Human Dimensions of Global Warming

Course Home Page



Brandi Robinson
Associate Teaching Professor
Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering
College of Earth and Mineral Sciences
The Pennsylvania State University


GEOG 438W is a writing-intensive course that concentrates on the human-environment interactions which have created and respond to global climate change. Geography 438W is a required course for the Energy and Sustainability Policy major.

This semester, we're going to look more closely at all angles of the human-climate interface.  We need to understand how the problem is happening in the first place and then what impacts that problem creates before we can figure out how to solve it.  

3 circles labelled with causes (image of smoke stacks), impact (ocean encroaching on vacation homes) & solutions (solar panel)
The totality of human dimensions of climate change
credit: © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
  • Unit 1 is all about where we are with climate change currently.  We'll take a close look at how we got here and how we might change course as well.
  • Unit 2 will show us where it's going and how that changing climate is manifesting in ways that have impacts. Climate change isn't about polar bears drifting sadly on little chunks of ice.  (Of course, it CAN be about the bears if you want it to be.) Instead, climate change is about impacts on our health, our ability to grow food, our access to clean and plentiful drinking water, our weather, our ecosystems. But we'll also look at how we can become more resilient and adapt to the changes we're facing.
  • Unit 3 will give us the chance to imagine where we want to be.  We'll look at climate futures and what it means to be sustainable.  We'll think about the role of our own thoughts, opinions, and actions in addressing this planetary challenge.

See text version linked below.
How people interact with the climate system.
Click link to expand for a text description

This is a flow chart describing how people interact with the climate system."Climate change" leads to "Impacts of Climate Change"."Impacts of Climate Change" lead to "Responses to Climate Change". "Responses to Climate Change" either leads back to "Impacts of Climate Change" (labeled as "Adaptation") or it leads to "Causes of Climate Change" (labeled Mitigation). "Causes of Climate Change" leads back to "Climate Change".

Credit: Brent Yarnal © Penn State University is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

This framework shows how people interact with the climate system. Starting on the left-hand side, human activities, such as land clearing and fossil fuel burning, put heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thereby changing the atmosphere’s composition, increasing the so-called greenhouse effect, and warming the near-surface layers of the atmosphere. These human activities are therefore causing climate change (top center), which has many characteristics beyond surface warming, including increased evaporation, changed rainfall quantity, intensity, and location, decreased ice and snow cover, and increased sea level among others. These climate changes have impacts on physical systems, biological systems, and human systems (right-hand side), with most of these impacts being negative. People respond to these impacts in two ways (bottom), either through mitigation or adaptation. Mitigation aims to reduce or eliminate the causes of climate change; adaptation seeks to reduce or eliminate the impacts. Together, the impacts of and responses to climate change make up the total consequences of climate change. We will expand on the human causes and consequences of climate change later in this lesson and later in this course.

The human dimensions of climate change shown interact at all scales of the climate system and human activity. The human causes of climate change result from billions of daily local actions––such as emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel combustion and forestry––that accumulate to cause a change of global climate. This global-scale change plays out differently in different regions, warming most areas while wetting some areas and drying others. These regional climate changes lead to local impacts that have more or less severity depending on the vulnerability of each place’s natural and human systems. Responses vary, too, with local, regional, and global efforts both to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change.

Topics of Study

Course Layout
Unit Components of Unit
Unit 1: Where we are

Lesson 1: The Science of Climate Change

Lesson 2: Emissions by Sector

Lesson 3: Planetary Impacts

Unit 1 Project Writing

Unit 2: Where it's going

Lesson 4: Vulnerability

Lesson 5: Impacts on Places

Lesson 6: Impacts on People

Lesson 7: Sustainability

Unit 2 Project Writing

Unit 3: Where we want to be

Lesson 8: Public Opinion on Climate Change

Lesson 9: Individual Behavior and Collective Action

Lesson 10: Mitigation

Lesson 11: Adaptation

Unit 3 Project Writing

Lesson 12: Storytelling

Back to the Future

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This course is offered as part of the Open Educational Resources initiative of Penn State's John A. Dutton e-Education Institute. You are welcome to use and reuse materials that appear in this site (other than those copyrighted by others) subject to the licensing agreement linked to the bottom of this and every page.

Students who register for this Penn State course gain access to assignments and instructor feedback, and earn academic credit. Information about Penn State's Energy and Sustainability Policy Bachelor's program is available at the ESP Overview Page.