Complexity, climate change and human systems
HCOL 185 (3 credits)

Fall 2012 Tuesday / Thursday 1:00-2:15 (Jeffords 326)
Instructor: Brian Beckage (
Office Hours (Jeffords 345): Tuesday 11:30-12:30 pm;

Thursday 2:30-3:30 pm

Course Description

The earth is a complex coupled human-natural system that is increasingly dominated by human activities. We will examine the nature of global climate change including its causes, mechanisms, and ecological and societal impacts. The course will emphasize climate change as part of an integrated earth system that also includes social, economic and ecological systems. Studnts will gain a broad perspective on the challenges that climate change presents to human systems by considering responses of current and past societies to climate change and environmental degradation. The class will emphasize readings, discussions, and simulation modeling to understand the scientific and social basis of contemporary climate and environmental change. The central objective of the course will be to develop an intergrated conceptual model of the earth sytem as a coupled natural and human system.

This will be a 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 books below, from the popular press, and from the scientific literature.


These books will be availabe in the university bookstore.


Student grades will be based on the following components:

  1. A research paper on some topic relevant to the class that will be due during the exam period at the end of the semester (Final paper: 20 %). Student will form small teams that will research topics central to the class. The teams will divide up the research topic into appropriate subcomponents with each student submitting a individual paper on a subtopic at the end of the semester.
  2. A corresponding presentation on this same research topic will be given on the last class in the semester (10 %). Students will make this presentation jointly. The presentation should be in an electronic format (i.e., powerpoint, keynote, or similar presentation software).
  3. Homework (HW) will be assigned periodically during the semester (20 %). HWs will be done primarily outside of class. The date that HW appears in the schedule is the date that it is due.
  4. Weekly in-class evaluation (ICE) or out of class evaluations (OCE) usually based on assigned reading material. This could be an essay, written answers to questions, or a quiz. When completing OCEs, students may use their textbooks, but must complete these assingments individually without conferring or discussing the questions with others (40 %).
  5. Student attendance and participation in class activities (10 %). Students are expected to attend class and fully participate in class activities and discussions.

Research report
Research presentation





Check for weekly updates as the schedule will be adjusted according to progress and assigned papers will posted a week ahead of time. This will allow the class to be adaptive and explore topics that arise through discussions and preceding readings.

Note that in the schedule below book readings are annotated as follows: E (All)~the entire Emanuel book, D1~Diamond 2005 chapter 1, S1~Schmidt and Wolfe 2011 Chapter 1, etc. Book chapters and other assigned readings should be completed by the date on which they appear in the schedule below.

Week Date   Assignments Book chapters Notes/Activites Additional assigned readings
1 Aug 28 Introduction  
TedX: Hansen 2012
    30   E (1-3)
Reading 1: NY Times coverage
Reading 2: Blog 
Reading 3: Hansen et al. 2012  

2 Sep 4 ICE on E (1-7) E (4-7)
    6   D prologue, D1
Reading 1: 100 year forecast 
Reading 2: Long history of drought 
Reading 3: Schwalm et al. 2012
3   11 HW (Research proposal) S1 TedX: Climate change is simple Prof. Beckage will be at Sandia National Lab. Dr. Gabriela Bucini will teach the class.
    13 ICE (S1, D prologue,D1, D2) D2  
4   18


S2 Lecture slides Reading 1: Commentary Reading 2: Shindell 2012
    20 ICE (S2, D3) D3  
5   25   S3 TedX Talk: Trial and error Reading 1: Complex Systems Overview Reading 2: Complex Systems: Difficulty of Prediction
    27 ICE (S3, D4) D4    
6 Oct 2   S4 Reading 1: Global Warming's Terrifying New Math
    4 ICE (S4, D5) D5    
7   9   S5 Lecture slides
    11 ICE (S5, D6) D6 Documentary: A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash  
8   16   S6 Documentary: A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash  
    18 OCE (S6, D7) D7    
9   23 S7 S7 disucssion then class time to work on climate debate  
    25 OCE (S7, D8); OCE_as_pdf D8    
10 30 HW; Research project draft S8 S8 discussion then class time to work on climate debate  
Nov 01   D9    
11   6   S9 Climate change debate  
    8 HW (Climate change debate) D10    
12   13   S10 + Final note    
    15   D11 Climate change adaptation meeting  
    20 Thanksgiving      
    22 Thanksgiving      
13   27   D12-14 Climate change negotiations exercise  
    29   D15 Climate change negotiations exercise  
14 Dec 4 OCE D16 Research presentations  
15 Dec 14 Final paper due   Final research paper due by 5 pm