Environmental Change: Past, Present and Future

This information is for the 2020/21 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

  • A framework for environmental geography
  • The nature and causes of environmental/climate change

PART B: Key components of environmental change: The Biosphere

  • Formation of the biosphere and change over time
  • Contemporary ecosystem processes and change
  • The biodiversity crisis: extreme change in the anthropocene

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

  • Solar radiation, the atmosphere, and interactions
  • Global and local energy budgets
  • Circulation - atmosphere, oceans, and carbon

PART D: Key components of environmental change: The Hydrosphere

  • Water in the atmosphere, clouds and rainfall
  • Hyrological cascade, rivers and flooding

PART E: Long-term environmental change

  • Geological-scale climate change and Earth's 'greenhouse' and 'icehouse' environments.
  • Orbital-scale climate change and the great ice ages
  • Millenial-scale climate change and deglaciation

PART F: Contemporary climate change: The emerging human influence

  • The Holocene
  • Contemporary climate change associated with fossil fuel emissions
  • Contemporary climate change and extreme weather
  • Land-use and land-cover change (deforestation)

PART G: Future climate change

  • Modelling future climate change
  • Fixing the future: Adaptation, mitigation, and geoengineering



In the Department of Geography and Environment, teaching will be delivered through a combination of classes/seminars, pre-recorded lectures, live online lectures, in-person lectures and other supplementary interactive live activities.


This course is delivered through a combination of classes and lectures across Michaelmas and Lent Term.


This course includes a reading week in Week 6 of Michaelmas Term and Week 6 of Lent Term.

Formative coursework

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

Indicative reading


  • Ahrens, C.D., 2012. Meteorology today: an introduction to weather, climate, and the environment. Cengage Learning.
  • Gaston, K.J. and Spicer, J.I., 2004. Biodiversity: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.
  • Houghton, J.T., 2009. Global Warming. The Complete Briefing. 4th edition, Cambridge Univ. Press
  • IPCC, 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp, doi:10.1017/CBO9781107415324. [online] Available from: [last accessed 17 September 2016]
  • IPCC, 2018. Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A. Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X. Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)].
  • Maslin, M., 2013. Climate: a very short introduction. OUP Oxford.
  • Ruddiman, W.F., 2001. Earth's Climate: past and future. Macmillan.
  • Smithson, P., Addison, K. and Atkinson, K., 2013. Fundamentals of the physical environment. Routledge.


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

The policy brief will be formatted in the style of a UK Parliament science briefing note (POSTnote), wtih a 2,000 words limit.

Student performance results

(2017/18 - 2019/20 combined)

Classification % of students
First 29.2
2:1 54.2
2:2 13.9
Third 0
Fail 2.8

Important information in response to COVID-19

Please note that during 2020/21 academic year some variation to teaching and learning activities may be required to respond to changes in public health advice and/or to account for the situation of students in attendance on campus and those studying online during the early part of the academic year. For assessment, this may involve changes to mode of delivery and/or the format or weighting of assessments. Changes will only be made if required and students will be notified about any changes to teaching or assessment plans at the earliest opportunity.

Key facts

Department: Geography & Environment

Total students 2019/20: 35

Average class size 2019/20: 18

Capped 2019/20: No

Value: One Unit

Guidelines for interpreting course guide information

Personal development skills

  • Self-management
  • Team working
  • Problem solving
  • Communication