Unit 1: Evidence and Impacts of Climate Change
This unit introduces students to the geoscience behind the challenge of anthropogenic climate change. Upon completion, students will be able to explain the many impacts of climate change on society and summarize the scientific evidence that led the authors of the National Climate Assessment to conclude that the "global climate is changing and this is apparent across the United States in a wide range of observations. The global warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels" (NCA, 2014).
At the conclusion of this unit, students will be able to:
- Summarize the cause and evidence for anthropogenic climate change.
- Describe some of the impacts of climate change on people and the environment.
Context for Use
This unit is suitable for any level of undergraduate class and is primarily directed at non-climate science courses. Upper division geoscience courses, such classes as meteorology, oceanography, or climatology, may not need to include parts or all of this unit before using later units in the module as the material covered here (e.g, observations and models of global climate change) would likely be covered in more detail or known to students in upper division courses. For introductory courses in environmental science/studies, this unit is flexible enough to be taught as a stand-alone introduction to the scientific basis of anthropogenic climate change, as well as an introduction to the linkages between carbon emissions and climate change.
This unit was designed to be carried out over one long lecture period (~75 minutes).
Description and Teaching Materials
Teaching Materials Required for Unit 1
- Computer with a connection to a projector to show the Unit 1 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 25.6MB Feb6 17) with the aid of the Unit 1 Lecture Notes (Microsoft Word 154kB Feb6 17).
- 9 large pads of paper and markers; a large whiteboard or chalkboard that can be divided into 9 segments; or enough 8.5"x11" (or 11"x17") white paper and markers to create a workstation (the number of pads/board segments is dependent on class size and the number of impacts presented). The key is to provide students a medium to collect their thoughts and share with the rest of the class during the
Prior to starting the module
Have students take this climate literacy assessment (Microsoft Word 103kB Aug15 16). It takes between 5-10 minutes to complete and should be done by each student prior to beginning the reading assigned for Unit 1. The assessment can be completed at the end of the class meeting before the module is started or given as a homework assignment due before the class readings for Unit 1 are assigned. The climate literacy assessment will show what students already know about climate change, including scientific, economic, and political aspects, and identify any common misconceptions among students in the class that should be explicitly addressed in class. This diagnostic assessment also provides a baseline against which students will gauge their learning about climate change over the course of the module. In Unit 7, there is metacognition exercise that utilizes the climate literacy assessment to encourage students to reflect upon their learning. Answers to the climate literacy assessment will vary but a sample set of answers is available
Prior to the first class session
Before class (but after taking the climate literacy assessment (Microsoft Word 103kB Aug15 16)), students should read the Overview of the Climate Change Impacts in the United States from the U.S. National Climate Assessment for the activity in Part 2. The Overview is freely available as a PDF: Overview_NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 4.9MB Jan12 16) or within an attractive web interface available here. The Overview outlines the causes and impacts of recent and near-term climate change. The U.S. National Climate Assessment is the product of more than 300 experts and a 60 person Federal National Climate Assessment and Development Advisory Committee. The U.S. National Climate Assessment is designed to present scientifically defensible evidence of the causes and impacts of climate change to better inform public and private decision making. Free print copies of the Overview (available here) and Highlights (available here) can be ordered from the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Additionally, students should be grouped and assigned one of the following Climate Impact Findings from the Climate Change Impacts in the United States Highlights of the U.S. National Climate Assessment. Students should read their assigned section and come to class prepared to discuss their Finding within their group. Note that Findings 7 and 9 are long enough to be split into 2 or 3 sections if additional groups are needed to accommodate large classes.
- Widespread Impacts (Finding 4; pages 32-33 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Human Health (Finding 5; pages 34-37 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Infrastructure (Finding 6; pages 38-41 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Water Supply (Finding 7; pages 42-45 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Agriculture (Finding 8; pages 46-47 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Indigenous Peoples (Finding 9; pages 48-49 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Finding 10; pages 50-57 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Oceans (Finding 11; pages 58-61 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
- Responses to Climate Change (Finding 12; pages 62-68 of Highlights of NCA (Acrobat (PDF) 21.4MB Jan20 16) or here)
Instructors should prepare sheets or boards following the
During class (3 Parts, total time: 70-75 minutes)
Unit 1 Lecture Notes (Microsoft Word 154kB Feb6 17) and Unit 1 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 25.6MB Feb6 17) provide a detailed guide for in-class activities. In brief:
Part 1. Scientific evidence and consensus for global climate change (20-25 minute lecture and discussion):
Ask students key questions and show the Unit 1 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 25.6MB Feb6 17) slides as described in the Unit 1 Lecture Notes (Microsoft Word 154kB Feb6 17). Begin class by asking the students what they know about climate change and how they know it. Figures in the PowerPoint present major lines of evidence for anthropogenic climate change. The important aspects to emphasize in this section include:
- The scientific consensus surrounding climate change research
- The unequivocal warming observed since the pre-industrial era
- The importance of impacts propagating throughout the Earth system (i.e., systems thinking).
Part 2. Impacts of change (up to 45 minute Gallery Walk activity):
Students do a climate change impacts Gallery Walk to discuss key Findings from the U.S. National Climate Assessment. This
Part 3. Summarize with Systems Thinking (5 minute Discussion):
In the following units, students will be asked to diagram (aka concept map) aspects of the climate system. You can help them along by taking a few minutes at the end of class to diagram on the board what they have learned so far:
carbon emissions -> climate change -> impacts
As shown by the NCA, some of these impacts will be devastating and costly. We'll get to costs in Unit 3. In the next class, we drill down on the science behind climate change. The climate system will be discussed more thoroughly and the connections between emissions and climate change will be clarified.
Teaching Notes and Tips
Instructor notes exist for all of the activities and assignments and they are all linked above. The Unit 1 Lecture Notes provide an overarching guide to in-class activities for this Unit. For ease of access, here are all of the files that have been developed for use in Unit 1:
- Climate Literacy Assessment (Microsoft Word 103kB Aug15 16)
- Unit 1 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 25.6MB Feb6 17)
- Unit 1 Lecture Notes (Microsoft Word 154kB Feb6 17)
Climate Literacy Assessment (Microsoft Word 103kB Aug15 16) is a diagnostic assessment designed to encourage students to think about what they know, or think they know, about the causes and consequences of climate change prior to the start of the module. This assessment is not graded but it is returned to the students at the conclusion of the module to help them reflect upon their learning.
The Learning Goals for this unit are informally assessed with theOp-Ed writing assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 90kB Nov8 16), given at the end of the module.
References and Resources
Here are some links to climate-relevant websites that you and your students may find interesting. Note that access to these websites is not a required part of Unit 1.
- The Berkeley Earth project is an independent global mean surface temperature analysis. Berkeley Earth provides station to regional to global temperature analysis. This website provides a wealth of information, including details surrounding station bias correction and breakpoints, i.e., time periods when temperature records for individual stations are notably discontinuous. Berkeley Earth's website contains a lot of data useful for qualitative and quantitative exercises in more advanced classes.
- The Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) Surface Temperature Analysis (GISTEMP) is one of the standard observational datasets of surface temperature. The GISTEMP website contains graphs of station to global temperature trends, global maps of temperature trends, and more. GISTEMP graphics are updated as data becomes available.
- Skeptical Science is a top-notch resource that explains climate change science in a clear and concise manner. Skeptical Science is monitored by climate scientists and contains detailed rebuttals of climate myths. A strength of this website is their presentation of science and varying degrees of technical detail: basic, intermediate, and advanced.
- What We Know Statement of scientific consensus by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) periodically produces a "state of the science" assessment of climate change research. All aspects of the Assessment Report are freely available online, including figures and data. The Assessment Report is divided into three sections:
- Working Group I (http://www.climatechange2013.org, the Physical Science Basis
- Working Group II (http://www.ipcc-wg2.gov), Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability
- Working Group III (http://www.ipcc-wg3.de), Mitigation of Climate Change
- IPCC Process This web page details the generation and evaluation processes of the IPCC assessment reports.
- Climate Reanalyzer is a University of Maine project sponsored by the National Science Foundation. The website contains attractive graphics that describe current conditions, weather forecasts, and climate change analyses.