The Lived Experiences of Climate Change

Kate Darby,, Environmental Studies, Huxley College of the Environment, Western Washington University
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Many introductory environmental studies courses begin with climate change, perhaps because it is the environmental issue with which students have the most familiarity and concern, and because climate change impacts virtually all of Earth's socio-ecological systems. Pedagogically, this presents a challenge. Understanding climate science requires complex systems thinking that challenges students intellectually. Learning about climate change also presents a psychological and emotional challenge as it forces students and instructors to confront the reality of an uncertain future.

This activity introduces students to climate change in a new way – by beginning not with the science of climate change, nor with the data and figures depicting climate change projections, but instead with people's lived experiences of climate change. At its core, this three-day class activity relies on a set of narratives to teach students about the effects of climate change. These narratives include videos, radio interviews, and news articles in which people already living through the effects of climate change -- displacement, drought, food insecurity, etc. -- describe their experiences. In some ways, this de-centering of climate science in favor of the voices of those on the front lines of climate change is a radical approach. And yet, I find that introducing climate change this way makes the science feel more relevant, meaningful and accessible, especially for those students fearful of or disinterested in science. I hope that by starting with these narratives, we might humanize climate change and tap into students' empathy to make them more open for looking at opportunities for agency and change-making around climate change.

I am grateful to the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences members for providing suggestions for many of the climate change narratives included in this teaching activity.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

By the end of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Cultivate greater empathy with people currently experiencing the impacts of climate change
  2. Explain the basic mechanisms of climate change science (i.e., why and how is climate change occurring?)
  3. Describe and explain current impacts of climate change
  4. Connect the science of climate change to people's experiences with climate change

Context for Use

Although this activity is likely to be applicable across a range of institutional, disciplinary and course contexts, I have used components of it in a large (160-person) 200-level course in environmental studies and sustainability. The course serves as a both a social science general education requirement and as a recruitment tool for environmental studies and science majors.

This activity occurs early in the quarter, after an initial class meeting during which I cover the concepts of sustainability and ecosystem services. This climate change activity includes three, 80-minute in-class meeting days:

Day 1: Experiencing Climate Change Impacts

Day 2: Introduction to Climate Science (drawn from a SERC/InTeGrate module, available here:

Day 3: Connecting Experiences and Science

In large classes, I rely heavily on educational technology for student engagement. This activity relies on two classroom technologies: 1) online discussion forums through the classroom management system, and 2) audience response systems ("clickers"). Early in the quarter, I organize the students into groups of 15-20 for the purposes of posting in discussion forums and meeting in person for a class book club.

This activity could easily be adapted for use in smaller classes.

This activity leads nicely into discussion of other global environmental challenges. You could also follow this with a discussion of climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies, climate justice, and/or climate policies.

Description and Teaching Materials

This teaching activity includes three class periods, as well as additional student reading and discussion forum posts outside of class.

In Class, Prior to Day 1:

At the end of the class period before the beginning of this activity, I ask students to write a "one-minute paper" (though I tend to give them 3-5 minutes to respond) using the following prompt: 1) How will/does climate change impact you? 2) How will/does climate change impact others around the world? 3) What most concerns you about climate change and why? Given the size of my class, I do not collect these papers, but I ask students to save them for the future class periods.

To complete the preparatory work for this activity, I make sure students are assigned to groups of 15-20 in the classroom management system (our campus uses Canvas) discussion forums. I sometimes take a few minutes to familiarize students with the discussion forums and introduce them to their assignment.

Outside of Class Assignment, Prior to Day 1:

Prior to this assignment, I create groups of 15-20 students and organize discussion forums on the classroom management system (e.g. Canvas, Blackboard) according to those groups. Each student should read/view/listen to at least one climate change narrative from this list: ClimateChangeNarratives.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 163kB Jul24 17). The readings, videos and audio clips on this list are roughly organized by geography, and running times or length are included. Most of these narratives are told from the perspective of an individual or group of individuals currently experiencing the impacts of climate change. In the past, I have assigned narratives such that each group includes students who have read a number of different narratives. In the future, though, I will likely allow students to choose from among a list of possible options.

After viewing/reading/listening to the narrative, students post responses to the following prompts in their group's online discussion forum:

o Provide a very brief description of the narrative: Who is the author/narrator? How is climate change impacting him/her NOW?

o How did you feel when you read/viewed/listened to this narrative?

o Please respond to at least one of your group members' posts by identifying commonalities/differences between their narratives.

Day 1: Experiencing Climate Change Impacts:

In this class period, I hope to provide space for students to share climate change narratives in order to develop a stronger collective understanding of how climate change is impacting people close by and far away. We begin by returning to the one-minute paper that the students drafted at the end of the previous class. I ask students to share their responses and take notes on their responses on the board. I ask them to keep these responses in mind over the next two days of class.

I then share one or two video narratives that were not assigned to students (again, drawing from this list: ClimateChangeNarratives.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 163kB Jul24 17) ). Before viewing the videos, I explain to students that we are going to learn about climate change from the voices of those on the front lines. I ask them to keep their one-minute paper responses in mind as they view these narratives. I also ask them to pay particular attention to how viewing these narratives makes them feel.

After viewing these narratives, I ask students to sit quietly for a minute or two and notice how they are feeling. Then, I ask them to share these observations with a neighbor, and then ask for volunteers to share with the class. This is an opportunity to acknowledge that we are facing real, scary environmental consequences, and that the situation might make some of us feel uncomfortable or sad or even angry. I find it useful here to share my own emotional responses to viewing these kinds of narratives. I then ask students to compare and contrast these video narratives with the climate change concerns they articulated in their one-minute papers. Depending on the class, you might find it interesting to choose videos that include narratives from the surrounding region, or from far away.

For the rest of the class, you will work with the students to make sense of the climate change impacts that they learned about from their assigned narratives. This can be done through a basic matrix like this:
Climate Change Impacts Matrix.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 35kB Jul24 17). You can either create this on a white board OR fill in a projected Word document. Begin by asking students to catalogue the climate change impacts they learned about through the narratives. As a student introduces a new impact (e.g. increased vector-borne diseases, sea-level rise), ask other students to offer examples of how people in their assigned narratives are experiencing these impacts. Fill in the matrix with the students' contributions.

A few minutes before the end of class, use an audience response system (or, for smaller classes, notecards) to elicit student responses to the following prompt: Today we explored how people around the world are already experiencing climate change. What was the most surprising aspect of our discussion?

If you complete this matrix on a whiteboard or blackboard, take a photo or otherwise capture the content for use during Day 3. If you complete this on a Word document, save for use during Day 3. You may wish to provide the completed matrix to the students, as well.

Outside of Class, Prior to Day 2:

Now that students have a human connection to climate change, they will turn a little to the science. To prepare for Day 2, which relies on a previously published teaching module, students will read the Center for Climate and Energy Solution's "Climate Change 101" ( You may wish to administer this reading quiz (Climate 101 Reading Quiz (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 65kB Jul24 17) )through your course management system.

Day 2: Introduction to Climate Science

Today's class draws from the well-tested materials available through InTeGrate (Interdisciplinary Teaching about Earth for a Sustainable Future). I have successfully used Unit 1 [] from the "Cli-Fi: Climate Science in Literary Texts" module as a stand alone introduction to climate science with a few minor modifications.

With the modifications, this unit uses a couple of figures to introduce students to data used to explain and document climate change and then walks students through basic climate change science through a brief lecture.

Given the large size of my class, I treat Part 1 of the unit as a class activity rather than an assignment. I project each figure on the screen and prompt students with each of the questions posed in the assignment. This has worked well both as a write-pair share, and as a full class discussion. After completing the data interpretation activity (Unit 1, Part 1), you should provide students with an introduction to basic climate change science, using the slides provided in the InTeGrate link. You should end this activity BEFORE the concept mapping assignment.

A few minutes before the end of class, use an audience response system (or, for smaller classes, notecards) to elicit student responses to the following prompt: What was the most unclear concept from today's class?

Outside of Class, Prior to Day 3: Students will return to the narratives they read/viewed/listened to in preparation for Day 1. Each student should choose ONE impact described in their narrative and conduct research to better understand WHY that impact is occurring. For example, a student who read about coral reef bleaching should research how and why climate change contributes to coral reef bleaching. You can refer students to The Royal Society and the National Academy of Sciences, 2014, Climate Change: Evidence and Causes, IPCC's 2014 Summary for Policy Makers (, or your preferred source for updated climate change science information. After conducting their research, students will post responses to the following prompts in their group's online discussion forum:

o What climate change impact did you investigate? Create only ONE thread in your group for each impact. If you choose the same impact as someone else in your group, post as a response to their original message.

o Why is this impact occurring? What is the scientific mechanism at work here?

o Where is this impact occurring (e.g. globally, mostly in the Arctic, in cities close to sea level)

o Where did you get this information? Include a hyperlink.

Day 3: Connecting Experience and Science

Begin by reviewing the climate change science covered in Day 2. The concept map activity described in Part 2 of Unit 1 in the InTeGrate module ( serves as an effective review. Alternatively, you might consider using the student responses to the "muddiest point" question from last class as a jumping off point for review.

Then, you will use the remainder of the class time building on to the matrix created in class on Day 1, with the goal of better understanding why and where climate change impacts are occurring. Using either a white board or projected Word document (Climate Change Impacts MatrixII.docx (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 36kB Jul24 17) ), provide students with the list of climate impacts discussed on Day 1. For each impact, facilitate a discussion to help students understand how and why these conditions are occurring. In some cases (e.g. sea level rise), the explanation will be straightforward; for others (e.g. food insecurity), it might take some time to tease apart the mechanisms. As the class synthesizes this information, record it in the matrix. If there is time, you might also consider making note of affected geographic regions.

Aim to leave at least 15 minutes at the end of class to revisit the "one-minute paper". Having explored this topic through narratives of people at the front lines of climate change, how have their perceptions and concerns shifted? Ask them to re-read their original paper and write another "one-minute paper" (they may need 3-5 minutes) based on the following prompts:1) How have your ideas about climate change shifted since your first paper? 2) Why have your ideas shifted? If time allows, ask for volunteers to share their reflections with the class.

Teaching Notes and Tips

In my introductory, general education course, I find that it takes several encounters with climate science for students to "get it". On both the midterm and final exam, I usually ask students to explain climate science to a grandparent, or someone else with little exposure to the topic. Also, when I introduce energy topics, I review climate science and ask students to draw a diagram explaining the enhanced greenhouse effect.

Although I have few (if any) of my students admit to climate skepticism, many of them want to know WHY their family or friends might deny the existence of climate change. I have found it useful to share some of the social psychology research from the Yale Program on Climate Communication ( "Climate Change in the American Mind" (2015) is particularly interesting to students:, as is "Global Warming's Six Americas" (2009):

Each year that I teach climate change, I find that more and more students seem to be in a state of despair about the future of humanity and their complicity in climate change. From my work with the Curriculum for the Bioregion's "Teaching in an Age Consequences", I've learned to give students space to process and express the emotional response to encountering additional devastating information about climate change. I have tried to build in some of that reflection and acknowledgement in the teaching activity, but more may be needed.


Graded assessments include:

  • Two sets of discussion forum posts: Posts are graded based on adherence to the prompt, and thoughtfulness of response.
  • A reading quiz (Climate 101 Reading Quiz (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 65kB Jul24 17)): Correct answers are indicated in the attached file.

Non-graded assessments include:

  • Muddiest point and surprising point responses at the end of Day 1 and Day 2
  • Two "one-minute papers": In a large class, I don't have the capacity to read and grade these.

I have also included the content from this activity on midterm and final exams. In a smaller class, you might consider using the "one-minute papers" as the starting point for a synthetic paper assignment.