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Education: Climate Change Science

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 16 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to increase the priority given to teaching climate change science.

My Lords, the Government believe that it is vital that children are well informed about climate change. For this reason, relevant topics are included throughout the geography and science national curriculum and associated qualifications. For example, in secondary school science, pupils consider the evidence for the human causes of climate change, and as part of GCSE geography they study spatial and temporal characteristics of climatic change and evidence for different causes, including human activity.

My Lords, head teachers have an obligation not to teach push causes, which are seen as party political, and therefore feel that teaching on climate change may cause problems. Will the Government categorically state that teaching on climate change is not a party-political issue, and would they be prepared to meet representatives of the teaching unions and head teachers to make sure that they understand this?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord that this is not party-political but a generational issue, and it is our responsibility as the older generation to protect the environment for the young people of tomorrow. We do not in any way suggest that teaching these issues is party political. We have such things as the Green Great Britain Week, which took place for the first time last year, to raise awareness of how businesses, universities, schools and the public can contribute to tackling climate change, and we will be doing another one of these in November. I am certainly happy to meet the unions and the stakeholders the noble Lord referred to.

In which case, will the Minister locate some tip-top teachers in schools who are providing the science on climate change to our young citizens, and invite them to come to this place for a day to teach the climate change deniers in this House what the young people are being taught? They were conspicuous by their absence in the recent debate; clearly they do not have the confidence to put their case. The fact is that the science is there, and it would be a suitable opportunity across the generations to deliver the science to them.

My Lords, there is absolutely no suggestion that there is denial of climate change by this Government. Indeed, we have seen some of the most dramatic improvements in dealing with decarbonisation of the economy over the last 10 years. We are leading the way in the G20, we have reduced carbon in the economy by 4.7% per year, which is double the G7 average, and we have some of the highest levels of wind generation in the world—so I can assure the noble Lord that we are not anti or against it. However, we also have to remember that we should be worried not just about climate change but about environmental contamination.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interests in the register. Will my noble friend ensure that climate change is taught within the context of the scientific method, which requires predictions based on hypothesis to be tested against observations? Therefore, let children know that the impact of CO2 is well established by observations and can be measured, and that the direct effect of doubling the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere will be a one degree centigrade increase in the average temperature of the globe. However, higher estimates, based on much less certain feedbacks for which there is not observational confirmation, and all the forecasts based on climate models, assume very high feedbacks that have been falsified by observations. Therefore, those models need to be amended.

I assure the noble Lord that we are improving the curriculum all the time. For example, in 2018, 96% of pupils in state-funded schools were entered for the science component of the EBacc. The proportion of pupils taking GCSE geography increased from 26% in 2010 to 41% last year. We have also seen increases in participation in A-level chemistry and physics. These are all science and evidence-based subjects.

My Lords, could the Government get the United States President to drop in on one of those classes during his visit?

My Lords, the noble Lord commented on science and geography being taught in schools. Clearly that is not effective enough, because students in Oxford have started a national petition to make climate change a core part of the curriculum. So far it has attracted 71,000 signatures. So young people are getting the message, and it seems that MPs are as well, because two weeks ago a Labour Motion in another place to formally declare a climate and environment emergency was endorsed without a vote. I should add that the Environment Secretary responded to that debate by saying that the situation we face is an emergency. That endorses the Minister’s point about this not being party political; I very much welcome that. Given Mr Gove’s wise words, perhaps I might build on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Singh. Does the Minister know whether Mr Gove will raise with Donald Trump during his visit the fact that climate change is a very real threat and that ignoring international agreements and action on the climate crisis is something that he can no longer do?

My Lords, I am not sure whether my right honourable friend Michael Gove will be meeting Mr Trump, but I am sure that he would raise those issues with him. I want to put a slightly different slant on things. We are making enormous progress in this country to combat climate change. As I mentioned, we are leading the world in offshore wind power generation, the cost of which per kilowatt hour has dropped dramatically in the past five years. We have created a Green Finance Institute. A record proportion of our energy is generated by low-carbon sources. In the past few weeks, we have had the first evidence of generation of electricity without any use of coal at all. We have dramatically reduced the role of coal-fired energy in generation. So we must remember that we are doing an enormous amount. My priority on climate change is that we should adapt to deal with its consequences.

My Lords, the Minister is absolutely correct to lay out the measures that the Government have already taken—but was the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, not right to say that young people are aware and frightened of the effects of climate change and environmental degradation and that they are asking us, the generations represented in this House, to make a step change in what we are doing? Resting on our laurels will not protect our grandchildren.

I respectfully disagree with the noble Baroness; we are not resting on our laurels. I just gave some examples of the things we are doing and how we are leading the developed world with our carbon-reduced economy. We have only recently introduced the 25-year environment plan, which encourages children to participate. We are on track, but we have to keep this in the public eye.