Teaching Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Climate Change

Bofferding, L., & Kloser, M. (2015). Middle and high school students' conceptions of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies. Environmental Education Research, 21, 275 - 294.

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that mitigation strategies alone do not suffice to respond to potential negative impacts of global climate change (GCC), and adaptation strategies are equally important. Mitigation strategies are efforts to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG), and thus the severity of future GCC. In contrast, adaptation strategies are ways to help humans and other species adapt to the present and future changes related to GCC, such as drought, changes in ecosystems, and sea level rise. Education research on GCC has been largely focused on individuals' understanding of mitigation while overlooking the essential construct of adaptation, as well as the ability of individuals to differentiate between the two constructs.

In the perspective of addressing these research gaps, this study used a pretest, instruction unit, posttest format to identify aspects of middle school and high-school students' knowledge of mitigation and adaptation strategies related to GCC. It specifically looked at: (1) adolescents' conceptualizations of, and justification for, climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies in their communities; (2) the impact of GCC instructional intervention on students' understandings and beliefs; and (3) differences or similarities in conceptualization of the two constructs (adaptation and mitigation) at different developmental levels of middle and high school.

Student data were collected from 18 teachers in the California Bay Area who volunteered to implement the proposed GCC curriculum as a mandatory unit in their science classes. The study, however, focused on student data from only six teachers (three middle-school and three high-school teachers) selected based on two main criteria: (1) their classrooms included a representative sample of ethnic and racial diversity of students; and (2) they had implemented the GCC unit according to the instructions and had complete data sets at the time of analysis. The resulting sample included 387 students, of which 162 were middle-school students (age 11–14) and 225 were high-school students (age 14–18). The curriculum covered topics related to climate science, energy budget, and mitigation and adaptation and was tailored to the geographical characteristics of the California Bay Area. The researchers first designed the curriculum for high-school students and then modified it to the development level of middle-school students.

The instructional intervention was divided into several units and implemented mainly through group activities and experiments. First, students were exposed to the concept of GHG and its impact, along with four mitigation strategies: fuel efficiency, transportation conservation, building efficiency, and efficient electricity production. The next units focused on the impacts of climate change— such as sea-level rise and drought—and ways to both mitigate and adapt to it. While learning about adaptation strategies, students were encouraged to imagine short-term and long-term solutions. While exploring the impact of GCC on water shortages and agriculture in California, for example, students discussed short-term adaptations for water shortage, such as increasing water use efficiency for irrigation, and long-term adaptations, such as developing drought-resistant crops. Lesson plans and related resources are available online at https://pangea.stanford.edu/programs/outreach/climatechange/curriculum.

The results showed the instruction was effective at improving students' knowledge of GCC mitigation and its causes. Specifically, when asked to suggest an approach for reducing the impact of temperature rise, the number of students who responded “no response” decreased from 13% at the pretest to 1% on the posttest. In addition, students' ability to justify why their chosen behavior reduces GHG emissions significantly improved from 55% to 85% after the educational unit. Although middle-school students were more confident in providing responses after the instruction unit, high-school students were more likely to provide correct responses and provided valid justifications more frequently.

On the other hand, conceptualizations of, and justification for, adaptation strategies were far less understood compared with mitigation strategies. In the pretest, over 36% of students chose “no response” when asked to suggest adaptation strategies, compared to 13% for mitigation. In addition, 24% of students conflated mitigation and adaptation by providing responses that only reduce GHG emissions and do not help humans or other species adapt to GCC. One common conflated response, for example, was: “use less energy.” Although using less energy is indeed important for mitigating GCC, this response shows the student did not recognize that using less energy won't help them and other species adapt to GCC. In other words, reducing energy use does not improve resilience to the impacts of GCC, such as more frequent storms, heat waves, droughts, and so on. Moreover, middle-school students were more prone to confusion than the older students, with more than half of the group providing no adaptation strategies and 18% providing answers that conflate mitigation with adaptation. Posttest survey results showed an increase in the students' response rate on adaptation questions, which reflects improved confidence. However, the frequency of conflation of adaptation and mitigation did not decrease after the instructional unit.

Finally, in the pretest, the students had much more difficulty justifying their adaptation responses (70% had no or invalid justifications) than justifying mitigation responses. The instructional unit improved the capacity of students to provide correct adaptation responses, as well as valid justifications (60% of students). However, 30% of students still provided invalid responses due to sustained conflation of the two constructs.

The Bottom Line

<p>In teaching about global climate change (GCC), it is essential to address both mitigation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions) and adaptation (e.g., improving efficiency of water usage in agriculture) strategies. Special attention needs to be paid to teaching about adaptation, in particular, as it is often overlooked, as evidenced by this study's findings that it is not as well understood as mitigation. Focusing on adaptation can be achieved by increasing the number, sophistication, and engagement level of activities that address adaptation as well as providing students with explicit instructions on how they might consider addressing adaptation; these activities must also make clear conceptual connections between adaptation strategies and the influence of those strategies on greenhouse gas emission levels. Moreover, future instructional units should focus more on improving students' abilities to differentiate and contrast between mitigation and adaptation to GCC. Finally, this study's findings—and those from other related studies—suggest that climate curricula are more compelling when tailored to the students' geographical area.</p>