Top scientist criticises climate-change teaching

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The Independent Online

The teaching of climate change and global warming in schools is dogged by "omission, simplification and misrepresentation", leading scientists have claimed.

Richard Pike, the chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, is calling for a review group to help look at how the issues should be tackled in the classroom - and avoid flawed presentations to pupils.

He said the deficiencies in teaching stemmed from the need to give youngsters "easily digested concepts" but added: "Many teachers now agree that in doing so there is the risk of losing sight of the bigger picture."

Dr Pike drew attention to the limited references to climate change in school text books - because many were out of date. He warned there was also not enough time allocated in the national curriculum to tackle the issue seriously. As a result, school text books did not see the need to address it in detail.

"You've got to have it in the curriculum and then teachers have got to have the materials to teach it," he said. "The trouble is the curriculum is, for the most part, driven by discussions between boards with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority [the Government's exams watchdog]. There is therefore a time lag between information becoming available and it finding its way into the school curriculum.

"Also, the people involved in the discussions tend in the main to be teachers - there are very few industrialists or people from the world of higher academia."

He said he had attended a seminar for science teachers earlier this month and been surprised by their lack of understanding of basic issues concerning climate change. "They seemed not to realise that tens of millions of tons of carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere every day and so massive amounts would have to be removed just to keep the concentration of this gas constant," he said.

Dr Pike's comments follow a warning just over a year ago by the QCA that geography teaching in schools was stuck "in a vicious circle of decline". A report on the curriculum described it as one of the worst-taught subjects in schools, saying it "lacks rigour and fails to motivate young people".

Dr Pike mentioned four issues that had either been omitted from the curriculum or misrepresented in schools. Firstly that water vapour, not smoke, emerges from cooling towers. "The use of pictures of cooling towers as iconic representations of global warming, therefore, is completely false," he said. "The water vapour emitted from these towers forms part of the natural water cycle."

Secondly, that very low-sulphur fuels can be worse for the environment than higher-sulphur fuels.

Thirdly that oil and other fossil fuels may be burned for another century.

Fourthly, energy storage and transportation (as electricity or hydrogen generated from electricity) will be essential for long-term sustainability.

Dr Pike added: "Young people are clearly concerned about global warming and we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that they are well informed and feel confident in challenging the status quo for the benefit of us all."

A spokesman for the Department for Education and Skills said: "There are opportunities to teach about climate change across the curriculum, particularly in geography and science."

He added that the department had worked with climate change experts such as the Met Office to produce resources for schools.

The RSC is Britain's professional body for chemical scientists and has 43,000 international members.

Textbook simplification


"Geoscientists do not agree on the contribution made by carbon dioxide to global warming. A few dispute that global warming has occurred at all. This makes it difficult for governments to act and leaves the public confused. Some people think of carbon dioxide as just the greenhouse gas that causes global warming problems, although carbon monoxide is essential for life as well."


"Controlling global warming isn't easy. One way of trying to do this is to encourage people to use cars less."


"Global warming causes climate change which scientists agree is already taking place. There is less agreement about how much change is likely and what effect it will have."


"The Greenhouse Effect is causing the Earth to warm up very slowly."