U offers climate change courses

Seven new grand challenge courses feature an environmental theme this semester.

by Eliana Schreiber

After world leaders vowed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions at the Paris climate talks last December, two professors have teamed up to help clear the air on global climate change at the University of Minnesota.
A new course, Climate Change — Myths, Mysteries and Uncertainties, will teach students to understand the basic science behind climate
change and will explore ways to address issues surrounding the phenomenon.
The course is part of the Grand Challenges Curriculum, an effort by the University to tackle problems with an interdisciplinary approach, said Jennifer Powers, professor of ecology, evolution and behavior and plant biology in the University’s College of Biological Sciences.
Powers said the class was inspired by a soil, water and climate course Professor Timothy Griffis taught, which focused on the physics behind climate change.
Powers and Griffis are co-instructors for the three-credit course, she said.
“We thought that … combining these two perspectives that we each have from our own disciplinary expertise … would be a great fit,” Powers said.
Griffis asked Powers to help incorporate the implications of climate change on humans and ecosystems into the course, she said. 
The first part of the course will prepare students to understand the greenhouse effect from a scientific standpoint and introduce advanced technologies that scientists use to measure climate change, she said.
Once students understand the basic scientific aspects of the course, they will learn about the politics of climate change and how to discuss it with other people, Powers said.
The class parallels the climate meetings in Paris, Institute on the Environment Director Jessica Hellmann said.
Hellmann attended the climate talks in Paris last month, where she gave several presentations on global warming.
“We will never have perfect certainty about how the global climate system works or exactly how much humans influence that,” she said.
“But we’ve got quite a lot of certainty that we do, and we are.”
The science behind global warming cannot directly tell governments how to make decisions, Hellmann said, but it can influence policy.
“The effect that greenhouse gases are changing the planet’s atmosphere is known for more than 100 years, and then only in the last 20, 30 years politicians get on board and really try to change something,” said earth science research associate Stefan Liess. 
Many climate scientists face challenges when talking to the general public, he said, because scientific language is difficult for laypeople to understand, and some are skeptical about the validity of climate change.
Like gravity, climate change is a physical phenomenon, Liess said, so it should be taken just as seriously.
“There’s no belief system if it can happen or not happen because the fact that physics [happens] around us is not something we can change,” Liess said.