Planetary Climate Change

Dave Dempsey
San Francisco State University


What are weather and climate, how has climate changed in the past, how do we know, what causes climate to change, and how can we predict future climate? Planetary Climate Change explores scientists' current understanding of the answers to these questions, sometimes applying methods of scientific investigation like theirs. Our study encompasses not only the atmosphere, oceans, solid earth, and living organisms—-the separate components of the earth "system"—-but also, and more importantly, the interactions among them, which are crucial to shaping Earth's climate and hold the key to predicting future climate and understanding the role that humans might play.

Course URL:
Course Size:

Course Format:
Integrated lecture and lab

Course Context:

"Planetary Climate Change" is an upper-division, integrated, usually co-taught geosciences course for science majors and well-prepared Liberal Studies majors. The prerequisite consists of at least 9 semester units of physical science coursework. The class meets for 3 hours twice a week (formally 3 hours of lecture plus a 3 hour lab, though we ignore the distinction). We created the course using a small grant from NASA-NOVA and designed it to meet NRC standards for geosciences content and science teaching and California state geosciences standards for pre-service secondary school teachers.

Course Goals:

We expect students in Planetary Climate Change to develop an understanding of:
(a) Planetary climate change as a consequence of dynamic, interconnected solar, geologic, meteorological, oceanographic, biological, and anthropogenic processes.
(b) The evolution of Earth's climate system.
(c) Energy in the Earth's climate system.
(d) Biogeochemical cycles, particularly carbon.
(e) Positive and negative feedbacks in climate systems and their implications for climate prediction.
(f) Time scales of climate change, including both periodic and intermittent variations.
(g) Some possible consequences of global climate change for people on Earth, and potential responses.
(h) The relation between science and technology, including computer models, in the context of climate change research.
(i) The nature of scientific knowledge and the history of ideas about climate and climate change.
(j) How to conduct some aspects of a scientific inquiry.

Course Features:

Teaching the Process of Science

In the first 2/3 of the course and occasionally thereafter, students mostly work through lab exercises, facilitated by the instructors. Some of these exercises are inquiry-based. Several of them ask students to use My World GIS software to display, describe, and analyze global data sets for temperature, solar and infrared radiative energy fluxes, albedo, and precipitation. In some cases, students are asked to pose hypotheses to account for observed patterns and test them using other data sets. In one lab, students develop a simple, dynamic computer model of the earth's energy budget (using STELLA software), conduct several simple experiments with their model, and interpret the results.

In the last 1/3 of the course, students read, discuss, and write about articles from the literature (mostly at the level of Scientific American and Science News, but some more technical). Five topics are addressed, with the following structure:
  1. All students read several assigned articles about a particular topic, guided by a set of "Reading Questions" about the articles to which they must respond in writing. (The questions are relatively specific and focused on key points in the articles.)
  2. Then, in class, students work in small groups to develop responses to three discussion questions about the articles. (These questions tend to be broader and more integrated than the "Reading Questions".)
  3. During the same class session, students reassemble in a larger group (no more than 10-12) to discuss the articles based on the discussion questions, facilitated by an instructor.
  4. At the next class meeting, students submit a 1-page summary of the articles and the discussion, aimed at someone like them who hadn't read the articles.
  5. Before any articles are discussed, each student is assigned one of the five topics to be addressed, knowing that they will be asked to write an 8-12 page paper on that topic, based on the articles discussed in class and several others to supplement them. Following the discussion of a particular topic, the students who were assigned that topic write a one-paragraph statement about the aspects of the topic they want to write about (chosen partly from a list of generic aspects about how climate science is conducted). Each of these students discuss their intentions with an instructor to get feedback and identify additional sources.
  6. NOT long thereafter, these students locate additional references, read them, and develop an outline for their paper based on all of their sources. Instructors provide more feedback.
  7. Students then develop an 8-12 page paper based on the outline, submitted at the end of the semester.


Informally, instructors work closely with students to facilitate lab activities, lead whole-class discussions of the activities, and facilitate discussions of articles from the literature. (These are the dominant pedagogical strategies used in the course.) These facilitation activities give instructors many opportunities to assess student understanding of the subject matter and pedagogical issues. (Science process can be both subject matter and, in inquiry-based exercises, pedagogy as well.)

Formally, we:
  1. Assign five out-of-class problems (including one quantitative problem, one graph interpretation problem, two sets of short interpretive problems; and one concept map completion problem); and formally evaluate one of the lab activities submitted for credit (building a simple computer model, running it, and interpreting results).
  2. Administer via Web-based course management software (iLearn, based on Moodle) a number of pre-class, multiple-choice and multiple-answer quizzes about out-of-class reading assignments; these quizzes which are graded automatically and instantly, with feedback pre-provided by the instructors.
  3. Administer five short in-class, short answer/essay quizzes.
  4. Administer the multi-stage reading/writing assignment based on articles from the literature, described above.

Formal assessments (1), (2) and (3) emphasize conceptual (and some quantitative) understanding of the subject matter, including learning objectives (a)-(f), as well as some aspects of science process, particularly learning objective (j). Formal assessment (4) allows us to assess both some aspects of subject-matter understanding (learning objectives (a)-(f)) and science process understanding (learning objectives (g)-(j)).


Syllabus for "Planetary Climate Change" (HTML File 17kB Jun30 09)

Teaching Materials:

References and Notes:

The Earth System, 2nd Ed., 2003; Kump, Kasting, and Crane; Prentice Hall.
Of all the texts that we've reviewed, it is the most consistent with our learning objectives and course level. It is not written to support an inquiry-based pedagogical strategy such as we frequently use, but no text that we've examined does.

Much of the course is lab-like, and we wrote our own lab activities, which are posted on the Web.

Articles from the literature. These sometimes change as understanding of climate science evolves, new articles and new climate-change issues appear, and different co-instructors swap in and out of the course. The last iteration of the course (Spring 2009) used the following articles, which all students read:

Greenhouse effect, short-term carbon budgets, and anthropological global warming:
  • "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Basis", Working Group 1 (WG1) contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Chapter 2, pp. 135-140, and Chapter 7, pp. 511-521.
El Niño and La Niña:
  • "El Niño and La Niña: Tracing the Dance of Ocean and Atmosphere", National Academy of Sciences, March 2000.
  • "Is El Niño Changing?", Federov and Philander, Science vol. 288, pp. 2992-2001, June 16, 2000.
Hurricanes and global warming:
  • "Warmer Oceans, Stronger Hurricanes", Trenberth, July 2007, Scientific American.
  • "Hurricane Climate Science", Kerr, 5 May 2006, Science.
  • "Climate Change 2007: The Physical Basis", Working Group 1 (WG1) contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report (AR4) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Chapter 3, pp. 304-306.
Earth's orbit and the ice ages:
  • "The Earth's Orbit and the Ice Ages", Covey, February 1984, Scientific American.
  • "Unlocking the Mysteries of the Ice Ages", Raymo and Huybers, 17 Jan 2008, Nature.

Tectonic influences on climate:
  • "Snowball Earth", Hoffman and Schrag, January 2000, Scientific American.
  • "Plateau Uplift and Climate Change", Ruddiman and Kutzbach, March 1991, Scientific American.