Chapter 3.5: Ecosystems and Why We Care About Diversity 

ECOSYSTEMS PROVIDE US WITH CLEAN AIR AND WATER, POLLINATION, MEDICINES, NUTRIENT CYCLING, BUFFERS AGAINST FLOODS, AND EVEN CARBON STORAGE. We depend not just on other individual living things, but on intact healthy ecosystems in ways we might not even realize. If we want students to understand how climate change is affecting living systems and to design solutions for ecological resilience, three ideas are key—the role biodiversity plays in ensuring healthy ecosystems, the limited ways that organisms can respond to accelerated changes in the environment, and how additional stresses that humans are placing on living systems make them more vulnerable. Each idea sheds a different kind of light on ecological relationships and problem-solving possibilities.

Tipping points

What this is

The downloadable image below comes from CarbonBrief. It shows different types of tipping points and their wide geographic range. Many of these are linked to ecosystem disruption—the boreal forests or North America and Europe potentially shifting towards grasslands which hold far less carbon, the Amazon Rainforest dieback and/or transitioning into grasslands, permafrost melting, and coral reef die-off.

Tipping Points | February 10. 2020. Explainer: Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change

Why this matters for student learning

Studies of student learning show that their skills with systems thinking are vital to seeing the big picture of the more-than-human world, being able to reason about interconnections, and understanding the larger scale consequences of climate change. With climate change, one key to understanding systems is grasping the idea of tipping points, where systems stop acting predictably, suddenly entering a phase where typical patterns and rules don’t apply. Ecosystems provide some of the most compelling and clear examples for students of what precipitates tipping points and how they undermine the resilience of the relationships in that system.


OpenSciEd (free and high quality curriculum!) has a 7th grade unit on the question: How does changing an ecosystem affect what lives there? This unit on ecosystem dynamics and biodiversity begins with students reading headlines that claim that the future of orangutans is in peril and that the purchasing of chocolate may be the cause. Students then examine the ingredients in popular chocolate candies and learn that one of these ingredients—palm oil—is grown on farms near the rain forest where orangutans live. This unit is about deforestation, which is a huge contributor to climate change, diversity, and the disruption of ecosystems.

Other resources

Here are three resources to help deepen your knowledge about ecosystems and climate change. The first is Ecosystems, Ecosystem Services, and Biodiversity from the Fourth National Climate Assessment. Another accessible resource is the Living Planet Report of 2022 (download is at bottom of home page). The third resource is for educators with more advanced knowledge of biological systems and resilience: Biodiversity and Climate Change. This comes from a workshop sponsored by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, and the IPCC.

Two readings help us understand the role of Indigenous science and knowledge in sustaining ecosystems. The first is Weaving Traditional Ecological Knowledge into Biological Education: A Call to Action by Robin Wall Kimmerer. Another is How Indigenous Knowledge Reconnects Us All to Fire. These are only two of many things to explore about Indigenous peoples and their stewardship of the land, and in particular their care of ecosystems. Consider these just starting places.

A specialized resource is the website of the National Phenology Network that monitors the impacts of climate change on plants and animals in the United States. And here is a TED Talk by Jonathon Foley of Drawdown: The other inconvenient truth. This talk explores the skyrocketing demand for food and why it means that agriculture has become the largest driver of climate change, biodiversity loss and environmental destruction. Foley shows why we desperately need to begin “terraculture” — farming for the whole planet.

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