Climate Change Argumentation

Carmen Vanderhoof, Curriculum and Instruction, College of Education, Penn State

Carmen Vanderhoof is a doctoral candidate in Science Education at Penn State. Her research employs multimodal discourse analysis of elementary students engaged in a collaborative engineering design challenge in order to examine students’ decision-making practices. Prior to resuming graduate studies, she was a secondary science teacher and conducted molecular biology research. 


  1. Subject(s): Earth Science
  2. Topic: Climate Change and Sustainability
  3. Grade/Level: 9-12 (can be adapted to grades 6-8)
  4. Objectives: Students will be able to write a scientific argument using evidence and reasoning to support claims. Students will also be able to reflect on the weaknesses in their own arguments in order to improve their argument and then respond to other arguments.
  5. Suggested Time Allotment: 4-5 hours (extra time for extension)


This lesson is derived from Dr. Peter Buckland’s sustainability presentation for the Center for Global Studies. Dr. Peter Buckland, a Penn State alumnus, is a postdoctoral fellow for the Sustainability Institute. He has drawn together many resources for teaching about climate change, sustainability, and other environmental issues. See The Field Guide for Teaching Sustainability.

While there are many resources for teaching about climate change and sustainability, it may be tough to figure out where to start. There are massive amounts of data available to the general public and students need help searching for good sources of evidence. Prior to launching into a search, it would be worthwhile figuring out what the students already know about climate change, where they learned it, and how they feel about efforts to reduce our carbon footprint. There are many options for eliciting prior knowledge, including taking online quizzes, whole-class discussion, or drawing concept maps. For this initial step, it is important that students feel comfortable to share, without engaging in disagreements. The main idea is to increase students’ understanding about global warming, rather than focus on the potential controversial nature of this topic.

A major goal of this unit is to engage students in co-constructing evidence-based explanations through individual writing, sharing, re-writing, group discussion, and whole group reflection. The argumentation format presented here contains claims supported by evidence and reasoning (Claims Evidence Reasoning - CER). Argumentation in this sense is different from how the word “argument” is used in everyday language. Argumentation is a collaborative process towards an end goal, rather than a competition to win (Duschl & Osborne, 2002). Scientific argumentation is the process of negotiating and communicating findings through a series of claims supported by evidence from various sources along with a rationale or reasoning linking the claim with the evidence. For students, making the link between claim and evidence can be the most difficult part of the process.

Where does the evidence come from?

Evidence and data are often used synonymously, but there is a difference. Evidence is “the representation of data in a form that undergirds an argument that works to answer the original question” (Hand et al., 2009, p. 129). This explains why even though scientists may use the same data to draw explanations from, the final product may take different forms depending on which parts of the data were used and how. For example, in a court case experts from opposing sides may use the same data to persuade the jury to reach different conclusions. Another way to explain this distinction to students is “the story built from the data that leads to a claim is the evidence” (Hand et al., 2009, p. 129). Evidence can come from many sources - results from controlled experiments, measurements, books, articles, websites, personal observations, etc. It is important to discuss with students the issue of the source’s reliability and accuracy. When using data freely available online, ask yourself: Who conducted the study? Who funded the research? Where was it published or presented? 

What is a claim and how do I find it?

A scientific claim is a statement that answers a question or an inference based on information, rather than just personal opinion.               

How can I connect the claim(s) with the evidence?

That’s where the justification or reasoning comes in. This portion of the argument explains why the evidence is relevant to the claim or how the evidence supports the claim.


Learning Context and Connecting to State Standards

This interdisciplinary unit can be used in an earth science class or adapted to environmental science, chemistry, or physics. The key to adapting the lesson is guiding students to sources of data that fit the discipline they are studying.

For earth science, students can explain the difference between climate and weather, describe the factors associated with global climate change, and explore a variety of data sources to draw their evidence from. Pennsylvania Academic Standards for earth and space science (secondary): 3.3.12.A1, 3.3.12.A6, 3.3.10.A7.    

For environmental science, students can analyze the costs and benefits of pollution control measures. Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Environment and Ecology (secondary): 4.5.12.C.          

For chemistry and physics, students can explain the function of greenhouse gases, construct a model of the greenhouse effect, and model energy flow through the atmosphere.  Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Physical Sciences (secondary): 3.2.10.B6.      

New Generation Science Standards (NGSS) Connections

Human impacts and global climate change are directly addressed in the NGSS. 
Disciplinary Core Ideas (DCI): HS-ESS3-3, HS-ESS3-4, HS-ESS3-5, HS-ESS3-6.     

Lesson 1: Introduction to climate change

  • Probe for prior knowledge:
    • What are greenhouse gases and the greenhouse effect?
      (sample answer: greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane contribute to overall heating of the atmosphere; these gases trap heat just like the glass in a greenhouse or in a car) 
    • What is the difference between weather and climate?
      (sample answer: weather is the daily temperature and precipitation measurements, while climate is a much longer pattern over multiple years)

Drawing of the greenhouse effect - as individuals or in pairs, have students look up the greenhouse effect and draw a diagram to represent it; share out with the class

  • Optional: figure out students’ beliefs about global warming using the Yale Six Americas Survey (students answer a series of questions and at the end they are given one of the following categories: alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, dismissive).

Lesson 2: Searching for and evaluating evidence

  • Provide students with one set of climate change data (look through the links provided in the Resources section) and directions for finding another set of data (encourage students to find newspaper articles online or go to specific sources like NASA)
    • Compare different data sources and assess their credibility
  • Jigsaw activity - assign each table group a different focus for their data search
    • Temperature
    • Precipitation
    • Sea-level
    • Albedo
    • Storm surge
  • Ask the students to think about what types of claims they can make about climate change using the data they found (Sample claims: human activity is causing global warming or sea-level rise in the next fifty years will affect coastal cities like Amsterdam, Hong Kong, or New Orleans).

Lesson 3: Writing an argument using evidence

  • Writing arguments - claim, evidence, reasoning (CER framework)
    • Claim - an inference or a statement that answers a question
    • Evidence - an outside source of information that supports the claim, often drawn from selected data
    • Reasoning -  the justification/support for the claim; what connects the evidence with the claim
  • Extending arguments - have students exchange papers and notice the strengths of the other arguments they are reading (can do multiple cycles of reading); ask students to go back to their original argument and expand it with more evidence and/or more justification for why the evidence supports the claim
  • Anticipate Rebuttals - ask students to think and write about any weaknesses in their own argument

Lesson 4: Argumentation discussion  

  • Example argument and response to argument - get a volunteer to share part of their argument; model a possible rebuttal and counterargument
    • rebuttal - challenges a component of someone’s argument - for example, a challenge to the evidence used in the original argument
    • counterargument - a whole new argument that challenges the original argument
  • Establish debate/discussion rules 
    • Suggested Rules:
      • respect group members and their ideas
      • wait for group members to finish their turns before speaking
      • be mindful of your own contributions to the discussion
        (try not to take over the whole discussion so others can contribute too; conversely, if you didn’t already talk, find a way to bring in a new argument, expand on an existing argument, or challenge another argument)  
  • Debate/discussion - In table groups have students share their arguments and practice rebuttals and counterarguments
  • Whole-group reflection - ask students to share key points from their discussion

Lesson 5: Argumentation in action case study

Mumbai, India case study

Rishi is a thirteen year old boy who attends the Gayak Rafi Nagar Urdu Municipal school in Mumbai. There is a massive landfill called Deonar right across from his school. Every day 4,000 tons of waste are piled on top of the existing garbage spanning 132 hectares (roughly half a square mile). Rishi ventures out to the landfill after school to look for materials that he can later trade for a little bit of extra money to help his family. He feels lucky that he gets to go to school during the day; others are not so lucky. One of his friends, Aamir, had to stop going to school and work full time after his dad got injured. They often meet to chat while they dig through the garbage with sticks. Occasionally, they find books in okay shape, which aren’t worth anything in trade, but to them they are valuable.

One day Rishi was out to the market with his mom and saw the sky darken with a heavy smoke that blocked out the sun. They both hurried home and found out there was a state of emergency and the schools closed for two days. It took many days to put out the fire at Deonar. He heard his dad say that the fire was so bad that it could be seen from space. He wonders what it would be like to see Mumbai from up there. Some days he wishes the government would close down Deonar and clean it up. Other days he wonders what would happen to all the people that depend on it to live if the city shuts down Deonar.

Mumbai is one of the coastal cities that are considered vulnerable with increasing global temperature and sea level rise. The urban poor are most affected by climate change. Their shelter could be wiped out by a tropical storm and rebuilding would be very difficult.

Write a letter to a public official who may be able to influence policy in Mumbai.

What would you recommend they do? Should they close Deonar? What can they do to reduce air pollution in the city and prepare for possible storms? Remember to use evidence in your argument.  

If students want to read the articles that inspired the case study direct them to:


Differentiated Instruction

  1. For visual learners - use diagrams, encourage students to map out their arguments prior to writing them
  2. For auditory learners - use the lines of evidence video
  3. For ESL students - provide them with a variety of greenhouse gases diagrams, allow for a more flexible argument format and focus on general meaning-making - ex. using arrows to connect their sources of evidence to claims
  4. For advanced learners - ask them to search through larger data sets and make comparisons between data from different sources; they can also research environmental policies and why they stalled out in congress 
  5. For learners that need more support - print out excerpts from articles; pinpoint the main ideas to help with the research; help students connect their evidence with their claims; consider allowing students to work in pairs to accomplish the writing task 


Argument write-up - check that students’ arguments contain claims supported by evidence and reasoning and that they thought about possible weaknesses in their own arguments. 

Case study letter - check that students included evidence in their letter.


Duschl, R. A., & Osborne, J. (2002). Supporting and promoting argumentation discourse in science education.

Hand, B. et al. (2009) Negotiating Science: The Critical Role of Argumentation in Student Inquiry. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

McNeill, K. L., & Krajcik, J. (2012). Claim, evidence and reasoning: Supporting grade 5 – 8 students in constructing scientific explanations. New York, NY: Pearson Allyn & Bacon.

Sawyer, R. K. (Ed.). (2014). The Cambridge handbook of the learning sciences. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


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