Making Sense of Climate Science Denial: a Review of the Course

Climate change - flood

By Pat Bowden, published November 21, 2017.

Are you confused by conflicting reports in the media about whether or not the earth is warming? Do you understand what people mean when they talk about climate change?

This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), presented by UQX on the edX platform, separates the facts from the rhetoric. It explains the science behind observed changes in climate and highlights some false premises that may be aired in the media and by public figures. It also teaches us how to explain the facts and rebut a range of arguments.

A Well-Presented Course

Making Sense of Climate Science Denial is currently in progress, with a hard deadline for all assessment items on December 19, 2017, after which this run of the course will be archived. Students have the option to purchase a certificate or, if preferred, can audit the course with full access to materials and assessment items for no cost. New enrollments are being accepted up until December 9, 2017. Week 5 of the 7-week course starts November 21, 2017. Recommended time commitment per week is 2-4 hours, so if you can arrange your schedule to fit it in over the next few weeks, it could be very worthwhile.

The course is presented by Dr John Cook, who is now a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. Cook takes us on a journey through the science of climate change and reasons why people may disagree with scientific findings.

In Cook’s words: “… this course is needed because a well-functioning democracy depends on a well-informed public. People have a right to be accurately informed. But if the public are being misinformed by people who deny climate science, that has social and environmental consequences.”

Cook has written books and many research papers as well as running and the podcast Evidence Squared. Cook has enlisted specialists in a number of relevant fields to contribute to this course. You will learn from experts in climate, meteorology, environment, and geoscience among others.

Discover the Facts

More than 100 years ago, scientific experiments proved that increased levels of certain heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere (called greenhouse gases) will lead to global warming. Carbon dioxide is one of these gases. In Earth’s past, over millions of years, ancient plants grew and removed some carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Animals ate the plants and incorporated the carbon atoms into their bodies. After death, countless organisms eventually broke down, some forming the vast coal and oil reserves found in many places around the world. Because coal and oil are made of highly compacted fossils, they are known as fossil fuels.

Burning of these fossil fuels is causing carbon atoms that were drawn out of the air many millions of years ago, and over a period of many millions of years, to be released again in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). Observatories in many places around the world are recording this increase. Average temperatures are also increasing worldwide. Although some cold records are being broken, many more heat records are being broken and on average the earth is warming. This warming of land, oceans and atmosphere is leading to weather disturbances: more frequent droughts in some areas, more floods in others, more hurricanes, more wildfires, sea level rises and other events.

Yet, despite all of the collected evidence garnered by highly qualified experts, some people continue to insist that humans are not the major contributing factor to these events.

Skeptics vs Denialists

In the first video, Cook explains the difference between a skeptic and a denialist: “A genuine skeptic doesn’t come to a conclusion until they’ve considered the evidence. In contrast, someone who denies well-established science comes to a conclusion first, and then discounts any evidence that conflicts with their beliefs.”

What You Will Learn

Week 1 addresses the meaning of scientific consensus and shows us the overwhelming evidence of consensus among climate scientists. It briefly explains the science behind heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide before going on to discuss ways in which people’s ideological beliefs can affect their level of acceptance of climate change.

Week 2 presents evidence of global warming, week 3 explains how humans are causing almost all of the observed warming. Week 4 delves deep into Earth’s history and explains how models are being constantly developed and refined to more accurately predict possible future climate trends. The impact of global warming on societies and the environment is discussed in Week 5.

Week 6 provides further material to help students respond to denialist claims.

The course finishes with the opportunity to write a rebuttal of a myth about the climate and submit it for review by your peers.


If you want to test your knowledge or earn a certificate, assessment consists of quiz questions (60%), marks for participation in discussions and pre- and post-course surveys (10%), plus a peer-reviewed assignment (30%). A number of ungraded practice questions throughout the course help check your understanding.

The course structure and assessment process are clearly explained. There is even a link to a demonstration edX course to familiarize students with the format.

Click on the “Progress” page to check your results at any time. The course pass mark is 70%.

If you plan to earn a certificate in this course, I would recommend reading the guidelines for the final assignment as soon as possible, so you can start thinking about your response. Your 300 to 500-word essay needs to be submitted ahead of the hard deadline, so you have enough time to review five essays submitted by your peers before the deadline. Guidelines for writing the assignment and reviewing your peers are comprehensive and well explained, among the best I have seen. The practice review assignment (worth 10%, leaving 20% for the essay) is very helpful.

Bonus Material

If you are a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit”, be sure to learn about “The Climate of Middle Earth”, created by Dan Lunt, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol.

Other bonus materials are comprised of readings, links to relevant websites, and in-depth interviews with a number of experts, including broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough, who has spent many years observing the natural world.

A Final Thought

First released in 2015, Making Sense of Climate Science Denial has been repeated several times since. If you are not able to do the course right now, you may possibly be able to catch it in a future run.