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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Introducing Climate Change Science to College Students

Posted on 1 February 2013 by rockytom

I have been asked by the esteemed founder of this site, John Cook, to contribute a few posts with which I will attempt to provide readers with interesting materials on climate change science.  “Climate change science” has been selected instead of “climate science” because our world’s climate is changing before our eyes. This first post will attempt to answer the age-old question of how best to introduce the concepts of climate change science in a college-level first course. 

The Introduction

How does one introduce climate science to students that may have recently decided to take a first science class since graduating from preparatory school or that have been offered a selection of science courses from which to choose?  In an introductory science course, (1) do we want to impart very detailed information to students or (2) do we want to give them an appreciation of the science?  What do we expect students to remember for decades after taking our course?  Do we want them to remember an aggregate of loosely connected facts or a body of information that defines the science and that allows them to be able to converse about climate change in an intelligent manner?

There are multiple answers to these question so let me try one out on you hoping that you will share some ideas with me and other readers.  No matter what approach is used, an excellent first reading assignment is from this web site,, “Newcomers, Start Here” and “The Big Picture.”  These two sections are concise and provide students with an overview of climate change and will supplement the introductory approach that is decided upon and the first few lectures in introductory climate change science courses.

A Current Approach

My approach has always been a combination of the methods given above; (1) enough detail about the science to hopefully allow the student to gain an appreciation for the science, and (2) to teach principles by which the foundations of the science were laid.  In the recently released Farmer and Cook textbook “Climate Change Science: A Modern Synthesis” we introduce the subject of climate science by discussing global warming and the current state of our climate, the early workers who laid the foundations of our science, how they conducted their work, and the major advances that were made before the present.  How did we get to where we are today in our knowledge of climate change science, who got us here and what do we know of today’s changing climate and the recent history (the past few thousand or millions of years) of Earth’s climate.


Our current approach to introducing the subject includes a discussion or overview of the following topics:  an introduction to global warming; the greenhouse effect, climate sensitivity, average global temperature, carbon dioxide, climate and weather, energy and climate policy, the hockey stick controversy, albedo, irradiance, as well as other introductory topics.

Future Posts

Additional posts will include further discussions of topics covered in an introductory course in climate change science at the college level.  Hopefully a continuing dialog will develop and we may share ideas on introducing climate change science to college students.

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Comments 1 to 10:

  1. I will be starting a course next year with 2nd year Physics BSc students so am very interested in this. Please ley us know how you get on.

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  2. Could I pipe-up and recommend this excellent textbook I just read most of for an introductory climate science course on my Masters...

    W.F. Ruddiman. (2007) Earth's Climate: Past and Future (2nd edition). Freeman and Co., NY.


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  3. The book places the comptemporary climate debate within the far longer perspective of climactic changes at millenial and even greater time scales. There is a lot around climate reconstructions and great sections outlining the differences between anthropogenic versus natural climate change. Highly recommended.

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  4. Ruddiman's book is indeed a fine textbook; however it is not written nor is it appropriate for an introductory science course for college students.  Introductory courses need to emphasize principles and the current climate,  As Ruddiman's title states, his book emphasizes "Earth's Climate - Past and Future."  The emphasis of the Farmer and Cook textbook (Volume 1) is on current climate. Volume 2 will emphasize Earth's climate history. A Volume 3, if written, will emphasize Earth's future climate using projections based on past and present climates and "what if" scenarios.

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  5. Andrew Dessler 2011 Introduction to Modern Climate Change (recommended by Steve Easterbrook) is a good starting point.

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  6. Dessler's book is a good introduction to climate science.  One of many attributess that make Farmer and Cook's textbook unique is the treatment of denialism in climate science in two chapters, Chapters 23 and 24 (Chapter 23 - "Understanding Climate Denial" and Chapter 24 - " Rebuttals to Climate Myths") each of which may be found at

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  7. I taught Physics of the Environment at my University for a number of years, just quitting this last semester to concentrate on other climate change activities. The course I taught is aimed at a 101level, so that these students are probably not science majors. Therefore, we need to go over units, metric system, force, work, energy, and so on, in addition to doing environment and climate, all in one semester. The approach has recently been to teach abbreviated Physics 101, tack on environment, and refer to the excellent text  "Energy, Environment, and Climate" by Wolfson, for special topics.  I have ordered the recent text by Farmer and Cook, and look forward to its arrival next week.  I have a second job involving coordinating basic honors physics taught  for University credit  (not advanced placement) in various high schools. I suspect there may be fears amongst high school teachers of personal consequences from teaching much about global warming, and I hope to find out more about this. 

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  8. One other thing....In regards to my post number 7 above, the people in this thread might have an interest in my posted "Leaky Sink Global Warmig Analog" by clicking on that title at this site:


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  9. curiousd: Regarding your slide show "Leaky Sink Global Warming Analog," you might find the article "Relaxation theory of climate" interesting (Aleksei V Byalko 2012 Phys.-Usp. 55 103).

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  10. It’s good to see more books surfacing. When I wanted to read up on the subject, it was pretty much sites like this, realclimate and the academic literature. Raypierre’s Principles of Planetary Climate is good for physics grads (even one like me who didn’t do particularly well, I’m more at home in Computer Science), but more acessible texts are a really useful addition.

    It is BTW a tad unfair to depict an ostrich with its head literally in the sand. They don’t actually do that, though they are in most respects almost as unintelligent as a science denier.

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