By. John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H. and Tara Failey, M.P.H.


Most Americans don’t realize climate change has important impacts on their health, surveys show. When asked to identify how climate change impacts health, less than a third of those surveyed can name even one way that it affects human health. Few are aware that climate change is expected to have a varied and complex toll on human health, contributing to heat stress, malnutrition, and the spread of certain infectious diseases, like malaria.


While knowledge of climate change and health is limited, a majority of Americans think education on the topic is important. In fact, more than 75% of Americans surveyed think schools should teach children about the causes, consequences, and solutions to climate change.


So, what curricula can be applied to improve our understanding of the health impacts of climate change? Educational resources on this topic have been limited. However, our team at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) has taken steps to develop the classroom resources educators need.


Building on a module developed by Environmental Health Perspectives in 2010, NIEHS has expanded and revised those materials to create a series of lesson plans, activities, and guidance materials for high school teachers titled “A Student Exploration of the Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States.” This module follows the 5E instructional model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) to promote student discovery and learning about the complex interactions between climate change, the environment, and human health. These lessons can easily be adapted for use in different settings and for different levels of students.


Using content from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s 2016 report, The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States: A Scientific Assessment (CHA, 2016), students are prompted to describe the impacts of changing climatic conditions on human health with emphasis on vulnerable populations.


Students apply systems thinking to create a visual model of the health implications arising from climate change. For instance, students are introduced to the diverse “climate drivers” that influence health, such as changing temperature, precipitation, and weather patterns. These climate drivers are then linked to specific exposure pathways and health outcomes. A visual model of this may show the pathway from increased precipitation to flooding, which causes increased nutrient runoff leading to higher rates of water-related infections. These visual models help students understand the chain of connections between climate change and their health.


A critical component of the module challenges students to consider actions they can take to improve their communities and design interventions to enhance resilience. For example, lessons guide students to look at how elderly relatives might be assisted during heat waves. Students are challenged to think about disease prevention, such as how to eliminate breeding sites for mosquitoes and how vectors, and the health risks they present in their community, may change as the climate does.


Ultimately, our hope is that this module will enhance student interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) issues and climate literacy, while students gain skills they can apply to the real world. We know educating kids about health concerns is a great way to improve their health, as well as the health of those around them. Teaching kids about the harmful effects of smoking discourages them, and their parents, from developing or continuing this unhealthy habit. Similarly, teaching kids about the importance of wearing a seat belt can lead to life-saving decisions in the future. We hope that adding health to climate change education, through use of modules like this one, will enhance both science abilities and health for the next generation.


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About the Authors

John Balbus, M.D., M.P.H. serves as Senior Advisor for Public Health to the Director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, where he also directs the NIEHS-WHO Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health Sciences.  He serves as the Department of Health and Human Services Principal to the U.S. Global Change Research Program and co-chairs working groups on Climate Change and Human Health for the U.S. Global Change Research Program and for the National Institutes of Health. 


Tara Failey, M.P.H. is a Public Health Specialist for MDB, Inc., a contractor supporting the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. Ms. Failey previously worked at the U.S. Global Change Research Program in the Communication and Education Division.