Climate and Global Change

Katherine Straub, Earth and Environmental Sciences, Susquehanna University


The objective of this course is to analyze the issue of global warming from multiple perspectives, including science, policy, law, and economics, with a particular emphasis on critical reading and writing skills. We begin the course by studying the science of climate change and its representation in both peer-reviewed and popular literature, and then shift to focus on the international and national responses to climate change through an analysis of policy, law, and economics. Assessment is based on five short research papers, one term paper, in-class quizzes, documentary film response papers, and class participation.

Course Size:
less than 15

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
Private four-year institution, primarily undergraduate

Course Context:

This course is a 200-level undergraduate course primarily taken by Earth and Environmental Sciences and Ecology majors, as it fulfills the atmospheric science distribution requirement in the EES major and is an elective in the Ecology major. The course has no prerequisites and is taught assuming no atmospheric science background, so it is open to all students. It fulfills two of the University's Central Curriculum requirements: Writing Intensive and Interdisciplinary.

Course Content:

This course covers the basic physics of climate change, paleoclimate data, consensus vs. "skeptic" arguments on global warming, climate modeling and prediction, potential responses to climate change, the Kyoto Protocol, U.S. climate policy, Massachusetts vs. EPA and other legal cases, the Stern Review, and renewable energy alternatives. Readings include peer-reviewed and popular literature and three background textbooks. Labs include documentary films, library research, a mock negotiation of the Kyoto Protocol, and computer exercises.

Course Goals:

By the end of the course, students will:
    1) Be able to express how the issue of global warming can be analyzed from the perspectives of climate science, policy, economics, and law.
    2) Become familiar with the concepts important in climate science (radiative forcing, paleoclimate, climate modeling), policy (international treaties, developed vs. developing nations, Congressional bills, federal vs. state authority), economics (regulatory agencies, taxes, cap and trade, gross domestic product, carbon intensity), and law (Supreme Court decisions, legal standing).
    3) Be able to construct and organize a coherent scientific argument, support it with evidence, and strengthen it by introducing and refuting counterarguments.
    4) Understand that different academic disciplines (science, policy, law, economics, ethics) can supplement and reinforce each other when analyzing a complex problem, and understand the inherent complexities of such an analysis.
    5) Improve their critical analysis skills in the context of peer-reviewed and popular literature, internet sites, and documentary films.
    6) Be active participants in class discussions.

Course Features:

We do a lot of reading, writing, and discussing in this course, which is somewhat unusual for my department, which is science-based. I want the students to become better critical readers and thinkers, so we read literature from both mainstream climate scientists and skeptics, both peer-reviewed and popular, and discuss the readings in every class. For example, we read Pacala and Socolow's "stabilization wedges" paper, Elizabeth Kolbert's "Field Notes from a Catastrophe," Michael Crichton's "State of Fear," and the introduction to Fred Singer's book "Unstoppable Global Warming." We watch documentaries with differing points of view: "An Inconvenient Truth," "Cool It" (Bjorn Lomborg), "Dimming the Sun" (NOVA), "The Great Global Warming Swindle," and others. I want the students to see how persuasive the arguments on both sides of the global warming "debate" are, and to then dig deeper to determine which arguments are valid and which are not. The research papers they write include controversial topics as well: Was the collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf caused by global warming? Will global warming cause global cooling via a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation? Should the U.S. allow the Keystone XL pipeline to be built? These topics are also discussed in class after the papers are submitted, to both allow the students to argue their point of view and to illustrate the diversity of resources and arguments that the class as a whole has uncovered.

Course Philosophy:

I developed this course to fulfill an upper-level atmospheric science distribution requirement in my Earth and Environmental Sciences department. I thought our department needed a class on climate change, but didn't want to teach a traditional paleoclimate-based class (for which I am not trained anyways). I thought it would be more fun, and more relevant to the students, to teach about the controversy of modern climate change, which involves not only science but also politics, law, economics, and ethics, topics that are not typically discussed in much depth in an earth science department. The course begins with the geoscience of climate change, paleoclimate, data analysis, etc., but quickly begins to integrate sustainability topics: the tragedy of the commons, past and predicted future carbon emissions from developed vs. developing nations, the equity of various carbon restriction policies, mitigation vs. adaptation vs. geoengineering, etc.


There are five components to assessment in this course. Three of the five are writing-based, as this course fulfills a University "writing intensive" requirement: 1) Students write five short (3-page) research papers that each address an assigned topic. Topics are controversial (e.g., is the disappearance of snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro due to global warming?) and students must use scientific journal articles to both support their argument and refute the opposing argument. Short papers are assessed via a 13-component rubric, returned promptly with additional written feedback, and discussed in class. 2) Students write an 8-10 page term paper, also on an assigned topic. This paper is submitted in draft form, returned with comments and the rubric, discussed in class, and the revisions are then submitted as a final version. 3) The last time I taught this class, labs were devoted to watching a variety of documentary films about global warming. Students then had to submit 500-word reflection papers for 6 of the films, tying the film material into class material, readings, discussions, etc. The final two parts to the assessment are 4) in-class quizzes (to keep everyone on track at more frequent intervals than a midterm and final) and 5) a class discussion grade. Students are expected to contribute at each class, with reference to the assigned readings.


Climate and Global Change Syllabus (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 35kB Jun15 12)

References and Notes:

1) "The Rough Guide to Climate Change" - Robert Henson;
2) "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" - Elizabeth Kolbert;
3) The Science and Politics of Global Climate Change" - Dessler and Parson;
4) "State of Fear" - Michael Crichton
5) "Earth's Climate: Past and Future" - William Ruddiman
6) "Unstoppable Global Warming" - Singer and Avery
7) Stern Review (2006)
8) "Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies" - Pacala and Socolow