Lesson 1: What is climate change? What is happening, what is the evidence, and how does it relate to our food system?

NGSS Alignment: This lesson aligns with the following Disciplinary Core Ideas:

  • MS-ESS2D: Weather and Climate

  • MS-ESS3C: Human Impacts on Earth's Systems

  • MS-ESS3D: Global Climate Change

Teacher Guide: [To prepare for this lesson, see the following materials]

  • To understand current climate perceptions in your state and across the nation, the newly updated Yale Climate Opinion maps are available here to visualize opinions on a range of climate-related questions, including support for climate education (above 60% support in all counties. 79% of the American public supports schools teaching global warming).

  • How Global Warming Works (educational video, versions between 52s and 5 min)

  • Visual representation of CO2 levels rising

  • Greenhouse Effect definition: The Greenhouse effect is "an atmospheric heating phenomenon, caused by shortwave solar radiation being readily transmitted inward through the earth's atmosphere but longer wavelength infrared radiation (heat) less readily transmitted outward, owing to its absorption by atmospheric carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, and other gases." Global warming is caused by the additional or enhanced greenhouse effect, beyond what is normal for Earth's atmosphere, due to the addition of greenhouse gases from human activity. Analogies: Earth wearing a blanket (greenhouse effect), Earth catching a fever (additional greenhouse effect).

  • Connection between climate change and food systems: Center for Ecoliteracy's "Understanding Food and Climate" interactive guide. Additional student activities available in the guide.

  • Feel free to explore other food carbon footprint calculators or charts to explore the relative carbon emissions, on average, from different fruits, vegetables, and other food products. For example, see this BBC article, and the chart in this article (showing that field grown fruits and veggies have the lowest footprint).

  • Write your own “Climate Story” for the school- how has your school/region interacted with or been affected by climate change? See examples and guidelines for writing climate stories here.


  • Student journals (students can make their own if time).


  • Do Now: When have you heard people talking about climate change before? What positive things or solutions can you do personally to minimize negative consequences of climate change? Tell us your “climate story,” or how you think climate change impacts your life (and/or your family, community). Write in journals, then pair-share or share out as a class.

    • Teacher: The theme of this week will be both understanding the problem of climate change, and practicing local solutions that school gardens can implement to mitigate climate change.

  • Mini Lesson: What is climate change: brief lesson and overview of the science.

    • Clarify global warming vs. climate change- “Global warming refers to the surface temperature on the earth. Climate change refers to the many changes that will occur with increases in temperature and greenhouse gases” (Paul Hawken, Drawdown). Ask for examples of climate change (extreme weather events, more frequent heat waves, more intense droughts, changes in atmospheric and ocean circulation, ocean acidification, sea level rise, changes in pest and disease presence... list on the board). 

    • Clarify weather vs. climate.  (Weather = local, small time horizon, forecasts. Climate = regional or global, long time horizon- decades to centuries- models and predictions, big data). See Video above: trend and variation

    • Scientific Evidence: Sea level rise, rising average global temperatures, rising CO2 levels, changes in weather patterns and predictability, changes in seasonality/abundance of certain plants and crops. Show videos or graphs from teacher guide.

    • Farms and climate change: historically agriculture has contributed as a major source of CO2 and methane emissions to global warming (from tilling the soil, manufacturing pesticides and fertilizers, and from things like cow manure), but farms have the potential to reverse the process of climate change through certain practices we’ll be talking about in this curriculum. [Define term “Agroecology”]

    • Certain foods contribute more to climate change than other foods. See Carbon Footprint of different food items in the graphic below. Depending on knowledge/age level of the group, engage in a conversation about the most carbon intensive foods and what goes into that number (growing feed for animals, using synthetic/chemical Nitrogren fertilizers, manufacturing pesticides). Discuss how grassfed meat and organic foods are automatically lower in emissions and could even have a negative emissions impact, depending on the system in place, due to elimination of pesticide use, and “free” fertilizer from animal manure, plus other “ecosystem services” that grazing animals provide.

  • Activity 1: Look up the weather forecast for this week. What does this mean for the activities we'll be doing out in the garden, or in the rest of your daily life? What trends have you noticed about the weather this year compared to previous years?

  • Activity 2: Garden work time. Continue the discussion about climate vs. weather, and what that means for the garden planning, activities, and food production more broadly while working. Describe the garden as an agro-ecosystem: what plants, animals and humans are present and how do they interact in the garden?

  • Assessment: Kahoot Quiz


Additional resources: 

  • Guided Note-taking sheet for Students (respond on worksheet or in journals).

  • Climate story example: "I grew up spending summers sailing on Lake Erie and the Sakonnet River. I swam, splashed, and yes, probably drank my fair share of seawater. My family grilled fish from these waters in the backyard: lake perch and New England scallops, cod, and Atlantic swordfish. My grandparents spent much of their lives along these coastal New England waters, taking them in through their pores and lungs. It always seemed incredibly healthy and harmless to me growing up; what could be better than summer swims in the ocean and fresh fish for dinner? Now, as an Environmental Studies major and grad student at ERG, I am too informed not to be skeptical of the cumulative health effects of these “natural” exposures. What were the levels of eutrophication like in the lakes that my dad’s family grew up along? Are they better now, post-Clean Water Act, when my sister and I were there? What chemical compounds have entered the food chain and bioaccumulated from the algae and plankton up through the fish and into the body tissues of my New England ancestors? What power plant pollution has entered the waters and air and lungs of my grandmother, who died of esophageal cancer of unclear origin? When I think back on the happiest moments of my childhood and adolescence, scenes of summers spent outside, what darker damages were being wrecked on our bodies? It is impossible not to care about the health of our environment if one takes a critical perspective, or if one thinks carefully about the health exposures of our friends and family (and ourselves). A healthier ecosystem means healthier people. As I fully intend to see myself and my family thrive for generations to come, my climate change story will not be complete until I have meaningfully contributed to improving environmental and health outcomes and awareness. I hope to do this through educating young people about climate change, with a focus on solutions and what they can do to make a positive impact in their own lives."

    (Laney Siegner, February 2015)