Environmental Change: Past, Present and Future

This information is for the 2019/20 session.

Teacher responsible

Dr Thomas Smith S421C


This course is compulsory on the BSc in Environment and Development and BSc in Environmental Policy with Economics. This course is available on the BA in Geography. This course is available as an outside option to students on other programmes where regulations permit and to General Course students.

Course content

Many consider that ‘Climate Change’ is the greatest challenge currently facing human society, mainly because of the ‘Environmental Changes’ that it will cause. But what are ‘Climate Change’ and ‘Environmental Change’? What causes these changes? How much have they changed in the past and how do we know? How much is human activity responsible for the recent changes identified and when did this influence begin? How is the climate going to change in the next century and what are the consequences going to be for extreme weather events, sea-level rise? What can we do about it? Should we adapt, mitigate, or begin to engineer our climate?


To answer these questions requires that the course focuses on developing an appreciation of the Planet Earth as the home of human societies. Through a combination of lectures, classes, practical work, and fieldwork, the course focuses on the physical nature of the 'natural' or biophysical systems and involves consideration of how the solid earth, the gaseous atmosphere, the hydrosphere and the biosphere, were formed, have evolved, interact and have changed over time due to both external (extra-terrestrial) and internal factors, including humans. From this, an appreciation of change and evolution over differing time-scales is developed, which will serve as an essential basis for students when evaluating the contemporary two-way interaction between humans and the environment in the ‘anthropocene’. The relevant science will be taught as and when required.


The course consists of the following sections:


PART A: Introduction to environmental change

PART B: Key components of environmental change: The Biosphere

PART C: Key components of environmental change: Atmosphere & Oceans

PART D: Key components of environmental change: The Hydrosphere

PART E: Long-term environmental change

PART F: Contemporary climate change: The emerging human influence

PART G: Future climate change



20 hours of lectures, 9 hours of classes and 3 hours of workshops in the MT. 20 hours of lectures, 10 hours of classes and 3 hours of workshops in the LT.

Please note there is a Reading Week taking place in Week 6 in both Michaelmas and Lent Terms.

Formative coursework

Students will be expected to produce two assignments during the year, one in each term, and give class papers.

Indicative reading



Exam (60%, duration: 2 hours) in the summer exam period.
Essay (15%, 1500 words) and policy paper (25%) in the LT.

The policy paper will be a policy support document. 

Key facts

Department: Geography & Environment

Total students 2018/19: 25

Average class size 2018/19: 12

Capped 2018/19: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

Student performance results

(2016/17 - 2018/19 combined)

Classification % of students
First 21.6
2:1 54.1
2:2 18.9
Third 4.1
Fail 1.4

Teachers' comment

There have been two lecturers a year since the 1990s, although the second has only given 6 lectures in recent years.This year it is anticipated that there will be 3 lecturers, due to the arrival of a new appointment on 1.1.2018.