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Unit 6 Adapting to a Changing World

Becca Walker, Mt. San Antonio College (


In this unit, students assess individual and national opinions on climate change and explore strategies that communities are employing to adapt to aspects of climate change that are already affecting them and may affect them in the future. They will complete a survey on one's "climate change personality" and compare the class results to national results; distinguish between climate change mitigation and adaptation; and read brief case studies about the insurance industry's response to climate change, the "Room for the River" program in the Netherlands, and city planning for heat waves. Based on these examples and knowledge of their own community, they will suggest possible adaptation strategies that will be most beneficial to their area. The teaching collection here can be applied as a stand alone day of instruction or as part of the complete Climate of Change InTeGrate Module.

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Learning Goals

Unit 6 Teaching Objectives:

  • Cognitive: Provide an understanding of current national attitudes about climate change. Illustrate the difference between climate change mitigation and climate change adaptation strategies. Provide structured opportunities to identify effective 21st-century climate change adaptation efforts.
  • Behavioral: Facilitate skills development in reading and interpreting maps and graphs.
  • Affective: Encourage reflection about one's own beliefs about the existence of climate change, humans' contribution to climate change, and the potential impacts of climate change on society. Provide opportunities for reflection about the inequity of climate change and the need for climate resilience in industrialized and developing countries.

Unit 6 Learning Outcomes:

Students will:

  • Identify to which climate change opinion group they belong (alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, or dismissive) using a climate change survey instrument.
  • Compare the class distribution of climate change opinions to the national distribution.
  • Determine their own and their community's social vulnerability to climate change based on demographic factors.
  • Distinguish between climate change mitigation and adaptation and the potential pros and cons of each strategy.
  • Summarize several methods of 21st-century adaptations to climate change, including floodplain reclamation, insurance policy changes, and response to extreme heat waves.

Context for Use

Educational level: introductory geology, meteorology, oceanography, or other geoscience-related course

Class size: can be adapted to serve a variety of class sizes.

Class format: This activity is suitable for use in a lecture or lab setting but can also be done outside of class as a homework assignment. If this activity is done in class, the desired format is a gallery walk, during which groups of two to four students read several examples of climate change adaptation case studies, followed by a compilation of ideas about personal and local adaptations to climate change in the future. Alternatively, students may read the case studies individually outside of class and write a response to personal and local adaptations to climate change in the future.

Time required: approximately 50 minutes, including a discussion on public opinion about climate change, climate change adaptation vs. mitigation, and the adaptation case studies.

Special equipment: Each student should receive a copy of the preparation exercise (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 135kB Sep9 12). Each student should have access to the climate change adaptation case studies. If the activity is done during class, the instructor should provide copies of the case studies. If the activity is done as a homework assignment, students can access the case studies online.

Skills or concepts that students should have already mastered before encountering the activity: Students should have an awareness of the concept of anthropogenic climate change due to greenhouse gas emissions, as well as measured trends in greenhouse gas emissions (as studied in Case Study 5.2 of the Climate of Change module). Before coming to class, each student should have taken the "Six Americas" online survey and completed the social vulnerability survey.

This unit is appropriate for introductory geology, oceanography, meteorology, and other geoscience courses but could also be used in non-geoscience courses where climate studies are being introduced. It can be easily adapted to serve small- or large-enrollment classes and can be implemented in lecture and lab settings. It can be used on its own as an in-class activity, as a longer lab exercise when combined with Unit 5--systems@play, or as part of a multiday exploration of climate variability and climate change using the entire InTeGrate Climate of Change module. In the Climate of Change module, this unit follows Unit 5--systems@play on climate modeling and changes in atmospheric concentrations. The case studies can be implemented individually or together, depending on the desired learning outcomes and time constraints.

Description and Teaching Materials

Unit 6 Images
Click to view
Gallery walk questions:
Post each question on a piece of poster paper or whiteboard. In groups, students will be provided with a marker and copies of the climate adaptation case studies. Start each group at a particular topic, and after students have read the climate adaptation case studies for that topic, allow each group time to make notes under each question. After each group has visited each question, each group will verbally summarize, for the rest of the class, the information on the first poster that they visited. In low-enrollment classes, each group (depending on group size) could summarize the results of two questions. In high-enrollment classes, each group will likely summarize the results of one question.

Climate Adaptation and the Insurance Industry

  1. In these case studies, how is the response of the US insurance industry (Alfa and State Farm Florida) different from the HARITA partners?
  2. Why do you think that HARITA has responded so differently to weather and climate-related insurance issues than Alfa and State Farm Florida have responded?
  3. How, if at all, is the Alfa and State Farm Florida response an effective climate change adaptation strategy?
  4. How, if at all, is the HARITA response an effective climate change adaptation strategy?
  5. Which response—Alfa and State Farm Florida OR HARITA—do you believe is a more effective climate change adaptation strategy?

Adaptation to Extreme Heat Waves

  1. Name one benefit of installing a cool roof.
  2. Uncertainty related to climate change means that many cities may need to adapt to increased climate variability. How do projects like the Green Streets Initiative have the potential to help cities adapt to both heat waves and flooding?
  3. What are some of the differences between adapting to heat waves in a major metropolitan area like New York City vs. a smaller city like Wangaratta? In which type of settlement do you think that adaptation to heat waves would be more challenging? Why?
  4. Which, if any, of these adaptations to heat waves would be feasible where you live?

Adaptation to Flooding

  1. How does the Dutch strategy for adapting to climate change-related flooding differ from flood adaptation strategies in the United States? Which country's strategy do you believe is more effective?
  2. How has the Dutch government differed in its approach to adaptation in rural areas compared to adaptation in urban areas?
  3. How do you feel about the Dutch government relocating individuals like Jacques Broekmans, whose land lies in a designated flood zone, and widening areas along the Rhine River, allowing some communities to flood?
  4. The Netherlands is a wealthy, industrialized country. Which of their adaptations would be feasible in poorer, developing countries? Which of their adaptations would not?

Teaching Notes and Tips

Case Study 6.1:
  • Potential procedure for comparing the class "Six Americas" data to the national data: instructor has alarmed, concerned, cautious, disengaged, doubtful, and dismissive written on the board. As students enter the classroom, they are instructed to put a mark under their climate personality from the survey. Instructor tallies the totals for each climate personality and writes the totals on the board, then asks students to calculate the percentages of each climate personality. When finished, the class data can be compared to the national data. Reasons for any observed differences may be speculated upon by the class.
  • In getting students to differentiate between mitigation vs. adaptation, there are many geologic and nongeologic analogies that may be utilized other than "the aging starlet" story provided in the PowerPoint slides. For example, faculty using this case study in an environmental geology or natural hazards course could discuss public response to debris flow hazards in Southern California. The instructor could present two debris flow response scenarios and ask students to consider which is an adaptation strategy, which is a mitigation strategy, and pros and cons of each. An interesting adaptation strategy is described in John McPhee's The Control of Nature: "At least one family has experienced so many debris flows coming into their backyard that they long ago installed overhead doors in the rear end of their built-in garage. Now when the boulders come they open both ends of their garage, and the debris goes through to the street" (189).
  • There are several methods that may be used in implementing the climate change adaptation examples activity:
    • Gallery walk #1:
      • Each student is given a handout with all of the climate change adaptation examples.
      • Questions about each set of examples are displayed on large pieces of paper, whiteboards, etc., around the classroom.
      • In groups, students visit each station, read the climate change adaptation examples from their handout, and write their responses to the questions directly on the large pieces of paper/white boards.
      • If the instructor chooses/if time allows, a group discussion summarizing the answers to the questions may follow.
    • Gallery walk #2:
      • Enlarge the font for the climate change adaptation examples and display the examples on large pieces of paper, whiteboards, etc. around the classroom.
      • Each group is given a handout with questions for each climate change adaptation strategy.
      • In groups, students rotate around the classroom and read the climate change adaptation examples.
      • In groups, students answer the questions (on their handout) for each set of examples.

    • Virtual gallery walk: if students have computer access, they may read the climate change adaptation examples online on the climate change adaptations page.
      • Seated, small-group discussion: same procedure as gallery walk #1, only rather than students answering the questions on large pieces of paper/whiteboards around the classroom, they answer the questions on their handout in small groups.
      • To save time during the gallery walk, you might give students climate change adaptation examples (floods and heat waves) to read before class.
    • If possible, the audio clips on flood adaptation in the Netherlands would be an excellent addition to this activity during class (see links at the end of this paragraph). In a gallery walk setting, students could be prompted to listen to the audio clips before their group answers the flood adaptation questions. Alternatively, a clip could be played for the entire class at once.


(1) There are several methods that may be used to assess the climate adaptation gallery walk. General suggestions for formal and informal assessment of gallery walks are on the SERC website. Ultimately, students should be able to describe how the insurance industry is adapting to weather and climate-related policy claims; the flood adaptation steps being taken by the Netherlands; strategies used by cities of various sizes (Chicago, New York City, Wangaratta) to adapt to heat waves; and adaptive agricultural responses to drought. This could be assessed orally (for example, at the end of the class meeting as students summarize the answers to the posted gallery walk questions), as a short answer question on an exam, or as a written homework assignment.

(2) The following items represent hypothetical strategies to address climate change. Classify each as either a climate change mitigation strategy or a climate change adaptation strategy by placing an X in the appropriate box.

Mitigation vs Adaptation Strategy Chart

(3) short answer question: adaptation in Providence, RI (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 380kB Sep15 12)

Student Self-Assessment

This unit may not be as challenging for students to comprehend as some of the other units in the Climate of Change module, in that it does not involve comprehending system dynamics to the same degree. However, students may be surprised by some of the things they learn. They should be offered an opportunity to reflect on this at the end of the class period. Pose the question: What one thing that you learned in this class surprised you? And what one thing have you learned here that is most relevant to your own life?

References and Resources


Hot: Living through the Next 50 Years on Earth. Mark Hertsgaard, 2011.

The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future. Laurence C. Smith, 2010.

Climate Change Science and Policy. Edited by Stephen H. Schneider, Armin Rosencranz, Michael D. Mastrandrea, and Kristin Kuntz-Duriseti, 2010.


Weather Gone Wild: National Geographic, September 2012.

Climate Change Seen as Threat to U.S. Security,- New York Times, 8/8/09.

State Farm Cancels Thousands of Florida Policies in response to hurricane risk

Climate Change Is Here--and It's Worse Than We Thought. 8/12 Washington Post opinion article by James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. This piece includes an effective description of Hansen's "climate dice" analogy to distinguish climate change from variations in weather.

Global Warming Debate Needs Cooler Heads to Prevail. Article on Americans' response to the climate change debate.

Alfa to Cut 73,000 Insurance Policies in Alabama after Tornadoes, including Alfa Insurance Company's press release.

Climate Change and the Insurance Industry

Wild Weather a New Normal and Insurance Companies Must Act

Insuring the Uninsurable: Swiss Re Breaks New Ground in Haiti and Senegal

California Panel Urges Immediate Action to Protect from Rising Sea Levels. 3/09 Los Angeles Times article.

Dutch Defense Against Climate Disaster: Adapt to the Change. 12/09 Washington Post article.

Climate-Smart Agriculture: A Call to Practice

China Plans 59 Reservoirs to Collect Meltwater from Its Shrinking Glaciers. Includes ~4-minute video on climate adaptation strategies in rural and urban China.

Severe Drought Seen as Driving Cost of Food Up, 7/12 New York Times article.

Creating an Evergreen Agriculture in Africa

Other Resources:

What's Your Climate Profile? KQED Climate Watch Survey. (Also available as a Facebook survey.) Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

Ecological Footprint Quiz to calculate each individual's land and ocean area requirements based on consumption patterns and waste generation

Earth 2100: The Final Century of Civilization (ABC video)

Global Warming's Six Americas in March 2012 and November 2011 from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

Americans' Global Warming Beliefs and Attitudes in March 2012 from the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication

Social Vulnerability Index for the United States from Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. Includes metadata, links to applications of climate-specific vulnerability data, and descriptions of determining factors for social vulnerability.

Exposed: Social Vulnerability and Climate Change in the US Southeast. 2009 Oxfam publication.

Climate Change War Game: Major Findings and Background from Center For A New American Security, 2009.

Oxfam weather insurance

HARITA 2009 project brief

Climate-Smart Agriculture: Helping the World Produce More Food (~5-minute video)

Drought Reporter interactive tool from the National Drought Mitigation Center, University of Nebraska, Lincoln.

Drought lab from SERC EarthLabs collection

Why the US Drought May Be Felt Around the Globe, ~5.5-minute audio segment from PRI on global impacts of low US corn crop yield due to drought, 8/12.

Room for the River project currently being undertaken by the Netherlands.

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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 »