Teaching climate change issues using GIS

On Day 2 of the Geographical Association’s eConference 2020 (GAeConf20), I presented a talk on the importance of teaching GIS and climate change, and how the two together can provide a powerful way for students to learn about one of the most pressing issues of our time. This blog post takes you through the bones of that talk, and takes sentiments received by participants to dig a little deeper. You’ll find a lot of food-for-thought for your own teaching practice, plus plenty of links to free-to-use GIS resources to help you teach the issue of climate change.

The talk was part of the GAeConf20’s “Beginning Teacher” pathway, so it was framed for trainee teachers, NQTs and RQTs, but ‘old-hats’ like me were exceptionally welcome, especially those who needed a boost or refresher regarding GIS skills and the topic of climate change.


I won’t spend too long here, but I did start with this more as a way of tempering groans and fears. Responses from an initial Mentimeter poll of participants showed what I’ve now established is a common pattern. Teachers, in general, feel they are familiar with GIS (take for example the fascinating but depressing COVID-19 tracker by the Johns Hopkins University and the traffic layer on Google Maps), comfortable using it personally, but when it comes to applying it in the classroom, they are not so confident.

I will admit, despite conducting teacher training on GIS for years, I’ve still not yet managed to pin down exactly why this is. One theory is that perhaps many teachers feel they’ve got to know the nuts, bolts and guts of a GIS in order to be able to teach using it. And yes, some of use nerdy and computer-geeky-types would do that, but it is not totally necessary.

Adding to the ‘fear’ of teaching GIS could be exacerbated by it being a requirement in Geography for Key Stages 3, 4 & 5 (you can check the DfE requirement documents yourself). Even at Key Stage 2, there is a requirement to use “digital/computer mapping”.

There is already amazing support out there for teachers to get used to creating GIS maps for their students. Digimap For Schools (suitable for 5-year olds, even!) and ArcGIS For Schools (fantastically supported by Jason Sawle and Katie Hall at Esri) are two such examples which should be part of every Geography teacher’s GIS toolkit. But for this talk, I focused on off-the-shelf GIS tools that are more than adequate to tick some of those requirement boxes – more on those later.

Context: Climate change – a safeguarding issue?

What do I actually mean when I have the opinion that climate change is a safeguarding issue?

We all know these statements very well: “All teachers are teachers of SEND”, “All teachers are responsible in promoting literacy and numeracy”, and “All teachers have a duty to safeguard their students”. The last statement in particular I’m yet to find a teaching colleague who disagrees.

Expanding that latter quote further, we could say that:

“All teachers must aid students to safeguard themselves and others, including giving them the knowledge and understanding to make informed decisions to do so”.

This to me is key to the success of safeguarding. Call it what you will: building resilience, being aware of risks… and so forth… We can’t be helping our kids to cross the road for their entire lives.

The science of climate attribution (that is the extent in which individual weather events can be attributed to climate change) has developed extensively (also see the ‘Climate Signals’ tool later on in this post). Scientists are now saying with a degree of confidence that we are entering a period of tangible climate change impacts. And so, extreme events such as floods that shut down schools, or heatwaves that kill elderly or vulnerable relatives, are impacts that some of our students are experiencing for themselves. In fact, one participant of the talk reported:

Flooding in Sheffield affected my students massively. Many of our [students] live in uninsured homes at massive risk of homelessness

In my opinion, if that’s not a safeguarding issue, I don’t know what is.

Out of the 49 respondents to my survey that took place during the talk, only 3 ‘disagreed’ that climate change is a safeguarding issue.

Of those three, one gave a reason for their thoughts:

“I think equipping students with the awareness of global issues is the responsibility of all teachers and I like the idea but I think safeguarding has too many responsibilities of its own to use the term for climate change and environmental issues.”

Not an outright disagreement for the link. What about the 10 responses that said they weren’t sure? Two penned some thoughts:

“It’s not the way that I had understood climate change before but if we are going to equip young people in how to look after themselves then this links”

“Something I have never thought about before, but would like to in the future now this has been introduced to me.”

Broadly that they hadn’t thought about ‘climate change’ in this manner before. And for ‘balance’, here are some randomly chosen opinions of those who responded ‘agree’ or ‘totally agree’:

“Not just because of the way climate change is expected to affect children but also because some SEND students find the topic of climate change causes severe anxiety particularly the way the media reports the issues.” (Totally Agree)

“Climate change is an issue that will more and more start to impact the daily lives of our students and will likely become an issue of safeguarding. Teaching them about climate change allows them to make informed decisions about their own safety and well-being.” (Agree)

“Students are either directly or indirectly impacted by climate change. Very often, they are all aware of the term but not the implications, links to other global/local issues and strategies to mitigate the impacts. It gives them the knowledge and autonomy to change and protect themselves and other people.” (Agree)

That first one about the media is particularly interesting to me. Those of you thank know me pretty well that my activism branches out from the environmental and equality to include battling disinformation, fake-news and media hysteria. The media have been both a blessing and a curse in reporting climate change – but that is for another blog post!

So what do you think? To what extent do you agree that climate change is a safeguarding issue? Do post a comment with your thoughts. What I will say before I move on is that addressing climate change can provide opportunities for good-news stories, stewardship, collaboration and ingenuity. One way to tackle topics of safeguarding is to talk about success stories – and I have been a part of , and heard of, many during my time at WEMC.

But, regardless of whether you think it is or isn’t a matter for safeguarding, you can’t get away from the fact that climate change is one of those cross-curricular, inter-linking and interdependent issues.

The image above gives some examples of links between climate change and other topics. For instance:

  • How do they get to school? Maybe you do a class survey about whether they bike, car share, get the school bus etc, and create a bar-chart. This can lead to discussions and activities regarding carbon emissions of different transport methods.
  • Where does their food come from? What does the school do about food waste? Where does our food come from and how far has it travelled to get to our plates? What about the packaging of that food – where has that come from and what are the environmental impacts of the production and use of them?
  • The conditions for different diseases to spread is an interesting topic, and the range of disease-carrying vectors will change as climate changes, bringing in the discussion about vulnerable populations both due to lack of immunity or lack of healthcare.
  • Will the cost of living go up? For years they are have been calls for ‘better’ finance education in school. Markets and the cost of living responds to the environment, so climate change must be a consideration here.
  • Being aware of flood-risk (also a safeguarding issue!) and the tools out there to be aware of any risks from ‘natural hazards’.
  • Tree planting and community schemes – something that would fit nicely in a PSHEE/Citizenship scheme of work also has a climate change mitigation element to it, as well as mental-health benefits
  • Empowerment of women and girls is actually one of the best ways to help draw-down carbon emissions (you can read more why that is, here).

Mark Enser penned a brilliant article for the TES during that period where there were feverish calls for schools to do more to teach climate change. He rightly pointed out that schools, particularly the subject of Geography, do teach climate change extensively. However, I would like to see it appear more on a cross-curricular basis. I would like to see it taught effectively through English, through Maths, through History, through DT, through PE…. I’m pretty certain there are schools out there that encourage this. It need not be all doom-and-gloom. DT could have a module on renewable energy, for example. English could look into the way poets and authors have penned about it… They know their subject best… A few out there may call me hysterical for wanting to include it as a topic in every subject (and I’m someone who works with climate data and engages in the critical thinking process – so am I being hysterical or just taking what I’ve seen, analysed and weighted, and merging it with my opinion that climate change is a safeguarding issue? I’ll let you decide!)

Examples of free ‘off-the-shelf’ Gis tools to teach climate change issues

Ok now onto the good stuff that you’re really hear for, right? 😉 There are hundreds of free tools out there you can use, but here are some of favourites. If you have any of your own to add, feel free to drop a link in the comments!

London Tree Map – https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/environment/parks-green-spaces-and-biodiversity/trees-and-woodlands/london-tree-map

An easy-to-use explorer of the diversity of trees that you can find around London. A good way to explore how large, high-density urban areas can contribute towards biodiversity and climate change mitigation through tree cataloguing. Using this in tandem with learning about the London National Park City initiative works quite well!

Global Wind & Global Solar Atlases https://globalwindatlas.info/ and https://globalsolaratlas.info/

A little bit more technical skill to access these, as they are ‘climate services’ which are designed for use by members of the energy sector. However, you can use them to the level of your need. For example, if all you want is a map of wind speeds or solar energy, then you can just use them on face-value. But after a few minutes exploring each yourself, you’ll find that they can be used in a range of ways. You can call up wind-roses for different areas to explore, say, prevailing wind patters (helps with the dreaded ‘global circulation’!) or calculate how much solar power can be generated. Older students can really go to town on this, and any A-Level student doing an NEA on renewable energy would find these tools a dream resource.

Carbon Brief: “Mapped: How Every Part of the World has Warmed and Will Continue to Warm” https://www.carbonbrief.org/mapped-how-every-part-of-the-world-has-warmed-and-could-continue-to-warm

This is a very user-friendly website that combines technical and robust scientific data. It is a great way to allow students to explore what is really meant by a global average warming of x-number of degrees. Currently, the world’s global average temperature has risen by about 1 deg C since the start of the industrial period. But that confuses many, especially those yet to properly grasp the difference between weather and climate. Using this map you can visually explore what a global average warming of 1 deg C actually means in different parts of the world. Go near the north pole and there it’s risen by about 2.6 deg C, whereas some places on the equator have risen by ‘only’ 0.6-0.8 deg C over the ocean. Air temperatures over land masses have warmed quicker than those over the ocean, too. The 100km x 100km square resolution means you can also get into looking into potential chances in your regional area.

Climate Signals – https://www.climatesignals.org/

Climate Signals is a great website that attempts to make the science of climate attribution accessible to a wider audience. It takes ‘infamous’ extreme weather events and uses diagrams to show the possible links to climate change. The GIS element comes via a clickable map rather than a full-blown tool (which is in itself a kind of simple GIS, because you have an active digital layer over a map), allowing you to search for climate change related events by location.

GOV.UK National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory – https://naei.beis.gov.uk/laco2app/

The UK Government are actually great producers of data and GIS, particularly the Office of National Statistics. The problem with them is that unless you stumble across them, you don’t really know about them. The National Atmospheric Emissions Inventory is one such GIS. It is a very detailed mapping tool to look at a range of different sources that contribute to carbon emissions, broken down by constituency. The graphs give you a five-year trend, and I really hope they update it as I’d be very interested to see what 2020 looks like in comparison to other years.

CIAT Interactive ‘Origin of Crops’ Maphttps://blog.ciat.cgiar.org/origin-of-crops/

Hopefully those of you who teach the youngsters are still with me. If so, here’s one for you. It’s a simple clickable map of where certain foodstuffs originate from. A perfect example of KS2 requirements for using ‘digital maps’ to aid discussions about food miles and help visualise how far our food comes from.

A free GIS Tool for teachers to explore climate and energy data – the c3s Edu Demo

As part of my job at WEMC, I was privileged to be the manager and education lead for a project to develop a visual and interactive GIS tool for teachers to explore climate and energy data in Europe. The project was funded by the European Commission, overseen by the talented people at the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), operated by ECMWF.

The GIS tool has a bit of a long name: the Copernicus Climate Change Service Climate & Energy Education Demonstrator (or simply for short: C3S Edu Demo).

Throughout its development process, high-school teachers and their students were involved, particularly those here in the East and South East of England (since that’s where we’re based). So I want to give a special thank you to the Norfolk Geography Teachers Network, the East London Geography Hub, the Geographical Association ICT Special Interest Group, and particular thanks to students and staff at Attleborough Academy Norfolk (AAN) for their help in both giving us some initial ideas and then testing the ‘alpha’ (pre-published) version, identifying all the bugs! I interviewed Frances Billin, Head of Geography at AAN and two of her GCSE Geography students about their thoughts on climate change and the GIS tool, and you can watch the video of that if you’re interested.

This video gives an overview of the C3S Edu Demo GIS tool.

The C3S Edu Demo was designed with the Geography International Baccalaureate in mind. You can download this document to see links between that and the data you can explore using the tool. A document listing UK GCSE syllabus topic links can be downloaded here.

A range of teaching and learning resources are available. There are fact-sheets for each variable (which includes definitions, mini case-studies, glossary etc), a couple of videos and some lesson material written by teachers themselves, downloadable as PDFs. You can access them all via the C3S Edu Demo’s project page “Resources” tab here.

I created a ‘Geography At Home’ support pack for the C3S Edu Demo, which hopefully will be live on the Geographical Association website soon. But you get it here, today!

The C3S Edu Demo will continue to undergo development. It was recently updated to be mobile compatible, and soon you’ll be able to explore datasets which cover the whole globe, not just Europe. So keep tabs on it!

What about this ‘C3S’ business?

Although the Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) is mostly geared towards academics, engineers, data scientists, analysts and the like, those of you who love to look into scientific data and visualisations (and get their students to do so too), then the following things will interest you:

  • The C3S Climate Data Store is an open-access database of a wealth of climate data. You can also explore these data via visual applications and now through a toolbox to create your own visualisations.
  • The C3S User Learning Services provides a number of self-paced online lessons and learning paths for you to understand how climate data works. Most of the lessons are for the technical-minded, but there are three lessons made for teachers about how to use the C3S Edu Demo, including a few examples how you can use it with students.
  • Follow Copernicus ECMWF on Twitter will keep you updated with the latest climate science and data news, and they also often post some really interesting facts and visualisations.

You can download the presentation and the responses to my survey from the GAeConf20 website, under the ‘Beginning Teacher’ pathway here.

All my education work via Geogramblings is done all in my spare time, at my own cost but is free for you to access and enjoy. If you can spare a few pence, I’d be delighted if you could show your thanks by ‘buying me a coffee. Thank you!

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