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Is Climate Change Science Too Trendy for School Lessons?

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With the new school year underway next month, the Department for Education will begin consulting teachers about its plans to remove climate change from the national curriculum, which sets out the statutory programmes of study and attainment targets for pupils aged between 5 and 16 in state schools in England.

The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, announced a review of the curriculum last January, speaking of the need to give every child a "deep immersion in the reasoning skills generated by subjects such as history". But some of the public statements by the Education Secretary and his advisers over the past few weeks have shown a startling ignorance about the long pedigree of climate change science and a mistaken belief that man-made global warming is some sort of trendy new idea that might soon go out of fashion.

In his speech to launch the review, Mr Gove complained that the curriculum had become "bloated with prescriptive detail about how to teach and empty rhetoric about what teaching should achieve", but at the same time was "decidedly thin on knowledge". Instead, he argued, the curriculum should contain "more core knowledge and less extraneous material".

The Education Secretary said a new curriculum would be introduced in 2013 for English, science and maths, but that there would be opportunity for "extensive consultation amongst interested parties". He said: "Of course I have views - some of them well-known - on the value and importance of different subjects and topics, but it is crucial that everyone have their voice heard in what is an extremely important national debate".

In recent weeks, Mr Gove and his advisers have been airing some of these personal views, particularly about the place of climate change in science lessons.

Tim Oates, who is leading the expert panel that is helping to review the curriculum, told 'The Guardian' that it should not include climate change and should "get back to the science in science".

"We have believed that we need to keep the national curriculum up to date with topical issues, but oxidation and gravity don't date", he said.

In a follow-up letter, Mr Oates wrote: "There is a vital distinction between what the national curriculum should prescribe as core scientific knowledge and the vast range of issues that can and should be discussed in schools that need not be listed in the national curriculum...So, we fully expect schools to tackle important issues like climate change as part of their own curriculum."

Then, in an interview in 'The Times', Mr Gove was quoted making the same point: "One of the problems we have had with science in the past is that people have said 'in order to make science relevant you've got to link it to things which are contemporary' - climate change or food scares - but...what they need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton's laws of thermodynamics and Boyle's law".

Apart from the obvious howler of crediting Isaac Newton with formulating the laws of thermodynamics, Mr Gove's description of climate change as "contemporary" shows an astounding lack of awareness about just how long scientists have been studying global warming.

As Spencer Weart of the American Institute of Physics points out in his excellent account of 'The Discovery of Global Warming', John Tyndall first discovered in 1859 that carbon dioxide and water vapour are greenhouse gases, and speculated in a paper in 1861 that variations in the concentrations of these gases in the atmosphere "may have produced all the mutations of climate which the researches of geologists reveal".

Then in 1896, Svante Arrhenius published a paper in which he provided estimates of how much the Earth might warm if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increased, for instance, by burning coal.

So, the science of global warming is at least 100 years old, yet the Education Secretary believes that it is too "contemporary" to be included in the national curriculum. On this basis, it should also exclude continental drift (first put forward in 1912 by Alfred Wegener) and the structure of DNA (first described by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953).

In fact, the whole national curriculum would need to be based on pre-20th century science if climate change is considered too "contemporary" for inclusion!

Shouldn't Mr Gove and his advisers take a few tutorials on the history of climate change science, and then re-consider whether it really should be excluded from the national curriculum?

Bob Ward is policy and communications director at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at London School of Economics and Political Science.