Global Warming: Here and Now, Then and There

Wayne Powell
Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Author Profile

This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project


Students recount the character and effects of global warming on global civilizations during the Medieval Warm Period, as documented in Brian Fagan's "The Great Warming." Using this information and articles from major newspapers, students predict the future effects of global warming on citizens of their home city. This activity places current global climate change predictions in context of global cultures, world history, and local impact.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications



This activity is appropriate for introductory general education courses, or introductory geo-majors courses in which concepts of climate change are introduced, or introductory English composition classes. Fagan's book is highly inclusive in nature; it documents the effects of global climate change on the history European, Asian, African, South American, Native American, and Pacific Island cultures. Accordingly, this activity is well-suited to a class with significant ethnic/cultural diversity, assuming that support structures are in place to assist English-language learners with writing skills.

Skills and concepts that students must have mastered

This activity provides an opportunity to practice critical reading and writing skills.

How the activity is situated in the course

This assignment is given in the second half of the course after students have completed smaller, low-stakes exercises in writing and critical reading. The reading is assigned concurrently with the introduction of basic concepts of climate change in class.


Content/concepts goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to explain how geoscientists determine past climate, and predict future climate.
  • Students will be able to describe how climate is a controlling factor in history, economics, and cultural development.

Higher order thinking skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to be able to correlate related concepts from various written sources.

Other skills goals for this activity

  • Students will be able to use the internet to find appropriate articles for research.
  • Students will be able to write a short research paper with a limited number of sources.

Description of the activity/assignment

Brian Fagan is an emeritus professor of anthropology at University of California, Santa Barbara who has written several books about past climate change and its effect on the course of European history. His latest book, "The Great Warming," focuses on the Medieval Warm Period (circa 10th to 14th centuries) during which the North Atlantic region experienced an unusually warm climate, and discusses historical events and trends that can be correlated with this climatic change. This assignment uses this book, along with student-retrieved newspaper articles, as the basis for a research paper that addresses the issue of global warming, its effect on past civilizations and its anticipated effect on the future of the citizens of New York City.

Based primarily on "The Great Warming", students address the following questions in a 5 page paper:

  • What methods and data sources do scientists use to determine climates of the past? How reliable are these various approaches?
  • How was European climate different during the Medieval Warm Period, and how did this climate affect the lives of people in Europe?
  • How was climate different during the Medieval Warm Period for one other region of personal interest, and how did this climate affect the lives of people who lived in that region?

Using information from "The Great Warming" and three to six articles from past issues of a major newspaper, such as the New York Times, students determine probable effects of global warming to the future populations of either their home city, or of the region for which they documented past climate change.

Determining whether students have met the goals

Evaluation is multi-stage and involves peer review for formative assessment.
Phase One: Students submit a 250-word summary of the predicted effects of global warming on their home city, based on three newspaper articles; instructor grades papers satisfactory or unsatisfactory (requires resubmission) and indicates two one or two targeted areas that could improve the writing (e.g. verb tense issues).

Phase Two: Peer review of draft papers in a "speed dating" format, such that 3 to 5 students read a segment of the paper and each suggests an aspect for improvement; the author summarizes and responds briefly to suggestions, and submits this summary to the instructor.

Phase Three: Instructor assigns final grade to edited version of paper.

More information about assessment tools and techniques.

Teaching materials and tips

Other Materials

Supporting references/URLs

Fagan, B., 2008, The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations. Bloomsbury Press, 282p.

New York Times Online Archive: