Understanding the science of global warming and climate change: How DP Chemistry supports teachers and students as advocates of the fundamental need to safeguard the global environment.

Hear from Gary Horner, one of the authors of DP Chemistry, as he discusses the relevance of DP Chemistry in the face of global warming. Gary dives into the connections between the syllabus and climate change, highlighting how a comprehensive understanding of chemistry equips students to address this issue. This blog is the part of our summer DP Science #InspireWithScience series of vlogs, videos and articles for your classroom.

Anything but predictable.

Putting aside the constant confusion between the phenomena of global warming and climate change (NASA, What’s the Difference Between Climate Change and Global Warming?), and the fact that it might best be explained by a mathematician with a Venn diagram, one could argue that there is no longer a debate over the existence of sustained, rapid global warming, and that it is just one aspect of significant climate change.

After many decades of the scientific community warning us of the dangers of impending climate change, how informed is the general public?  The proverb “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” could describe how, in general, a wealth of false premises exists, fueled by limited scientific facts and poorly informed sources. 

How then can we, as educators, remain in touch with current research and understandings of the phenomena of global warming and climate change? 

The future of the global environment seems anything but predictable. Every week the global scientific community publishes reams of research which further illustrate the problems facing our environment and the challenges we face as global citizens. While the headline An ‘inland tsunami’: 15 million people are at risk from catastrophic glacial lake outbursts, researchers find (CNN, February 7, 2023) is sensationalized, the article highlights the important work researchers are undertaking to properly understand the complexity of the problems that we face.

Recognizing the value of contextualized learning and the use of real-life examples, I have often related the following story to students about when I worked in Switzerland at an international school.

I was spring hiking and rested in a mountain top chalet for a short break. Hanging on the walls were historic black and white images of a glacier. After chatting to the chalet host about the photos, I looked through the windows and was shocked to discover that the glacier had very significantly receded up the mountains due to changes in the environment over the previous few decades.  

My use of this anecdote and the exploration of a wide range of scientific literature on global warming and climate change during DP Chemistry lessons offers the students the opportunity to fully understand the health of the planet and encourages them to become advocates for our global environment.  

Black and white image of a snow mountain at Glacier Bay.
Photo by L J Ribar on Unsplash

From little things, big things grow!

My students have often told me that my anecdotes stay with them for a long time.

Teachers are in a privileged position where they can make a difference. We may not have the “entertainment appeal” of a TikTok video or YouTube, but we do have the respect of our students who have confidence in our message. Our work as teachers can empower students to be advocates for change and a voice for the protection of our environment’s future.

Each person’s contribution may seem small, but from little things, big things grow.

So how can DP Chemistry provide accurate information and understanding of the climate and environmental issues that we all face?

There are numerous examples of how the nature of science and our approach to understanding the external universe and how it works leads us to a better understanding of the harm we are doing to the environment. The value of studying DP Chemistry is that students investigate chemical concepts to a far greater depth than in middle schooling. Perhaps one day we will no longer hear a collective groan when we mention the term greenhouse gas.

Cover of the DP Chemistry Course Book,

There is a wealth of information throughout the IB DP Chemistry guide and Oxford’s 2023 DP Chemistry course companion. These examples are designed to stimulate conversation, broaden knowledge, and deepen understanding, and include:

  • The use of raw materials to provide alternative technologies to fossil-based energy sources. Green chemistry examines the cost-benefit relationship between the use of alternate raw materials for energy production and the associated costs in terms of “environmental remediation, waste management and energy consumption (p476)”.
  • Understanding the chemistry behind the destruction of ozone in the upper atmosphere when studying bonding. The breakdown of ozone molecules by electromagnetic radiation is a natural occurrence in the upper atmosphere. The chemistry behind this phenomenon is well understood. Historically, the ozone layer depletion was accelerated by the release of ozone-depleting substances into the atmosphere. Discussion of the hole in the ozone layer serves as a stark reminder of the global impact of science, both good and bad. The study of this topic enables students to better understand the ethical consequences and responsibilities associated with scientific knowledge and “progress”.
  • Polymers, plastics, and the environment. Research in this area of science is growing as concern about plastics and microplastics increases. Bioplastics are aligned with two of the Green Chemistry principles. Plant-based biodegradable plastics or bioplastics use renewable feedstocks. Discussions on the development of biodegradable substances bring to life interesting science. While the process of biodegradation of plastics releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, plant-based polymers are said to be carbon-neutral as carbon dioxide is absorbed during the natural production of these plant-based polymers (p216).
  • The increasingly diverse use of clean energy in society:
  • Transportation – green buses
  • Light catalysed chemical reactions
  • Hydrogen fuel cells
  • Direct-methanol fuel cells
  • The scope and impact of green technologies – reduction of hazardous waste products; use of natural products in industry and the widespread use of supercritical carbon dioxide. There are numerous examples of “clever science” and how the scientific community is attempting to combat global warming and climate change, the most significant single issue in living memory. Students should research and discover the wealth of innovations that are being developed and try to understand the Chemistry behind these important ideas.
  • STEM- International Mindedness – the research by a Japanese geochemist into the role of oceans as carbon sinks and the impact of climate change on this. The oceans of our planet serve as vital carbon sinks, storing carbon dioxide that would otherwise be present in the atmosphere. What impact are the changing environmental conditions having on the ocean’s ability to capture and store carbon dioxide?  

DP Chemistry presents numerous opportunities for our students to create life-long awareness, innovation, and learning. As such, it is a crucial part in a vital jigsaw which we as humans must complete. Authentic education about the challenges the global community faces in terms of global warming and climate change is fundamentally important if we are to nurture current and future generations of science students as advocates for the safeguarding of the environment.

Join us on this exciting journey!