High school and middle school students.
After completing this unit, users will be able to:
- Make connections between people’s behavior and resulting greenhouse gas emissions.
- Apply their knowledge of geography to identify a place in the world their role play character would live and describe the geographic and cultural characteristics of this region.
- Correlate cultural and geographic differences in lifestyle to the resulting climate change impact.
- Analyze graphs and contour plots to interpret historical and predicted spatial and temporal differences in temperature.
- Utilize web-based modeling resources to acquire selected climate indicator data for interpretation (HS students only).
- Communicate their findings orally using appropriate climate change and geography vocabulary.
This unit helps students to understand cultural and geographic differences in human lifestyles, and how those differences – if manifested globally – will greatly affect the extent of climate changes during the 21st century. Each student considers his or her own lifestyle in comparison with a role play character, who could be from the U.S. or from a distant country. By exploring details of the role play character’s life, the students begin to appreciate how diverse human lifestyles are across the globe due to both geographic and cultural variations. .
Students use a variety of web based data and modeling tools, including a personal ecological footprint calculator, historical temperature data for their home and another region of the world, results of IPCC global circulation models and Google Earth. The combination of activities provides an interdisciplinary approach to couple the human dimension, geography and earth science concepts into an overall appreciation for the anthropogenic role in climate change.
Key Concepts and Vocabulary
Carbon calculator: A tool to help individuals or organizations track carbon emissions. A carbon calculator determines primary carbon footprints, through calculations based on factors such as fuel bills and annual travel patterns.
Carbon dioxide equivalents: The internationally recognized way of expressing the amount of global warming of a particular greenhouse gas in terms of the amount of CO2 required to achieve the same warming effect over a specified period. The 100 year factors are typically used.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: Emissions (mass per year) of various gases to the atmosphere that contribute to the greenhouse effect. Primary GHGs of concern include CO2, N2O, CH4 and others.
Carbon dioxide concentrations: Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 molecules are fairly consistent around the globe. There is a long term record of these concentrations recorded at the NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. These reported concentrations are typically used.
Temperature anomaly: The difference in temperature between a baseline period of time and a future period of time. Anomalies are often reported rather than actual temperature values because they can be averaged and compared regionally because they reduce geographic variability in actual temperatures. A global average temperature anomaly requires that the anomaly be determined at various points around the world and then averaged. The baseline used to define the temperature anomaly is not standardized and therefore using temperature anomaly data should be done with care. Some researchers use preindustrial temperatures, others use the 20th century average, or late 20thcentury average (e.g., 1980-1999).
Global average annual temperature: The global average annual temperature is a spatially averaged value of the annual average near-surface air temperature at various points around the globe. Because these data are sparse in some areas (over oceans), a lot of mathematical manipulation and interpretation of the data are required. Between 1961 and 1990, the annual average temperature for the globe was around 57.2°F (14.0°C), according to the World Meteorological Organization. In 2010, the global temperature was about 0.95°F (0.53°C) above that long-term average.
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is a scientific intergovernmental body tasked with reviewing and assessing the most recent scientific, technical and socio-economic information relevant to the understanding of climate change. The IPCC bases its assessment mainly on peer reviewed and published scientific literature, it does not carry out its own original research, nor does it do the work of monitoring climate or related phenomena itself. The panel was first established in 1988. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President of the United States Al Gore.
Special Report on Emissions Scenarios (SRES): The SRES was prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and published in 2000. The report reviews various future worlds – the economy, technology, environmental perspectives, globalization and population growth to estimate how our world will change over the 21stcentury. The outcome of these estimates is a range of projections of greenhouse gas emissions for the same period. The emissions scenarios described in the Report have been used as input values to global climate models to make projections of possible future climate change.
Global circulation models (GCM): A GCM is a numerical model representing physical processes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and land surface for simulating the response of the global climate system to increasing greenhouse gas concentrations. GCM is also sometimes referred to as a “Global climate model”, but in reality, they simulate more earth system processes than just climate. GCMs depict the climate using a three dimensional grid over the globe, typically having a horizontal resolution of between 250 and 600 km, 10 to 20 vertical layers in the atmosphere and sometimes as many as 30 layers in the oceans. Their resolution is thus quite coarse relative to the scale of exposure units in most impact assessments. The coarse grid and how the various earth system processes are mathematically described contribute to some of the uncertainties and differences among the various GCMs developed to date.
In order to simulate the earth’s climate, global circulation models (GCMs) must incorporate a projection of the greenhouse gases (GHGs) that will be emitted over the simulated time period. Estimating these emissions requires that human behavior, trends in economic growth and policy changes be integrated into the model. But this is not easy! By 2100, the world will have changed in ways that are difficult to imagine; as difficult as it was at the end of the 19th century to imagine the technology and social changes of the 20th century.
The SRES (Special Report on Emissions Scenarios) scenarios were developed by the IPCC (2000) to provide best guesses of GHG emission scenarios based on the possible ways our population, economy and energy, agricultural and industrial sectors will develop through the course of the 21st century. Writers of the SRES developed several different “storylines” ranging from business as usual to radical changes in our use of fossil fuel and other GHG emitting processes. The storylines were then used to estimate the associated GHG emissions for each scenario.
The story lines recognize that there are currently vast differences in the per capita emissions of greenhouse gases across the globe. These differences stem from affluence and consumption of material goods, variable diets among cultures, and variable heating and cooling needs in different geographic regions.
In the United States for example, we have approximately 5% of the world’s population, but generate around 20% of the world’s GHGs (Table 1). On average, each person in the U.S. consumes a large amount of energy and material goods, ranking it high (7th) among the countries in terms of per capita emissions. The oil rich countries of the Middle East are the highest per capita emitters of GHGs, and the poorest nations of the developing world are by far the lowest per capita emitters of GHGs. In Ethiopia, for example, people only emit 0.1 MtCO2e /person/y (million metric tons of CO2 equivalents per person per year) in comparison to nearly 20 MtCO2e /person/y in the United States.
Table 1: 2007 GHG emissions (excluding land use changes) from various countries in the world*
Total GHG Emissions
GHG emissions per capita
% of World Emissions
United States of America
United Arab Emirates
The key point is
The choices “we” make today will determine our emissions in the future,
and the emissions determine how much climate change will occur.
The “we” is in quotations because that can be interpreted at many levels in this statement, ranging from the individual, to a community, a nation or the entire world.
The IPCC SRES storylines recognize some of these differences around the world. Some of their storylines assume that we take a local or regional approach to reducing GHGs, others assume that there is a global effort that results in shared alternative energy and energy efficient technologies among all countries. Differences in this regional vs. global approach, as well as more economically vs. environmentally driven changes are illustrated in Figure 1. There are four primary storylines, with some specific different scenarios embedded. For example, the A1 storyline (global, economically focused approach) can be achieved either by sticking with a fossil fuel-intensive future (A1FI), or one focused more on a rapid increase in technologies for energy efficiency and alternative energy sources (A1T).
The 2007 IPCC report includes predictions of future carbon dioxide emissions, atmospheric concentrations and resulting temperature anomalies for each of the SRES scenarios. As shown in Figure 2, the globally oriented scenarios (A1T, B1) result in the lowest future emissions. In contrast, much higher GHG emissions continue to be expected for regional approaches (A2, B2) or a fossil fuel intensive future (A1FI). Given the possible range of future scenarios, the global average annual surface temperatures could rise by 0.6 – 4 °C by the end of the 21st century (Table 2). In some locations, however, the temperature changes will be much more severe. For example, under the A1FI scenario, temperatures could rise more than 6 °C in the Arctic region by 2100 (IPCC, 2007).
Temperature change (°C)
Constant year 2000 GHG conc.
IPCC, 2000. Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, N. Nakicenovic and R. Swart (Eds.), Cambridge University Press, UK. pp 570. (http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/sres/emission/index.php?idp=0 )
IPCC, 2007. Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report (http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/main.html )
CDIAC - Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (http://cdiac.ornl.gov/ )
(Note – carbon dioxide emission data on this web site are expressed as mass of carbon rather than mass of carbon dioxide emissions. To convert, multiply emission values in units of mass of carbon by 44/12 (gCO2/g C).
This unit has multiple parts that are best done with small groups (3-4) of students working in support of each other as they explore the activities and share their findings. Each of the students will evaluate their own potential impacts as well as those of one other persona through a role play activity (Figure 3). The outcome of this activity is the identification of the expected future GHG emission scenario and analysis of GCM model results to quantify the expected global distribution of temperature anomalies in the year 2100.
Anticipatory Set – Assuming students have already been introduced to the general climate change vocabulary (e.g., GHGs, GHG emissions, Carbon footprint), begin the unit by having students explore what choices they would make for their own lives (game board, option cards) and use the ecological footprint calculator to explore how many earth’s it would take them to live. If time permits, allow them to select a second location to repeat the footprint analysis. After having students share their findings, the following should be apparent:
- It takes a lot of resources (“earths”) to maintain a typical lifestyle in the U.S., but it takes a lot less resources in other parts of the world. Discuss some of the cultural and geographic factors contribute to these differences.
- Lead to the purpose of this exercise – “we want to explore these differences among cultures and society attitudes and behaviors to see how our climate might change by the year 2100 if more of the world’s populations adopted our culture or the culture of the person you become in the role play activity.”
- Have the students open the Student Summary Worksheet to guide them through the procedure, link to files and record their results.
- Establish context and relevance for the students by completing the game sheet (pp. 6-7 of the summary worksheet) and ecological footprint calculator for the students’ lifestyles. (some lecture needed on the ecological footprint concept) (1-2 class periods). These results and others are entered into the Student Summary Worksheet.
- Explore the characters in the role play activity and personal choices game sheet activity to describe lifestyle characteristics and home location. (1 class period)
- Use the NASA GISS Surface Temperature database to find and graph the historical temperatures in the region of the role play character and the student’s home. Interpret the graphs to assess if there have already been significant temperature changes. See the tutorial for this resource for more details. (1 class period)
- Using personal choices game sheet results and point system, correlate lifestyle characteristics with a particular SRES scenario (some intro lecture on SRES scenarios and how they were developed and used required – alternatively, this can be presented to younger students as low, medium and high emission scenarios) (1 class period)
- Model the resulting temperature anomalies for the year 2100 (1 class period)
- Middle school students – review printed color contour map results of DT values to estimate temperature changes in their geographic region of interest under both GHG emission scenarios (related to the student’s life and his/her character’s). Note – it can be difficult to interpret the scale of temperature changes from a global map. The teacher can use the IPCC DDC modeling tool to provide zoomed in version for some geographic regions of interest
- High school students can use the IPCC DDC website to access GCM model results directly. They will have more flexibility in focusing on a particular geographic region with their direct use of this resource. See the IPCC DDC tutorial for specific instructions.
- Findings are entered into a Google Earth shared file to illustrate the possible futures (1-2 class periods – depending on prior experiences with Google Earth). Consider showing the video of possible geographic and time dependent changes in temperature for two different scenarios, to help illustrate geographic and emission scenario differences (Comparison animation of A1B scenario to an emissions reduction scenario) – VERY good visual showing the difference our emissions make).
- Students prepare and present their persona in a short presentation on their lifestyle, SRES scenario, and historical and predicted DT for their geographic region of interest. (2 class periods – depending on # students in the class)
Closure – Make sure students understand that there is a wide range of possible future climates – but the critical elements are human behavior and the different countries’ approaches to reducing their GHG emissions.
- Are there geographic differences in terms of what regions will be more impacted by changing temperatures? Which regions are you more or less concerned about.
- Which one (SRES scenario OR low, medium, high) do you think is best? Why?
- What can you do in your own life to make this scenario happen?
- What might our country do to move towards the best scenario?
This investigation could be done in combination with a geography unit, especially if some characters were modified for a better fit with a particular region of the world the students are studying.
Data graphing, graph interpretation, temperature unit conversions could all be integrated with mathematics class and instruction needs.
The following New York State and National Science Education Standards are supported by this chapter:
(example) 8ASI1.3 Use appropriate tools and techniques to gather, analyze, and interpret data. The use of tools and techniques, including mathematics, will be guided by the question asked and the investigations students design. The use of computers for the collection, summary, and display of evidence is part of this standard. Students should be able to access, gather, store, retrieve, and organize data, using hardware and software designed for these purposes.
National Geography Standards
- How to Use Maps and Other Geographic Representations, Tools, and Technologies to Acquire, Process, and Report Information from a Spatial Perspective.
- How to Analyze the Spatial Organization of People, Places, and Environments on Earth’s Surface
- The Physical and Human Characteristics of Places
- The Characteristics and Spatial Distribution of Ecosystems on Earth’s Surface
A rubric for the middle school version of this unit is included below.
Climate Connections Rubric
Other Resources and Files
Additional Resource Links – Modeling and Climate Change Predictions
- DChart – another GUI that allows access to results of GCM simulations. More options for variables, but not as intuitive or user friendly. http://dapper.pmel.noaa.gov/dchart/
- How global climate models work (Great Intro for AOGCM lecture!)
- AOGCM simulation from 1900-2100 of temperature anomalies
- A1B projection of changing temperature anomalies to 2100
- Comparison animation of A1B scenario to 2100 and E1 (emissions reduction) – VERY good visual showing difference our emissions make
- NSF/DOE climate change simulation, 1890 to 2100 with volcanic eruptions labeled on bottom
- National Geographic prediction of effects of 6 degrees of warming
- National Geographic prediction of effects of 5 degrees of warming
- National Geographic prediction of effects of 4 degrees of warming
- National Geographic prediction of effects of 3 degrees of warming
- National Geographic prediction of effects of 2 degrees of warming
- National Geographic prediction of effects of 1 degree of warming