Unit 3: A Path Forward

Help in Picking Our Energy Path

We have already seen in Unit 1 that energy is hugely valuable to us, that our current energy system is unsustainable and that burning most of the fossil fuels before we switch to a sustainable energy system would cause climate changes that make life much harder. In Unit 2, we saw that vast renewable resources exist, as well as other ways such as blocking the sun to deal with warming. Here in Unit 3, we will address whether we can afford to make the change, and how and why we might do so, by looking at the next three units listed below.

The unit consists of three modules:

  • Economics (Module 10)
  • Policy Options (Module 11)
  • Ethical Issues (Module 12)

Watch the following video: Cell Phones and Science (4:14)

Click for a transcript of "Cell Phones and Science" video.

PRESENTER: What is a smartphone really? It's a little bit of oil for the plastic, a little bit of sand for the glass, and a little bit of the right rock, some red ones and some blue ones to make the various metals in here, and a huge amount of science and engineering wrapped up with some networking and some marketing and what have you. I've had people use their smartphones to send me messages saying that we scientists don't know what we're talking playing about with climate change. I've even had people use smartphones to send messages saying that scientists have no more insight to how the world works than any other group.
I suspect those people were trying to make a point and they might not fully have believed that. If you can imagine taking the sand and the oil and the red and blue rocks and giving them to various groups, the US House of Representatives, the church women's knitting society, the football team, and asking them to turn them into a smartphone, I think you'd wait a long time. But scientists and engineers really have done that.

In this phone, there's a GPS. It started as a US Air Force project. It knows where I am, in part, because it has relativistic calculations that date all the way back to Einstein. And without relativity, it would get lost in less than a day. It wouldn't work.

In here, there's a computer. It connects to the internet, which started also as a US military project to get researchers to talk to each other. And the computer is designed with the principles of quantum mechanics that date back the Planck and Einstein and Bohr and others. And the quantum mechanics also underlies our understanding of how radiation interacts with gases in the atmosphere that gives us such a very high confidence that our CO2 is changing the Earth's radiation balance and that affects the climate.

The physics of the quantum in the computer, the physics of the quantum in the air overlap. They're done sometimes by similar or overlapping communities. They're done by people studying in the same schools, using many of the same techniques. This works. And so does the physics of the atmosphere. And we can validate that and it really does.

There's another important point here. The fact that this works doesn't tell you who to call or what web sites to visit. It gives you options that you must choose from. The science of the atmosphere and energy and climate doesn't tell you what laws to pass. It doesn't tell you who you have to vote for. It gives you options that you can choose from.

So in this third section of the class, we're going to visit some of these options and decisions. We'll start with economics. Can we really afford to address climate and energy? Can we really afford not to address climate and energy?

Then we'll look at some of the policies we might adopt and we'll tiptoe our way into ethics. What's the right thing to do? But I suspect you already sort of have a clear picture. The science doesn't tell you what to do. It tells you what you can do. And from that, you can make wise decisions.

Unit Goals

  • Recognize the role of human actions in determining the future of our climate
  • Explain scientific concepts in language non-scientists can understand
  • Find reliable sources of information on the internet
  • Use numerical tools and publicly available scientific data to demonstrate important concepts about the Earth, its climate, and resources

Unit Objectives

In order to reach these goals, the instructors have established the following objectives for student learning. In working through the modules within unit 3 students will be able to:

  • Recognize that there is a cost to future society of emitting CO2 to the air today.
  • Describe how one might balance immediate needs against protection from future losses.
  • Explain why growth cannot be infinite in a world of finite resources.
  • Use an Integrated Assessment Model to determine the most economically beneficial approach to dealing with emissions and climate change.
  • Recognize the multitude of policy options available for our energy system and economy.
  • Explain how the effectiveness of emissions treaties and carbon taxes can be verified internationally using remote data collection.
  • Recognize that shifting gradually to renewable energy is likely to have little overall impact on employment rates.
  • Recall that energy policies and subsidies have been in use for decades, and some of these have promoted fossil fuels over renewable resources.
  • Research and evaluate an example of an energy subsidy reported by the IMF.
  • Explain that decisions about energy and environment have important but very complicated ethical implications.
  • Recognize that relying more on natural resources does not always correlate with greater wealth or higher quality of life.
  • Recall that if we value our grandchildren's quality of life as much as we value our own, then it is worthwhile to do more now to avoid climate change.
  • Assess what you have learned in Unit 3.


Assessments and type, by module
Module Assessment Type
10. Economics DICE Model Stella Model
11. Policy Options Government Subsidies Blog: Research and Report
12. Ethical Issues Learning Outcomes Survey Self-Assessment