Learning the facts of climate change one step at a time

Climate Change in the Oceans is not only a course offered to undergraduate students at the University of Rhode Island, but it is an issue that everyone should be aware of.

OCG 123 is offered in both the Fall and Spring semester and will be a “Grand Challenge” course next year, according to assistant professor Jaime Palter. Palter, who teaches the class currently, explained that the idea of the course is to build up a scientific understanding behind the current change in climate.

During the first part of the semester, the class focuses specifically on man-made contributions to climate change and the scientific basis for it. The second half of the course focuses on the impacts and implications of climate change in the ocean, including sea level rise and ocean acidification. Mitigation is the final stage of the class, which shows students what is happening on a global level and what people can do individually, in the state, nationally and internationally to prevent emissions of greenhouse gases.

Throughout the first three weeks, Palter teaches students how man-made emissions of greenhouse gases influence our climate, which is something she said she could not distill into a single sentence.

“The public has gotten way ahead of the government on this,” Palter said. She cited a climate survey from Yale University which showed that the vast majority of Americans believe that climate change is happening and mostly caused by humans, a vast scientific consensus.

In terms of climate controversies, Palter said that there are indeed controversies – like the question of whether hurricanes will be more or less frequent and if ocean circulation will slow in a way that changes high-elevated climates. She said that it is no controversy, however, that we’ve experienced global warming in the 20th and 21st centuries – that is just an established fact.

Scientists already know the radiative properties of CO2, the pace at which it is rising in the atmosphere, it’s sources and the fact that they’re man-made, Palter explained. She said now there are questions about the pace of sea level rise, since experts know it will rise a certain amount by the end of the century. Other non-controversial topics that the class discusses are droughts and heat waves. In around 50 to 100 years, the typical “hottest day” of the summer in the Northeast would be an average day all season long, Palter said.

One prevalent part of the course reflects on is the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), which conducts climate conferences. During class, the students do a simulation of the famous Paris Climate Conference. This type of simulation is conducted around the world, so Palter said that once they’ve done it, the students are part of a global conversation. She said each student is assigned to a group of a country or countries and has to negotiate to figure out how fast they’re going to limit their emissions. Then, their negotiated positions are plugged into a real climate change simulation online to show what global average temperatures would be after these changes.

Although many people with some knowledge of climate change join the class, Palter encourages everyone to learn about it, since it’s an issue that is going to affect all of our lives.

“I think it will influence every facet of our lives, from the very most personal decision of where to buy your house to abstractions that have to do with global geopolitics,” Palter said. She explained that when thinking of a house’s mortgage, it’s important to distance yourself a few meters from sea level to be protected from storm surge conditions. Additionally, on a broader scale, climate change can cause mass migration which can lead to ripple effects, she said.

After the class ends, Palter hopes her students gain clarity on climate change and are able to talk about it in a more intelligent way with a solid foundation for an evidence-based argument.

“The biggest challenge of this class is actually figuring out what not to teach, because it’s in the news every day,” Palter said. “I’m never going to get bored with it.”

For more information regarding Oceanography and the courses it offers, visit https://www.gso.uri.edu/