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Why Choose One Textbook for Introductory Climate Change Science Courses?

Posted on 22 February 2013 by rockytom

A number of instructors involved with teaching an introductory climate change science course currently do not select a textbook for their course.  They may select multiple popular books on climate change and global warming and perhaps, in addition, require certain readings from the peer-reviewed literature.  There is nothing wrong with this approach and there may be advantages, but let’s first examine a few obvious disadvantages.

First, requiring a number of different books on the subject of climate change may result in greater expense than one textbook although individual textbooks may be very expensive; especially those with abundant color illustrations. 

Second, individual popular climate change books may emphasize one aspect of the science and reflect the author’s expertise, bias, or biases.  It is difficult to get a comprehensive treatment of climate change science from multiple sources.  Many of the popular books emphasize global warming, which is only one aspect of climate change.  Global cooling during the last ice age, extreme weather, the behavior of atmospheric and ocean currents, glacial retreat and rising sea levels as well as other factors are also aspects of climate change.  These subjects are likely covered by the popular books but in a cursory manner in some.

Third, more than one book required for a course may lead to a disjointed treatment of climate science when climate is a continuum over time, although it may be punctuated by certain extreme events in any given area or period of time.

The advantages to selecting one textbook for a course in climate change science are several.

First, the student has one main source upon which to depend.  Of course, this may be enhanced by other readings but the student has additional readings listed in the textbook that can be assigned by the instructor.

Second, the student can benefit from a continuous treatment of the climate system, or as continuous as the climate system will allow.  The climate changes that occur over decades, millennia, and millions of years are all important concepts to treat in an introductory climate change science course.

Third, the student will most likely gain confidence in the material as the course progresses with the aid of the instructor referring to sections of the textbook.  Lectures may be organized around chapters in the textbook in the order deemed most important by the instructor.

During my days as a student I always felt unfulfilled if the course I was taking did not require me to complete assigned readings from a textbook.  The textbook was my “crutch” and the major resource for new information and if I was not required to read it why was I required to buy it?  As a university professor I was always over worked and under paid and it was difficult for me to organize lectures around several different sources of information.  A textbook provided a central and tangible focus around which I could plan lectures and the course schedule.

There are a few comprehensive textbooks in climate change science now available to introductory students and we can expect several more in the coming years.  John Cook and I do have a favorite textbook in mind that we hope instructors will have a look at and consider for their course; “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis.”  Portions of this textbook can be downloaded from Springer at and purchased directly from Springer or from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other booksellers throughout the world.  Springer has done an excellent job with the production of the book with special emphasis on the illustrations, quality of the paper and binding.

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Comments 1 to 23:

  1. There is a type of couse offering with the following institutional constraints:

    1. Everything must be covered in one semester. With a week break for Thanksgiving or "Spring Break" one then has 14 weeks.

    2. Since the implications of the science are rather depressing without there being some emphasis on something that can be done, at least half of this one semester course has to be devoted to "What can be done?"  There can be strategies for teaching more than one thing at a time. Thus, the students will be barely conversant with graphs. One can show a graph of corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) in the U.S. and the students will notice fuel economy improved by about 10 - 15 years after the oil embargo in the 1970s. New gas mileage requirements were put onto car manufacturers with about a 10 - 15 year deadline. The students learn about reading a graph and that government action can do good.

    3. In the U.S. the mathematical background of such students, taking the required one semester quantitative course in a large state university, will be on average terrible. One has to teach them how to convert units. Half the class cannot do this. Thus, a problem asking the students  to go from U.S. miles per gallon to European liters per 100 km will be immensely challenging, and at least half the class will miss these problems without special training.

    My favorite innovation.....A "quarter pounder" at McDonalds  is (very approximately) a newtonburger.

    I eventually gave up talking about avogadro's number or moles. To the question ....."How many atoms of carbon are in a 6 gram diamond?" a really common answer is half an atom.

    4. There are 24 chapters to Farmer and Cook, Volume 1 alone and only 14 weeks at the instructor's disposal. So far I see  in Farmer and Cook immense  thoroughness on climate but little coverage of wind power, solar power, nuclear power, or hydropower.

    But the instructor him/herself in the U.S., teaching such a course, is likely to know little  about clmate change at all. Similarly this applies in high schools. For these people, I think Farmer and Cook is the best thing going.


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  2. [rockytom] Curiousd, I know the limitations of being able to cover all significant topics in a one-semester course.  It is an even greater problem in a one-quarter course.  However, some chapters in the Farmer and Cook textbook are short and more than one could be covered in one week.  The lack of coverage on renewable energy is due to space and time limitations.  If a third volume in this series comes about (we must finish the second one before contemplating a third), its title will be "Earth's Future Climate" and will emphize renewables, statistics from current usage projected into the future, and IPCC projections for future climate as well as information published between now and then.  Thank you for your well-thought out comment and the italicized recommendation!

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  3. Thank You, Rockytom 

      I have occasionally seen in text books - perhaps as part of a preface - statements to the effect...."We recognize that all our chapters may not be capable of being included is a one semester course....etc".  But then..."  If such and such is to be emphasized, one could omit chapters W  and Y......etc"., thus giving the potential novice instructor something to go on in planning the course using Farmer and Cook. In the meantime I will do some "digging around for the cause"....We have here in Connecticut an environmental science major....I wonder, if even in that major, is there a climate change course even taught? I can also try digging around in the course offering listings of similar schools such as University of Massachusetts, and I will let you know on one of these threads what I find out.

      (David Archer runs a famous climate course from the University of Chicago for nonscience majors of course, but the kinds of students they get and the kinds of students we get at our state land grant school, especially  in the case of  non science majors, cannot be compared).

      As far as high schools are concerned, there I suspect that a serious problem is that some  instructors may fear retribution if they teach global warming.  Perhaps I can dig out something concrete in terms of data on this question, though it would have to be through an anonymously answered questionnaire and there I have to make sure I will not run into difficulty myself by trying such an approach. Finally, I would not be surprised if the problems with getting sane AGW teaching and sane AGW policy in the States might be uniquely pernicious.  Not in Connecticut, but in a large fraction of this country, we have people pushing variants of "Creationist Science" onto the high schools.  And if one really does not believe in Darwinian Natural Selection, it is most unlikely one will believe in AGW.


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    Moderator Response: [rockytom] I agree with the possibility of "pressure" in teaching climate science. However, overwhelming scientific evidence cannot be allowed to be subverted by those who deny climate change. Scientists (and not just climate scientists) are speaking out loud and clear. It's not just Jim Hansen any more!
  4. Really not buying this. A single book, even with the pedigree offered here, is simply not able to cover the breadth and depth of climate change. MUCH better to pull some recent studies then to rely on a single point of view in a single book.

    While I personally have nothing but the highest regard for John Cook and his work - this post gives the APPEARANCE of impropriety as I suspect the John Cook who founded this site is the SAME John Cook as the book author. 

    Were I to teach climate change I would NOT use a single book - even one as fine as I am sure this one is. The subject is too vast, and as has already been noted - any given book will have its POV, and not address the more pertinent question of "what do we do about it".

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    Moderator Response: [rockytom]There is no impropriety here. Indeed it is the same John Cook who co-authored the textbook with me and does a lot of other things too, such as (1)gives public and invited lectures, (2) manages this web site, (3) posts pertinent blogs from time to time, (4)is working towards a Ph.D., (5) has a family, and (6) travels widely doing a variety of things. Since when is it improper to do so many positive things for so many people?
  5. Hi Rockytom,

    I am reading carefully through the text. Since there will presumably be another edition, are you interested in suggested corrections? If so, how to do this? Clearly this blog post is not the place. I will mention only one. In chapter 1 it is stated on page 15 that "The first decade of the twentieth century was even warmer than the last decade of the twentieth century ......." You do not mean this since the 20th century extends from Jan 1, 1901 to Dec 31, 2000. You mean the twenty first century.

    This is niggling, but there are others. If you are interested in a thorough proofing from a garden variety condensed matter experimentalist and can tell me how to do this I will proceed, carefully, chapter by chapter.

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    Moderator Response: [rockytom] I did catch that one and the misspelling of Barack's name. I'm sure there are others. I would appreciate a careful, objective reading such as you are suggesting and am wondering how best to receive your comments, suggestions, and corrections. This is certainly not the place. Are you an SkS author?
  6. actualy thughtful@4,

    You seem to imply that this single textbook is improper because "The subject is too vast, and [...] any given book will have its POV".

    Therefore you don't understand the definition of a textbook. It's not an opinion piece. It's a comprehensive review of the consensus peer reviewed science. The important studies (including those of your preference) that constitute said consensus would be refered therein for interested student to pursue. But the bottomline is, there must be a common summary of settled knowledge that any further studies are not going to change. I think that this textbook (although I haven't read it) covers just such knowledge; there is enough climagte science knowledge accumulated during 200+y to cover 500+ pages of that book. Every teacher will tell you that such book if well written if far better reference point rather than a set of "recently pulled studies".

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  7. Hi Rockytom at 5,


    I am not an SKS author, in that I have not yet authored a lead post.

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  8. I take a great interest in climate change, but I have not studied it.  I am willing to live with holes in my basic knowledge, but someone who studies this at university should not have such holes.  Not in the basics.  

    A unit on climate science should be taught to students who are already well versed in physics and maths.  In the Australian university system, this would be at the second year level.  It would provide a great opportunity for students to apply their physics and maths skills. And a textbook that covers the basics of climate science at that level would be a major asset.  

    Of course you could teach a version of climate science to non-science students, but while such students would get a good appreciation, I don't really see the point, as they would not have the foundations on which to build - so it would only be a superficial understanding.

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  9. John Brookes:

    Having some idea of how climate science works is probably essential, even for non-science students. This should allow them to steer clear of misinformation and manufactured doubt. It would also be a corrective to the kind of climate "science" classes being taught by, TIm Patterson & Tom Harris at Carleton University over the last few years.

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  10. To Rockytom at 5....Is it possible for me to get your e mail address and do it that way?

    I have communicated with John Cook in the past and he therefore knows my e mail address and could give it to you. You could then e mail me and I can proceed.

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  11. To Rockytom at 5....perhaps I could submit a lead post on the fact that molecular motion persists at absolute zero, disorder persists at absolute zero, and the likely importance of this fact to the relative evaporation rates of oxygen 18 versus 16? But I do not know if such a specialized physics post would be of interest here.

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    Moderator Response: [rockytom]My email address is and I will look forward to your comments, which will be off-topic to this thread. For things deemed of interest to SkS readers, with your permission I will post here. Thanks for your interest!
  12. This textbook is on my shopping list. Being a physicist (though retired) with some specialty in hyperfinestructure spectroscopy and astronomy (and of course computer science) I still had to struggle with the basics of climate science ... It took me several years and and I had the impression of beginning a physics (and math) curriculum again ... And still I have the "holes" mentioned here.

    What I am doing is giving lectures to the general (mostly lay) public and younger people ... and this is only possible with a sane background in the basics and of course the political issues (in particular here in Germany and Europe).

    I collected original peer-reviewed literature (incl. IPCC-reports) ... which sums up now to some Gigabytes of "pdf"s and data (like HITRAN) ... And I bought some books like R.T.Pierrehumbert's "Principles of Planetary Climate", Stamnes' book and Liou's book on radiative transfer (RT) ... Also doing some programming within the "python"-field ..

    I would like to emphasize the standpoint that not only one book is necessary - you have to have several plus the above mentioned literature ...  And as a teacher you have to invest a lot of time for preparation of the lectures ... What I actually was missing at the start of my "venture" was a book on how to "meander" through the topic(s) .. I hope to get this guide after having bought the mentioned volume ...

    Although it might now be a bit late ... :)

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    Moderator Response: [rockytom] I hope "Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis" by Farmer and Cook will make the meandering through the climate science basics much easier. It was written with beginning students and instructors in mind no matter their background or experience.
  13. I have a BS and MS degree in Biology and I am currently pursuing a second MS degree in Environmental Systems and Engineering.  Not one of my textbooks has chapters like those listed in Sections 10 and 11.  My science textbooks stick to what is known. Even my evolution textbook doesn't delve into the tactics of creationists and intelligent design supporters. 

    A science books should stick to the facts and allow the user to come to their own conclusions.  Sections 10 and 11 show a clear bias on the authors' part that I suspect permeates the entire book.  Science should be objective.  I am not saying that this book is not objective, because I have not been able to read anything other than the sample.  But, I doubt many, if any, colleges with pick this up.  Sections 10 and 11 may well be well written, but they should perhaps stand on their own.

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    Moderator Response: We are all entitled to our opinions. My opinion is that your evolution textbook should have sections on creationism and its major threat to the science curriculum throughout the more conservative parts of the USA and elsewhere. This should be an essential part of any evolution curriculum! That's my opinion.
  14. Terranova,

    What are you talking about?  What are "Sections 10 and 11"?  What in them is not objective?

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  15. I assume Terranova means:



     (all caps in the original)

    These sections (which I haven't read myself) deal with the climate wars and rebutting  misinformation. It seems to me that students learning about climate change need to be exposed to this discussion. 

    I would think that biology students in the USA would benefit hugely from learning about the creationists and their tactics. Particularly so, if those students end up teaching biology in schools in certain states. If what Terranova reports is correct, it's a pity that that sort of material is not included in college textbooks, given that many schoolboards are supportive of teaching nonsense like Intelligent Design.

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  16. Terranova,

    This whole website provides unchallengable documentation of the main lines of fake argument and outright lies promulgated by paid disinformers, political shills and hysterical paranoids looking for a global conspiracy to deprive them of their precious bodily fluids.  To list that material and provide the rebutals in no way deviates from the purpose of a textbook about climate science- except in the minds of people who don't accept climate science in the first place, the sort of people who trot out their misunderstanding of a third grade definition of science and expect to bully doctoral level working scientists with it.

    If I read a textbook about thermodynamics or quantum mechanics or chemical reaction mechanisms it doesn't just present me with the tells me what they mean, it is prescriptive.  If I read a textbook about virology I expect that the reasons why HIV is a demonstrated infective agent dispite Duesberg's claims about violating Koch's Postulates to be in there, as well as a section on vaccines as public health measures and what the science says about the various claims about thimersol, immune overload and other crackpot claims about autism.  For Doctors especially, knowing this material is essential for providing care to patients.

    I couldn't disagree with your unsubstantiated and unsupported opinion more strongly.  I also note that at your level of training, your standing to make such an assertion is suspect.


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  17. Back in the beginning of time, Eli had three excellent rants on the distortion of the US textbook market.  Your book costs $108, which is, to be charitable, about half of what a chemistry textbook costs but still high enough that the kids are going to sell it back right after the course ends.  If it came out at $40 in a paperback they would keep it, and a teacher could have the students order your book and another and hope they would keep both.  Sorry, but that's the problem.

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    Moderator Response: [RH] Fixed link.
  18. Climate science has so many good voices and so much good material online, and the information is developing fast enough that I do not use a textbook.  Instead a series of websites including SkS are the text my students read.

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    Moderator Response: [rockytom] I suggest that perhaps you should take a look at "Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis." I imagine that requiring certain internet sites instead of a textbook would provide a disjointed approach to the subject. Of course, one could work oneself silly and read all the pertinent sites and choose from all the posts?
  19. My background is in Environmental Science and Landscape Architecture.  A number of my required first year text books were selected based upon their ability to explain broad fundamanetal concepts.  As I moved from my first to fifth year, the books became more technical and specialized based upon my particular interests and major.

    I haven't read the book mentioned above, but anything that can speak clearly to a broad audience, most of whom may never enter science as a profession, is of extreme value, I should think.

    Regarding denier and sketpic...these two terms do nothing for science at the social level.  We have to recognize that much of global warming/climate change debate, like it or not, occurs at a social (amature) level - I place many of our politicians in this category.  A book could be written about these two labels and the sad outcome is an obvious and unwhittingly manufactured social obstacle.  Curiosity and skepticism are two foundations of science, yes?  

    ...thought the escapist may believe this is devine and meant to be...



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  20. I should have added the Alarmist label to the above.  I would have made more sense.

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  21. Sphaerica @14 see Skuce @15

    Skuce, in American secondary public education the creationist/ID aspect cannot be taught because of the separation of church and state.  School districts that choose to promote those views run into trouble quickly. PBS has a fascinating documentary on this available online (Judgment Day: Intelligent Design On Trial).   But, more simply, it has no place because it is not science. 

    On the college level, I can certainly see an interesting lecture series on creationism and ID and the mindset behind it.  But, not as a physical science course.  

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    Moderator Response: [rockytom] Unfortunately in conservative states such as Texas, for example, "intelligent design" is what the creationists are pushing as an alternative to evolution. Their fallacious argument is the one that we see all too often in climate science, that all ideas are given "equal weight" when there is only one side! There are no other equal sides.
  22. Dave123 @16 - I don't understand the tone of your post. This site is fine for all the things you listed, but this site is not a college textbook.  Just as a textbook on evolution should be able to stand on the sound science it presents, so should this textbook on climate change.  There is no need for an evolution textbook to mention creationism/ID.

    If the science presented in this new book is sound and reasonably presented, then the case is made.  As I said before, the sections I noted will probably keep colleges from picking them up. Book adoption has to go through a textbook approval committe. It only takes one naysayer to kill a book's chances.

    I don't understand the vitriolic nature of your response, and I certainly don't appreciate the snarky tone of your last paragraph.  (-snip-). 

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    Moderator Response:

    [rockytom] I don't know where you get the idea that textbook selection has to go through a committee. I have taught at several colleges and universities and I was always able to select the textbook for the courses I taught. I can see where if there are multiple sections of the same course taught by several different instructors, that there should be one textbook selected for the course. I have been involved in such courses and the textbook chosen was always the best one for the subject matter. If this becomes true for courses in climate science, I hope they select "Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis"!

    [DB] Moderation complaints snipped.

  23. For what its worth, the best textbook/course combination that I ever had was Hugh D. Young's "Physics".  I don't know if it was because the teacher was the author, or if it was just a good book (it was somewhat of the standard, even at other schools), or a combination of the two.  I always felt that if the teacher followed the order of the textbook, it made things easier to follow/anticipate, but that only works if the teacher is comfortable with the text.

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    Moderator Response: [rockytom] Kevin, I agree that the instructor should be comfortable with the textbook. It is a real disservice to the students if an instructor doesn't like the textbook. I've had classes in which the instructor spent an inordinate amount of time criticizing the textbook, which I thought was a waste of my time.

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