Earth's Changing Climate

Course No. 1219
Professor Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
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Course No. 1219
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  • You should buy audio if you would enjoy the convenience of experiencing this course while driving, exercising, etc. While the video does contain visual elements, the professor presents the material in an engaging and clear manner, so the visuals are not necessary to understand the concepts. Additionally, the audio audience may refer to the accompanying course guidebook for names, works, and examples that are cited throughout the course.
  • You should buy video if you prefer learning visually and wish to take advantage of the visual elements featured in this course. The video version is not heavily illustrated, featuring around 100 graphs, diagrams and images. Diagrams featured in this course include those that easily explain fundamental geological processes including the carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect. Graphs include those that explain the average rise in global temperature throughout history and predict future trends. And images help you connect with the numerous aspects of our planet's climate, including hurricanes, volcanoes, and ice ages.
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Course Overview

In 2007 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that "warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level." Representing a consensus of hundreds of scientists, the report went on to note that human activity is "very likely" the cause.

This course of 12 half-hour lectures reviews the most up-to-date research on climate change, explaining the concepts, tools, data, and analysis that have led an overwhelming number of climate scientists to conclude that Earth is warming and that we humans are in great part responsible.

Behind the Consensus

Whatever your views on climate change, it's important to understand how the current scientific consensus on global warming evolved out of basic physical principles and a broad range of observations. In a lucid presentation designed for nonscientists, you will learn about:

  • The difference between climate and weather
  • The concept of energy balance, which governs the natural warming of the planet by the Sun and is the key to a stable climate
  • The greenhouse effect, which makes Earth warmer and more hospitable than it would otherwise be due to naturally occurring gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide and water vapor
  • The carbon cycle, which controls the rate at which carbon dioxide released by fossil-fuel combustion accumulates in the atmosphere, and how long it remains to enhance the natural greenhouse effect.

Along with these and other concepts, you will investigate the "fingerprints" of global climate change, ranging from borehole temperatures to melting glaciers to the altered behavior of plant and animal species. These and other indicators show that Earth has been warming at an unprecedented rate in recent decades.

You will also explore the physical mechanisms behind these changes and their connections to the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere since the start of the Industrial Revolution. And you will look at the techniques for projecting future climates, along with the options for switching to alternative energy technologies to avoid the most disruptive scenarios that now seem possible.

Your Personal Scientific Briefing

Earth's Changing Climate addresses only scientific issues and makes no policy recommendations. Instead, this course is designed to serve as your personal scientific briefing to equip you to engage knowledgeably in one of the most important environmental issues of our time. In Lectures 1–6 you will focus on the scientific basis of climate; then in Lectures 7–12 you will come to understand the human role in climate change and explore projections of future climate.

Professor Richard Wolfson is no stranger to this subject. A physicist who has written and taught extensively about climate change, in 1996 he taped an earlier course for The Teaching Company titled, Energy and Climate: Science for Citizens in the Age of Global Warming. Professor Wolfson's new course is completely updated and represents the latest research and analysis in this fast-changing field.

A master at making difficult concepts understandable, Dr. Wolfson's other Teaching Company courses are Physics in Your Life, hailed by Library Journal as "a wonderful series of lectures that make learning physics fun and interesting," and Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution, which one listener said was "as exciting as a suspense thriller!"

In Earth's Changing Climate, Dr. Wolfson brings these educational gifts to bear on a subject that, at times, can be complex and controversial. You will find his presentation clear, objective, engaging, and illustrated with fascinating examples and analogies.

The Evidence Mounts

Like many scientific problems, the gradual assembly of a detailed picture of past, present, and future climates has involved creative detective work. For example, scientists traditionally test their theories by changing different variables, but this has not been possible with theories about climate change on Earth for two reasons: It's unwise to transform the planet just to see what will happen, and there are not multiple Earths to serve as test subjects.

However, researchers have identified cases where nature has done the experiments for us:

  • Mars: Mars's atmosphere has only about 1 percent the density of Earth's and provides a test for the theory of the greenhouse effect—in this case, for a planet with a thin atmosphere. As theory predicts, Mars has negligible greenhouse warming.
  • Venus: Venus's atmosphere has 100 times the density of Earth's and is about 96 percent carbon dioxide. Here, the greenhouse effect has struck with a vengeance—just as theory forecasts—driving temperatures to 500°C, hot enough to melt lead.
  • Mt. Pinatubo: The eruption of the volcano Mt. Pinatubo in 1991 poured massive amounts of dust into the upper atmosphere and allowed scientists to test their climate models. The fall in average global temperature over the following few years was in close agreement with what the models predicted.
  • Ice Cores: Deep ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica preserve a nearly million-year-old record of Earth's past temperature and atmospheric composition, showing a correlation between temperature and carbon dioxide concentration.

Using such clues, scientists are able to connect the 0.65°C rise in average global temperature since the start of the 20th century with the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the same period. Looking ahead, they project a global temperature rise in the range of 1.5°C to 4.5°C during the 21st century, depending on the extent of worldwide economic growth and the rate of fossil fuel consumption.

An increase of a few degrees may not seem serious, but Professor Wolfson stresses that this is a global average. The rise will be more substantial in certain areas—particularly in the polar regions and over almost all land. He further notes that about 6°C separates the present-day climate from the depths of an ice age. Thus, an increase of a few degrees in global temperature is climatologically significant and may lead to many more extreme events, such as heat waves, intense precipitation, droughts, and intense tropical storms. At the same time, the sea level will be rising due to the thermal expansion of the oceans and the melting of land-based glaciers and ice sheets.

Over the longer term, a cause for worry is "surprise" events that could be initiated by as-yet poorly understood processes. These include the sudden slipping of a large land-based ice sheet into the sea with a resulting surge in sea level, or a major upset in patterns of ocean circulation.

As the evidence mounts, scientists will continue to refine their picture of what the climate is doing and where it is heading, and society will continue to grapple with this problem. You can begin to address it yourself—intelligently and prudently—by investing six stimulating and rewarding hours with this course.

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12 lectures
 |  30 minutes each
  • 1
    Is Earth Warming?
    The course begins with a look at Earth's average temperature over the past century and a half, which shows an overall warming trend. How do scientists take Earth's temperature, and how do they interpret the pattern of variation? x
  • 2
    Butterflies, Glaciers, and Hurricanes
    This lecture looks at more subtle indicators of climate change and shows how statistical analysis reveals clear "fingerprints" of change on a host of natural systems. x
  • 3
    Ice Ages and Beyond
    Thermometer-based temperature rec­ords go back only 150 years. This lecture explores techniques that scientists use to push the global temperature record back millions, even billions of years. x
  • 4
    In the Greenhouse
    Stable climate entails a balance between incoming sunlight and outgoing infrared radiation. Infrared-absorbing greenhouse gases in a planet's atmosphere alter the details of this balance, causing the planet's surface to warm. x
  • 5
    A Tale of Three Planets
    How do we know that greenhouse gases such as water vapor and carbon dioxide are associated with the warming of Earth's surface? Nature provides a climate "experiment" on neighbor planets Venus and Mars. x
  • 6
    Global Recycling
    Cycling of materials plays a role in climate, with the most important cycles being those of water and carbon. Carbon added to the system stays for centuries to millennia and adds to the atmospheric carbon content, enhancing the greenhouse effect. x
  • 7
    The Human Factor
    Fossil fuel burning by humans has in­creased the concentration of carbon di­ox­ide in the atmosphere by nearly 40 per­cent since the start of the Industrial Revolution—to levels the planet has not seen in at least a million years. x
  • 8
    Computing the Future
    Climate models are mathematical descriptions, exploring how climate be­haves in response to human-induced changes and natural factors. Most models pro­ject a global temperature rise of several de­grees Celsius over the next century. x
  • 9
    Impacts of Climate Change
    A temperature rise of only a few degrees will have significant effects. The rise will be more substantial particularly in the polar regions and over almost all land. x
  • 10
    Energy and Climate
    Energy use is the dominant reason for our increasing influence on Earth's climate. Per capita energy consumption in the United States is more than 100 times our own bodies' energy output, meaning that we have the equivalent of about 100 "energy servants" each. x
  • 11
    Energy—Resources and Alternatives
    The fossil fuels that supply most of the world's energy have many deleterious environmental impacts, one of which is the emission of climate-changing greenhouse gases. This lecture surveys alternative energy resources. x
  • 12
    Sustainable Futures?
    Avoiding disruptive climate change in the future probably means keeping atmospheric carbon dioxide to at most a doubling of its preindustrial level. This final lecture discusses several possible paths to a stable climate. x

Lecture Titles

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What's Included

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Audio Download Includes:
  • Ability to download 12 audio lectures from your digital library
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps
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DVD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 2 DVDs
  • 88-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
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CD Includes:
  • 12 lectures on 6 CDs
  • 88-page printed course guidebook
  • Downloadable PDF of the course guidebook
  • FREE audio streaming of the course from our website and mobile apps

What Does The Course Guidebook Include?

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Course Guidebook Details:
  • 88-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
  • Figures & data sources

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Your professor

Richard Wolfson

About Your Professor

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
Dr. Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program. He completed his undergraduate work at MIT and Swarthmore College, graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Physics and Philosophy. He holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Physics from...
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Reviews

Earth's Changing Climate is rated 4.3 out of 5 by 89.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Global warming is a fact Typical of Professor Wolfson, this is a great course. I have read both of Al Gore’s books on global warming and neither book makes as convincing an argument as Professor Wolfson does in his course. The reason for this is that while former VP Gore is highly intelligent and articulate, he is not a scientist. Al Gore throws a massive amount of statistics at the reader as does Professor Wolfson. The difference is that Professor Wolfson is a scientist and he explains why and how the stats are gathered and what they mean in scientific terms. His argument that global warming is at least partly caused by human activity is more than compelling. It is irrefutable. If anyone knows a climate change doubter do the world a favor, buy this course and give it that person. I do have one complaint about this and every other course taught by Prof. Wolfson. Prof. Wolfson is a speed talker. In other words he talks too fast. I often find it necessary to listen to a particular lecture more than once to get everything. Of course this is worthwhile since Prof. Wolfson has so much information to convey. He does this in understandable terms but I wish I was a faster listener. Perhaps the problem may be that he doesn’t waste words or give dramatic pauses. This makes his courses more dense in a good way, more info per minute. All his courses are well worth the time to digest the info he puts into his courses.
Date published: 2018-05-10
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Solid, easy-to-understand presentation, but dated This course does an excellent job building an air-tight case for global warming and climate change. Dr. Wolfson has a low-key, non-alarmist presentation that rarely strays from scientific fact to such dicey matters as climate policy. On the other hand, the course is 10 years old and needs updating. Since cruise ships now navigate the north polar sea and methane gas is percolating up from the Siberian permafrost, I fear that we may already be at (or past) the “tipping point” at which bad things start to snowball. I suggest that Dr. Wolfson revise his worst-case scenarios to factor in the effect of methane. I realize that this complicates his models, but there is fossil evidence that points to methane gas emissions from melting permafrost as the culprit in major climate changes, including the Permian mass extinction, or Great Dying. See “Methane Hydrate: Killer cause of Earth’s greatest mass extinction” in Paleoworld 25 (2016). In summary, the course could easily double in size just to keep pace with unfolding events. Earth’s climate is changing more rapidly than man’s ability, or willingness, to adapt to it. We can’t get the facts out fast enough. I will definitely buy this course again if he updates it.
Date published: 2018-04-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from earth's changing climate This is an excellent and gripping account of the physics involved in global warming. it is very timely , particularly when there are interests and politicians denying the impact of what is happening. I have recommended it to friends and to grandchildren who are starting to study physics.
Date published: 2018-03-11
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Good Source of Climate Change Education Regardless of what is believed prior to using this course the information presented is insightful, and well presented. The course was created about 10 years ago (I believe, which affected my Content rating...), and it was enlightening to mentally insert current information while viewing. And considering the current price this course is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn some fundamentals of the ongoing climate change discussion. I would be interested in an update to this course.
Date published: 2018-01-14
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Insightful presentation Prof. Wolfson's presentation helped me appreciate the problem more clearly than anything I had previously had read or seen. He has a a thorough understanding of the science, and a great gift in his ability to convey that appreciation.
Date published: 2018-01-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Enlightened As someone who knows the very basics of the climate, I thoroughly enjoyed delving deeper into the subject. The content was explained in a way that even I could understand and I have come away much more enlightened. The professor was excited about the subject and had mounds of knowledge concerning how the climate worked down to the smallest detail. He did, however, repeat a lot of hum's and ahh's but it seemed to slow his speech to the right speed. Overall I would recommend this course if you would like to know the specifics of climate change.
Date published: 2017-12-16
Rated 5 out of 5 by from An important course for a well informed citizenry With so much misinformation and outright denial circulating about climate change, this course should be "required reading" not only for policy makers but for anyone interested in sorting the facts from the fiction in the current public fora. The lecture style is very engaging, and the material is wide-ranging, well organized, and clearly presented. Climate change is now and will remain an important, complex scientific and public policy issue. I am not an expert in this field, but since I am a scientist myself I am often asked about it when it comes up in informal discussion. This course gave me a much deeper understanding of the issues and an ability to better explain what is known and not known.
Date published: 2017-12-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent Course by an Excellent Professor As a hydrogeologist, I thought I had a handle on climate change through casual reading. How wrong I was. This course thrust my awareness of climate science and its many tools into the stratosphere. I highly recommend this course for anyone who wants verification of his/her beliefs... or is engaged in debate with a conservative flat-earth believer who is attached to ideology rather than actual science.
Date published: 2017-10-21
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