25/07/2013 12:21 BST | Updated 23/09/2013 06:12 BST

Should We Cut Climate Change From The Syllabus?


Edward Davey has an unenviable job. As secretary of state for climate change he faces insurmountable obstacles, conflicting interests and unreasonable demands.

Firstly lies the difficulty of producing quantifiable results, which will have pertinence in the Commons and persuade the green vote at the ballot box.

Even if Davey succeeds in reducing UK carbon emissions, the fruits of his endeavours will be hard to measure. Climate change is a truly global issue, with any success Britain might make being outweighed by increases in carbon emissions elsewhere. Thus it is unlikely that Davey will ever have the headline or statistical widget he so desires.

Secondly climate change policy is underpinned by the need to make difficult cuts elsewhere.

In order to create a carbon neutral economy we must first divert investment away from crude mining towards cleaner, renewable industries. In recession hit Britain the idea of driving funds and support away from new technologies such as fracking, which are a great source of revenue and jobs, is political suicide.

Therefore Davey, alongside his predecessors (Lib Dem point-snatcher Chris Huhne and opposition leader Ed Miliband), has focused on the easier option: Climate change education.

Education costs no jobs and relatively little money, the infrastructure for it is already in place, and above all the public thoroughly supports it.

Rethinking the central premise

The rationale behind focusing on climate change education is simple: A lack of scientific information is the limiting factor in public nonresponse to the issue.

This justification is explicitly stated by Sarah Lester, climate expert from Imperial University, London. Lester contends: "Raising people's awareness and understanding of climate change is vital if we want to provoke a reaction".

This opinion is echoed by Adam Dyster, Climate Coalition Youth Campaigner, who argues that schooling "prepares young people to face, and indeed improve, the world after education has long been completed".

But few of the advocates of climate change education have actually analysed in any considerable detail why or how scientific knowledge links with carbon activism.

In a landmark Norwegian study, researchers compared public interest and involvement in climate change over a 12 year period.

Their results were unexpected: Despite the growing presence of global warming in the media and increasing public understanding of the issue public involvement had actually reduced from 40% in 1989 to 10% in 2001.

Since then a number of reports have recorded similar results across the world.

According to Sammy Zahran, an economic climate specialist from Colorado State University, these reports suggest that a scientific understanding of climate change plays little role in sending people on a road to activism.

Surprisingly, some scholars have even found a negative correlation between scientific understanding and climate change engagement: A recent study by Dan M Kahan from the Cultural Cognition Project at Yale Law School discovered that members of the public with "the highest degrees of science literacy and technical reasoning capacity were not the most concerned about climate change".

According to Kahan, resistance to carbon activism stems not from an incomprehension of science but from a distinctive conflict of interest: Between the cultural and emotional ties individuals have with their social set, and the collective obligation they have to prevent climate change.

These studies show that knowledge of climate change science is not a prerequisite to action. Instead education is one of a plethora of socio-cultural factors which influence our risk perceptions.

Political viability

Whilst there is now a compelling argument for reducing climate change education and focusing resources on a more holistic approach, the political and public will for such a move has been tepid.

In March/April of this year the idea of reducing climate change from the syllabus was trialled.

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that a number of proposed changes to the National Curriculum for under 14s were going into consultation. A central part of these changes was the reduction of specific climate change science to make way for a more holistic schooling in climate awareness.

Although Gove insisted that climate change was not being phased out of the curriculum and would continue to be specifically mentioned in both the science and geography curriculums, the move was met with ardent criticism both inside the Commons, by thought leaders and public groups.

The critical response meant the proposals gained little traction and ultimately ended in reversal.


It is difficult to come out against climate change education, particularly in the current climate of carbon pandemonium. There is bantam political and public appetite for reducing education, and the public reaction to any move would likely cost Mr Davey, and his party, dearly with the green vote in 2015.

However, given the convincing studies that do exist, I believe it is right that we look seriously at the costs and benefits of climate change education.

For as budgets squeeze and the climate warms, we cannot afford to misdirect resources.