through November 30, and many major hurricanes have struck in September. Physics teachers can use hurricanes to illustrate basic concepts, including zones of high and low pressure, vacuums and energy transfers. Unit 3, section 5 of The Habitable Planet explains how ocean circulation patterns help to generate hurricanes and monsoons, another form of seasonal tropical storm.

To extend the lesson, ask students to consider how warmer ocean temperatures as a result of climate change may affect the frequency and strength of hurricanes. This is a complex question that has generated much debate among climate scientists. But according to a 2013 study by MIT professor Kerry Emmanuel, a leading expert on this issue (and featured scientist in the video for The Habitable Planet’s unit 2 on Earth’s atmosphere), climate change could make hurricanes both more frequent and more intense. For advanced students, the scientific debate over Emmanuel’s position shows how difficult it can be to show causal connections between climate change and complex weather events.

Oceans are also key links in broader climate patterns such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation, an event that occurs every three to seven years when trade winds across the Pacific weaken and warm water piles up against the coast of South America. El Niño events cause far-reaching impacts on weather, including heavy rains and landslides in North and South America and droughts in Asia. The National Weather Service is currently predicting a 60-65 percent chance of El Niño occurring during the fall of 2014 and winter of 2015. For details about El Niño, see Annenberg’s Weather interactive on the water cycle. Then look at NWS monthly weather forecasts for the United States to see how temperatures and precipitation in your area may be affected.

Oceans also can serve as a frame for chemistry lessons. Many ocean scientists are strongly concerned about acidification – changes in ocean chemistry that are driven by climate change, as seawater absorbs rising amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. According to NOAA, the acidity of surface ocean waters has increased by about 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and could be 150 percent more acidic by the year 2100. This would represent a fall in pH value from approximately 8.2 to 7.8 or lower.

Acidification is already having harmful impacts on marine life. For example, shellfish farmers in the Pacific Northwest have reported that some organisms’ shells are thinning or are pitted and damaged. For an applied chemistry lesson focusing on ocean acidification, start with unit 10 of Chemistry: Challenges and Solutions, an overview of acids and bases. Then dive into “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn,” an award-winning multi-media series by the Seattle Times that examines how acidification could alter life in the world’s oceans.

Ultimately acidification can only be reversed by reducing carbon emissions into the atmosphere. In the short run, however, other strategies could help to mitigate the impact on ocean life. NOAA is working with university and shellfish industry scientists in the Pacific Northwest to monitor ocean chemistry and develop responses, such as reducing nutrient pollution from land, which also contributes to acidification.

Next month’s science post will explore the deep oceans for more science topics, including deep ocean life forms; the geology of the ocean floor; and the chemical and biological processes slowly breaking down the Titanic at its underwater resting site.

Ways to teach about climate change (Part II of II)

HP_surface air increase(See Part I: Why should schools teach about climate change? here.) Teaching about climate change can be daunting: the science is complex, multi-disciplinary, and evolving quickly. But many key ideas about how Earth’s climate system works can be used to illustrate basic ideas in biology, chemistry, and physics.

For example, when biology students study how organisms adapt to their environments, teachers can introduce the idea that climate change is shifting many species’ ranges and altering the timing of seasonal events, such as the first flowering of plants in spring. When students study the carbon cycle in chemistry or earth science, teachers can point out that human activities are adding carbon to the atmosphere, and discuss how Earth’s atmosphere and oceans act as “sinks” for carbon.

What should students know about climate science? The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America’s weather and climate agency, suggests that a climate-literate person:

  • Understands the essential principles of Earth’s climate system,
  • Knows how to assess scientifically credible information about climate,
  • Communicates about climate and climate change in a meaningful way, and
  • Is able to make informed and responsible decisions with regard to actions that may affect climate.

NOAA’s Climate.gov library breaks climate science literacy down into key principles – how energy flows from the sun to Earth, the interactions among Earth’s systems that regulate climate, factors that make climate variable, and the impacts of human actions. The site also offers visuals, videos, experiments demonstrating key concepts, and interactive tools.

Many climate change concepts can be explored through projects, which give students opportunities to apply ideas – and often, to see the impacts of their personal choices. Clarkson University worked with the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority to develop ten project-based climate modules on topics ranging from the greenhouse effect to the climate impact of a “dream vacation.” Lessons target grades 6-8 but can be adapted for other levels.

School groups can also join ongoing citizen science projects across the United States, many of which focus on climate-related events. Three national examples:

  • Journey North, from Annenberg Learner, is a free program that uses observations from students and citizen scientists to track wildlife migration and seasonal change. Teachers can use Journey North to help students learn which indicators of changing seasons are unaffected by climate change (such as the length of daylight at a given time of year) and which are impacted (such as the first arrival of migratory birds in spring).
  • Project Budburst, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, tracks how plant species are responding to local, regional, and national climate changes. Participants submit ongoing or one-time reports on specific plants. The project offers classroom resources for grades K-12.
  • Project FeederWatch, run by the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, is a project that surveys bird populations in back yards, parks, and nature centers across North America from November through April. Researchers use the data to track changes in bird species’ winter abundance and distribution.

The Habitable Planet series from Annenberg Learner also provides tools to teach about climate change. The series, presented in videos and an online textbook, explains fundamental environmental science concepts that support an understanding of climate change. Key units include “Atmosphere,” which describes Earth’s energy balance and the role of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; “Oceans,” which shows the important role that oceans play in absorbing carbon; and “Energy Challenges,” which explains how fossil fuels were created and describes the pros and cons of these and other energy sources. “Earth’s Changing Climate” ties these issues together to show how greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are altering Earth’s energy balance. (Note: for the most current international assessment of climate change science and impacts, see post here from October 30.)

Why should schools teach about climate change? (Part I of II)

EarthAs new findings about global climate change make news, some science teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place. Hundreds of scientists who contributed to the most recent international assessment of climate change science say they are 95 percent certain that human activities are the cause of global warming in recent decades. That’s the same level of confidence experts have that smoking cigarettes causes cancer.

But over the past five years, more than a dozen bills have been introduced at the state level that would allow teachers to present material challenging that scientific consensus. Recent reports* have spotlighted a textbook review panel in Texas, which includes several members who have questioned evolution and climate change science, and is scheduled to vote this month on an approved list of biology textbooks. (Publishers have not altered texts in response to comments from these reviewers.)

The Next Generation Science Standards offer a counterpoint. The standards recommend introducing students to global climate change in middle school as students learn about weather and climate. High school students are expected to learn about using models to understand Earth’s climate system, and to make evidence-based forecasts of the current rate of global climate change and associated impacts.

The high school standards also link global climate change to human sustainability. Students who understand these concepts should be able to explain how human activities are affecting relationships among Earth systems, such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere, and to think critically about solutions that could reduce human impacts on natural systems.

Twenty-six states helped develop the standards, and eight states have already adopted them: California, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Rhode Island, Vermont, Delaware, and Washington. Kentucky’s Gov. Steve Beshear overruled a legislative subcommittee that voted against adopting the standards, which had already been endorsed by the state Department of Education and Board of Education. “My job . . . is to make sure our children are college and career ready when they leave high school. Part of getting them college and career ready is to make sure they study all the different scientific theories [that] are out there that everybody else in the world will be studying,” Beshear said.

By emphasizing critical thinking and investigation, the Next Generation standards are designed to help students understand how scientists develop and test ideas, and to think across disciplines. Climate change is a topic that is well suited to this approach. It draws on multiple fields of science: for example, we need some basic physics to understand atmospheric circulation, while ocean acidification is a chemical process. And scientific understanding of climate science and climate change impacts is evolving in real time today, as researchers test theories and refine models that help us understand past climate shifts and predict what may happen in coming decades.

*Post update: On November 22, 2013, the New York Times published a new piece on the ongoing controversial textbook process in Texas. See the article here.

(Stay tuned next Wednesday, November 20, for Part II: Ways to teach about climate change.)

World population: more people, more urban (Part II)

(Part II of II updates to The Habitable Planet)

HP_ChinaposterSeven billion and counting

Global population growth is a central issue in environmental studies. More people on Earth means more demand for food, water and other natural resources. Extracting and using those resources creates air and water pollution and generates waste.

Unit 5 of The Habitable Planet, “Human Population Dynamics,” describes patterns of population growth and the relationship between population and environmental impacts. When The Habitable Planet was released in 2007, world population totaled roughly 6.7 billion, and the United Nations projected that it would be just over 9 billion by 2050. Since that time, the world has reached several new milestones.

Late in 2011 world population reached 7 billion, just twelve years after it had topped the 6 billion mark. The U.N.’s latest estimates, released in mid-2013, project that global population will exceed 8 billion by 2025, and that in 2050 it could total up to 9.6 billion. These numbers are higher than earlier estimates, mostly because the U.N. used new methods to estimate current fertility rates in a group of African countries where fertility remains high (Angola, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Niger, and Nigeria).

As countries modernize, life expectancies improve, and women gain access to contraception and education, fertility rates typically decline in a pattern known as the demographic transition, which is described in section five, unit five of The Habitable Planet. But this shift is not automatic, and U.N. officials warned that “additional substantial efforts” may be needed to help make it happen in countries where fertility is still high.

Bright lights, big cities

Another population trend with major environmental impacts is global urbanization. In 2007 the share of world population living in cities topped 50 percent for the first time in history, and people continue to move from total to urban areas. According to current U.N. estimates, by 2050 more than two-third of the world’s population will live in cities. Most of this movement will take place in the developing world (industrialized countries have already largely urbanized). By 2025 most of the world’s megacities (urban areas with at least 10 million residents) will be in developing countries. Cities on track to join this club include Lagos, Nigeria; Chennai, India, and Shenzen, China.

Students may have trouble understanding why so many people in developing countries move from rural areas to cities, where they often end up living in slums with contaminated air and water and working in unsafe conditions. The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh earlier this year, which killed more than 1,100 garment workers, spotlighted the difficulty that millions of the world’s poor face as they try to find a toehold in fast-growing cities.

But in spite of conditions like these, demographers and urban scholars contend that cities offer much better economic opportunities than rural areas. Many students may have seen the 2008 Academy award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire, which follows its fictional hero, Jamal Malik, through his childhood and teenage years in Mumbai, India. Jamal is orphaned, leaves home and faces horrifying exploitation, but finds new opportunities after every escape. Setting aside the only-in-a-movie resolution (Jamal wins wealth and fame on a game show and is reunited with the love of his life), students can discuss why Jamal returns to Mumbai and what his life might have been like if he had tried to make a living as a farmer instead. They also can consider how improvements like affordable housing, clean water supplies, and better public transit would improve conditions for people in megacities like Mumbai and give them more opportunity to create stable, healthy lives.

Questions for discussion:

  • What are the most significant environmental impacts of an average citizen’s lifestyle in one of the African countries where population growth rates remain high? How do they compare with the impacts of an average citizen in the United States? What does this comparison tell you about the relationship between population and the environment?
  • UN-Habitat, a United Nations agency, defines slums as areas that lack at least one of these features:
    • Durable housing
    • Adequate living space (no more than three people sharing a room)
    • Access to clean drinking water
    • Access to improved sanitation (toilets or latrines that separate human waste from contact with water sources)
    • Secure property rights (e.g., rights and legal protection for tenants)

    Which of these resources do you think are most important? What other attributes might also distinguish slums from adequate living places?

Climate change: A new global report finds clear human influence (Part I)

(Part I of II updates to The Habitable Planet)

© Greenpeace/Beltra. Polar bears hunt their prey from Arctic sea ice, so climate change threatens their survival.

© Greenpeace/Beltra.
Polar bears hunt their prey from Arctic sea ice, so climate change threatens their survival.

New warming milestones

Late last month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released the first volume of its latest report on the state of Earth’s climate. The IPCC, an international scientific body, was created by the United Nations Environment Programme and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 to advise national governments about climate science and potential impacts from global warming.

The new report finds that Earth’s climate is unequivocally warming, and that it is extremely likely that human activities have been the “dominant cause” of observed warming since the mid-20th century.[1] The IPCC defines “extremely likely” as equivalent to 95 percent certainty. Its last assessment in 2007 called it 90 percent likely that humans had caused observed climate change in recent decades.

As Unit 12 of The Habitable Planet, “Earth’s Changing Climate,” illustrates, Earth is constantly receiving energy from the sun in the form of visible light and radiating some of that energy back into space as heat. Human activities are increasing the concentrations of greenhouse gases, or GHGs (substances that absorb heat) in Earth’s atmosphere, warming the planet’s surface. Since The Habitable Planet was released in 2007, world GHG concentrations have continued to rise, and climate change impacts have become more severe.

One widely-reported milestone occurred in the spring of 2013, when the average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere reached 400 parts per million (ppm). [2] Carbon dioxide is the main driver of human-induced climate change, and is generated mainly from burning fossil fuels. In the pre-industrial era, atmospheric CO2 concentrations averaged about 280 ppm. In 2005, when the IPCC published its fourth global climate assessment report, they had reached 379 ppm. According to atmospheric scientists, concentrations of 400 ppm probably last occurred several million years ago, when the planet was far warmer than today.[3]

In its new assessment report, the IPCC estimates that if atmospheric concentrations of CO2 reach double the pre-industrial level (a marker the world is on track to reach by mid-century at current rates), global average temperatures would increase by 2.7 to 8.1 degrees Fahrenheit.[4] For comparison, the world warmed by about 1.4 degrees between 1880 and 2012.[5] Some of the most likely impacts of warming include:

  • More intense and frequent extreme precipitation events (rain and snow) in mid-latitudes and tropical regions;
  • Continued melting and thinning of Arctic sea ice and decreasing spring snow cover in the Northern hemisphere; and
  • Faster sea level rise than the changes that have already been observed in recent decades as ice sheets melt and oceans warm, totaling 21 to 38 inches by 2100 if emissions remain high.

Reaching scientific judgments

IPCC reports represent consensus views of hundreds of scientists who review current findings from many disciplines. Working Group I, which produced this volume, focuses on the state of climate science and draws from fields including meteorology, oceanography and ecology. In total, 209 lead authors, 50 review editors from 39 countries contributed to this volume, which cites some 9,200 scientific publications. Reports from Working Group II (on climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability) and Working Group III (on mitigation, or actions to slow climate change) are scheduled to appear in 2014.

IPCC reports are data-heavy and can be challenging to sift through because they consider what will happen under a range of different emissions scenarios. But students can learn about climate change just from seeing how the IPCC approaches its task. Measuring climate change is a scientific challenge, but governments also need to know how impacts such as rising sea levels will affect their countries, and how much difference actions such as shifting away from fossil fuel will make over a given time period. The IPCC’s summary of areas covered by its working groups shows how many specialties have something to contribute to this effort.

The IPCC’s process also illustrates how scientists come to judgments about large-scale problems. Why does the panel review thousands of individual studies to make estimates for these reports? Why does it use multiple scenarios with high, medium and low GHG emissions to project how climate change may progress? Why do the authors assign values such as “virtually certain” and “very likely” to their estimates, as well as numerical probabilities? A look at the IPCC can show students that finding solutions to complex questions like climate change is a slow, iterative process – but one that the world can’t afford to ignore.

Questions for discussion:

  • Which climate change impacts are likely to have major effects where you live? (The IPCC report describes many projected impacts, including sea level rise, changes in amounts and timing of rain and snowfall, and decreasing snowpack in cold regions.)
  • The United States has experienced a number of extreme weather events in the past several years, including Hurricane Sandy in the fall of 2012, record-scale flooding in Colorado’s Front Range earlier this fall, and a multi-year drought across much of Texas. Does evidence suggest that climate change may have contributed to these events? How could climate change amplify a hurricane, rainstorm or drought?

(Look for Part II, “World population: more people, more urban,” on Wednesday, November 6.)

National Environmental Education Week (April 14-20)

HabPlanet_earthDiscuss current and future environmental problems, including possible solutions, with your students. The following resources provide ideas for science, social studies, and literature classrooms:




  1. Hear thought-provoking views and research findings from experts in the field, including entomologist E.O. Wilson in The Habitable Planet, unit 13 video, “Looking Forward: Our Global Experiment.”
  2. Two interactives in The Habitable Planet allow you and your students to manage an energy crisis. The Carbon Lab explores how human influence on carbon output affects the future health of the Earth’s atmosphere.  In the Energy Lab interactive, try developing a portfolio of energy resources that cuts back on CO2 and considers the pros and cons of multiple sources of energy.
  3. Gage Reeves asks his 5th graders to relate their reading about global warming and climate change to events and products in their community in Teaching Reading 3-5 Workshop, classroom program 13, “Reading Across the Curriculum.”
  4. Consider the possible conflicts that arise when living in a future society affected by significant global warming and other challenges by reading “Parable of the Sower” by Octavia E. Butler.  The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature, session 7, “Critical Pedagogy,” includes an audio clip of the author and a synopsis of the story.
  5. Learn about where oil comes from, how it is extracted and used for energy, and the effects of using oil as an energy source on the environment in Earth Revealed, program 26, “Living With Earth, Part II.”
  6. Explore environmental mysteries like the causes of ice ages and consider how life shapes the earth in Planet Earth, program 3, “The Climate Puzzle,” and program 7, “Fate of the Earth.”
  7. Economic stories show how pollution is a “negative externality” that can have serious consequences for economic efficiency in Economics U$A, unit 8, “Pollution and the Environment.”
  8. The World of Chemistry, program 17, “The Precious Envelope,” explains ozone depletion and the greenhouse effect on the earth’s atmosphere.