Lesson Plan: Climate Refugees

This lesson is intended for high school Social Studies students (specifically, I think it would fit best in a Geography course). The plan is still just a rough draft, but it’s starting to take shape.

The goal of the lesson is to introduce students to the idea of climate refugees and to get them thinking about the imminent climate threats facing communities around the world. The teacher would introduce this lesson through the lens of Western Alaska, where communities like Kivalina, Newtok and Shishmaref are all struggling with the question of relocation due to rising sea levels and eroding shorelines. Discuss the problems these communities have run into, specifically when it comes to securing government funding and garnering community support for the big move.

Then, to broaden the perspective, students will study some more cases, including Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana (which is set to be the first American community to be resettled due to climate change via a $48 million federal grant), Choiseul in Solomon Islands (which has bought land for relocation and is looking for international donors to fund the move) and possibly Greenland (where indigenous people are rapidly losing land and ways of life to the melting ice).

I want students to discuss in groups the challenges facing these communities, the governments responsible for them, and the world as a whole. They should imagine that they are in charge of deciding when and how to move a community similar to those in the above examples. Who is responsible for funding? What happens if there isn’t community-wide support for moving? How can they make sure to keep the community intact through a move? When happens to the people of the community if a move can’t be organized? Where would the refugees then go? Regroup as a class and share ideas.

I want to create a conversation about the moral challenges of climate change, threatened communities, and refugees. Students simply need to participate in their group discussions and remain engaged in the class discussion. I’m not sure about source material. I’ll probably add articles about the communities into the ibook for the students to read, like this one (though for brevity I might just provide summaries in the book). I will certainly embed imagery. If possible, I will include historical overlays to show how drastically shorelines have changed. I don’t know how long this lesson will take. It might be best suited for two separate class periods: one for intro, study and group discussions, another for a class-wide seminar. Any suggestions on things to add or cut would be appreciated.

Tim Higginbotham

6 thoughts on “Lesson Plan: Climate Refugees”

  1. Tim,
    The relevance of this lesson is really interesting with the sea level on the rise and relocation a reality all over the world. Historically, it made me think of other relocations from the Tennessee Valley Project (I believe) and of course the Trail of Tears with the removal of Southeast Tribes like the Cherokee. Anyway, more to think about. Good stuff.

  2. This looks like a really interesting and well thought-out lesson. I particularly like the idea of having the kids discuss the hypothetical “what would you do” scenario. Also, the idea of some kind of mapping of shoreline change in the iBook sounds awesome.

  3. Tim- I’m happy you are taking on the challenge of this ambitious lesson and incredibly relevant issue.
    Students in my high school class this past semester studied glacier recession. A cool approach to this: they put out a public service announcement to the community asking for people who had hiked the Baranof Basse Glacier to send pictures from their hike. They collected personal pictures from several decades and put them into a Powerpoint where they could see visible recession.
    That’s a fair amount of work, but a cool approach that really got the students thinking about how glacier recession was happening right around them.

    1. I agree, its ambitious – but its also incredibly important. So many western and northern Alaskan peoples already have culture eroding from westernization, its almost insurmountable what challenges they have to face when their traditional lands are changing so dramatically.

      Keep fighting the good fight Sir Tim, especially when climate change has become such a hot-bed political issue.

  4. An important subject and much to study – causes, impact, remedies.

    It would take some research to set up. But you could do a mock hearing where interested parties “testify” to a mock agency on the need for relocation support. Students could either research their roles, or you could supply them with material or witness statements.

    Another option would be for your students to do an advocacy project. Create a social media campaign to press for action to help these communities. Could even arrange to testify before government.

    I think the international comparisons are important since both the causes and impact are global.

  5. Was awesome to be in your same group. Glad you were able to touch beyond what you planned on doing.

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