New Online Course Explores Global Climate Change

By Maia Livengood
Photos by Imani Nia Rutledge

October 2, 2010 — Since the beginning of the BP Gulf Oil Leak in April 2010, fossil fuels, global warming, and the political dynamics affecting these issues have once again been headlining newspapers, network newscasts, and blogs. But the catastrophe has been effective in reopening the dialogue on how to address energy needs, the parameters under which we currently (and potentially could) procure the necessary resources, and the effects of acquisition.

Dr. Robert Brulle, professor of sociology and environmental science, discussed this trend towards event-driven conversation catalysts:

“In the U.S, there have been a number of significant environmental incidents that led to rapid changes in environmental policy, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents, and the Love Canal Toxic Waste site incident. These events are known as focusing events; they are large disasters that change the importance of issues by illustrating large policy failures and the need for real change. They draw attention to an issue, and open up a window of opportunity in which political actors can mobilize for new policy directions.”

Drs. Brulle and Kilham

Brulle, along with Dr. Susan Kilham, professor of biology, explore those issues in their fall quarter course, “Global Climate Change” (ENVS-480/SOC-380). The pair has collaborated on research and teaching efforts since receiving an NFS grant in 2000 to conduct environmental research. While Kilham has a strong background in the physical sciences, Brulle’s area of expertise lies in sociology—a perfect combination for examining the multifaceted nature of global climate change.

This new course is the outgrowth of two Great Works symposiums, “A Sustainable Earth” and “Global Climate Change,” as well as a special topics course, all of which were developed by Brulle and Kilham. In addition to the special topics course, the pair felt there was a need for a regularly scheduled course offering that would enable students to build upon previous coursework.

Having gone through three previous iterations of this course, Brulle and Kilham have a firm grasp on the topics they will need to address. At the core of the course are reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. These are extensive reports that cover several key issues such as the science of climate change; impacts of climate change on human and natural systems; mechanisms and policies to reduce future climate change by mitigation of CO2 emissions; and adaptation to anticipated climate change. A number of other resources will be used to complement the reports and to facilitate an analysis of the social science aspects associated with global climate change. These will include the United Nations and World Bank studies about the various impacts of climate change across the globe; the recent report by the American Psychological Association about the psychological impacts of climate change; the Stern report on the Economics of Climate Change; and a number of papers on the cultural, social, and political dynamics of climate change. The course involves an extensive number of disciplinary perspectives, including virtually all of the social sciences.

Brulle will delve into the political implications of global climate change, primarily, attempts to reach a global accord on how to address the issue. International trade relationships, global economic processes, the process of globalization, and the distribution of global climate impacts will be discussed. In one particular lecture, Brulle will examine the American cultural factors that impact our<em> </em>society’s response to climate change. Included here are discussions of news coverage, media campaigns to raise awareness of climate change (such as Al Gore’s efforts), the efforts by the climate denial movement to prevent action on climate change, and political considerations in the U.S. Congress (the role of lobbyists, environmental groups, and vested economic interests).

"What I hope to offer students is a basic understanding of the issue of climate change,” said Brulle, “so that they can enter into an educated and informed conversation about this topic. The issue is not just advocacy for a particular value system. Leading corporations are well aware of the need to plan for a carbon-constrained world, and [consequently,] there has been an explosion of environmental academic programs in the U.S. in recent years. To function as citizens in a world impacted by climate change requires that our students have at least basic literacy in this area.”</p> <p>As an introduction and conclusion to the material, students will be asked to take an anonymous survey, designed to measure opinions and behaviors related to the issue of global climate change. These questions are drawn from national surveys developed by Gallup Polling and the Six America’s Project, a research endeavor funded by the National Science Foundation, which looks at public opinion of climate change. The purpose of the survey is twofold: it will allow the class to measure their own responses against the overall national average, and it will serve as an assessment of the impact the course material has made on student beliefs.

“Just to understand the outlines of this material enough to put together an introductory undergraduate course on the topic was an enormous challenge. Today’s students will be presented with this issue in an ever-increasing manner throughout their lifetime, [and] I feel that the university has a moral obligation to equip them with the intellectual resources to meaningfully address it. This course represents our effort to that end,” Brulle reflected in closing.

Dr. Brulle would like to encourage our readers to examine these polls for themselves. The Six Americas survey can be taken online at

Maia Livingood '12 is a Business Administration major with concentrations in Finance and Economics, as well as an English minor. Working for the College of Arts and Sciences, she has developed a strong interest in publication management and hopes to build upon the experience throughout her professional career.

Imani Nia Rutledge graduated in June of 2011 with her M.P.H. in Public Health, concentrating on Community Health and Prevention.