Climate Change: Models, Metrics and Meaning Making
Doctoral thesis, 2018

This thesis, combining research in climate science and educational science, investigates different aspects of climate knowledge. It consists of five papers and covers three major topics: emission metrics, public understanding of atmospheric CO2 accumulation, and spatial modelling of natural resource use.
In Paper I-II, we study emission metrics that compare the climate impact of different climate forcers in two different ways. For Paper I, we use Sea Level Rise (SLR) as the basis for comparison, proposing two novel emission metrics. We find that all examined climate forcers – even short-lived – have considerable influence on SLR on at least a century time scale. Paper II focuses on how the Climate-Carbon cycle Feedback (CCF) affects emission metric values, in relation to how the CCF caused by non-CO2 forcers is modeled. For emission pulses, we show that with an approach previously used to calculate climate metrics using linear feedback analysis for the CCF, the effect of it will persist basically forever, while with an approach based on an explicit carbon cycle model, the CCF effect by non-CO2 forcers eventually vanishes, leading to lower metric values for longer time-horizons.

Paper III-IV, related to climate science literacy, focus on public understanding of atmospheric CO2 accumulation and its potential link to climate policy support. In Paper III, we identified five qualitatively different ways of reasoning about CO2 accumulation; only one of these is consistent with mass balance principles. We also found that task  formulation has a strong bearing on the assessment of understanding, but that strong
climate policy support does not require that people can solve typical CO2 tasks. In Paper IV, we draw attention to a range of challenges that university students experience when reasoning about CO2 accumulation, ranging from cognitive to metacognitive and affective challenges. Most notable for the cognitive domain was the failure to understand how uptake of CO2 depends on emission pathways.
In Paper V, we model low-income villagers’ spatial natural resource use while removing constraining assumptions on villagers’ behaviour. We find that removing commonly used constraints lead to higher degrees of heterogeneity among villagers’ spatial behaviour, especially for intermediate distance cases.

Climate Science Literacy

Emission Metrics

Knowledge-Behavior Gap

Short-lived Climate Forcers

SF Failure

Integral Theory

Carbon Cycle

Sea Level Rise

Common Pool Resources

Resource Extraction

HA3, Hörsalsvägen 4
Opponent: Dr. Glen Peters, CICERO, Norway


Erik Sterner

Chalmers, Space, Earth and Environment, Physical Resource Theory

Emission metrics and sea level rise

Climatic Change,; Vol. 127(2014)p. 335-351

Journal article

The effect of climate-carbon cycle feedbacks on emission metrics

Environmental Research Letters,; Vol. 12(2017)p. 034019-

Journal article

Sterner, E. O., Adawi, T., Persson, U. M., Lundqvist, U. All tasks are not created equal: Investigating understanding of atmospheric CO2 accumulation

Sterner, E. O., Adawi, T., Lundqvist, U., Persson, U. M. Challenges experienced by engineering students when dealing with tasks related to atmospheric CO2 accumulation

How much worse for climate is the emission of a kilo of methane compared to a kilo of carbon dioxide?

Will it suffice to stabilize CO2 emissions to stop global warming?

This thesis explores (1) aspects of how we can compare the climate impacts of different greenhouse gases and (2) how people reason about how atmospheric CO2 accumulation works and the challenges they face in doing so.

A key result for (1) is that all substances that contribute to global warming—even soot, that is gone from the atmosphere a few weeks after it was emitted—affect sea level rise for a long time (100 years+). The main findings for (2) is that many aspects of thinking and feeling enter our mind as we reason about questions related to CO2 accumulation. These have to do not only with our understanding of the physics at work but also with our attitudes, our identity and aspects of what we believe about the climate of tomorrow.

Climate change - land use and aviation

Carl Bennet AB, 2010-03-27 -- 2018-12-31.

International climate policy after Paris: Emissions targets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases

Swedish Energy Agency, 2015-11-01 -- 2017-10-31.

Targets and policy instruments for CO2 and shortlived climate pollutants

Swedish Energy Agency, 2013-11-01 -- 2015-10-30.

Subject Categories



Environmental Sciences

Climate Research

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Areas of Advance


Learning and teaching

Pedagogical work



Doktorsavhandlingar vid Chalmers tekniska högskola. Ny serie: 4492


Chalmers University of Technology

HA3, Hörsalsvägen 4

Opponent: Dr. Glen Peters, CICERO, Norway

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