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Columbia University

Frontiers of Science: Climate & Us

Columbia University via edX


This course begins by exploring the factors that set the Earth's temperature, considering the basic equation, Energy in = Energy out. We focus on the role of astronomical factors (sunspots and the eccentricity, obliquity, and precession of Earth in its orbit around the Sun), the reflectivity of Earth's surface, and the composition of the Earth's atmosphere in setting the Earth’s climate.

The temperature record, based on instrumental measurements, strongly indicates that the Earth has been warming over the last several decades, and dramatically so since 1975 when Wally Broecker, a former lecturer in Frontiers of Science, first coined the term "global warming." At the same time, the concentration of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, most prominently carbon dioxide, has been rapidly increasing. To put these recent changes in context of past data, we learn about paleoclimate proxies (e.g. tree rings and ice cores) and how it is that scientists can learn about the temperature and atmospheric content going back thousands and even millions of years ago.

With this knowledge, we confront past data, climate models, and fictions that lack scientific basis. We consider various tools used in climate science that allow scientists to compare contemporary climate change with natural changes that have occurred in the past, as well as to generate future climate forecasts. By investigating carbon isotope content of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we learn about the origin of the extra carbon and the role that humans have played in its release into the atmosphere. Finally, we explore the role of positive and negative feedback loops and why they make climate modeling particularly challenging. Feedback loops play an important role not only in climate, but in various biological processes, economics and more, and represent a critical scientific habit of mind taught in this course.


Section 1: Global Warming

  1. Introduction
  2. Climate vs. Weather
  3. Energy from the Sun
  4. Sun’s Energy Variations - Astronomical Forces
  5. Other Sources of Energy

Section 2: Global Warming: The Earth’s Surface

  1. The Atmosphere
  2. Greenhouse Gasses
  3. Carbon Isotopes
  4. Sources of Carbon Dioxide

Section 3: The Global Temperature

  1. The Rising Average
  2. Energy Balance

Section 4: Past Climate

  1. The Tree Ring Record
  2. The Ice Core Record
  3. 400,000 Years of Carbon Dioxide

Section 5: Future Climate

  1. Energy In Equals Energy Out
  2. Feedback Loops & Climate Models
  3. Foreshadowing
  4. Debunking Myths

Section 6: Global Plans and Prospects

  1. Energy Facts
  2. The Paris Accord
  3. The Present and The Future

Taught by

David J. Helfand and Ivana N. Hughes


5.0 rating, based on 3 Class Central reviews

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  • Profile image for Mikhail Meksin
    Mikhail Meksin
    The best and most comprehensive, accessible and understandable resource I've found that explains the climate crisis, global warming and the science at work in this critical issue that our planet faces. As someone without any scientific training or background, I was able to follow, learn and gain from the content of this course. I highly recommend this to any learner, of any age, looking to better understand global warming, the climate crisis, its causes and what to do about it.
  • Anonymous
    It is a very informative course, easily comprehensible, that explains in depth the global warming issue and presents possible ways to mitigate it.
  • Profile image for Mary Ellen
    Mary Ellen
    Excellent instructor and content.

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