The irrational madness of axing climate change from the curriculum

Tim Holmes responds to this morning's Guardian article on the possibilty of climate change being dropped from the curriculum.

By Tim Holmes of the Public Interest Research Centre (PIRC)

The UK is no stranger to reactionary moves to knock climate change out of school education.

Readers may recall the episode in 2007 when Al Gore’s climate change film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ was blocked by a High Court judge – Mr Justice Burton – from distribution and screening in British secondary schools following a legal challenge.

In his ruling, Burton identified nine “errors” in Gore’s film; many of his judgments – as Oxford climatologist Myles Allen told the BBC, “just plain wrong”.

Mr Justice Burton dismissed the idea “that sea level rises of seven metres might occur in the immediate future”, for instance, as “distinctly alarmist” – though in fact the film made no such claim; and attacked the notion that climate change had caused Hurricane Katrina – another claim that was entirely absent from Gore’s film.

As Allen concluded, the judge had effectively “set himself to adjudicate on the scientific consensus”.

As it turned out, the legal challenge had been brought by a member of the New Party, a group funded by Robert Durward – owner of a Lancashire quarry and director of the quarrying industry lobby group the British Aggregates Association – who calls himself:

“A businessman who is totally fed up with all this environmental stuff… much of which is unjustified, such as the climate change levy [and] the aggregates tax, which will put the UK quarry industry out of business.”

The Scottish Tories described the New Party as “fascist”; Durward himself once wrote:

“Perhaps it is now time for Tony Blair to try the ‘fourth way’: declare martial law and let the army sort out our schools, hospitals, and roads as well. Who knows, they might even manage to put the ‘great’ back into Britain.”

There may have been a case, of course, that Gore’s film extended into advocacy as well as pure scientific fact. But it is seriously questionable whether any film shown in schools or elsewhere can ever be considered genuinely neutral – not least because of the inevitable selection of different facts, emphases, means of expression and implicit values embedded in any and all communication.

If that politically-motivated attack on climate change education were not damaging enough, though, the proposals reported today on the front page of the Guardian could go even further. The paper reports on an interview with Tim Oates – author of a forthcoming Government review of teaching for 5-to-16-year-olds – who is calling for climate change to be removed from the national curriculum.

But it is the tenor of Oates’s arguments for doing so that are truly scandalous – and that ought to provoke outrage not only among parents but for anyone concerned about the way in which the science education curriculum is being reshaped.

According to the Guardian, Oates:

…called for the national curriculum “to get back to the science in science”.

Does Oates really intend to imply that the science of climate change is somehow not “real” science? Apparently he does.

He continues:

“We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don’t date.”

The implication – that the fundamentals of science have been elbowed aside to make room for politically-correct, “topical” issues – sounds outrageous. In reality, of course, it is pure fantasy: oxidation and gravity are (stop the presses!) still on the national curriculum. More astonishing is the hint that climate change has in some way “dated”. In fact, according to the, er, science, the experts’ consensus that climate change is real and caused by humans is as solid as ever.

As one recent paper noted, in fact:

“It seems that the debate on the authenticity of global warming and the role played by human activity is largely nonexistent among those who understand the nuances and scientific basis of long-term climate processes.

“The challenge, rather, appears to be how to effectively communicate this fact to policy makers and to a public that continues to mistakenly perceive debate among scientists.”

Oates continued, the paper tells us, by saying:

The topics that engaged children in science “changed dramatically” from year to year. “The national curriculum shouldn’t ever try to keep up with those, otherwise it would keep changing…

“If you live in a town where there is a lot of manufacturing, then teachers can use that as a context to discuss the social effects of science; other groups of pupils might be more interested in how the pharmaceutical industry produces drugs.

“It’s really important that children think through the social application of science, but the precise topics… do not have to be specified by the state.”

Oates concludes:

“The curriculum has become narrowly instrumentalist.”

And that, as the paper summarises his argument:

“It should be up to schools to decide whether – and how – to teach climate change, and other topics about the effect scientific processes have on our lives.”

But is this in any way accurate or rational? Clearly – as we’ve already noted – children do continue to get taught the basics of science in schools. And the mere fact that a social issue is taught because of a teacher’s preferences, rather than because it’s on the national curriculum, does not make a decision to teach it any less “instrumentalist”.

Moreover, to suggest that an issue is only likely to stimulate kids’ interest “if you live in a town” where it seems immediately relevant is both astonishingly parochial and supremely patronising to pupils. Climate change is arguably more relevant to the future today’s children will face than any other issue.

Should we assume that such a high-stakes issue that undoubtedly threatens to do such overwhelming harm will not be of interest to children simply because it is global in scale? Why should that not make it even more engaging?

Even were this not the case, though, the overwhelming public interest justification in teaching children about the science of climate change – an obvious factor Oates seems simply to have ignored – clearly outweighs these concerns. The response to these recommendations will therefore be an important test for this government, and in particular, of its ability to stand up to the substantial anti-environmental wing of the Conservative party.

If it fails, it will have hammered what may be the final nail in the coffin of its claim to be “the greenest Government ever”.

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