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Unit 4: Towards Climate Change Policy in the U.S.

These materials have been reviewed for their alignment with the Next Generation Science Standards as detailed below. Visit InTeGrate and the NGSS to learn more.


Students apply a legal doctrine to the Social Cost of Carbon to examine the legal foundation of carbon emission regulation.

Science and Engineering Practices

Obtaining, Evaluating, and Communicating Information: Critically read scientific literature adapted for classroom use to determine the central ideas or conclusions and/or to obtain scientific and/or technical information to summarize complex evidence, concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms. HS-P8.1:

Engaging in Argument from Evidence: Evaluate the claims, evidence, and/or reasoning behind currently accepted explanations or solutions to determine the merits of arguments. HS-P7.2:

Cross Cutting Concepts

Cause and effect: Changes in systems may have various causes that may not have equal effects. HS-C2.4:

Cause and effect: Cause and effect relationships can be suggested and predicted for complex natural and human designed systems by examining what is known about smaller scale mechanisms within the system. HS-C2.2:

Disciplinary Core Ideas

Human Impacts on Earth Systems: Typically as human populations and per-capita consumption of natural resources increase, so do the negative impacts on Earth unless the activities and technologies involved are engineered otherwise. MS-ESS3.C2:

Global Climate Change: Though the magnitudes of human impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are human abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. HS-ESS3.D1:

Performance Expectations

Engineering Design: Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants. HS-ETS1-1:

This material was developed and reviewed through the InTeGrate curricular materials development process. This rigorous, structured process includes:

  • team-based development to ensure materials are appropriate across multiple educational settings.
  • multiple iterative reviews and feedback cycles through the course of material development with input to the authoring team from both project editors and an external assessment team.
  • real in-class testing of materials in at least 3 institutions with external review of student assessment data.
  • multiple reviews to ensure the materials meet the InTeGrate materials rubric which codifies best practices in curricular development, student assessment and pedagogic techniques.
  • review by external experts for accuracy of the science content.

This page first made public: May 30, 2017


This unit examines the social cost of carbon (introduced in Unit 3) within the legal doctrine of "common but differentiated responsibility" (CBDR). CBDR acknowledges global climate change as a common threat while recognizing differences among nations in their historic contribution to the problem (i.e. carbon emissions) and their capacities to abate (reduce) it. Students will use the doctrine of CBDR as a touchstone for examining the legal and political foundations of the regulation of carbon emissions in the United States based upon Supreme Court's 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. This unit provides an opportunity for students to discover how scientific evidence and economic analysis inform and support the creation of policy to reduce emissions and highlights the interdependencies and feedbacks that exist among the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government in the United States.

Learning Goals

At the conclusion of this unit, students will be able to:

  1. Summarize the meaning of "social cost of carbon" and provide detailed examples of climate impacts that impose social costs to peoples around the world.
  2. Elaborate on the concept of "common but differentiated responsibility" and characterize the challenge presented by global climate change through this framework.

Context for Use

The unit is suitable for any level of undergraduate class that explores the interconnections among environment and society. It is, however, designed to be rigorous enough for use in upper division policy-focused courses, while flexible enough to be used in non-policy contexts such as environmental ethics, leadership, conflict, and planning courses as well as in introductory environmental studies/science courses. It can also be used to bring law and policy into upper division climate science course to provide greater societal context for geoscience learning.

This unit was designed to be carried out over a 75 minute lecture period. If you need to shorten it, you can limit discussion time or assign the think-pair-share activity in Part 3 as homework.

Description and Teaching Materials

Teaching Materials Required for Unit 4

  • Computer with projector and Internet connection to show the Unit 4 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 12MB May30 17) with Unit 4 Lecture Notes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 151kB May12 17).

In this unit, students will review concepts covered in prior units and explore the concept of "common but differentiated responsibility" within the context of U.S. Supreme Court's 2007 decision in the case Massachusetts v. EPA. This ruling compelled the EPA to address the U.S.'s contribution to global climate change by regulating carbon emissions and eventually led to the creation the Clean Power Plan. The Clean Power Plan is the current federal policy (established in 2015) to address carbon emissions from the power sector. Electricity generation is responsible for 32% of U.S. carbon emissions annually (EPA 2016) and coal-fired power plants contribute 76% of the emissions from the power sector (EIA 2016).

Prior to class session

Before class students should

  1. Review the Social cost of carbon reading assigned for Unit 3. This provides a theoretical foundation in social cost accounting and how this lens applies to policy making. The reading is essential for the discussion in Part 1 of this Unit.
  2. Read the Center for International Sustainable Development Law's policy brief, The Principle of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities: origins and scope'. This brief provides the students with foundational knowledge necessary for participating in guided discussion in Part 2 and completing the summative assessment at the end of the module.
  3. Read the article, US Supreme Court Hears Climate Case which provides an introduction to the court case that compelled the EPA to develop carbon emissions regulations for the United States and enables the activity in Part 3.
  4. Read the Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 509kB Feb26 16) to the majority opinion of the Supreme Court in "Massachusetts v. EPA, 2007" for Part 3. It summarizes the legal proceedings, evidence and decision from this landmark case and, for advanced students especially, provides insight into the ways that the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government interact during policy making. We recommend all students read the Syllabus portion of this document. Students of advanced environmental law and policy may enjoy reading the entire document.
  5. Read the enabling language of the Clean Air Act, Section 111(d) (Acrobat (PDF) 4.7MB Feb26 16), which the EPA uses to justify the Clean Power Plan to regulate emissions. This is the legal foundation of the federal policy examined in this module.
The following optional readings and videos are not required to meet the learning objectives of this unit. Instructors may wish to review them for background and assign them based upon secondary objectives and individual class needs and goals.
  • Ann Carlson of UCLA's School of Law describes the ramifications of the Massachusetts v. EPA Supreme Court decision in this video.
  • For introductory students, instructors may chose to assign the Preview or Introduction to the Clean Power Plan provided by President Barack Obama in a speech announcing the policy. During this speech, President Obama illustrates the roles of the executive branch in shaping environmental policy. Viewing the speech is not essential for understanding this unit.
  • Instructors that intend for their students to explore the deepest legal elements of the Clean Power Plan can ask students to read parts of the Clean Power Plan. The Final Rule. Legislative and Regulatory Background for CAA section 111 (Acrobat (PDF) 4.7MB Feb26 16). Note this is a 1500+ page document. We recommend focusing on pages 189-202. While this document provides a thorough background on Section 111, it is not casual reading. It may be best reserved for advanced policy or legal studies students.

During class (3 parts, total time: 90+ minutes)

This Unit 4 PowerPoint (PowerPoint 2007 (.pptx) 12MB May30 17) is intended to accompany and support in-class discussion and activities that are explained in detail in the Unit 4 Lecture Notes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 151kB May12 17). Briefly, this unit includes:

Part 1. Systems thinking: Social Costs of Carbon and Policy Development (25+ minute Review and Activity)

Begin by reflecting back on the work they did with webDICE in the previous class. Ask students:

  • Should the Social Cost of Carbon encourage a government or individual decision maker to launch a policy-making process to address climate change?
Steer the class to recognize that often it is not the science alone that pushes policy decisions but the social costs as determined through economic analysis.

Next, ask students to list a few impacts of climate change. Transition the subject to economics by explaining that all of these impacts have costs that can be calculated. The damages/costs that we will incur due to climate change are real and measurable. Students then carry out an activity to consider the costs and benefits of climate change from the perspective of a stakeholder.

Part 2. Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and the U.S. Response to Climate Change (15+ minute Guided Discussion)

Introduce the concept of common but differentiated responsibility (CBDR). Begin by using CISDL, 2002 to discuss this concept. Ask students:

  • What is the "common heritage of mankind?"
  • Can you think of some international challenges in which there are historical differences among the contributions of different nations?
  • What criteria would you use to evaluate the technical, financial, social, legal, and political resources nations can contribute to resolving global challenges?

As students respond to these questions, emphasize that CBDR means that all nations have a shared interest in slowing and adapting to climate change, yet different historical contributions to the problem and, therefore, nations' responsibilities for reducing carbon emission should reflect these realities. Observe that the U.S.'s contribution to climate change—as observed through historic rates of greenhouse gas emissions—is disproportionate to its population when compared to many other countries.

Part 3. Legal Foundation for Regulating Carbon Emissions (50+ minute In-class activity with Guided Discussion)

Begin this section by explaining that while nations around the world worked throughout the 1990s and early part of the 2000s to develop and adopt performance goals for greenhouse gas emissions, the U.S. government remained skeptical and refused to join these efforts. In 2007, however, the State of Massachusetts filed suit against the U.S. EPA, arguing that the agency was empowered and required to address the threat of climate change through the Clean Air Act—the nation's landmark policy for protecting public health from hazardous air pollutants. You can use portions of the Supreme Court's decision US Supreme Court Opinion, Massachusetts vs. EPA, 2007 (Acrobat (PDF) 509kB Feb26 16) as well as this Brookings Report to guide this discussion.

In pairs, have students conduct a think-pair-share activity by answering the following questions based on their reading of the Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 509kB Feb26 16) of the Supreme Court's decision in Massachusetts vs. EPA 2007:

  • On what grounds did the State of Massachusetts and other parties bring their case against EPA?
  • Can you identify three pillars of the plaintiff's argument against EPA? Can you identify three pillars of EPA's defense?
  • How did the Supreme Court rule, and what are the main points of the court's majority opinion?

Present the Clean Power Plan (CPP) as the outcome of the Massachusetts v. EPA decision. Have students consider the enabling legislation, Section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act and then introduce the EPA's plan.

Students start the next unit by assessing the CPP in an in-class activity.

Note: the Clean Power Plan is currently (Spring 2017) being litigated. Additional resources are also provided in References and Resources below.


The first Learning Goal for this unit can be assessed by collecting the social cost of carbon T-chart activity in Part 1 (see Unit 4 Lecture Notes (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 151kB May12 17)). The second Learning Goal is assessed with the summative assessment, Op-Ed writing assignment (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 90kB Nov8 16) given at the end of the module in Unit 7.

References and Resources

The following articles provide some updates about the status of the Clean Power Plan and carbon emissions regulation in the U.S.

CPP was stayed in February 2016: Supreme Court Deals Blow to Obama Efforts to Regulate Emissions.

Some states vowed to continue moving fowards: After the stay: Where all 50 states stand.

The Trump Administration has signaled it will not pursue the implementation of the CPP: Trump plans to kill CPP.

A coalition of states is challenging the delays and rollbacks coalition of states.

Some Republican legislators are propose carbon tax.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »