Human Dimensions of Climate Change: Past and Future

Persaram Batra

Mount Holyoke College
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate


In this course we will examine how rapid climate change has affected human civilizations in the past and how it might in the future. Through a critical reading of the literature and by analysis and discussion we will attempt to determine the key factors that have helped societies survive climate change. Past impacts to be considered include the effects of drought on ancient Mesopotamia and the Classic Maya, and the effects of the Little Ice Age on Europe. In the hope that lessons from the past might illuminate the present, we will also consider the political and economic factors that have been involved. For future climate change, among other topics we will consider the potential effects of climate change on the distribution of disease vectors and the effects of changes in the hydrological cycle on agriculture. Particular attention will be paid to Africa.

Course URL:
Subject: Environmental Science:Global Change and Climate:Climate Change:Impacts of climate change, Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Climate Change:Impacts of climate change, Geoscience:Atmospheric Science:Climate Change
Resource Type: Course Information:Goals/Syllabi, Course Information
Theme: Teach the Earth:Course Topics:Environmental Science, Atmospheric Science, Teach the Earth:Incorporating Societal Issues:Climate Change
Course Size:

less than 15

Course Context:

This is an upper-level seminar-style course with the prerequisite of one intermediate-level course in Earth or environmental science. It is open to majors and non-majors. The class will meet for one three-hour period once a week in the evening.

Course Goals:

Students should be able to analyze the characteristics of past societies that have been impacted by climate change in order to determine what made them vulnerable.

Students should be able to use this analysis in order to predict what regions of today's world are most vulnerable to future climate change.

Students should be able to formulate strategies for how nations and individuals can take action to reduce these vulnerabilities.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Practice of the higher-order skills of analyzing, predicting and planning will be incorporated into all parts of the course. For instance, students will write short papers on "compare and contrast" questions, such as "Compare and contrast the differing impacts of the 1876-78 El Nino episode on the northern and southern regions of India. What do you think most accounted for the differing impacts? If a similar El Nino episode were to strike southern India today, do you think the impacts would be different? Why or why not? What might the government of India have done differently to avoid widespread suffering? What could they do if it were to occur now?" Assessment would be based on whether students displayed the skills in answering the questions.

Skills Goals

Group work.

How course activities and course structure help students achieve these goals:

Students will work on a group project (using the "jigsaw" method) in order to develop the ancillary skill of collaboration. I am not yet sure how to assess this.


Weekly short writing assignments will be given that exercise analytical, predictive and planning skills. These will be assessed using rubrics given out to the students beforehand. There will be a group project that will be similarly assessed.