Ethics of Climate Change

Ethics of Climate Change


MWF 1:25-2:15, 167 Willard

Mark Sentesy (
Hours: WF 2:30-3:30 and by appointment                                                                                                                  Office: 247 Sparks                                                                                                                                                 

Course Description

Climate change is a political, economic, and social crisis, and it presents one of the great moral problems of our time. This course is an introduction to the science, ethics, policy, and solutions of climate change. Students will also meet some of the key individuals working on climate change here at Penn State. 

Course Objectives

This integrative studies (interdomain) course will give students the tools to understand the basic science of climate change and its ethical implications. Students will explore the ethical dimensions of this phenomenon including the implications for human civilization and for the biosphere.

As a general sciences (GN) course, students must be able to explain the methods of inquiry in the various climate science fields; demonstrate understanding of scientific claims and their applications; and evaluate the quality of the data, methods, and inferences used to generate scientific knowledge about climate change. Students will demonstrate their mastery of these concepts through pre-work, class discussion, and the Unit 1 exam. 

As a general humanities (GH) course, students must be able to explain the methods of inquiry in ethics, demonstrate competence in critical thinking about topics such as human interaction with nature and the value of human and ecological flourishing, and critically evaluate class texts, especially their ethical dimensions. Students will demonstrate their proficiency with ethical inquiry and analysis in the Unit 2 Ethics Project.

Integrative learning objectives will be emphasized throughout the class, and students will incorporate the knowledge of climate science into an ethical analysis in the projects for Unit 2 and 3, and the final exam. A final climate negotiation project will allow students to apply their knowledge of climate science, ethics, policy, and solutions to a specific country context. Together, teams of students will engage in a mock climate negotiation in the final week of class.

Required Books

  • Richard Alley. Earth: The Operators’ Manual
  • Anthony Weston, A 21st Century Ethical Toolbox (4th edition) 

The reading schedule is listed on the Canvas calendar. If you have any difficulty accessing this calendar, please contact the instructor immediately.

Evaluation Methods

Note: During the course, any part of this syllabus, including schedule and course structure, may change depending on time, the students in the class, or other factors.

The requirements for the course will be weighted as follows:

  • Weekly work 500
  • Pre-work 200
  • In-Class Participation 150
  • News Briefs 150
  • Unit Assessments 500
  • Unit 1 Exam 150
  • Unit 2 Paper 150
  • Unit 3 Project 150
  • Final Exam 50
  • Total 1000

The submission of all assigned written work is required to complete the course.

The grading scale is as follows:

  • A 930 points and up
  • A- 900 to 929
  • B+ 870 to 899
  • B 830 to 869
  • B- 800 to 829
  • C+ 770 to 799
  • C 730 to 769
  • C- 700 to 729
  • D+ 650 to 699
  • D 600 to 649
  • F 599 and below

The Penn State course credit system is defined by the number of hours students spend working on the course. The ratio is: 2 hours of study for every 1 hour of class. It is normal for your study time to fluctuate, but if you find you are regularly exceeding this ratio to master basic course content, please contact the instructor and consider making use of the free academic support services offered on campus, such as Penn State Learning, the Tutoring Center, or the Writing Center.

Attendance policy

Attendance is mandatory. Class sessions are not merely information sessions, but frame, analyze, extend, critique, and supplement course material. In-class discussion of the material allows for students to work on concepts and skills in a context in which individual student issues are easier to address.

Students should contact the instructor in advance if they know they will be absent. Each student is allowed 3 absences. Each further unexcused absence reduces her grade by 1/3 of a grade point per class, e.g. from a B to a B-. Perfect attendance earns students 50 points.

A student who is absent from class is responsible for obtaining knowledge of what happened in class, especially information about announced assignments. See the policy of Penn State on excused absences.

During your enrollment at Penn State, unforeseen challenges may arise. If you ever need to miss an extended amount of class in such a circumstance, please notify your professor so you can determine the best course of action to make up missed work. If your situation rises to a level of difficulty you cannot manage on your own with faculty support, reach out to the Student Care & Advocacy office by phone at (814-863-2020) or email them at

Weekly Work (500 points)

Since the regular work for the course is meant to develop knowledge for use in class and for regular practice of skills, written work submitted after the due date and time will not be counted toward weekly work.

Pre-work (200 points)

This course has the structure of a flipped classroom, in which students master information before class, so that in-class we can use this knowledge to do more advanced work. Pre-work is the cornerstone of a flipped classroom.

Pre-work usually consists of 20-40 pages of readings, and, for most classes, a short list of study questions. Students submit short answers to at least 3 of those study questions for each class. Students may do as many study questions as they like to reach full marks, but can only get 20 points per week.

In-Class Participation (150 points)

Participation from each student is a primary goal for everyone in the class. Help your neighbor to contribute to the discussion, and respond to each other in your comments. Students who invite and encourage others get participation credit for doing so.

To improve classroom community and make it easier for everyone to participate, there is a name quiz during the 3rd week of the course. In the quiz, your instructor points out 5 students, and you write down their first names. The best way to learn your classmates’ names is to go for coffee or study with them: use the quiz as an excuse!

Studies show that using computers and phones in class significantly decreases student learning, and the learning of those around them (see this slideshow for a thorough review of the evidence). For this reason, phones must be turned off and in students’ school bags. People who choose to use computers in class agree to sign up and share their notes with their colleagues on the course website.

News Briefs (150 points)

Climate change is by nature interdisciplinary. To understand the full breadth, depth, and complexity of climate issues, it is necessary to know about the scientific, technological, ethical, and political events that relate to it. Familiarity with these helps students understand relationships between disciplines, see creative solutions, and anticipate problems. This project supports student understanding of the state of climate science, and provides background for research projects later in the term.

To engage news in a focused way, students subscribe to news services, and, over the semester, create an annotated bibliography with short summaries of 3 articles per week. Each week is worth 15 points. Students may write as many article briefs as they like to reach full marks.

Unit Assessments (500 points)

Late assignments will be graded down by a grade point per day (e.g. A to B) unless an extension is granted in advance of the due date or there is a medical emergency.

Unit 1 Science Exam (150 points)

Students explain key aspects of climate science, describe relationships between the major elements of the climate system, and describe projected warming and its impacts. This is an in-class exam. Students can have pens and water at their desk, as required.

Unit 2 Ethics Project (150 points)

Students practice creating productive discussions about climate change. Pairs of students plan and prepare to moderate an ethical conversation about climate change and lead a 1-2h dialogue with 4-6 people from outside of the class. Each student writes up a separate analysis.

Unit 3 Solutions Project (150 points)

Students have two options for their final project. Students either research and participate in a climate negotiation during the last week of classes, or write a final project on a meaningful solution to climate change. In both cases, students integrate science and ethics in their analysis.

Final Oral Exam (50 points)

The final examination consists of a discussion between 5-8 students. Students are evaluated on three kinds of activity:

  • contributing strong arguments that demonstrate knowledge of the course material.
  • pursuing and synthesizing ideas from different disciplines and sources (including colleagues). This involves asking clarifying questions and helping one another contribute and learn.
  • examining and testing the impact of these ideas, linking and extending these ideas to other issues.

Extra Credit (100 points)

Engagement credit gives students the ability to add to their grades by engaging on topics they find interesting, as they see fit. If throughout the semester a student consistently devotes herself to deep, thorough, and wide-ranging engagement beyond the course requirements, she can raise her grade by 100 points.

Examples include: writing personal responses to the material for each class, attending and analyzing related events (in written form or in office hours), conducting research beyond the assigned readings and papers (e.g. news articles, academic articles, philosophical writing, movies, videos, art), writing a screenplay on issues related to the course, writing out and analyzing your conversations on related issues.

Academic Integrity

This course encourages you to take ownership of your thoughts. You are expected to exemplify academic integrity in every action you perform in your studies at Penn State. To have academic integrity means, in practice and in principle, to be honest about your own work and your own abilities. Any student who compromises his or her own academic integrity also seeks to undermine the integrity of the class, and he or she will be treated accordingly. Offences earn results up to and including immediate failure of the course, and notification of the Office of Judicial Affairs. Plagiarism is theft and fraud, and will absolutely not be tolerated. You should review the policy of Penn State University.

“Dishonesty includes, but is not limited to, cheating, plagiarizing, fabricating information or citations, facilitating acts of academic dishonesty by others, having unauthorized possession of examinations, submitting work of another person or work previously used without informing the instructor, or tampering with the academic work of other students.”

If you are at all uncertain what constitutes academic integrity in general, or plagiarism in particular, consult the PSU student handbook. You are encouraged to consult with your instructor or TA at any time.

Disability Access Statement

Penn State welcomes students with disabilities into the University’s educational programs. For further information, and contact please visit the Student Disability Resources website (

In order to receive consideration for reasonable accommodations, you must contact the appropriate disability services office at the campus where you are officially enrolled, participate in an intake interview, and provide documentation. If the documentation supports your request for reasonable accommodations, your campus disability services office will provide you with an accommodation letter. Please share this letter with your instructors and discuss the accommodations with them as early as possible. You must follow this process for every semester that you request accommodations.

Counseling and Psychological Services Statement

Many students at Penn State face personal challenges or have psychological needs that may interfere with their academic progress, social development, or emotional wellbeing. The university offers a variety of confidential services to help you through difficult times, including individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, consultations, online chats, and mental health screenings. These services are provided by staff who welcome all students and embrace a philosophy respectful of clients’ cultural and religious backgrounds, and sensitive to differences in race, ability, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Counseling and Psychological Services at University Park  (CAPS): 814-863-0395

Penn State Crisis Line (24 hours/7 days/week): 877-229-6400

Crisis Text Line (24 hours/7 days/week): Text LIONS to 741741