Climate Literacy in the Elementary Classroom

Climate change information is everywhere. Students hear the term “global warming” in the media; they see images of polar bears and glaciers and may hear opinions on the matter from family and friends. Because of this, many students ask about this topic, and want to know what it means for them. What is an appropriate way to include climate change instruction in the elementary grades?

Some cautions are in order. While students are interested in the topic, many climate change concepts are beyond the developmental readiness of young students (complex interactions, geological time, a global view of processes). And, there is an emotional cost to learning about threats to species or to familiar landscapes, and in the notion of change itself. Despite these pitfalls, the elementary grades are the time when the foundation is built for climate literacy and informed decision-making.

What does it mean to be climate literate? 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.

Elementary teachers can build the foundation for climate-literate students by becoming climate literate themselves, understanding how the elementary science standards connect to climate concepts, helping students understand the nature of science, fostering a connection between young learners and nature, and providing opportunities for students to make a change in the world around them.


The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences is a framework of principles and concepts that together constitute “climate literacy.” The framework was first released in the Spring of 2008 for the K-12 education community and then revised as a “guide for individuals and communities” in the Spring of 2009.

We’ve highlighted here a brief description and some of the discussions of the Essential Principles and the fundamental concepts presented in the Climate Literacy Handbook, available on the Encyclopedia of Earth web site. Learning resources and more in-depth discussion of each of the principles and the underlying fundamental concepts may be found in the handbook.

The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences begin with a Guiding Principle — Humans can take actions to reduce climate change and its impacts.

The seven Essential Principles are:

      1. The Sun is the primary source of energy for Earth’s climate system.

Essential Principle 1 relates to the Earth’s energy balance and the physics and dynamics of the sun-Earth connection. The role of solar energy, first filtering incoming solar energy, then being absorbed by the land and water surfaces, then turning into infrared heat that radiates from the surface into space, is important for understanding the “greenhouse effect” whereby some of the outgoing infrared heat is captured by certain atmospheric gases, thereby warming the atmosphere.

While some young learners think the greenhouse effect is “bad” because of what they’ve heard about climate change, the greenhouse effect is what keeps Earth at a warm enough temperature to be livable. However, increased emissions of carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” are amplifying this natural effect, capturing more of the outgoing infrared heat and raising atmospheric temperatures.

2. Climate is regulated by complex interactions among components of the Earth system.

Essential Principle 2 relates to the complex interactions that drive climate processes. Interactions between land, snow and ice, living things, oceans, and the atmosphere generate the greenhouse effect and other climate processes. These interactions are inherently complex and interdisciplinary. Therefore, many key aspects of climate science may “fall between the cracks” of traditional science courses.

Since elementary-level science instruction can be integrated and interdisciplinary, teachers have an opportunity to help students understand that life sciences, physical science and earth science are related. Earth System Science is the study of the ways in which different processes and pieces of the system interrelate on varying scales of time and space. Geoscientists think in terms of a big picture view, and on scales of time and space that may be larger or smaller than common human experience. While true “systems thinking” may be beyond the grasp of young learners who are still developing, planting the seed that processes are connected across spheres and influence each other can provide the foundation for more complex ideas later.

Earth System Science diagram from (M.O. Andreae und J. Marotzke, 2005) Max Planck Institute.


3. Life on Earth depends on, is shaped by, and affects climate. 

Organisms are both influenced by climate and have been influencing it for billions of years, ever since microbes began altering the composition of the atmosphere. The effects of climate on organisms can be direct or indirect.

Essential Principle 3 is related to the dynamic dance between the biosphere and the climate system, including the annual flux of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that occurs when vegetation in the Northern Hemisphere draws CO2 from the air through photosynthesis in the spring and summer months, releasing some of it through decay in the winter…

While changes on the global scale are observable, organisms, including humans, survive within specific ranges of temperature, precipitation, humidity and sunlight. Organisms exposed to climate conditions outside their normal range must adapt or migrate or perish. The range of many species in the United States is shifting northward, while some other species either are not as adaptable or do not have more northward or higher altitude habitat available in which to shift. And, even if species are able to move, key prey or other habitat essentials may not move, leading to population decreases.

Human civilization as we understand it today has developed entirely within the Holocene epoch over the last 12,000 years, a relatively warm interglacial period. While the climate has varied in the past and influenced human societies, significant climate change would stress our agricultural, transportation and economic systems. A northward shift in climate sensitive crops range is also being observed, which changes where commercially important crops can be cultivated.

Photo courtesy of Ryan Vachon.

4. Climate varies over space and time through both natural and man-made processes.

Essential Principle 4 relates to some of the differences between weather and climate, climatic processes such as the El Nino/Southern Oscillation that influence natural climate variability, and abrupt climate change, which can be triggered by naturally occurring dynamics. Understanding climate variability is critically important in helping scientists tease apart natural variation from human-induced climate change.

Natural processes driving Earth’s long-term climate variability do not explain the rapid climate change observed in recent decades. The only explanation that is consistent with all available evidence is that human impacts are playing an increasing role in climate change. Future changes in climate may be rapid compared to historical changes.

While the warming due to recent climate change is seen in the longer-term trend data, natural variability exists and contributes to greater or lesser warming in the shorter-term. Even though some places have been cooler over the last few years due to natural variability and oscillations in the ocean, this cooling takes place within the long-term warming trend, which continues to rise. Over the longer term, uncertainty in projections depends more upon the uncertainty of how humans will respond and change greenhouse gas emission behaviors, and in the potential of feedback loops to decrease or increase warming.

“Scientific uncertainty” is different from everyday uncertainty. Scientific uncertainty is bounded by a range of uncertainty that depends upon how well the issue is understood and how well we can measure or model the phenomena. The more we know, the smaller the range of uncertainty, and the more confidence we can ascribe to our claims. In its Fourth Assessment Report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic (human-caused) greenhouse gas concentrations. For the IPCC, the term “very likely” means that the statement is based on 90 percent or greater confidence in the statement.

5. Our understanding of the climate system is improved through observations, theoretical studies, and modeling.

When it comes to climate, how do scientists know what they know? While studies indicate that almost all actively publishing climate researchers agree that human activities are altering the climate system, the general public is under the impression that scientists are still debating whether or not humans are through their activities changing climate. Essential Principle 5 concerns key elements of climate studies and the “self-correcting” peer review process.

Our understanding of the Earth System has leapt forward due to the availability of global data gathering via satellites, improvements in models and a general influx of new data. For example, the extent of sea ice used to be measured by researchers looking down from a small plane and making notations on a map. Now we have “constellations” of satellites that work together to provide the greatest global coverage. (See this NASA web site for a 3-D animation of the satellites that monitor the Earth.)

When scientists go to publish new findings, their manuscripts are reviewed by other researchers in the field. The role of reviewers is to be skeptical and to point out improvements which should be made, or to reject the paper if the work does not meet the professional standards of the journal. Peer review is not perfect, but it is a key piece of the scientific process. Over time, scientific claims are verified or challenged by new and improved studies. Scientific agreement about a claim is built as the body of evidence increases. Our scientific understanding of the role of greenhouse gases in climate change has been building since 1896 when Svante Arrhenius calculated the effect that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide gas would have on global temperature.

There will always be scientific uncertainty in climate science, as we move into new areas of research (such as areas where models must be improved, or what is expected to happen on a regional scale), but there is always bounded uncertainty in science. That’s one of the things that makes science different from other ways of knowing.

Photo courtesy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

6. Human activities are impacting the climate system.

Essential Principle 6 relates to the causes and effects of human-induced climate change. For over 150 years the greenhouse effect has been described, and for over a century the potential for human activities to increase the temperature of the Earth through greenhouse gas emissions has been calculated. Despite this long history, some sectors of the public continue to debate whether these ideas can be true.

The overwhelming consensus of scientific studies on climate indicates that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the latter part of the 20th century is very likely due to human activities, primarily from increases in greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

Scientists and economists predict that there will be both positive and negative impacts from global climate change. If warming exceeds 2 to 3 degrees Celsius (3.6 to 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) over the next century, the consequences of the negative impacts are likely to be much greater than the consequences of the positive impacts.

7. Climate change will have consequences for the Earth system and human lives.

Essential Principle 7 relates to the current and predicted consequences of climate change. Once primarily the domain of climate scientists, the impacts of climate change on humans and environmental systems has become a focus for resource managers, medical professionals, emergency managers, insurance companies, and military planners…many feel that the challenge of the 21st century will be in preparing communities to adapt to climate change while reducing human impacts on the climate system (known as mitigation). Many jobs if not entire industries will emerge to address these complex issues.

Sea water is beginning to move onto low-lying land and contaminate coastal freshwater sources. It is also beginning to submerge coastal facilities and barrier islands. (For animations of how projected sea-level rise would affect coastal states, see USGS animations at

Sea-level rise increases the risk of damage to homes and buildings from storm surges. Changing precipitation patterns and temperature conditions will alter the distribution and availability of freshwater resources.

Animals, plants, bacteria and viruses will migrate to new areas with favorable climate conditions. Infectious diseases and certain species will be able to invade areas that they did not previously inhabit. For example, the familiar hardiness zones, which gardeners use to choose plants suitable to their areas, have changed. See for an animation of the extent of changes from 1990 to 2006.

Although cold-related deaths are predicted to decrease, other risks are predicted to rise. The incidence and geographical range of climate-sensitive infectious diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever, and tick-borne diseases will increase.


The science standards and science literacy concepts in the elementary grades set the stage for understanding the complexities of climate change. Science literacy concepts, such as the K-2 concept that “The sun warms the land, air and water,” are a foundation for understanding Essential Principle 1 “The Sun is the Primary Source of Energy for Earth’s Climate System.” Concepts about energy transfer and weather in the primary grades are building blocks to more abstract concepts later on. An educator who understands how the foundational science in her classroom feeds into climate change can make those connections for students when appropriate.

These science content standards from the National Science Education Standards provide an important foundation for climate literacy:

K-4 Physical Science
Light, Heat, Electricity, and Magnetism

  • Light travels in a straight line until it strikes an object. Light can be reflected by a mirror, refracted by a lens, or absorbed by the object.

K-4 Earth and Space Science
Objects in the Sky

  • The sun provides the light and heat necessary to maintain the temperature of the earth.

Changes in the Earth and Sky

  • Weather changes from day to day and over the seasons. Weather can be described by measurable quantities, such as temperature, wind direction and speed, and precipitation.

K-4 Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Changes in Environments

  • Changes in environments can be natural or influenced by humans. Some changes are good, some are bad, and some are neither good nor bad. Pollution is a change in the environment that can influence the health, survival, or activities or organisms, including humans.

5-8 Physical Science

  • Energy is transferred in many ways.
  • Light interacts with matter by transmission, absorption, or scattering.
  • The sun is a major source of energy for changes on the earth’s surface. The sun loses energy by emitting light. A tiny fraction of that light reaches the earth, transferring energy from the sun to the earth. The sun’s energy arrives as light with a range of wavelengths, consisting of visible light, infrared, and ultraviolet radiation.

5-8 Earth and Space Science
Earth in the Solar System

  • The sun is the major source of energy for phenomena on the earth’s surface, such as growth of plants, winds, ocean currents, and the water cycle. Seasons result from variations in the amount of the sun’s energy hitting the surface, due to the tilt of the earth’s rotation on its axis and the length of the day.


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

The public dialogue on climate change often betrays a lack of understanding about the scientific process. How do scientists know what they know? How does the claim being made (from whatever source) relate to the evidence? Students in elementary school can learn to “be” scientists and to practice the habits of mind of scientific thinking.


In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv highlighted the ways that outdoor experiences help children develop and build a connection to nature. Experiences such as nature journals and walks, camping and fishing, cultivating a school garden, or building a wildlife habitat help students care enough about the natural world to learn about it and care for it.

Photo courtesy of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.


Teaching children that they can make a change in the world will help them no matter what else they do. Recycling, changing light bulbs at home, or asking the school to make conservation changes help children think of themselves as people who take action and lead. This is also an important way for children to process disturbing messages they hear about the environment and to learn about solutions and opportunities, not just problems.

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.

It’s likely that many of these things are things you are already doing in your classroom. Many elementary students learn about local environments and ecosystems or have school habitat areas or make “being a scientist” a regular part of the school day. Knowing how the things you are already doing fit into the climate picture will help to prepare learners for the next step along the way.


Atlas of Science Literacy
Published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the two volumes of the Atlas are a collection of strand maps showing how students’ understanding of the ideas and skills that lead to literacy in science, mathematics, and technology might develop from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Climate Change Kids Site
A feature of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Climate Change web site, the Kids Site offers facts about climate, weather, and greenhouse gases as well as games, animations, and resources for teachers.

Climate Change Schools Project
Developed in England, the Climate Change Schools Project aims to put climate change at the heart of the national curriculum via a network of Climate Change Lead Schools. Trained teachers in the lead schools will share best practices, balancing climate change information and science with solutions and the empowerment of young people. Case studies are available on the site.

Climate Kids – NASA’s Eyes on the Earth
Produced by the Earth Science Communications Team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/California Institute of Technology, this page for kids is packed with features—a climate time machine, satellite views of Earth, big and smaller questions about a range of climate topics, games, educator resources, and more.

Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences – A Guide for Individuals and Communities
Available online and downloadable, this guide is designed to provide information for individuals and communities to understand Earth’s climate, impacts of climate change, and approaches for adapting and mitigating change. It is also intended for educators who teach climate science as part of their science curricula.

Climate Literacy Handbook
The handbook aims to promote greater climate science literacy by providing an educational framework around the Essential Principles of Climate Sciences.

Climate Literacy Network
This online resource was developed to define key concepts related to climate and provide materials for teachers, students, the general public, and others. Documents, links, current events and news feeds are available on the site.

Education Section of NOAA’s Climate Services
From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s web site for all users of its climate services, the Education Section provides teaching resources, professional development materials, and multimedia.

This article was written by Susan M. Buhr and Mark S. McCaffrey. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Susan or Mark at

Copyright June 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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