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 PH278x Course Syllabus

Welcome to PH278x Human Health and Global Environmental Change. 

Human activity has changed the atmosphere as well as the abundance and variety of life on a global scale. Evidence is mounting that these changes may already be having serious effects on human health. This course will begin with a consideration of climate change and biodiversity as two primary examples of global environmental change and examine what they entail for human health. In the final section of the course, we will delve into some of the most promising avenues for addressing the causes of global environmental change and, in doing so, how we may ensure the healthiest possible present and future for all people.


The course will be delivered in three sections and you will be expected to complete each section on its end date. The three sections of the class will run from May 15 to June 12, June 12 to July 10, and July 10 to August 7 (voting end on August 9th, and the course closes on August 14th).


All questions should be made on the course FAQ Discussion Thread. Given the enrollment in the class, emails sent directly to the course teaching staff will not be answered.


Students will be assessed with multiple choice or short answer questions interspersed among lectures. Each of the three sections of the class will have one or two longer, more in depth assignments.  Each question will be weighted by a point value, from one to ten, so that you can gauge its weight. Students must score overall at or above 60% in order to pass the course.


Links to readings are provided below underneath the course sub-section descriptions. Readings are strongly encouraged to provide greater depth of learning; most of the readings posted are freely available online.


During Section 3 (Solutions - made available on July 10th) of the course students will be asked to join a Discussion Group.  Discussion Groups will be organized around systems such as food, cities, transportation, finance, academic institutions, religious organizations, tourism or by product, function or services.  Course participants will join one Discussion Group of their interest to share “best practices” examples of responsible corporate, government, or organizational efforts to address climate mitigation, eco-system preservation or restoration, and/or adaptation.   Some Discussion Groups will explore “Best in Class” examples of promising technologies, products and services, or even rating systems that also address environmental change and adaptation. 

Participation in Discussion Groups will be MANDATORY for receiving recognition for completing the course.  We are expecting thoughtful contributions and responses that are consistent with the spirit of community knowledge.  We do not want gratuitous comments that “promote” a company, a product or an organization. We are not looking for long discourse, so your examples and the rationale for sharing should be brief and to the point. 

Discussion Groups will be challenged to develop criteria that might serve as a basis for comparative evaluation within a category.  Furthermore, we will attempt to move the Discussion Group towards recommending  “Best in Class” examples.  This might work better with defined products or companies.  For example, we might form Discussion Groups on “sustainable practices in the airline industry” where the Group might, based on a set of criteria, decide that “Air Oz” is an example of “best in class”.  We want you to learn by sharing while having fun.  Remember to respect each other.

Learning objectives

For the course:

Students will broadly understand the connections between global environmental changes and human health and, based upon this knowledge, be equipped to rigorously assess strategies to prevent or remedy harms resulting from global environmental change.


Section 1, Part 1

After completing this section, students will be able to:

  • identify the key strands of evidence that support the conclusion that observed increases in average global temperature are due to human activities.
  • apply knowledge gained about human caused climate change to critically evaluate basic claims about the accuracy or relevance of climate science.

Section 1, Part 2

After completing this section, students will be able to:

  • conceptualize a broad scope of climate change related health outcomes
  • identify pathways that link climate change to human health endpoints
  • prioritize, based upon the latest science, climate related health risks based upon assessment of geography, socioeconomic status, and age. 
  • recognize key points of climate change related vulnerability in demographics and infrastructure.
  • appreciate the challenges of risk assessment in the context of global environmental change which entails low probability events with potentially catastrophic outcomes and does not allow for experimental replication


Section 2, Part 1

After completing this section, students will be able to:

  • identify the three components of biological diversity and how they relate to each other
  • summarize the current state of knowledge about conservation of biodiversity and how it compares to the past 

Section 2, Part 2

After completing this section, students will be able to: 

  • distinguish the relevance of different levels of organization within biodiversity and their relevance to health
  • build a hierarchical mental model of biodiversity and begin to map the relationships of various components of biodiversity to others
  • understand the importance of biodiversity to the discovery of new medicines, biomedical techniques, food production and the spread of infectious diseases
  • identify the main drivers of biodiversity loss and begin to construct strategies to redress them 


Section 3, Part 1

After completing this part students will be able to:

  • understand the role that gases and aerosols have in the energy balance of the earth and atmosphere
  • know the important greenhouse gases
  • appreciate the trends of greenhouse gasses, in particular, CO2
  • understand the implication of increasing the net energy (a few Watts/sq. Meter) to the earth-atmosphere system has on moisture flux and storm intensities

Section 3, Part 2

After completing this part students will be able to:

  • appreciate the need apply technologies and modify practices across many sectors of economies to reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere
  • understand the concepts of “carbon stabilization wedges” as illustrated for agriculture, transportation, electrical power generation and buildings

Section 3, Part 3

After completing this part, students will be able to:

  • appreciate there is a range of public opinions about the cause and seriousness of climate change
  • identify that personal opinions about climate change are influenced by religious beliefs, views about the role of government in a civil society, trust in information sources, personal experience among other factors
  • recognize that public opinion is changing as the disruptive, health and economic impacts of extreme weather events are being associated with climate change
  • understand that influential institutions such as the World Bank and the World Economic Forum and many leading international corporations are recognizing how disruptive climate change will be on economic and political stability

Section 3, Part 4

After completing this part, students will be able to:

  • recognize programs and practices to mitigate (reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses) or adapt to climate change and its effects
  • learn from examples how they can be more proactive individually and in their communities, companies, families to better manage energy and materials for the reduction of greenhouse gases 
  • appreciate that adaptation to climate change will require a wide array of strategies across multiple sectors of society 


Course Organization  

Class introduction with Aaron Bernstein and Jack Spengler

    • Welcome to Boston with Jack Spengler

Section 1: Climate change and health

Part 1 Evidence of a changing climate

●      How do we know earth is warming? Deep ice and species on the move.

●      Odorless, colorless but definitely not powerless: greenhouse gases and their effects on energy in the atmosphere

●      What evidence do we have that human activities are causing climate change?


Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming.        

IPCC Working Group I, Summary for Policymakers.   (note - may take a few seconds to open)


Part 2 Evidence of climate change effects on health

●      The heat is on: unprecedented heatwaves and their causes and consequences

●      In the air: pollen, particulates and other air pollutants

●      The water is off: melting glaciers, floods, droughts and other changes to water quality and quantity 

●      An uncertain bet: climate change and vector borne disease spread

●      From outside in: climate change effects on the indoor environment

●      The food issue: climate change and food security

●      Population migration, political instability and conflict: the final common pathway

●      Would you put your child on that plane? Climate change, attribution, and the certainty needed to act 


Myers SS, Bernstein AS. The coming health crisis. The Scientist. 2011;25(1):32. Available online at:

McMichael AJ. Globalization, Climate Change and Health. New England Journal of Medicine. 2013; 368:1335-1343. Available online at:


Section 2: Biodiversity and health

Part 1: What is biodiversity?

●      More microbe than mammal: what the human ecosystem tells us about the relationships of life more broadly

●      Biodiversity in 3 parts, and why each matters to your health/What little we know about biodiversity and how much it matters 


Textbook: What is biodiversity? Chapter 1 in Sustaining Life: How Human Health Depends on Biodiversity. Chivian E, Bernstein AS, eds. Oxford University Press, 2008. This text is available as an e-textbook through Coursemart and Amazon


Part 2: The importance of biodiversity to health

●      Biodiversity, medicines and biomedical breakthroughs: cone snails, Thermus aquaticus, and Paclitaxel

●      Horseshoe crabs and axolotls: ancient creatures in modern times still have tales to tell

●      The food issue returns: biodiversity as food insurance

●      Pollinators imperiled: bees, bats, and butterflies all in harms way

●      Changes in biodiversity and new opportunities for some very little (and nasty) creatures to get inside you 

●      Bait and tackle: overfishing’s deep effects on human well-being

●      The sixth extinction event: causes and corrections


Textbook: In Sustaining Life, Chapter 2: How is biodiversity threatened; chapter 8: Biodiversity and food production; and pp. 118-119, 128-150, 257-265, 278-282, 287-312, 315-317.


Section 3: Solutions

Part 1 Earth-Solar Energy Balance: a return to climate science

  • Solar energy in short wave radiation is source of most available energy for the earth (Transmission, adsorption, reflectance, scatter)
  • Long wave (infrared) radiation leaves earth to maintain quazi-equilibrium
  • Aerosols and gases in the atmosphere and changes in surface albedo and extent of cloud cover can alter the radiation balance of the solar-earth system.
  • Greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, halogenated compounds (CFC-11,12, HCFC-22, HFC-134), ozone and water vapor) have been increasing in the atmosphere resulting in climate forcing


 The NOAA Annual Greenhouse gas Index: Summer 2012

 Changes in Atmospheric Constituents and in Radiative Forcing. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change  (note - may take a few seconds to open)


Part 2   Climate stabilization wedges 

  • Energy uses by source and sector
  • Optional Primer of various forms of energy, energy  terms, and conversion units
  • Reduction of carbon in the atmosphere will require rapid increase in the use of current technologies, changes in practices and behavior and increase efficient use of energy
  • Students assigned to climate wedge to research and share innovative approaches to mitigating the impacts and/or adopting to climate change


Visit the Princeton Climate Mitigation Initiative site:  explore this content rich resource and follow the links to the following articles. 

Solving the Climate Problem: Technologies for Curbing CO2 emissions. R. Socolow, R. Hotinski, J. Greenblatt, S. Pacala, Environment, 2004.

Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies. S. Pacala and R. Socolow, Science, 2004.

Wedges Reaffirmed: a short essay by Robert Socolow, 2011

Optional viewing: Energy Basics Presentation (will be made available in Section 3)


Part 3   The changing views about climate change 

  • Public opinions formed based of beliefs, political and world view, trusted “information”, scientific facts, observations of weather and other events
  • Growing recognition among public, political and corporate leaders that climate change is a security threat, risk to business and poses a threat to society and nature
  • Important institutions are now calling for concerted action to mitigate the impacts of climate change


World Economic Forum Global Risks Report 2013

World Bank Report November 2012 “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4’C Warmer World Must be Avoided” 

Leiserowitz, A., Maibach, E., Roser-Renouf, C., Feinberg, G. & Howe, P. (2013) Global Warming’s SixAmericas, September 2012. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Part 4   Hopeful examples of people, governments and corporations offering solutions

  • Evolving definition of sustainability that includes not just the management of material and energy resources but includes the value of human health and nature
  • Life Cycle Assessment tools for understanding impacts of products, services, buildings
  • Handprinting as a new concept for measuring Net-Positive actions
  • Examples of how concerns for energy, materials, climate change and social justice are transforming many sectors of society: buildings, transportation, fuels etc.
  • The appeal of socially relevant enterprises is stimulating social entrepreneurism


Please explore a website which has been created by our colleague Dr. Gregory Norris.

You may also wish to read the following resource used by Dr. Norris for his course at Harvard:

World Business Council for Sustainable Development guide to measuring social impact, downloadable at:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Social Cost of Carbon (2010) Summary and full document available at

The Boston Harvard Association report “Preparing for the Rising Tide”

Please explore the following websites: