Today’s blog is written by our Chair of Trustees, Bill Scott.  It explores the issue of a curriculum that is serious about exploring rapid climate change.  Bill is writing in a personal capacity, and these are not NAEE’s views.  The post was published on his own blog yesterday.


Now that it’s become clear that curriculum time in schools need not be spent on exploring the points made by climate change deniers, you might think that life has become easier for teachers who want to deal with the small matter of climate change.  Not so, I fear, as this three-stage argument makes plain:

The stages *

Stage 1.  It is clear that time in schools must be devoted to climate itself – what is it?  how is it different to weather?  what determines it?  how and why does it vary from place to place?  how and why does it change over time?  what timescales are involved?  etc, etc.  The basics, as it were.  Unless you’re a researcher, this is pretty uncontroversial geography.  A lot  – if not most – of it is, one way or another, in the school curriculum now.

Then there has to be a focus (Stage 2) on the evidence for a rapidly changing climate which coincides to a degree with the evidence of global heating.  There’s some physics in here but its not the difficult and often counter-intuitive  quantum stuff.  Although, it’s not as controversial as it was, there is still considerable discussion about the meaning of the data – which the IPCC and NASA have in abundance.  Just how valid the climate models are continues to be tested and contested, but the nuances of this are more relevant to study in specialist HE study rather than in schools.  There is not as much scope for consideration of these issues in the current school curriculum as there is with what’s in Stage 1.  This is the area that DfE expects schools to explore if they want to.  There are already resources out there if you look.  DfE says it plans to make this easier.

It gets much more difficult when it comes to Stage 3 because this is not only about looking ahead to what might happen to the atmosphere/ocean system over the next, say, 30 to 80 years – where the IPCC’s scenarios come into play (more physics) – but takes us into the contested muddy ground of thinking about action to either mitigate or adapt, or both.  Here, values come into play because there will be a need for socio-economic / political decisions affecting people’s lives, and not just in the UK.  There are serious questions here about whether an attempt should be made to inculcate values; the rationale for doing so rests on the alleged existential nature of the crises we face where time is short and it’s too late for liberal educational niceties.  Such inculcation is undoubtedly already going on.

Some further difficulties

It’s also going to be tricky (and controversial) in that there will be a need to navigate between the different viewpoints of commentators, and their proposals and prescriptions for the future health of the planet: from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the anti-capitalist Green New Deal at one end, to Bjorn Lomborg’s cost-benefit analysis approach at the other.  Lomborg is founder and President of the Copenhagen Consensus Center and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.  Ocasio-Cortez is a USA Representative who is a leading advocate of radical socio-economic change in the face of our climate and ecological problems.

It seems more than likely in all this that your preferred political positioning might well pre-dispose you to one or other position on climate-related socio-economics.  If you want to see an end to the excesses of capitalism, then the green new deal might just be the thing to go for; however, if you think that the innovation and discipline that markets provide within liberal capitalism are important, you probably won’t.  Either way, given that money can only be spent once, it’s crucial that arguments about what to spend it on what, and when, are aired as widely as possible before decisions are made as openly and democratically as practicable.

Schools are a crucial place for these issues to be initially aired in a balanced fashion.  In terms of what is taught in schools in relation to Stage 3, it’s important that both these extremes (and much in between) are explored as there is currently no social consensus about which route to follow.  One difficulty, however, is that much of the current activism and information around climate and education in schools emanates from the green deal end of the spectrum with both UKSCN and XR (and Labour / Liberal Democratic party activists) supporting such policies.  They also advocate a shift to net zero carbon by 2030 (and not 2050 which is the current national target).  Others see such an accelerated timetable as unrealistic unless economic activity is severely curtailed.

The consideration of such issues are well beyond physics and geography schemes of work (and the DfE’s minimalist prescriptions), and does not fit well where there is a separation of topics into conventional subject areas.  This means that it will continue to be hard for secondary schools to address the issues adequately because of their unintegrated disciplinary structure (and their relentless focus on examinations), but that’s another story …


I’ve used the word stages here because I cannot think of a better one; it does not necessarily imply a chronology of study.