Chapter 3.2: Where It All Starts: The Greenhouse Effect     

THIS CHAPTER PROVIDES BASIC INFORMATION ABOUT THE PHENOMENON THAT DRIVES MOST CLIMATE CHANGE EFFECTS. It starts with energy from the sun, human over-production of greenhouse gases, and the anthropogenic warming of our atmosphere.

Organizing climate change content in your mind

Just to remind you, below are the five “containers” of big ideas related to climate change. If students can grasp just a few climate-relevant key ideas in each area, they will more easily be able to see how everything (at least in natural systems) is connected. These containers may also help you see where there might be gaps in your curriculum. Are we addressing phenomena in each of these?

Just to put the GHE into context, this graphic shows how everything is going up, not just greenhouse gases or global temperatures, but sea levels, humidity, ocean warming and the speed at which we are losing sea ice.

What these are

This is a set of resources to help you learn enough about Greenhouse Effect (GHE) basics to create challenging and scientifically accurate lessons. There are many other options online, but these seem to be pitched at the right level for educators who to build solid science fluency in key areas.

What is Greenhouse Effect? Its Gases, Causes, Solution, Nikita Kaul, Prana Air 2023

How these resources might help your teaching

Taken together, these resources can be used to deeply understand greenhouse gases and where they come from, why GHGs are the ones that trap infra-red radiation as heat, how they interact with different kinds of radiation given off by the sun, why Earth is different from the Moon or other planets when it comes to our atmosphere. All these “pieces” make up what students need to know and get them engaged with events and processes they experience every day like warmth being trapped by buildings or pavement, how clouds block some forms of radiation but not others, or why cars can get as hot as ovens with the windows rolled up on a sunny day.

• These are in a reasonable order, starting with a short video about what the GHE is. I like watching the video in addition to reading about it because they are different modalities for processing the information. Many of your students are like that as well. You might show it all the way through without stopping. Then show it again but stop it at three or four strategic places and ask students to make sense, perhaps with partners, what they saw in each segment.

• Here’s part of that nice MIT website, the page that starts you off on the GHE. Pretty awesome.

• This interactive graph features atmospheric temperature and methane levels, a powerful greenhouse gas, that combine measurements from Antarctica ice core data as far back as 800,000 years, and up to the most recent measurements, averaged from a global network of air sampling sites.

• What parts of our economy do global greenhouse gas emissions come from? Find out right here.

Climate Summary and Land. Land plays a very important role in the climate system. It exchanges energy, water, aerosols and greenhouse gases with the atmosphere and with the ocean—through both human and natural mechanisms. But land could also be the solution to mitigate climate change, since it is not only a source of greenhouse gases, but also a sink (meaning it can remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, primarily through photosynthesis).

What this is

Properties of urban materials influence the development of urban heat islands, as they determine how the sun’s energy is reflected, emitted, and absorbed. Heat islands can affect communities by increasing summertime peak energy demand, air conditioning costs, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, heat-related illness and mortality, and water quality (remember the summer of 2023?). This resource by the EPA is a fabulous intro to the science of urban heat islands and includes five additional PDFs that each explain adaptations that we can use, like smart buildings, and cool roofs.

Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies – Urban Heat Island Basics. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 2008. “Urban Heat Island Basics.” In: Reducing Urban Heat Islands: Compendium of Strategies. Draft. heat-island-compendium.

Urban heat islands combine lots of basic science (electromagnetic spectrum, radiation released by the sun, atmospheric chemistry a.k.a. how greenhouse gases trap and re-reflect infra-red back to Earth, albedo, specific heat, emmisivity, transpiration by plants, and much more). It also brings racial injustices right to the front with redlining of neighborhoods, blockbusting, gentrification. This is the kind of phenomenon that is widespread and requires two level of explanation: the science and the racist policies that to this day have an impact on the quality of life in big cities. Here’s the link again.

Blog at