By Mimi Eisen and Ursula Wolfe-Rocca
Teaching about climate change has changed a lot. For the most part, we no longer devote scarce class time to the disinformation that climate change is a hoax or merely a natural cycle of periodic warming. Nor do we have to reach into the distant future of disasters-to-come to help students grasp climate change’s threat. Wildfires, heatwaves, floods, and hurricanes are already here, shaping our students’ daily lives. Students of the 2020s know: Climate change is real, climate change is here, and climate change is intensifying. But today’s climate justice educators face new curricular dragons to slay — a powerful narrative of inevitability and the despair and resignation that is its logical outcome.
The narrative of inevitability is tricky. Like so many of the most pernicious brands of disinformation, there is some truth to it. Yes, many deleterious impacts of warming are baked into our foreseeable future — hence the ubiquity of the problematic phrase “new normal” in recent media coverage. What is normalized is often portrayed as fixed and unchangeable, obscuring precisely the opposite truth: Our current predicament is a product of history, not fixed, but flowing. To say that most of the warming of the last century cannot be reversed is not to say that this reality — our reality — was inevitable; there were other possible futures. And there still are. Every fraction of a degree of warming we prevent today is life-saving and urgent. The discourse of inevitability obscures both the history that got us here and what the future requires.
For years now, Rethinking Schools and our Zinn Education Project (coordinated with Teaching for Change), have implored educators to teach cross-curricularly about the climate crisis. We have cautioned against siloing the climate emergency in science classes, since the urgency of the crisis demands that students understand more than the carbon cycle or the chemistry of ocean acidification. We have called for an all-hands-on-deck approach where students confront the realities and possibilities of our precarious moment through personal narrative, literature, math, world languages, the arts, and social studies.
But here we speak to history teachers in particular. It is our job to help young people grasp the origins of the climate crisis and who or what is responsible. Yet most textbooks and corporate curricula ignore that this crisis is a consequence of history — especially a product of the race and class struggles that have characterized the rest of U.S. history. So we make an offer: Consider teaching the Zinn Education Project’s new Climate Crisis Timeline.
The Problems with Timelines
Timelines are a mainstay of K–12 history curricula. In textbooks, they are boxed at the bottom of a page or the end of a chapter with titles like, “Early European Settlements in North America, 1565–1682,” “New Consumer Products, 1920–1929,” or more often, just, “Timeline.” These collections of dates and pithy entries — “The French establish the royal province of Quebec” — dot the textbook landscape, inert, unspectacular, begging to be ignored.
Though designed to be almost-invisible backdrops, textbook timelines are powerful sources of information for critical educators and students. They provide key insight into the interests of the textbook authors, a place where we glimpse a skeletal version of the values and assumptions underwriting the larger historical narrative. In history, there is no corollary to the periodic table of elements. We do not have a universal list of “important events,” nor agreed upon formulas about how they should be combined. All timelines are curated, each putting forward a particular argument about the past. For example, the timeline, “Events of the Truman Years, 1945–1949,” that shows up in a chapter on the Cold War in American Odyssey (McGraw-Hill), offers this for 1945: “Truman becomes president. World War II ends,” and moves on to 1946 when “Price controls are lifted. Inflation soars.” Notably, Truman’s decision to detonate two nuclear weapons on Japanese cities, killing, wounding, and poisoning hundreds of thousands of people, was left out of “Events of the Truman Years.” Nor is there any effort to alert students to this highly contestable selection process; textbook timelines are presented without commentary or caveat, and with no invitation for students to critically engage with the politics of their creation.
When it comes to the climate crisis the problem is not just one of curatorial emphasis, but of erasure — there are no climate change timelines at all. In most textbooks there is simply no recognition that the climate crisis has a history. Climate change is a phrase that shows up only in a textbook’s final pages — in chapters with titles like “A Changing Nation in a Changing World” and “Challenges of a New Century.” In one 2019 example, National Geographic’s America Through the Lens, the term “fossil fuels” appears only once, in the book’s last section. Of course, fossil fuels do show up throughout the book — as coal, oil, industrialization, military mobilization, or “postwar prosperity” — but there is no mention of environmental degradation, only economic growth. For example, in a chapter called, “Industrial America,” we find this paragraph:
In 1859, oil prospectors struck the first American oil near Titusville, Pennsylvania. The rise of the railroad and steel industries made oil more readily available nationwide. Railroads transported oil long distances, and the steel industry provided a strong material for constructing pipelines, drilling equipment, and tanks. Initially, oil’s main purpose was to fuel lamps, but soon oil became necessary to lubricate the machinery that ran American industries. In the early 1900s, oil was an essential part of the new automobile industry and would later provide heat and electric power to the country as well.
Here, fossil fuels are “necessary” and “essential.” No sign or mention of the environmental and human costs of their extraction or use, nor any effort to signal to students that they are encountering a smoking gun for the climate catastrophe unfolding around them.
One can find some climate change timelines online, but they have their own limitations. Often, they are merely souped-up versions of the Keeling Curve, emphasizing carbon dioxide as the driver of the crisis. Some begin with the Industrial Revolution, others with later scientific discoveries that anchor the study of climate change today. Most provide no analysis of who or what is responsible. And when these timelines do allocate responsibility, what they point to is disturbing and inaccurate. For example, The BBC’s “A Brief History of Climate Change” reads in 1800, “World population reaches one billion;” in 1930, “Human population reaches two billion;” in 1960, “Human population reaches three billion:” and so on. The timeline notes the increasing levels of CO₂ alongside the increasing population levels, as if one explains the other. This is “overpopulation” hogwash. It is not the “human population” that has burned billions of tons of fossil fuels; according to the Global Carbon Project, just 12 percent of the global population is responsible for 50 percent of all the planet-warming greenhouse gases released from fossil fuels and industry over the past 170 years. As Robyn Maynard has written,
It is not “humanity” that poisoned so much earthly human and non-human life, but a small and highly powerful minority of humanity, and the order they have imposed on all earthly life . . . it is a way of “All Lives Matter”-ing the climate crisis by erasing both the real authors and the first victims of the crimes enacted on planetary life.
Other climate change timelines turn away from the past almost entirely. They project a devastating rise in global temperatures and threats to human life in the decades ahead, unless business as usual ends right away. But whose business? Charts with forks in the road of climate calamity often argue that curbing the worst effects of global warming is possible only if “our” fossil fuel use drops substantially. Again, those engineering the climate emergency vanish into a false collective of culpable CO₂ emitters. Readers may come away from these timelines of the future with a basic sense of the crisis in hard numbers, but without any strategies to solve it. Stressing what is at stake but offering no meaningful actions encourages a dangerous politics of defeatism.
The Zinn Education Project Climate Crisis Timeline
Like all timelines, ours is curated according to a set of guiding principles — but unlike textbook timelines, our principles are explicit. Our goal is to historicize the climate crisis, showing that it was not inevitable, but created under a particular set of conditions, by particular groups of people, according to particular systems for organizing human life — imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism. At every stage, rebels and activists showed there were other possibilities for how life might be organized. These are our twin legacies — the systems that continue to threaten the Earth and the centuries-deep reservoir of resistance to them. Most of all, we want this timeline to confirm for students that the history of the climate crisis is still unfolding. What we do today matters. And the day after that. And the day after that.
Our timeline begins in the 1400s with European land theft and the ideologies that justified it. We selected this starting point because it initiated the global order in which we still operate. We include entries about the “doctrine of discovery,” sugar plantations in Madeira on which enslaved Africans labored under Portuguese colonizers, the genocide perpetrated against Native Peoples in the Americas sparked by European colonization, and the creation of “company-states” like the Dutch East India Company that wielded unprecedented military and economic power across the globe. As Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò writes in Reconsidering Reparations, “Slavery and colonialism built the world we know.” To use Táíwò’s framing, advantage and disadvantage — who consumes the most fossil fuels and who bears the worst consequences of the climate crisis — still flow through pipes laid centuries ago.
Our timeline includes key moments in the development of the fossil fuel industry, from the technical innovations of the Industrial Revolution that one might find in a textbook (Rotary Steam Engine Invented, 1788) to the disinformation campaigns of the 20th and 21st centuries, missing from textbooks (founding of the Global Climate Coalition, a fossil fuel industry-funded clearinghouse for “climate skeptics” seeking to sow confusion and falsehoods about climate change, 1989). We feature examples of people or groups who knew about climate change’s causes and consequences before the general public (scientist Eunice Newton Foote, 1856; engineer Guy Callendar, 1938; the Kennedy administration, 1961; the American Petroleum Institute, 1968). These entries make clear that there has long been sufficient knowledge — among scientists, politicians, and the fossil fuel industry — about the climate crisis to act to slow its worst impacts.
Wars are a prominent feature of the standard U.S. history curriculum, but almost never analyzed through the lens of climate change. World Wars One and Two, the U.S- and British-led coup in Iran (1953), the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War (1990–1992), and the “War on Terror” all show up on our timeline, illustrating the disturbing entanglement of fossil fuels and militarism.
The timeline includes numerous examples of the negative impacts of fossil fuels on humans and the Earth: A coal miners strike in Germany, 1889; Shell in the Niger Delta, 1956; flooding in Pakistan, 2010; drought in East Africa, 2011; Typhoon Haiyan, 2013; Hurricane Maria, 2017; wildfires 2020; and many more.
Also emphasized on the timeline are acts of resistance and organizing against the fossil economy and its antecedents. The enslaved people of Santo Domingo revolting in 1521; an English and Welsh coal miners strike in 1890; the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People organizing against Shell Oil in 1990; the founding of La Vía Campesina in 1993; the Indigenous Peoples’ Global Summit in 2009; the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016. There have always been people advocating for a different path, offering an alternative to a catastrophic future.
The past is prologue. Yes, but which past? Our timeline seeks to offer students a useable past, one that clarifies the deep causes of the climate emergency and possibilities for future action.
It is true that the past cannot be undone. But through examining the dynamics that got us here we can identify the appropriate targets of our activism and organizing today. The climate crisis was created over centuries, engineered by oppressive systems of racial injustice and capitalism that are ubiquitous still. It is both a product and propellant of these forces. Achieving climate justice will, as others have said, require changing everything. That reality is both daunting and liberating. Daunting because the scale is massive; liberating because, as Mariame Kaba has written, “it also means there are many places to start, infinite opportunities to collaborate, and endless imaginative interventions and experiments to create.” Our movements against these unjust systems are all connected, and none can be sustained on an unlivable planet. The freedoms of future generations hinge on a global response to the accelerating climate crisis. Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò asks, “How are we supposed to win a political movement of that magnitude?” His answer: “[F]or the past 500 years, the task of justice has always been this large. The colonizers and conquerors of the world, from the U.S. southern planter aristocracy to the Third Reich, have never been confused about the scale of their ambitions for injustice. It’s time they met their match.”
Our hope is that our Climate Crisis Timeline will be one tool teachers use to help students appreciate the magnitude of our task and inspire their ambition to change the world.