Complexity, climate change and human systems
HCOL 186E SU (3 credits)
Spring 2021 Tuesdays 4:35-7:35 pm (Eastern US) (remote)
Instructor: Brian Beckage (Brian.Beckage@uvm.edu)
Office Hours (remote by appointment)
The Earth is a complex coupled human-natural system that is increasingly
dominated by human activities. We will examine anthropogenic climate
change as part of an integrated earth system that includes impacts on and
feedbacks with human systems. We will consider the challenges and
interactions between climate change and human societies by considering
responses of current and past societies to climate change and
environmental degradation. We will place anthropogenic climate change in
the broader context of limits to growth, sustainability, and societal
development. The class will emphasize readings, discussions, and
construction of simple simulation models to understand the scientific and
social basis of contemporary climate and sustainability. Students will use
the graphical computer programming language Stella to develop a simplified
model of the Earth system.
Class Structure. This class will meet once a week for 3 hours. Each meeting will be divided into
three 50 minute components with
a 10 minute break between components.
- Readings. The first 50 minutes will be a discussion of the readings for that week.
Part of this time will be spent in small groups addressing assigned questions about the readings. We will come back together
as a single large group to share answers to the questions and other thoughts on the readings. This will also
present an opportunity to ask general questions about the readings. This will also provide a review prior to taking a short
quiz on the readings that will be posted in Blackboard at the end of class each week.
- Videos. In the second 50 minute
portion of each class, we will together watch 30 to 40 minutes of a documentary, followed by time for
questions and reaction to the information presented in the video. Each student will address an assigned question in an online
discussion thread outside of class.
- Modeling. In the third 50 minute section of class, students will work on an assigned
exercise to learn system
dynamics approaches to modeling using the graphical programing language Stella.
- To have an understanding of the physical basis of climate change.
- To use this knowledge to contextualize the responses of current and past
societies to climate change and environmental degradation.
- To employ a system dynamics modeling framework to synthesize climate change and resource use
within the limitations of the Earth system
Achieving these goals will require:
- Completion of assigned readings and exercises
- Attendance and participation in classroom discussions
- Research into components of the human and climate systems
- Writing and synthesis of research results
- Familiarity with the computer language Stella.
Student grades will be based on the following four components:
- A research project on some aspect
of the coupled climate and human system. This paper will include
development of and results from a simulation model built in Stella. This
paper and model will be due at the end of the semester. (20% of final grade).
Here is an example of a Stella model,
final paper, and
from previous classes.
- A corresponding class presentation
on your research project during the final week of class. (5%
of final grade)
- In-class evaluations (quizzes) based on assigned readings. These
will be approximately weekly. (35% of final grade).
- Homework assignments. These may be short essays or programming
assignments in Stella. (20% of final grade).
- Student participation in online discussion boards. Students are expected to
fully participate in and contribute to online discussions.
(15% of final grade)
- Student attendance and participation in class discussions and
activities. Students are expected to attend
class and fully participate in
class activities and live discussions. (5% of final grade)
- Assignments that are turned in late will be assessed a 10% penalty for
each day late.
This will be a reading-intensive, seminar-style course consisting of
in-class discussions and activities rather than lectures, and
students are expected to participate actively in class. Students will also
be assigned readings from the following set of books (below) as well as
from the popular press and the scientific literature.
These books will be required for this class and are available in the
- Emanuel, K., 2018. What we know about climate change. MIT Press. ISBN:
- Meadows, D.H., 2008. Thinking in systems: A primer. Chelsea Green
Publishing. ISBN: 9781603580557. Link to book on Amazon.
- Jared M. Diamond. 2011. Collapse : how societies choose to fail or
succeed: Revised edition. Penguin. 608p. ISBN-10: 0143117009; ISBN-13:
- Krauss, Lawrence M. 2021. The Physics of Climate Change. Kindle version available on 26 Jan 2021; hardcopy
available in early Feb.
Link to book on Amazon.
We will also watch a variety of documentaries and other videos inside or
outside of class: These include 1) An
Inconvenient Truth (97 mins), 2)
The Great Global Warming Swindle (74 mins), 3) A
Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash (83 mins) and 4)
Planet of the Humans (100 mins).
We will build system
dynamics models in the graphical programming language Stella created
ISEE Systems. This will require a semester student license for the
Stella software. ISEE Systems has made semester student licenses free this semester because of Covid19. You
should receive an email from ISEE with instructions for accessing Stella.