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School climate strikers should answer these two questions

20 September 2019

11:58 AM

20 September 2019

11:58 AM

“The Earth is dying”, “the world is on fire”, we’re undergoing an “environmental extinction”: just three of the sentiments which have been expressed by today’s climate “strikers” and which, unlike even moderate expressions of scepticism on matters of climate science, seem to escape without challenge.

While it is tempting to think of today’s climate “strike” by schoolchildren around the world as a case of truants finding an ethical excuse to skip lessons, I think many are acting for genuine reasons: they are traumatised. They are the reflection of the hyperbolic coverage of climate change by Al Gore, Hollywood and even, latterly, David Attenborough – films where footage of fires, hurricanes and calving glaciers is stitched together to give the impression of impending doom. How many of these kids know that hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones are a natural part of the tropical climate and were going on many millennia before significant man-made carbon emissions? I rather wonder.

Any headteacher who values his or her pupils’ education will not turn a blind eye to today’s absences, still less join the kids for a march, as some are reported to be doing.

They will keep them behind after school and set them two essays to research and write. The first should answer the question: “Does scientific evidence support the notion that ‘the Earth is dying’?” As for resources to answer that question, I point them towards the latest IPCC report as well as the data sources which feed into it. That would include Nasa data on sea ice in the Arctic, which shows a sharp retreat in recent decades, as well as satellite data from the same organisation on wildfires – which shows a fall in the acreages burned in recent decades. They might also like to look at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Organisation’s report on hurricanes which last month concluded: “it is premature to conclude with high confidence that human activity–and particularly greenhouse warming–has already caused a detectable change in Atlantic hurricane activity”.

Essay number two should be on the question: “What would it mean for the global economy if governments really did eliminate all carbon emissions by 2025?” Given that this is the central demand of many of the climate strikers, this is a rather pertinent question.

Resources for this essay might include, for example, data on the steel industry, which accounts for around seven per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions, for which there is as yet no known means of decarbonisation – and without which we cannot, for example, build wind farms, construct tractors to till the soil and many other things.

Children should also be invited to consider how we might store energy generated exclusively by intermittent renewable means, how we would maintain global food production – for which they will need to look beyond the livestock industry, given that 13 per cent of agricultural greenhouse gas emissions come from fertilisers and ten per cent comes from rice production.

In addition, the pupils must answer this: if global food production did fall as a result of efforts to eliminate carbon emissions, which groups of the global population would suffer most?

How we deal with climate change is, of course, a serious issue and deserves to be treated as such in schools as anywhere else. I challenge headteachers to set striking children essays along the lines I have described. I would be genuinely interested in reading the results.


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