Climate Solutions: A Learning Community on Climate Science and Human Adaptations

Robert Cole
Physics and Sustainability & Justice Studies; The Evergreen State College


This program was a full-time (16 credit) learning community that focused on the scientific basis of climate change, and on a variety of strategies that societies could take to respond to climate change.

Course Size:

Institution Type:
Public four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This one-quarter long program was for sophomore and junior students in a four-year liberal arts setting.

Course Content:

The primary purpose of this program was to explore scientific evidence for global climate change, to familiarize students with the scientific arguments used to counter the assertions of climate skeptics, and to have students explore a variety of options and strategies that society could take to respond to climate change. We explored relevant sections of the IPCC Report, Climate Change 2007. The required texts regarding climate change included Global Climate Change by Arnold Bloom, and The Climate Consensus by Blockstein and Wiegman in conjunction with the National Council for Science and the Environment. This program also explored a variety of scenarios for future societal action, and included the following books: Climate 2030 by Rachel Cleetus, The Upside of Down by Thomas Homer-Dixon, The Long Descent, by John Michael Greer. In an effort to understand the "smart-grid," we read Smart Power by Peter Fox-Penner and Power to the People by Peter Grose. Substantial workshop material on peak oil, along with the Union of Concerned Scientists' report, "Smoke, Mirrors and Hot Air,"was included in the program, and formed the basis of online student research regarding the role that the Exxon-Mobil Corporation has played in fostering public confusion regarding both climate change and peak oil concepts. Other topical articles were assigned during the program. The program consisted of workshops, lectures, and seminar discussions, and included individual research projects, and small-group presentations.

Course Goals:

By the end of the course the student will:
1. Be able to explain the scientific basis of global climate change to her peers and to her family.
2. Be able to thoughtfully and respectfully respond to climate change skeptics with an explanation based on current scientific understanding.
3. Understand the difference between the concepts of rates and amounts, and understand how some mix the two concepts in an effort to spread public confusion regarding notions of peak oil.
4. Understand the broad concepts associated with resource availability and distribution that will impact the twenty-first century.
5. Be able to think critically about arguments made for sustainable practices and sustainable development that are important and controversial.
6. Be able to demonstrate critical thinking skills regarding readings on topics in sustainability and justice, and to discuss thoughtfully and respectfully controversies regarding these readings.
7. Be aware of the multitude of steps society can be taking to move toward a more just and sustainable way of organizing ourselves.
8. Demonstrate the ability to do substantive individual research regarding a topic in sustainability and justice.

Course Features:

This program was a full-time learning community that expected students to master scientific content, explore and critically analyze a variety of readings regarding sustainable practices and sustainable development, contribute to and facilitate weekly seminar discussions, develop awareness of their own consumptive practices, and conduct substantive individual research on a topic in sustainability and justice. The course equivalencies (in quarter-hours) for this one-quarter long program were:
6 - Scientific Basis of Global Climate Change
3 - Societal Adaptations to Climate Change
3 - Energy Futures, Peak Oil, and Non-Fossil Fuels
4 - Individual Research:

Course Philosophy:

This philosophy of this learning community was that all of us are learners about the issues we face on the planet in the twenty-first century, and that our ability to approach these issues with systems thinking perspective is important to advance notions of sustainability and justice. Critical thinking, and the ability to see relationships and make connections between different activities are considered essential as we explore the topics in the program. To this end, emphasis was placed on students being able to explain why they made their assertions, and how their assertions connected to other concepts we were addressing.


The "Workshop on Proxy Measures" file illustrates the pedagogical approach to illuminate the details of proxy measures (by which we can construct past climate properties) described in the textbook, Global Climate Change, by Arnold Bloom. The text itself is somewhat terse, and I suspected that students wouldn't fully understand it by simply reading it. I developed this worksheet for small groups (three or four students) to work on in class, and I circulated between groups, asking questions of them as appropriate to insure they were proceeding in a fruitful fashion. The student feedback on the workshop was overwhelmingly positive, in part because they felt they achieved real understanding of proxy measures.
The midterm and final exam files are included to show the range of short answer, or short-essay questions, that I asked of the students.


Climate Solutions Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 19kB Dec30 11)

Teaching Materials:

Workshop on proxy measures (Acrobat (PDF) 96kB Dec30 11) Climate Solutions Midterm Exam (Acrobat (PDF) 56kB Dec30 11) Climate Solutions Final Exam (Acrobat (PDF) 62kB Dec30 11)

References and Notes: