This course explores the basic concepts and terms needed to understand
the science of climate change, and the available mitigation, adaptation
and policy options. By the end of the course, students will be able to:
· Tell the story of our climate, describing how interactions among
atmosphere, ocean, land, and life lead to climatic changes at all timescales
· Evaluate the likely effect of historical human fossil emissions
and land use changes on Earth’s energy balance and climate.
· Describe the direct observations of climate change in recent decades, and articulate the evidence attributing global
warming in this time period to human causes.
· Assess the utility - and limits - of climate models to predict
global and regional climate change.
· Articulate the demographic, economic, technological and political
factors that influence both humans’ impact on the climate and humans’ vulnerability
to climate change.
· Express an informed opinion on the scope and urgency of the efforts
needed to both mitigate and adapt to climate change.
We provide the scientific basics of climate change paired with the
response options (mitigation and adaptation) and policy landscape. Focusing
exclusively on the science of climate change may not allow a nuanced understanding
of the social implications of this science. Similarly, political
or economic analyses of climate change frequently neglect the underlying
mechanics behind climate change thresholds, feedbacks, and the potential
for abrupt change. This course explores linkages between climate change
and other pressing priorities such as human health, poverty, community
livability, economic resilience, and other environmental problems (such
as biodiversity and water quality). We acknowledge the urgent need
to design innovative strategies that realize multiple objectives (or co-benefits)
simultaneously, and explore the particular capacity for sustainability
and climate change to provide an avenue for achieving these objectives.
Climate Literacy is delivered in ten Modules. The first half of
the course deals mainly with climate change science and models, while the
second half of the course speaks to climate change impacts, response options,
and polices. The Modules are as follows:
Climate in the public sphere
Climate change is a pervasive and challenging phenomenon that can be viewed
through a multitude of lenses. A scientific lens, for instance, reveals
altered ecosystems and climatic tipping points while the lens of ethics
raises the question of the right to develop and influence the well-being
of others while doing so. This module will introduce you to a few of the
core concepts that you will need to delve deeper into the science and policy
of climate change. We will explore the broad findings offered by the scientific
community with regard to our influence on the climate system, the policy
tools that we have developed to respond to this challenge, and the core
of the climate change debate in scientific, political, and lay communities.
Introduction to the climate system
In this first module of the science section of
the course, we’ll look at the big picture of Earth’s climate system. What are the parts? What are some of the major interactions among
the parts? We’ll spend some time
learning about the energy-related units we’ll use in this course, some basics
of systems dynamics, which is one of the overarching frameworks in this course,
and then we’ll have a look at data showing how Earth’s climate has changed over
This module covers the basics of climatology at the planetary scale. We will trace the path of energy coming in from the
Sun and leaving the planet as thermal radiation (or infrared), and explore
the various factors affecting these flows: greenhouse gases, aerosols, surface albedo, and clouds. We will investigate how humans influence these climate controls, and compare
anthropogenic factors to natural factors such as variation in solar energy
and volcanic eruptions.
The carbon cycle
Our planet breathes; its biosphere on land and in the oceans inhales and
exhales oxygen and carbon dioxide every second. Even water and rocks exchange
carbon dioxide with the atmosphere. Humans, particularly through deforestation
and fossil fuel use, have a significant impact on the planetary carbon cycle. This module explores the natural
carbon cycle, the perturbations in carbon stocks and flows from human activities, and the climate system's response to human perturbations.
Climate models are crucial tools to help people understand the complexities and dynamic interactions within Earth's climate system. Models are built on our understanding of basic physics and Earth processes, and are grounded in observations and measurements of the world around us. In this module, we'll explore different types of climate models, consider some of the choices you'd need to make as a climate modeler, and have a look at some climate model output compared to observations. Since we only have one planet, and can only run one global climate experiment in the real world, models are our only tools to help us peer into the future and ask "what if..." questions. The range of probable outcomes from possible future scenarios helps us make decisions about mitigation and adaptation.
Now that we have a clearer sense of the principles, components
and assumptions of climate models, we’ll look more closely at their results.
Given hypothetical future pathways, including possibilities for our own future actions, like carbon emissions, what range of temperature
increases can we expect? How will future changes affect the climatic factors that
are most relevant to humans and ecosystems: precipitation, circulation
patterns, extreme events, melting of snow and ice, etc? These global projections
give us estimates of what we can expect if we embark on various emission
and development paths, and offer a broad view for decision-making. The least well-known aspect of these projections is what choices we, the human community, will make in the future.
Climate change impacts
As we have seen, the emission of vast quantities of greenhouse gases by
humans fundamentally influences the global climatic system. The chain reaction
does not end here, however. Rising temperatures and sea levels, changing
precipitation patterns, and ocean acidification, for instance, trigger
dramatic shifts in the way that human and natural systems function.
This module forms the transition between the science of climate change,
which we have explored in Modules 2-6, and the more human-oriented Modules
Climate change mitigation: dealing with the
Now that we understand the central causes of anthropogenic climate change,
and the impacts that we can expect to (and already) experience, the next
step is to explore the response options that are available to us. The most
commonly-discussed response to climate change is mitigation: tackling the
causes of climate change by reducing the concentration of greenhouse gases
in the atmosphere. The aim of mitigation is to reduce the severity and
frequency of climate change impacts, thereby protecting ecosystems and
This module will explore the basic concept of mitigation, the core mitigation
strategies that we currently have available to us, the innovative action
that is being taken around the world, and leading-edge ideas with regard
to tackling the roots of climate change. By the end of this module, you
will be able to critique the likelihood of implementation of many of these
strategies, and will have a framework through which you can learn more
about greenhouse gas management, both at home and around the world.
Climate change adaptation: dealing with the
In contrast to the previous module, this module introduces the idea of
addressing the impacts of climate change rather than its causes. In particular,
we will explore the various adaptation strategies that are available to
be utilized around the world, the heated debate surrounding the equity
implications of adaptation, and the linkages between adaptation and mitigation.
By the end of this module we will have explored the difference between
proactive and reactive adaptation, and our track record with both. We will
outline the most common and effective adaptation strategies, including
those related to human settlements, ecosystems, and the broader issue of
development. Finally, we will explore the inevitable trade-offs between
adaptation and mitigation, setting us up to finish this course with a survey
of climate change response policies.
tools for mitigation and adaptation
This Module forms a bridge between this first course in the Decision-making
for Climate Change series, and the three courses that will follow. Given
what we know now about the science behind climate change, and the strategies
that we have at our disposal for responding to it, we can now be introduced
to policies that bear this in mind. After being introduced to the fundamentals
of mitigation and adaptation policy, we will use the British Columbia carbon
tax and the proposed cap-and-trade system in the United States as relevant
examples. Finally, we will finish with a glimpse forward to the future
of climate change policy, and the most promising opportunities for both
managing impacts and ensuring a rapid transition to a fundamentally low-carbon