Earth's Warming Climate: Are We Responsible?


Big Idea

Human activity, including burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and other landscape changes, have increased the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Explore the relationship between increased concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and the record of global temperature on long and short time scales by examining both instrumental data and proxy climate data from ice cores.

Data Activity

Plotting Atmospheric CO2 Levels through Time


Global climate change is one of the most profound challenges facing humanity today. This module provides the evidence that the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has not been as high as it is currently for nearly half a million years and that this increase corresponds with data that human activity is responsible.

  • Examine scientific data showing increases in both atmospheric CO2 and the Earth’s average temperature.
  • Analyze changes in atmospheric concentration of CO2 over time.


This module is aligned to the following national learning and curriculum standards:


In this module, you will:

  1. Analyze CO2 data sets that build the case for anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change.
  2. Reflect on some of the barriers involved in teaching global climate change and how data may be used to overcome those barriers.

Keeping Notes

Set up a journal to take notes as you participate in this experience. Your journal can be an online tool or offline notebook – whichever works for you and your learning style.

Background Information

Mounting scientific evidence indicates that the rate and direction of contemporary climate change is of great concern. If the current climate change trajectory continues, scientists expect a two-degree Celsius warming by 2050—a change that will disrupt many of the balances that currently exist in the Earth and climate system. Already there is evidence of economic impacts of recent climate change in many parts of the world. As populations are dislocated, and agricultural systems in parts of the world become less productive, economic and political stability around the world may be compromised. Societies will need to compete for resources to minimize human suffering in some parts of the world, and maintain the quality of life they are used to experiencing in others.

From a societal perspective, these are some of the most important reasons that we need to educate students and the public about the rigorous scientific data that feed into global climate models (GCMs) and are used to generate future climate scenarios. Climate scientists agree that these models aren’t perfect, but they are the best tools we have at present to allow us to prepare for the changes in climate and the associated impacts that are already manifesting on our planet.

A recent study by German scientists suggests that if we could halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, the temperature increase could stabilize below two-degrees Celsius (ETH Zurich, 2009). While climate change is already happening and will continue to have impacts on the Earth system in the future, changing the rate and amount of greenhouse gas emissions can have huge implications, dramatically decreasing human suffering, and the likelihood of disastrous political and economic instability. Thus, an education that motivates students and the public to make personal and political decisions that contribute to decreasing the rate of global warming is critical to life on our planet as we know it.


This professional development experience was funded by NASA's Global Climate Change Education initiative. This initiative is designed to improve the quality of the nation's STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education and enhance students' and teachers' literacy about global climate and Earth system change from elementary grades to lifelong learners.

Global Climate Change Modules

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