For the InstructorThese student materials complement the Water Science and Society Instructor Materials. If you would like your students to have access to the student materials, we suggest you either point them at the Student Version which omits the framing pages with information designed for faculty (and this box). Or you can download these pages in several formats that you can include in your course website or local Learning Managment System. Learn more about using, modifying, and sharing InTeGrate teaching materials.
What do and don't we know about climate change?
Global warming and climate change: Both of these phrases have been used, often interchangeably, to discuss what is currently happening to our climate system. The term 'global warming' was coined by a Columbia University geochemist and climatologist by the name of Wallace 'Wally' Broecker in a 1975 Science article entitled "Climatic Change: Are we on the brink of a pronounced global warming?" Global warming, in the strict definition, refers to the observation that Earth's average surface temperature is rising due to increased levels of greenhouse gases. The term 'climate change' includes global warming, but also considers the myriad other changes to Earth's climate system that are caused by rising temperatures, including changes in precipitation and evaporation, movement of air currents (be they frontal systems or convective systems, hurricanes or a polar vortex), etc..
There is virtually no disagreement among climate scientists that both global warming and climate change are happening and is primarily due to human emissions of greenhouse gases. Broad agreement on these points among the science community is not because scientists tend to be an agreeable group. To the contrary, scientists are typically quite quick to disagree with one another and discuss their disagreements ad nauseum, in great detail and based on all available evidence, from empirical observations or theoretical physics and chemistry. Scientists also have large incentives to prove one another wrong. If, for example, a scientist were able to provide compelling evidence that increased greenhouse gases are not causing a systematic change in Earth's climate system (or that evolution is not the driver of biodiversity, or that the Earth is not 4.6 billion years old), he or she would be famous as the likes of Galileo, Darwin or Einstein (all of whom toppled earlier scientific understanding), their work would be well funded (we would consequently have a lot of new questions that would need to be answered!), their book would be a best-seller, they would probably pick up a Nobel Prize and most notably, they would be interviewed by all of the most reputable talk show hosts. But no scientist has made such a compelling case. To the contrary, the case for significant climate change is compelling in both the empirical observations as well as the theoretical predictions. Those who proffer the opinion that climate change is not happening or is a hoax presumably do so out of shear ignorance and/or because they have a financial incentive to believe (or to have others believe) that to be the case.
Distinct from the question of whether or not climate change is occurring, many questions remain regarding the effects of climate change on societies and economies. Certainly there are positive effects. Warmer temperatures and increased carbon dioxide levels mean increased plant and crop productivity. Some places are expected to receive increased amounts of precipitation, potentially relieving water stress (though perhaps also increasing flood risk). Other places will most certainly not be so lucky and generally speaking, the risks and expected losses associated with climate change are expected to far outweigh the benefits. A comprehensive review of climate science and climate change is not possible within the scope of this course, but we will review a few of the key points as they relate to water, science and society. We refer students to the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for more detailed and updated information.