Landmark Lesson Plan: Climate Change & the Keeling Curve 

Grades: 9-12
Subject areas: Atmospheric chemistry, chemical reactions and history
Principal author: Susan Cooper

The following inquiry-based student activities are designed for use in high school chemistry lesson planning, but they apply to all science subjects. Some middle school teachers may also find the lesson outline helpful. The lesson plan will help students recognize how scientists came to understand global warming using evidence collected over decades.

The lesson plan is designed as a ready-to-go lesson, easily implemented by a teacher or his/her substitute to supplement a unit of study. Students will practice critical reading and writing skills as they develop a deeper understanding of how scientists found evidence for climate change. The final activity in particular integrates writing as students are asked to explain our current understanding of climate change and relate what they have learned to their lives.

Download the complete lesson plan (PDF).

Resources include:

  • Teacher’s guide: Includes the handout, student activities and answer guide
  • Handout: “Climate Change & the Keeling Curve”
  • Student activities: Include the five activities described below.

Student activities:

While these activities are thematically linked, each is designed to stand alone as an accompaniment for the handout. Teachers may choose activities based on curricular needs and time considerations.

  • Anticipation Guide and Reading on “Climate Change & the Keeling Curve” Students confront their ideas about the greenhouse effect and global warming. (20–25 minutes)
  • History Exercise: Timeline of events leading to our current understanding of global warming Students chronologically order events from the reading. They also describe scientists’ claims, evidence and reasoning to relate fossil fuel combustion to global warming. (10-15 min.)
  • Graphic Organizer: Chemistry and Global Warming Students write the equations for processes described in the reading, and how each process affects the trends shown by the Keeling Curve. (5–10 min.)
  • Why Mauna Loa Observatory? Students describe three advantages and three challenges related to collecting data at Mauna Loa Observatory. (5–10 min.)
  • Writing Exercise: The Keeling Curve and You Students summarize current understanding of global warming and how this understanding affects their lives. (20–25 min.)

The Keeling Curve shows the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over time.
The Keeling Curve shows the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels over time.
Scripps and NOAA

carbon cycle
The carbon cycle maps carbon distribution among the atmosphere, plants, land and oceans.
Adapted from NASA graphic

PDF of Landmark brochure
Cover from "The Keeling Curve" booklet, produced by the National Historic Chemical Landmarks program of the American Chemical Society in 2015.