Global Climate Change: Understanding the Science / Understanding the Impacts

This page authored by Jeff La Frenierre, Gustavus Adolphus College.
Gustavus Adolphus College, Geography
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In this two-part module, students are first introduced to the science of climate change, then consider the impacts of climate change through a collection of global case studies. The first part involves a lecture/discussion covering evidence that Earth's climate is changing, places current climate change in context with past climate change events in the planet's history, identifies the key forcing mechanisms that drive climate change, and shares evidence that current climate change is largely the result of human activities. The second part begins with a lecture/discussion about the climate change vulnerabilities experienced by a real family living in Andean Ecuador, then asks students to work in small groups to evaluate case studies from Lapland, Mozambique, Nepal, Thailand, and Tuvalu. Groups rejoin to share with the class what they have discussed.

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Learning Goals

After completing this unit, students will be able to:
  • Summarize data-driven evidence that climate change is occurring and that it is primarily due to human activities.
  • Describe current climate change within the context of past climate change events in Earth's history.
  • Explain the concepts of adaption and vulnerability within the context of climate change, and evaluate these conditions for different global communities.

Context for Use

This module is appropriate for a high school or introductory-level college course where students have had little to no previous introduction to the science and implications of climate change.

Description and Teaching Materials

Part 1: Preliminary assessment of student knowledge on climate change (10 minutes)

Students are asked to complete a seven question multiple-choice test that interrogates their current knowledge about the science of climate change. This test is not graded, and correct answers are not provided to students.

Part 2: Understanding the Science (45-60 minutes)

Students begin with an interactive lecture that starts by introducing climate change and a complex and contentious topic (SLIDES 1-4). Students then engage with a think/pair/share activity to identify the types of evidence we might seek in order to see if the climate was changing (SLIDE 5). The next portion of the lecture summarizes key data-driven evidence for climate change (SLIDES 6-14; this should be updated as new science is presented). The next portion of the lecture discusses examples of past climate change events, with the drying of North Africa 5000 years ago used to illustrate, as well as a general summary of climate change since the last ice age (SLIDES 15-20). The lecture then explores the various forcing mechanisms that have been responsible for climate change in Earth's history, including variation in Earth's orbit, solar output, atmospheric transparency, terrestrial geography, and natural greenhouse gas emissions (SLIDES 21-29). There is then a chance for students to engage in a discussion of which, if any, of the above forcings could be responsible for current climate change simply based on the time scales at which they operate (SLIDE 30). This part of the module concludes with an overview of the evidence that humans are primarily responsible for climate change (SLIDES 31-35). A Q and A session and general group discussion is encouraged at this point.

Part 3: Understanding the Impacts

The second module begins with an overview and think/pair/share activity centered on the impacts of climate change being faced by one family living near Volcan Chimborazo, high in the Andes of Ecuador. This discussion is based on research performed by the module author, Jeff La Frenierre. The objective here is for students to think critically about the consequences of climate change as it is (and will be) experienced by people in different regions of the world.

Part A – The Flores Family of Ecuador (30-40 minutes)

The first several slides introduce the family, discuss livelihoods pursued by the family and others like them in the region, as well as the general socioeconomic conditions that exist here (SLIDES 2-4). Students should gain a general understanding of the opportunities and obstacles facing people who live here, with particular emphasis on the lack of non-farm employment opportunities, relatively low rates of education, high rates of poverty, and a general lack of connection to the wider world.

The first of several think/pair/share activities starts with SLIDE 5. Students are prompted to consider the types of climate change impacts that the family might face. Students may think about impacts based on the way they experience climate in mid-latitudes and coming from non-farming families. The discussion should highlight specific impacts as listed in the slide notes (changing rainfall patterns, especially), and emphasize the role these changes might have on a smallholder farming family.

The next think/pair/share (SLIDE 6) asks student to consider the family's vulnerability in relationship to their own. Most students come from financially-secure (relative to Ecuador), non-farming families, so the contrasts should highlight how these differences might manifest. The concept of vulnerability is introduced at this point. The discussion should emphasize the fact that poor, agrarian families are prone to significant disruptions from events that, for developed world families, may be nothing more than a moderate inconvenience. The slide notes highlight examples of what makes this family more vulnerable than the average American family.

The third think/pair/share (SLIDE 7) engages students with the idea of adaptation, and asks them to consider ways in which the family might adapt to climate change given the impacts and vulnerabilities just discussed. A critical message here should be that this family, and others like them, have few good options for adaptation. Students will have a range of ideas, but there are significant obstacles to every idea. Students and the instructor should highlight obstacles to each idea presented. Examples are included in the slide notes.

The fourth think/pair/share asks students to envision what they would do in the face of climate change disruptions if they were members of the family. This is often a challenging and frustrating discussion, because it should be increasingly evident that there are few good options available. It should be emphasized here that the Flores family is just one of hundreds of millions of similar poor, developing world families that may face similar disruption to climate change.

Part B – World Case Studies (20-30 minutes)

Students are divided into 5 groups, with each group assigned a different case study about climate change impacts. Each student should read the short case study description, then evaluate the following questions as a group:

  • How might climate change impact the average household in X?
  • Which households in X are likely to be the most vulnerable?
  • What options do people in these household have to adapt to these impacts?
    • Think critically about opportunities and obstacles
    • Be realistic
  • What would you do if you lived in X?

After each group has had sufficient time to discuss their case study, the whole class is reconvened and each group provides a short summary of their case study and their responses to the questions about vulnerability and adaptation.

Part 4: Post-module assessment of student knowledge on climate change (10 minutes).

Students are provided the same test as before. Instructors can discuss correct answers with the students after the test is complete.

Teaching Materials

Teaching Notes and Tips

Most necessary tips are included in the activity description above. It may be beneficial to start the discussion by noting that there is considerable room for debate about how to respond to climate change, but that the science itself about whether or not climate change is happening and whether or not humans are primarily responsible is settled, and that these general points are no longer being debated in the scientific community.


The basic assessment tool for this module to compare student performance on the pre- and post- test modules. However, a more nuanced assessment approach is to ask students to write short reflections on what they have learned, both in terms of the science and potential impacts of climate change. Students should be able to write in a way that demonstrates accomplishment of the three primary learning goals for the module.

References and Resources

5th Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with freely downloaded reports (and executive summaries) on the scientific evidence of climate change (Working Group 1) and on impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability to climate change (Working Group 2). This is the single best source for current, scientifically-accurate information on climate change and thus is excellent background for anyone relatively unfamiliar with these issues.