Endless summer: What I learned from teaching a class on climate change.

I am a teacher, and today I finished the major job that was destined to dominate my summer: teaching a university-level course on the history of climate change. This has been a pretty significant undertaking, if I say so myself. This course has never been offered at my institution before and there were no blueprints or guidelines for it, so I had to develop the syllabus from scratch. It’s not as if there are textbooks you can buy off-the-shelf dealing with the history of climate change, so the readings were a patchwork of articles and chapters from books cobbled together from across various disciplines. What would normally have been a full-semester course was crammed for summer session into four intense weeks, with four 2-hour class periods a week. Needless to say at the end of this process I’m exhausted. I have also learned, along with my students, a great deal about climate change that I didn’t know previously. It’s been a tremendously gratifying experience–but also a somewhat alarming one.

I like to consider myself reasonably well-informed about climate change issues. By “climate change” I’m talking about various processes and episodes of climatic alteration throughout history, only the most recent of which is the large-scale warming of the planet caused mostly by human activity since the Industrial Revolution. (If you’re unsure of the difference between “climate change” and “global warming,” see this article). Climate change as a phenomenon is not new. Changing climate conditions played a role in the downfall of the classic Mayan civilization, in the collapse of the Norse Greenland colonies and possibly in many other events from the fall of the Western Roman Empire to the Black Death of the 1300s. I thought it would be useful for students to have this historical context in which to place our current serious problem of anthropogenic global warming. Given my students’ reactions to the class, it seems I’ve been successful at that.

This video from the University of Queensland’s “Denial 101x” online class, which I showed to my class, details the five characteristics of science and climate change denial.

But for all I knew, there was a lot I didn’t know. I didn’t appreciate, for instance, the degree to which the development of modern institutional science, especially what you might call “big science” (government, universities, private sector projects) since World War II, tracked and gave rise to our understanding of the greenhouse effect and climate change. The greenhouse effect was discovered in the late 19th century, but it took until the 1960s for scientists to deliver the proof positive that carbon dioxide from human activities is causing the planet to warm. Many of the scientists who contributed to this discovery, incidentally, also worked on the atomic bomb or had affiliations to institutions that did. “Big science” is also linked to climate change denial. In addition to producing reliable science, these same institutions also produced a small but influential group of professionals who were willing to be “hired guns,” paid by industry to inject doubt into the public consciousness about climate change. Many climate change deniers also worked for the tobacco lobby in the 1980s and 1990s to try to deny the link between smoking and cancer. This is the dark side of institutional science.

I was also struck by a philosophical idea I saw weaving its way through the recent history of climate change. In 1972 a United Nations conference on human interaction with the environment produced the Stockholm Declaration, a document that stressed the link between income inequality (world poverty) and environmental problems. The Stockholm Declaration didn’t mention climate change, but numerous other UN documents developed in the 1980s did, and the idea of this link is a strong philosophical underpinning of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s first Report which came out in 1990 and which one can argue is a revolutionary document. The link between poverty and climate change recently resurfaced again in Pope Francis’s “Encyclical,” called Laudato Si, in which he laid out the moral and theological basis for fighting climate change. Hint: it’s all about income inequality. The history of this idea already has been crucial in climate change discourse, and it’s going to become more so, especially as income inequality is emerging as one of the central issues of the 2016 U.S. Presidential race (and in the politics of many other First World countries).

pope francis 2013

Pope Francis I constantly stresses the nexus between income inequality and climate change. He will do it again next month before a joint session of Congress.

It was very gratifying to see my students discover these concepts and ideas at the same time I did. As a teacher I think I can tell when I see understanding dawning in the minds of students, or when they’re thinking about things in ways new to them that they haven’t considered before. The level of engagement, discussion and understanding of the materials in this particular class was far in excess of any other class I’ve taught. Statistically, the students in this class also did remarkably well compared to averages for my institution. All of these point to positives for the future.

There is no question left in my mind that climate change is, by an extremely wide margin, the most urgent and important issue facing the world today. The days when climate change can be viewed in the abstract, as a pet concern of environmentalists but with no impact on “real people,” are over forever. Whoever you are, reading this right now, you are going to have to deal with climate change and its effects for literally the rest of your life. The people who live in Kiribati and whose country is soon going to be inundated by rising sea levels aren’t the only ones. You are going to have to deal with climate change. Personally–in your life. Politicians and others may ignore the issue, but they too will be forced to deal with it. Understanding the history of anything is, I believe, a necessary first step to dealing with it. Consequently, I have a strong feeling that I’ll be teaching this class many more times over the course of my career, somewhere, wherever I end up.

Actor Leonardo DiCaprio gave a powerful speech at the opening of the United Nations Climate Summit in September 2014, pleading for the immediacy of action on climate change.

Climate change is now a moral issue. It is the 21st century equivalent of what abolitionism was in 19th century America. We simply don’t have a choice but to deal with it. As its effects continue to worsen–more quickly and more severely than even the most dire predictions of 25 years ago–it will command a greater and greater share of the world’s attention and resources, among rank and file “ordinary” people as well as world leaders, scientists or policymakers. But it’s one thing to talk about it. One source of enormous personal satisfaction for me is that now, as a result of having taught this class, I’m no longer just talking about climate change–I have actually done something about it. And, exhausted as I am at the end of it, I want to do more. That’s the most important thing I learned this summer: that everybody has something to contribute. We, human beings, created climate change. We, human beings, can stop it. But we must have the will to do it.

The header image is a composite, made by me, built from public domain images. The photo of Pope Francis is attributed to presidencia.gov.ar and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (attribution) license.


  1. 🙂 GREAT.
    “Various processes and episodes of climatic alteration throughout history”…. and not forgetting prehistory and deep time, e.g. the end Permian scenario; the Eocene Thermal Maximum; the Pliocene Warm Period. Necessary backdrops to our understanding of natural climate forcing, and what an athropogenically warmer world might look like.
    A few years ago I had a go at some futurology, my imagination largely driven by a reading of ‘Six Degrees’ by Mark Lynas – http://storvaxt.blogspot.co.uk/2014/03/earlham.html.
    Keep up the good work!
    Tim HW

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