This (slightly up-dated) article was first published in NAEE‘s Spring 2015 journal Environmental Education (Vol 108), as our ‘President’s Column’.  The views are Bill Scott’s own, not NAEE’s.

Climate Change by Numbers

Did you watch BBC FOUR’s Climate Change by Numbers back in March?

Unusually for a BBC science programme on TV, it was presented by three mathematicians. Unsurprisingly then, it was all about numbers, rather than ‘science’. Appropriately, there were lots of graphs, with rather spectacular graphics to display data and trends.

It was about 3 numbers in particular:

0.85 – the increase in temperature of the atmosphere since around 1880 – in degrees C

95 – the % certainty of the IPPC that over half this warming is due to human activity

1,000,000,000,000 – the number of tonnes of carbon we can burn (or so says the IPCC) and still be 66% sure that warming will remain under 2 degrees C.

I thought that the programme was particularly good at exploring how statistical processes developed in one field (eg, motor racing / the cotton industry / gold mining) were being used to crunch numbers relating to climate change. ‘Crunch’ is a nice term here, and it could be that those of a sceptical turn of mind might have preferred ‘manipulated’ as numbers disappeared and new ones appeared through arrange of techniques, for example: Kalman filtering, kriging, attribution studies, and the use of extreme value theory. Not that I followed all of this, of course. Some of it was hard-going.

Given that we’ve already burnt 500,000,000,000 tonnes of carbon – that is, about half of what the IPCC says we can, and the warming is already at 0.85 degrees, this does not bode well for our being able to stop entrenched habits in time.

I was disappointed about one thing. The 0.85 degrees figure has an uncertainty value attached to it, but no one mentioned this. According to the IPCC this is 0.2 degrees:

“The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend, show a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C, over the period 1880 to 2012, when multiple independently produced datasets exist.”

That’s ± 25%, which means we could be even deeper in trouble than we currently think we are, or have a little more breathing space to address the issues. No wonder this is a challenge to teach about.

It is made worse because current policy in England eschews an integrated approach to such issues. A senior DfE representative wrote this recently in a letter to me:

“Schools may incorporate sustainable development in their teaching within the broad framework of the citizenship curriculum. Additionally, the new programmes of study for geography and science cover this issue from key stage 3 and focus on the key concepts in science and geography, rather than political, economic or social debates on this topic. In order for children to develop a firm understanding of climate change, it is essential that it is taught as a carefully sequenced progression, starting with the fundamental concepts and relevant background knowledge which underpin this topic.”

The text in italics (it is my emphasis) is scarcely credible. How can it be sensible to teach the key concepts of climate change without explaining that it raises social, political, and economic issues for all humanity? How is this responsible when it will affect the lives of those being taught? How is it possible to see all this in neat boxes – facts over there – debate over here?  So depressing.  How fortunate, therefore, that teachers know better than the DfE when it comes to planning ethically and pedagogically sound lessons.

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