Human Dimensions of Global Warming

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Brandi Robinson
Assistant 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.  

images depicting the human causes, impacts, and solutions of climate change
The totality of human dimensions of climate change
Click link to expand for a text description

This image shows three circles.  The 'causes' circle shows smoke stacks billowing into a dusky sky.  The 'impacts' circle shows sea waters encroaching on vacation homes.  The 'solutions' circle shows solar panels in the sunshine.

  • Unit 1 will be spent entirely on the causes of climate change. We certainly can't expect to counteract it effectively if we don't understand what caused it in the first place.  Spoiler alert:  it's us and virtually everything we do.  
  • Unit 2 will show us how that changing climate is manifesting in ways that have impacts. I'll tell you at the beginning of Unit 2 that 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.  
  • Unit 3 will give us a path forward to fix this problem by exploring solutions.  Chances are, after we get through units 1 and 2, you might feel a bit hopeless about the situation.  It can be overwhelming. Do not despair!  We're going to finish the semester off on a positive note because there's a lot we can do to avert the worst of the climate crisis.  Is it a big mess?  Yes.  Have we really started to try to clean it up yet?  Not enough.  BUT - we can get there.  Unit 3 will show us how.

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. Used with Permission.

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: Causes  Lesson 1: Human Dimensions of Climate Change Lesson 2: Emissions Lesson 3: Vulnerability Exam 1 (Lessons 1-3)
Unit 2: Impacts  Lesson 4: Impacts on Us:  human health and our food and water Lesson 5: Impacts on Earth: climate and weather Lesson 6:  Impacts on Places: the built environment and our coasts Exam 2 (Lessons 4 - 6)
Unit 3: Solutions Lesson 7:  Mitigation Lesson 8: Adaptation Lesson 10: Sustainable Development Exam 3 (Lessons 7 - 9)
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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.