Teaching Climate Change in English Language Arts - National Council of Teachers of English
Back to Blog

Teaching Climate Change in English Language Arts

This is a guest blog written by Richard Beach, NCTE’s Higher Education Policy Analyst for Minnesota. 

Richard BeachDue to years of carbon dioxide, methane, and other gas emissions, the earth has already warmed one degree Celsius and is projected to increase in the future by four degrees and more, leading one scientist to note that “the difference between two and four degrees is human civilization” (Marshall 241). Evident in the fact that the ten hottest years on record have all occurred since 2003, this warming results in droughts, forest fires, melting of Artic and Antarctic ice and mountain snow packs, rising sea levels, shifts in jet streams, and more extreme weather events.

To address the challenge of climate change, representatives of 195 countries met in Paris in November 2015 to agree to voluntary emissions reductions to limit future temperature increases to two Celsius. However, as Bill McKibben argues, without the political push for enforcement mechanisms such as carbon taxes and emissions control regulations, it’s unlikely we’ll achieve the needed reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

ELA teachers can play a role in addressing this significant challenge. Students can experience portrayals of future generations grappling with the effects of climate change through responding to cli-fi literary texts such as The Windup Girl (Bacigalupi), The Carbon Diaries 2017 (Lloyd), Flight Behavior (Kingsolver), Memory of Water: A Novel (Itäranta), Arctic Rising (Buckell), The Year of the Flood (Atwood), The Water Wars (Stracher), or Sixty Days and Counting (Robinson). They can also engage in simulations and games related to climate change. In responding to these texts, simulations, and games, students can imagine themselves in the future coping with the effects of climate change, leading to a moral concern for the future of humanity resulting in political advocacy (for activities on ethical/ecojustice issues from Rita Turner’s book, Teaching for Ecojustice).

Based on reading nonfiction books on climate change, students can also entertain needed changes in our energy, economics, and transportation systems. Students can question the reliance on fossil fuels and explore alternative clean energy options, denser housing, increased use of mass transit, and shifts in excessive consumption habits. They can also examine the adverse effects of an economic system driven by growth based on fossil fuels, an agricultural system focused on use of fertilizers depleting soil quality, a housing/community development system that supports suburban sprawl and dependence on a car culture, and a political system in which the fossil fuel industry seeks to block environmental regulations.

This includes critical analysis of media representations of excessive consumption through advertising as well as how the media continue to frame climate change as “controversial” or “debatable” despite the fact that 97 percent of scientists attribute climate change to human causes. For a digital media literacy curriculum, see Project Look Sharp.

To develop instructional activities, ELA teachers can acquire information and resources from many organizations focused on climate change as well as educational organizations providing curricular materials. They can also access a website for English language arts teachers based on a book-in-progress that Allen Webb, Jeff Share, and myself are currently working on for teaching about climate change for ELA teachers. If ELA teachers wish to contribute their own descriptions of related classroom activities, please contact me at rbeach@umn.edu.


Atwood, Margaret. The Year of the Flood. New York: Anchor Press, 2010. Print

Bacigalupi, Paolo. The Windup Girl. San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2015. Print.

Buckell, Tobias S. Arctic Rising. New York: Tor Books, 2012. Print.

Itäranta, Emmi. Memory of Water: A Novel. New York: Harper, 2014. Print.

Kingsolver, Barbara. Flight Behavior: A Novel. New York: Harper, 2013. Print.

Lloyd, Saci. The Carbon Diaries, 2017. New York: Holiday House, 2011. Print.

Marshall, George. (2014). Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change. New York: Bloomsbury, 2014. Print.

McKibben, Bill. “Falling Short on Climate in Paris.” Editorial. The New York Times, 12 Dec. 2015. Web <http://tinyw.in/SHYe>.

Robinson, Kim Stanley. Sixty Days and Counting. New York: Spectra, 2007. Print.

Stracher, Cameron. The Water Wars. New York: Sourcebooks Fire, 2011. Print.

Turner, Rita J. Teaching For Ecojustice: Curriculum and Lessons for Secondary and College Classrooms. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print

Further reading on teaching climate change in English language arts

Bartosch, Roman, and Sieglinde Grimm, eds. Teaching Environments: Ecocritical Encounters. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. Print.

Beach, Richard. “Imagining a Future for the Planet through Literature, Writing, Images, and Drama.” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. 59.1 (2015): 7-13. Web.

Bill Bigelow, and Tim Swinehart, eds. A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 2014. Print.

Curry, Alice. Environmental Crisis in Young Adult Fiction: A Poetics of Earth. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. Print.

Greg Garrard, ed. (2011). Teaching Ecocriticism and Green Cultural Studies. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.
Antonio López. Greening Media Education: Bridging Media Literacy with Green

Cultural Citizenship. New York: Peter Lang, 2014. Print.

Sasha Matthewan. Teaching Secondary English as if the Planet Matters. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Derek Owens. Composition and Sustainability: Teaching for a Threatened Generation. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English, 2001. Print.

Robert P. Yagelski. Writing As a Way of being: Writing Instruction, Nonduality, and the Crisis of Sustainability. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2011. Print.