How Did This Happen?

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SWBAT ask questions and determine answers that identifies the factors responsible for the rise in global temperatures.

Big Idea

We cannot change what we don't understand. Students work to understand the root causes for the global rise in temperatures.


10 minutes

The NGSS calls for students to ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have led to the increase in global temperatures over the last century, specifically pointing out the following:

  • Human activity: fossil fuel combustion, cement production, agricultural activity
  • Natural processes: changes in incoming solar radiation, volcanic activity.


Because students will be tasked with creating the plans for a new society, they need to have an understanding of the factors that have led to the situation that has befallen the Earth in this story line. By understanding the causes, they are better able to avoid making decisions that will add to the problems they will be facing when they return to Earth.

I made this video to show students the situation, and ask, "How Did This Happen?"


80 minutes

Alright scientists, you saw that video. I cannot believe that this is what has become of the Earth!  Is this something that could have been prevented?  

I have heard it said that climate change is a natural process while some claim that this is all because of human activity. I need answers and I need them now!  

Get me a list of all of the elements that could have caused this catastrophe and put them in order starting with those most likely to have played a role in creating this mess! Be sure you are able to defend your ranking.

This is when I assign students the task of determining the drivers of climate change, both natural and those due to human activity. I begin by having students to create a list of questions that they can use to guide their research. For example, students know that greenhouse gases are strongly linked to global warming but they are not likely to know of any greenhouse gases beyond carbon dioxide or that processes such as cement production or the growth of rice paddies release GHGs (greenhouse gasses) into the atmosphere. (GHGs include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, fluorinated gases, CFCs and water vapor.) I lead a class brainstorming session and record all of their questions on the board while they record them in their journals for easy reference during their research.

Natural drivers, in my opinion, are more difficult to find. These are described in the article Pre-20th-Century Drivers of Climate Change by Dr. Gavin Schmidt. I have students read this article to identify these natural climate drivers so they understand the processes that led to climate fluctuation prior to the industrial age.

I am always torn with how many resources to provide to students (though many students completely ignore my resources anyway as they are used to conducting research on their own).   These are some of my favorite student friendly resources. I put these on my webpage so they are available to students, but I do not mandate that students use my resources.

NASA: Big Questions On Climate Change

NASA: Evidence and Causes of Climate Change

NASA: Is Current Warming Natural?

EPA: A Student's Guide To Climate Change

EPA: Student's Guide Green House Gases

AMNH: Climate Change

Methane Sources: Rice Paddies

YouTube Climate Change Video Playlist

I choose to have students work alone to identify the drivers of climate change, but I have them work in small groups to put their list in order. I find that the discussion that ensues helps students be better able to justify their ranking.  

Note: The next lesson in this series, Natural Drivers Or Human Activity, should be implemented as part of the student research sessions.


30 minutes

To conclude this lesson I have students create billboards or commercials that work to remind us what our past actions/activities have cost us (the world). These ads should help us make different decisions in our new society. There are many ways that students can approach this task, for example they can take a negative stance on the release of GHGs (specific ones or in general) or can promote more positive choices (like clean energy).  

Once this task is complete, I have students answer the following question:

How can you apply what you have learned into the bigger project of designing a resilient, self-sustaining society?