BSc Physics / Course details

Year of entry: 2023

Course unit details:
Climate and Energy: Past, Present and Future

Course unit fact file
Unit code EART36002
Credit rating 10
Unit level Level 6
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course conveys  a fundamental understanding of climate change processes to provide evidence of anthropogenic induced changes in context with past (1MYA) natural carbon cycles. the importance of human energy use and its effects on climate, in the recent past and in the future. It ranges from providing knowledge of detailed understanding of key climate feedback processes, such as aerosol-cloud feedback mechanisms and greenhouse gas radiative effects, to calculating greenhouse gas induced temperature changes in planetary atmospheres using simple, modified Grey Atmosphere models. These will be used to introduce the student to the concept of radiative forcing due to different factors. Internal natural as well as external climate forcing factors including volcanic emissions using simple aerosol scattering models are also covered to understand the 1st order aerosol-cloud feedback mechanisms and the Twomey effect. natural cycles influence climate are also discussed using examples such as ENSO and ocean thermohaline circulations. External factors such as the Milankovitch cycles and Solar variability are also used to provide evidence for the current climate change trends. References to historical impacts on societal behaviour such as mass migration and communication of climate and weather extreme related phenomena are provided to place modern behaviour in context.

 Finally global emission scenarios and assumptions are assessed using simple estimates of global population prediction and fossil fuel lifetime calculations based on knowledge of existing resources and expected energy use. Future available energy sources are discussed and estimated by summarising knowledge of the various energy flow components in the Earth’s planetary system and using these as top down estimates that could be accessed by renewable energy systems, such as solar thermal, solar photovoltaic, wind energy, hydroelectricity and wind farms.

Themes covered will include:

-Introduction to Earth’s Climate – Then & Now
-The state of the atmosphere over the last 800,000 years, past CO2 and greenhouse gas levels, proxies for past temperature The CO2 Pump Handle
-The rapidly changing state of the atmosphere since the industrial revolution
-Simple models of radiative transfer, absorption and scattering in the atmosphere by gas molecules and aerosols
-Scattering of radiation by clouds
-Planetary albedo
-The Grey model of the atmosphere
-The global radiative budget and factors that control it
-A simple aerosol model, including single scattering albedo and aerosol optical depth concepts
-Basic cloud processes, cloud optical depth and effective radius, and how these depend on macro and microscale processes
-The Twomey 1st aerosol-cloud indirect effect, calculations using field observationsns.
-Why aerosol cloud interactions represent the largest uncertainty in climate models
-Basic links between the atmosphere and ocean circulations, ENSO El Nino and L Nina – can these be influenced by climate warming?
-Climate Change Evidence - a review of the IPCC Assessment Reports on Climate Change
-Man’s Use of Energy and Population Prediction for the end of the century
-Energy resources & Reserves – Calculating fossil fuel lifetimes
-Alternative Energy Sources – Renewables – can they fill the gap? Implications for society.
-In conclusion: “Is the surface of planet Earth a suitable place for an evolving Technological civilisation” The future of Planet Earth – what are the possible Geo-engineering approaches of decarbonisation is not viable. Should we geo-engineer (further) the planet? Or should we consider more radical solution?




Pre-requisite units

Physics Students: None

Co-requisite units




The aim of this course is to provide students with a deeper understanding of the processes controlling climate.

The unit aims to educate students in being able to debate climate change using evidence from the geological and astronomical fields.

At the same time the unit aims to deliver more detailed understanding of fundamental atmospheric processes including derivation of basic models of radiative transfer and aerosol direct and aerosol-cloud indirect effects and ocean circulation processes. This will be placed in the context of global wind nd ocean cycles.

Anthropogenic effects on climate are also placed within historical context comparing atmospheric conditions from recent geological periods with pre-industrial revolution and modern times and the contributions of different feedback processes to the observed changes discussed.

Various lines of evidence will be discussed and analysed by comparing past natural climate variability and the mechanisms responsible (including Milankovitch and Solar Variability cycles), with known internal and external forcing agents including greenhouse gas radiative effects. Evidence will also extend to summarising the basic impacts of climate warming including extreme weather.

The second part of the course looks at man’s use of energy. As this is a rapidly developing subject we use a top down approach to the analysis of ultimate global energy requirements based on how to calculate lifetimes of fossil fuels and predicted population change and expected energy usage to estimate what man’s energy needs will be by 2100 and whether current resources can fulfil energy needs.

The student will complete the course with an understanding of the various energy sources available from fossil fuels to solar. They will be able to calculate the lifetimes of non-renewable fossil fuel resources, how to calculated energy densities associated with solar and wind energy farms, and how contributions from these sources will change society over the next century. This will be placed in the context of a planet that must respond to anticipate equitable standards of living for a growing population. Mitigation and sustainability strategies will be briefly discussed with respect to the IPCC 1.5C report.


Learning outcomes

On the successful completion of the course, students will be able to:




To understand the concept of Black body equilibrium temperature, the Stefan-Boltzman Law and how to use this law calculate the equilibrium temperature for the Earth & other Planets and why they differ.




To understand the main components of the Earth’s energy budget and how internal and external forcings can influence them and the timescales associated with these changes.




To understand the role of feedback processes on the climate system.




To understand the concept of radiative forcing.




To discuss the importance of international agreements and political on mitigating future climate change.





Syllabus (note: there are two 1 hour lectures per week):

Week 1: Composition of the atmosphere and the atmospheric energy balance. Sun-Earth radiation balance and Milankovitch cycles

Week 2: Radiative balance in the atmosphere

Week 3: Energy flow in the biosphere, atmosphere and ocean

Week 4: A simple climate model, a simple aerosol model. Earth vs Venus climatology

Week 5: Climatology of the Earth

Week 6: Circulation of the oceans and the atmosphere - ENSO

Week 7: Evidence for natural and anthropogenic climate change - IPCC

Week 8: The pattern of energy consumption now and in the future. Calculating the lifetime of fossil fuels.

Week 9: Future climate change predictions; emissions reductions and their impact on future energy consumption.

Week 10: Contribution of alternative/renewable energy and nuclear resources to fill the energy gap. An all electric economy.

Week 11. Decarbonisation – can we (further) Geo-engineer the climate? Should we do it? Energy efficiency. Where do we go from here? The O’Neil solution.

Week 12 & 13:  Tutorial lectures. The final two lectures will cover problem solving based on past examination questions. Students are encouraged to contact the lecturer after this week to discuss solutions to these problems either by email or by arranging a personal/group student- guided revision lecture based on past examination questions and questions raised following lectures and background reading.


Teaching and learning methods

Learning during this course unit builds from one lecture to the next, consisting of 2 lectures per week for 11 weeks over semester 1 (22 hours in total). These provide context and ideas with practical examples needed to complete the 11/2 hour final examination. Two hours of student-guided revision lectures are provided together with optional student guided examination problem solving tutorials which will summarize key content from the syllabus.


For effective learning, it is advisable that students attend every lecture and practical class, and revise the previous week's materials between lectures. For Physics students taking this option experience has taught us that one lecture per week together with revision using the on-line podcasts is sufficient to complete the main learning outcomes.


Formative problem-solving questions will be covered in the tutorial lectures for students to work on in their own time and to bring to personal tutorials (optional) if required. The lecturer will be available to provide feedback on these via BlackBoard and personal email.


The answers to questions will be given on BlackBoard and feedback from these will also be placed on BlackBoard to gauge progress in understanding, applying the course content and overcoming any problems using different approaches.


general communication outside of lectures will be via Blackboard announcements and e-mail as required.


The assessment of the course will consist of a 11/2 hour summative exam at the end of Semester 1 with students being required to answer 2 questions from 4, one of which will be a summative-essay question. For postgraduate students requiring units to complete DTP requirements (5 credit option) this will be assessed by an essay requiring additional background reading.


Students are encouraged to utilise the wide variety of learning resources that are available in this subject area. This includes signposting (links) to publicly-available informal contextual resources (e.g. NOAA & NASA videos, Wikipedia, Climate News Articles), directed reading, and podcasts listed on the Blackboard site.


Formative individual feedback on tutorial answers and past examination questions. Further feedback will be provided on the example questions set in lectures. Feedback on exam performance will be provided via a drop-in session early in semester 2 for students to view their marked exam scripts as required.


The course is delivered through 22 standard lectures and 2 tutorial-revision/discussion lectures using past examination problems as examples for problem solving and derivations. Personal or group tutorials are available subsequently on request. Discussion via BlackBoard noticeboard of specific problems and topics is encouraged and anonymysed questions surrounding common problems and concepts highlighted with solutions can be provided by BlackBoard NoticeBoard. Climate change updates using scientific and news websites are provided – both links and summary articles are available via BlackBoard.


Assessment methods

Method Weight
Written exam 100%

Feedback methods

Assessment type

% Weighting within unit

Hand out and hand in dates



How, when and what feedback is provided

ILO tested





2 hours

Personal tutorial/group tutorials  and BlackBoard feedback on past examination papers. Feedback via drop-in sessions to view problem attempts & review of tutorials via feedback on noticeboard.



Recommended reading

1: IPCC, 2021: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press. In Press.

2: IPCC AR5 Climate Change 2014 Synthesis Report. (to be updated to AR6 in April 2021)

3: IPCC AR5 Climate Change 2013 The Physical Science Basis.

4. IPCC Special Report Global Warming of 1.5 ºC John H. Seinfeld, Spyros N. Pandis; Atmospheric Chemistry & Physics: From Air Pollution to Climate Change. 3rd Edition, 2016. Wiley Interscience.

5. John Houghton; Global Warming - The Complete Briefing - 5th Edition; Cambridge University Press, 2015.

6. Sustainable Energy: Choosing Options. by Tester, J.W. et al. 2005, MIT Press.Earth System Science:

7. Sustainable Energy - without the hot air. D.J.C. MacKay. 2008. Available free online at : Video material at:

8. Mark. Z. Jacobson. Atmospheric Pollution: History, Science, and Regulation, 2002. ISBN-13: 978-0521010443.

9. Royal Society Climate Briefings_ 2019.


Other Reading

A BRIGHT FUTURE: HOW SOME COUNTRIES HAVE SOLVED CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE REST CAN FOLLOW By JOSHUA S. GOLDSTEIN & STAFFAN A. QVIST. I have provided a "Karnkraft" Summary of this text book in Powerpoint form on BlackBoard.


Study hours

Independent study hours
Independent study 100

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Martin Gallagher Unit coordinator

Additional notes



Example student activity

Total Hours

New material

Consolidation and Practice

Contact time (students are in front of staff)

Lecture (new material)

Mostly listening & taking notes (mostly new material)




Lecture (revision/examples)

Mostly listening & taking notes (no new material- revision of course)




Practical (new material and practice.  Typically 25-50% of practical  time is spent on new material)

Interactive individual or group work (problem solving, experiments, watching demonstrations, describing and interpreting samples, paper-based exercises, computer-based exercises)



Interactive small group work


Seminar/examples class

Working on and discussing questions




Independent study time

Pre/post lecture work

Reading own notes, re-solving examples, prep work, revisit podcast




Pre/post practical work/write up

Complete practical work, prep work, reading feedback


Studio/workshop time

Individual or group work (student led), discussion, probl

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