These activities in this manual exist to help the reader navigate the complex and perplexing issue of climate change by providing tools and strategies to explore the underlying science. Though originally aimed at undergraduate non-science majors, it has been broadened for a wider audience. Most activities make use of readily available on-line resources developed by research groups and public agencies. These include web-based climate models, climate data archives, interactive atlases, policy papers, and “solution” catalogs. Unlike a standard textbook, it is designed to help readers do their own climate research and devise their own perspective rather than providing them with a script to assimilate and repeat.
Structurally the activity portion of the manual is divided into five sections that include the following.
- Weather and climate basics – These activities focus on the distinction between and relationship of weather and climate, how climate statistics are derived, and which ones are most important for understanding our current climate dilemma. It also delves into what climates zones are all about, how the earth’s climate system works, and how modeling provides information for understanding the climate systems and how they change.
- Present impacts – The activities in this section look at the key changes we are seeing in the weather and climate over the past two centuries.
- Past climate change – These activities look at past climate changes, what drove them, how we derive this information, and how a knowledge of past climate is useful for forecasting and responding to future climate change.
- Future change and impacts – The activities here are a more in-depth look at present climate impacts and what these may look like over the next century.
- Going forward – A final section consisting of activities that focus on strategies for climate mitigation and adaptation.
The activities are followed by three appendices. The first provides information about the on-line tools used in the activities in this manual. The second is a collection of on-line and print resources produced by research groups, government agencies, and community groups involved in climate and sustainability work. The third looks at the history and key players in the international climate negotiation process.
Ours is a time marked by accelerating and increasingly problematic changes in the earth’s climate. Understanding, controlling, and coping with these changes is a critical and defining challenge of our times. While climate change is not the only issue now facing the global community, it is a key issue that underlies and amplifies many other problems. It is one that will likely have grave consequences for the current and future generations if not dealt with now. It is also an issue that is very complex, frequently abstract, and often contentious. As a result, our response to it ranges from anxious concern to adamant denial, with a fair amount of protective indifference, wishful thinking, and cynicism filling the space between. It is also tempting, particularly for scientists, to view it as a purely scientific issue that one can be clinically dispassionate about. However, because of the immediacy and scope of the changes now upon us, such “objectivity” while seemingly comfortable, is a luxury we can no longer afford. Furthermore, the fact that these changes have cultural, economic, and personal repercussions makes professional detachment unrealistic and unethical.
As you navigate the information in these pages, here are some ideas and experiences that may be helpful in coping with the information and implications presented in this manual.
- When the going gets tough turn to wonder – Climate systems and climate change issues are often complex and sometimes rather abstract. It is tempting to retreat when the science or the issues seem cryptic. However, a certain amount of curiosity can be an immensely valuable tool to help you decode and appreciate what at first feels insurmountable. It also provides a much-needed counterbalance to some of the more depressing facets of our current climate dilemma.
- While uncertainty can be discomforting, it also opens up new possibilities – Every human enterprise comes with a degree of uncertainty. It is tempting to react with fear and paralysis when faced with ambiguity and risk. However, uncertainty drives scientific inquiry and a great many other endeavors. It also requires us to devise new approaches to old problems, which can provide abundant opportunities to be creative.
- Responding to our climate dilemma doesn’t come with a script – The fact that our current situation has few (if any) parallels in human history means that we as a species are experiencing something new. Consequently, we have to create solutions that are different from anything we have created in the past. While this can be unsettling, it is important to remember that inventing new strategies are something that we humans have done more than once during our brief history.
- The most effective response to our current situation is not to wait for “leaders” to fix the problem for us, but to discover what each of us can do in conjunction with other people – Over the past two years my wife and I had the privilege of attending two major UN climate conferences in Europe. These followed in the wake of COP21, the 2015 conference in Paris France. COP21 resulted in an unprecidented commitment by nearly all the countries of the planet to keep the rise in global temperature at the end of the 21st century to no more than 2.0°C .
The two follow-up meetings that we attended (COPs 23 and 24) were intended to develop a framework by which the signatories were to act on the commitments they brought to the table in Paris. Unfortunately, as governments changed and global emissions continued to rise, the promise of the Paris agreement seemed to fade. International negotiations be agonizing slow, messy, and unproductive.
However, one thing we learned from the rich tapestry of the civil society events that accompanied these meetings is that even as the negotiators became mired in conflict, there were a host of new players stepping up to take on the mantle of leadership. These are representatives from a variety of community groups, indigenous communities, local governments, and companies busy devising and following through on a wide range of creative and effective strategies. Some unlikely alliances to these efforts highlighted new recognitions that we are increasingly in a situation that requires “all hands and minds on deck”. It seems a hopeful sign that the difficulties with our current response can be overcome and that impossible things are indeed possible.
 More accurately the collective commitment was to keep the rise in average annual global temperature to no more to 2.0°C with a strong effort being made to stay as close to 1.5°C as is possible. This rise is calculated using the preindustrial (1850s) average as a baseline. More about this in the present impacts activities.