Mystery of the Three Scary Numbers: A Climate Change Teaching Activity

Teaching Activity. By Bill Bigelow. 13 pages.
Through encountering “clues,” students probe the dangerous link between fossil fuels, carbon, and climate change.

  • Themes: Environment & Food | Resource Types: Teaching Activities (Free)
Mystery of the Three Scary Numbers: A Climate Change Teaching Activity (Teaching Activity) | Zinn Education Project: Teaching People's History

“Coal Oil Gas—None Shall Pass.” Demonstration against fossil fuel exports from the Northwest, Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. July 27, 2013. Photo: Adam Mills Elliott.

Every now and then an article comes along that takes such a novel approach to an issue, I feel like
I’m seeing something with new eyes. Such was the case when I read Bill McKibben’s 2012 Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” It made me see our climate predicament
with such clarity that I knew immediately I had to figure out how to turn this article into curriculum.

The “terrifying new math” is pretty simple. McKibben, founder of and the world’s most prominent climate campaigner, proposes that there are just three numbers that we need to pay attention to in order to reach some radical
conclusions about the future of fossil fuels.

The first number is two degrees Celsius, or about 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Accord, 167 countries, including the United States, pledged that “deep cuts in global [greenhouse gas] emissions are required . . . so as to hold the increase in global temperature below two degrees Celsius.” The Copenhagen Accord was a timid, inadequate document. According to McKibben, even a two-degree rise in global temperatures is fraught with danger, but it’s the only international consensus on a climate target—“the bottomest of bottom lines,” he writes. The first scary number.

Student handouts include:
• Three Scary Numbers Clues
• Three Scary Numbers Questions
• “Keeling Curve” Graph

This teaching activity was originally published by Rethinking Schools and is included in their book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth.


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