Talking about Climate Change: Three Teaching Ideas for Higher Levels

As a classroom debate topic or an essay subject, climate change sometimes seems a bit overdone.  In fact, is it even a debate anymore?  Practically everyone now agrees that global warming is happening and humans are contributing to it. So, we tend to avoid talking about it – either from fatigue or because it’s not a very cheery subject.  But as the biggest single issue that humanity faces – and an issue that young people are talking about more urgently than ever these days – we need to address it and the language around it in the classroom. For us here at National Geographic Learning it makes a lot of sense too, since one of our aims is to inspire people to care about the planet while learning English.

So here are three teaching ideas followed by some references to lessons in Life Second Edition Upper Intermediate and Advanced.

1. Make sure students understand the terms

It’s one thing thinking you know what a term means. It’s another trying to explain it clearly. That’s probably nowhere truer than with climate change. We could just give students a matching exercise with the terms below, but that wouldn’t ensure they can explain or use the terms. This exercise helps students to do that. (Answers are at the bottom)

Work in small groups. Try to explain what these terms mean.

Greenhouse effect        Global warming             CO2 emissions

Climate change             Carbon footprint           Food waste

Energy efficiency           Fossil fuels

 Now work in pairs. This time, use the words in brackets to explain what each term means

Greenhouse effect (trapping – heat – Earth – gases – e.g.)  e.g. The trapping of heat on the Earth by gases in the atmosphere e.g. CO2

Global warming (increase – temperature – earth – greenhouse gases)

CO2 emissions (carbon dioxide – atmosphere – from – such as)

Climate change (abnormal changes – climate – time)

Carbon footprint (amount – CO2 – individual – actions – e.g.)

Food waste (produced – thrown- unnecessarily)

Energy efficiency (using – less – same result)

Fossil fuels (ground – contain – carbon – such as)

2. Get students thinking about how they feel about climate change

It makes for a very generative discussion and, also, understanding your students’ perspective on this issue is a great way to get to know them Per Espen Stoknes in his TED talk How to transform apocalypse fatigue into action on global warming explains that we know a lot now about climate science, but we have studied people’s reactions to this science very little.  So understanding how people feel about climate change – e.g. unconcerned, paralyzed, motivated, etc. – is key to working out how we tackle it.

In this exercise, we get students to articulate different reactions to climate change and then to discuss which one(s) best reflects their reaction.

1 Choose the right words to complete these statements

  1. There’s no good / point just one country trying to do something about it. Everyone has to agree / accept to cooperate and that’s impossible to achieve.
  2. All this talk / speech about the end of the world is exaggerated. It doesn’t help to be so pessimistic / pessimist.
  3. It’s difficult to see / feel the problem is real, because it is still so far away.
  4. I have faith in / to humans’ ability to solve this problem with technology. We solved / ‘ve solved other big problems.
  5. To be honest / To say the truth, I’m not too much / so worried for myself. It’s more a problem for people in poor parts of the world.
  6. Climate change is a concern for rich people who don’t have other concerns. Most people are just trying to improve their standard of living / level of life.

2 Match the statements in Exercise 1 with the feelings below (1-6)

1 Doesn’t feel any sense of urgency

2 Thinks talking about it is just depressing people

3 Can’t see how it will affect them personally

4 Feels it’s not the most important issue for the majority of people.

5 Thinks people are too selfish to work together

6 Is optimistic that science will find a solution

3 Now say which statement(s) best reflect your own feelings

3. Discuss Initiatives for Change

It’s really important that this debate doesn’t become just about what’s going wrong, but that we talk positively about it. As a teacher, you can empower students to be part of this positive debate. Up to now a lot of the talk about reducing CO2 emissions has been about what we as individuals can do, which naturally leads people to be defensive about their behavior(Why should you tell me what to eat? I need my car to get to work etc.).  But if we think about how we can encourage our governments (local or national) to make our environmental choices easier, that could be really positive. Here’s a questionnaire to do in class that elicits responses to some ideas about this kind of government measure. The first part of this exercise is good for practicing expressions of purpose (in order to, so that, to avoid). The second is for discussion. Then, afterward, you can get students, in pairs or small groups, to think of more measures.

 1.  Match the government measure to its purpose.


The government is planning to ……

A put a high tax on foods imported by air

B allow everyone ONE flight a year tax-free but put a high tax on subsequent flights

C ban cars driving in big cities

D get people to measure the amount of food they throw away each week

E put a high tax on energy from fossil fuels (gas, oil and coal)

F offer people subsidies to improve the energy efficiency of their homes


  1. in order to reduce urban air pollution

2.  to encourage more renewable energy

3.  to reduce pollution from aviation

4.  so that people will realize how much they are wasting

5.  so that people can reduce their heating bills

6.  to encourage people to eat things produced locally


2. Complete the questionnaire. Then explain the reasons for your answers to your partner.

How would you feel if the government did the following things?

1 = Very happy   2 = Happy   3 = Wouldn’t mind   4 = Unhappy    5 = Very unhappy

A Put a high tax on foods that were imported by air

B Allowed everyone ONE flight a year tax-free and then put a high tax on subsequent flights

C Banned cars driving in big cities, but increased public transport options

D Ran a national campaign getting people to measure the amount of food they throw away each week

E Put a high tax on energy from fossil fuels (gas, oil, and coal) but then distributed the money received from the tax among all citizens.

F Put a tax on buildings that are not energy efficient but offered people subsidies to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

There are also topics closely related to climate change but not directly about it which can generate very interesting discussions in class. In Life Advanced Unit 12a, students learn about the notion of ‘Geo-literacy’, that is to say, an understanding of how both man-made and natural systems on Earth work and interact with each other.  It’s important to note that before we can think critically about issues like climate change, we need to develop our background knowledge.

In Life Upper Intermediate Unit 3a, students listen to a talk about the world’s growing population and its impact on the planet’s resources. One of the consequences of this population growth has also been the decrease in land and natural habitats for animals. This has meant that many species have had to learn to adapt to a different environment. Life Advanced UNIT 12c looks at this fascinating phenomenon of urban animals.

Perhaps you have addressed related topics with your students or have teaching ideas that have worked well in class. If so, please share them here with other teachers. We’d love to hear from you.      

A reading on the rise of the urban animal from Life Second Edition

Suggested Answers


Greenhouse effect  The trapping of heat on the Earth by gases in the atmosphere like CO2

Global warming  An steady increase in the temperature of the Earth caused by greenhouse gases

CO2 emissions Carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere from things such as cars, energy plants and factories

Climate change Abnormal changes observed in the world’s climate over a period of time.

Carbon footprint The amount of Carbon Dioxide produced by each individuals actions e.g. flying or eating meat

Food waste Food that is produced or thrown away unnecessarily

Energy efficiency Using less energy to get the same result

Fossil fuels  Fuels that come from the ground and contain large amounts of carbon, such as oil, coal and gas.



  1. point (there’s no point or it’s no good); agree
  2. talk; pessimistic
  3. feel
  4. in; ‘ve solved
  5. To be honest; so
  6. standard of living


1C             2B             3E              4F              5A             6D



A 6 (3 also possible)

B 3

C 1

D 4

E 2

F 5


Author: Paul Dummett

Paul Dummett is a teacher and writer based in Oxford, UK, where he ran his own school teaching English to professionals from 1996 to 2006. He currently teaches refugee children in Palestine and Jordan with the Handsupproject. His main interests are the use of images and narrative in language teaching and how these can aid deeper learning and memory. Seeking out writing projects that explore these interests he has found a natural home at National Geographic Learning, co-authoring titles such as Life and Keynote , and acting as a Course Consultant for Look, a seven-level primary series from National Geographic Learning.

He enjoys travel, exercise and live music/spoken word performance.

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