Introduction to Mitigation and Adaptation Studies

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Courses: BIOL 466W (CRN 21775), IDS 466W (CRN 21866), OEAS 466W (CRN 21351), BIOL 566 (CRN 21999), OEAS 566 (CRN 21781); 3 credits
Course title: Introduction to Mitigation and Adaptation Studies
Instructors: Dr. Hans-Peter Plag,
Office Hours (IRP1, room 3211): Mondays, 2:00-4:00 PM and on request.
Dr. Tatyana Lobova
Office Hours:Mondays 1:00-2:00 PM, Wednesdays: 1:30-2:30 PM and on request
Student Mentor: James McCann
Term: Fall 2019, August 26 - December 6, 2019
Time: Wednesdays: 3:00 PM - 5:40 PM
Location: SRC 1009

This course is the first course in the Impact Learning Community “Leaders for a Sustainable Future.” The second course will be the 467 “Sustainability Leadership” course in Spring 2020.


In this course, students will be introduced to studies focusing on mitigation of human-induced changes in the Earth system, including but not limited to changes in the physiology of Earth's life-support system, extinction, global heating and climate emergency, and sea level rise, and adaptation to the impacts of the syndrom of modern global change. A particular focus will be on the challenges modern changes in the biosphere, humansphere, and technosphere pose to conservation efforts. Understanding these challenges requires systems thinking and a transdisciplinary approach to the wicked problems society is faced with.

Note that the form of this course differs from many other more traditional courses in that is starts with the description of modern global change and the societal challenges this presents, and not with basic theory. The challenge of adapting to the current and future changes inflicted by humanity on the planet and the Earth's life-support system poses many “wicked problems to society. Almost all sustainability issues pose wicked problems to society. For wicked problems there is no general agreement between stakeholders on the description of the problem, each of these problems is unique, there is no set of solutions, and there is no point when the problem is solved. Often, time is running out, those who aim to solve the problem are part of the problem, there is no central authority to take care of the problem, and there is a strong tendency to focus on short-term benefits and to discount the more distant future. Coming up with a transformative set of interventions that have the potential to lead to a desirable future requires a deep understanding of the relevant system.

No comprehensive theory exists on how to address wicked problems, but most of them have to be addressed in transdisciplinary approaches. Addressing such problems requires environmental, social, and economic considerations in a complex systems environment. Therefore, we will approach any specific problem by first describing the problem in its many facets and then pulling in theory and expertise where needed to better understand the problem and to illustrate possible approaches to address the challenges.


The course combines lectures with discussions and work on research projects. The dialog between the instructors and students will take place in class, in a virtual personalized learning space, and through assignments. In each class, all students will have to submit a (online) 2+2 Form, in which they state two points that they learned in this particular class and two points that they did not understand. These 2+2 Forms are not only used as documentation of class participation but also as a means to establish a virtual dialogue: the instructors will respond to the points that were not understood or points that were misunderstood indivdiually to each student or, if several students had the same issues, in class. These 2+2 forms are private and not visble to other students.

Each week, a set of questions will be made available and written answers will have to be provided based on literature-based research. The questions will related to mitigating and adapting to modern global change and the threats these pose to society, and include a wide range of aspects. These answers have to be concise and in scientific writing style with sufficient citation of peer-reviewed sources.

The research assignment for each student consist of a research case study using the MARI case study template and a presentation of the research paper. The research paper and presentation will be prepared during student project hours and in homework.

Case Studies of Wicked Problems

The main learning experience in the class will come from case studies of wicked problems related to the threats of modern global change. The MARI template for case studies will be used for each of the case studies (see the figure below). The goal of the research in each case study of a wicked problem is to develop a set of recommendations for interventions that could facilitate progress towards an agreed-upon desirable future. In the class, the case study template will be used to address the problem of mitigating modern global changes and adapting to the many impacts. In indivdiual case studies, each student will use the template to research a wicked problem.

For each problem, there is an underlying system that can be conceptualized and modelled. The template underlines the importance of modeling for the understanding of the current and future system trajectories and the development of viable options will be emphasized. The opportunities and limitations for mitigation and adaptation interventions result to a large extent from societal decision making processes and the general basis of human decision making, which requires a deep understanding of the decision space. Importantly, decision and policy making needs to be informed by foresight comprising the full spectrum of possible futures of the system under consideration. The system is exposed to hazards, and many of these hazards are resulting from the on-going planetary reengineering that is pushing the planet out of the Holocene. Understanding the probability density function of these hazards is a prerequisite for developing foresight. Knowing the vulnerability to these hazards of the integrated socio-ecological and economic system of system associated with each wicked problem provides a basis for risk assessments to these hazards. Combining systems knowledge with reasonable scenarios for societal and environmental developments provides the means to explore the spectrum of possible futures and can help to develop the needed foresight. Based on that, interventions that have the potential to put the system on a trajectory towards a desirable future can be identified, and recommendations can be made.

The 2019 Focus

In the Fall 2019 class, all individual case studies carried out by students will focus on wicked problems around the Chesapeake Bay under climate change, sea level rise, and human pressure. The list of case study topics is currently under development.

The Class Workspace

The class workspace provides access to many collaboration tools and all tools required for assignments. Among others, the 2+2 Form and the forms for the question sets are available there. The Case Study Tool provides detail guidance for the students in their research of their specific wicked problem. All comments from instructors on work delivered are also made available in the workspace.

The "Stay Woke" page provides tools for the students to communicate and work together. Among others, questions can be asks to everybody, topics can be discussed, material can be shared, and important statements can be pinned. And everybody can comment on any of the entries made there.

The MARI Case Study Template. For details, read the full description.