Using the Very, Very Simple Climate Model in the Classroom

Through a simple online model, students learn about the relationship between average global temperature and carbon dioxide emissions while predicting temperature change over the 21st Century. Materials:
  • The Very, Very Simple Climate Model (online interactive activity)
  • Computer lab with Internet access
  • Flash player installed on computers
  • Paper and pencils, poster board and markers, or PowerPoint for optional assessment

Purchase PDF/PPT versions

Climate model interactive developed by Randy Russell.
Guide for educators developed by Lisa Gardiner.
Grade level:
Grades 6-12
  • Introduction and Part 1: 40 minutes
  • Part 2 and Summary discussion: 40 minutes
  • Plus one or two class periods for optional assessment
Student Learning Outcomes:
  • Students understand the impact of atmospheric carbon dioxide on Earth's global average temperature.
  • Students understand that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises whenever emissions are greater than zero.
  • Students understand how changes in the rate of carbon dioxide emissions impact the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global average temperature.
  • Students develop and test a scenario using a model.
  • Students read and interpret graphs of data.
Lesson format:
Computer interactive plus optional assessment

Standards Addressed:

  • 5-8 and 9-12: Unifying Concepts and Processes: Evidence, Models, and Explanation
  • 5-8 and 9-12: Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry
  • 5-8: Content Standard B: Physical Science: Properties of Objects and Materials
  • 5-8: Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science: Structure of the Earth System
  • 5-8: Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Changes in the Earth, Structure of the Earth System
  • 9-12: Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Energy in the Earth System, Geochemical Cycles
  • 5-8 and 9-12: Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives: Understanding about Science and Technology
  • 5-8 and 9-12: Content Standard G: History and Nature of Science: Nature of Scientific Knowledge



  1. Ask students what they have heard about future climate change from newspapers, the Internet, and television. If time allows, have students find and then share articles about future climate change. Discuss how greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that are emitted to the atmosphere are, in large part, causing recent climate change. The Windows to the Universe page entitled Global Warming: Scientists Say Earth Is Heating Up provides a summary.
  2. Tell students that models are used to predict how Earth's climate will change in the future. In general, a computer model uses math to describe how the Earth works. Have students read the Windows to the Universe page entitled What Is a Climate Model? and then discuss what models are. (You may wish to have your students continue on and read How Climate Models Work and Accuracy and Uncertainty in Climate Models too.)

Interactive Activity: Part 1 - Learning how the model works

  1. Tell students that they will use a model to test what will happen to the atmosphere and climate over this century depending on the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.
  2. Familiarize students with the axes of the graph where data from each model run will plot (see figure below.) The x-axis shows years into the future. The y-axis has three different scales: (1) carbon dioxide emissions rate, (2) carbon dioxide concentration, and (3) average global temperature.
  3. Introduce the variables to the left of the graph (see figure below) that students can manipulate as they run the model. The carbon dioxide emissions rate is measured in gigatons of carbon dioxide per year. Depending on your students' math skill level, you may wish to introduce the concept of rate at this point. model
  4. Ask students what would happen to Earth's temperature in the future if each year we released the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as we did in the year 2000. That rate was around 6 gigatons of carbon per year (6 GtC/yr). Instruct students to set the carbon dioxide emissions rate to 6 gigatons (it should be set to 6 as the default.) Instruct students to set the "Timestep size" to 10 years using the popup menu. This means that every time they tell the model to advance, it will move ahead 10 years of "model time."
  5. Instruct students to click the "step forward" button 10 times to get data to appear through the 21st Century. Each time they click the button three points will appear on the graph. The color of these points correlates with the colors of the three y-axis measures. (The figure above shows the resulting graph.)
  6. Discuss as a class what this graph is showing.
    • The blue dots (emissions rate) represent how much carbon we add to the atmosphere each year. Since the rate stayed the same for this model run, the blue dots form a horizontal line on the graph.
    • Black dots represent how much carbon has accumulated in the atmosphere over time. Units are "parts per million by volume" (ppmv). For reference, the actual concentration was around 368 ppmv in the year 2000. In this run, the concentration rises from around 400 ppmv to over 600 ppmv by the year 2100.
    • Red dots represent average global temperature in degrees Celsius. For reference, this value was around 14.3° C in the year 2000. In this model run, the temperature steadily rose to about 17.5° C by the year 2100. In this simple model, the temperature is determined entirely by the atmospheric CO2 concentration via greenhouse warming of the atmosphere.

Interactive Activity: Part 2 - Testing different scenarios of climate change

  1. Ask students if they think the first model run will reflect what people will do over the 21st Century. The actions of humans are the largest unknown when it comes to future climate change. Survey student opinions: Will we release the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that we do now? Will we release less? Will we release more?
  2. Brainstorm how and why carbon emissions may change in the future. For example, carbon emissions will go up if more power plants are created that burn fossil fuels, yet carbon emissions will go down if more technologies are invented that reduce the use of fossil fuels.
  3. Based on the survey and brainstorms, have students work in groups to come up with a scenario that they would like to test. (Example: carbon dioxide emissions rise through the middle of the 21st Century, and then decline after that.) To be somewhat realistic, they would need to start with emissions at 6 GtC/yr since that is what it was in the year 2000. To help students focus as they run the model, have student groups write out their scenario in a paragraph before they begin.
  4. To reset the model so that it can be run again, instruct students to click the "Reload" or "Refresh" button on their web browsers. Instruct students to set the timestep as 10 years as they did before. Demonstrate for them how they can change the emissions rate during the Century by changing the rate, clicking "step forward", and then changing the rate again. (For example, if you had decided to increase emissions for the first half of the century and then decrease them for the last half, you would need to increase the rate for each timestep for the first 50 years and then decrease the rate for each timestep for the last 50 years.)
  5. Discuss as a class the results of various student scenarios: What happened to temperature and carbon dioxide concentrations over time? Is some global warming enevitable? Which scenario had the least warming? Which had the most?


You may wish to have students (or student groups) present their results from Part 2 to the rest of the class in an oral report, posters, or powerpoint slides.


Have students make an experiment using the Very, Very Simple Climate Model by testing whether there is a difference in resulting global temperature between two scenarios.

Have students read the page Tackling the Global Warming Challenge and then brainstorm things they could do to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere.

Combine this activity with Carbon Dioxide: Sources and Sinks and the Carbon Cycle Game to develop student understanding of where atmospheric carbon dioxide comes from, where is goes, and how long it stays in the atmosphere.


Climate scientists use models to understand how the Earth is changing. Models of Earth can be experimented upon to assess the impact of various perturbations on the planet. Climate models describe our planet with mathematical equations. Because Earth is complex, it takes hundreds of very complex equations to model the atmosphere, oceans, and land surface. Because of the complexity, climate models are usually run on powerful computers.

The Very, Very Simple Climate Model is, as the name implies, very simple. In this model, average global temperature is determined entirely by the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration via greenhouse warming of the atmosphere. The impacts of the Earth's biosphere, changes in land use, wind and precipitation patterns, other greenhouse gases, uptake of carbon dioxide by the oceans and other factors are not considered by this very simple model. Many of these factors decrease the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere over time.

George E.P. Box once said, "all models are wrong, but some models are useful." The more a complex system like Earth is simplified in a model, the more wrong the model is. However, in simplifying this model to temperature and carbon dioxide, The Very, Very Simple Climate Model allows students to focus on the cause and effect relationships of greenhouse gases and climate change. A major educational point embodied in this model is that temperatures depend on concentration, which rises whenever emissions are greater than zero. When you hear world leaders saying that they are working hard to reduce the rate of growth of greenhouse gas emissions, remember that reducing the rate of growth does not lead to reduced temperatures. Instead, the amount of greenhouse gases continues to grow in the atmosphere whenever emissions are greater than zero.

The assumptions behind this model, though rather limited, are valid as far as they go. The starting values for concentration, emission rate, and temperature are right around actual values for the year 2000. The ranges for emission rate choices are in line with predictions scientists think we are likely to see in this Century. The relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration and temperature is well-established; basically, temperature rises about 3° C for each doubling of carbon dioxide concentration. So, for example, if the concentration goes from 400 ppmv to 800 ppmv, we expect to see temperature go up by 3° C.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and their 2007 Assessment Report, Earth’s average temperature rose 0.6° Celsius (1.1°F) during the 20th Century. Based on the results from about a dozen computer models, the IPCC projects that global warming will continue. Model results project that Earth's average global temperature will rise between 1.8° and 4.0° Celsius (3.2° and 7.2° F) depending largely on how humans change the ways they live on the planet.


Last modified November 3, 2008 by Lisa Gardiner.

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