It's all very well teaching about climate change, says Richard Scrase. But, with the UN Climate Conference coming up next month, we need to help pupils develop a proper understanding of a subject that will have a profound effect on their future
As a young man working for the British Antarctic Survey, a friend of mine was lucky enough to witness a remarkable historic relic: Scott's base camp. Leather dog-harnesses hung from the walls; tinned food lay neatly stacked on shelves. The cold had preserved the cabin just as it had been left.
Modern visitors are not so fortunate. When my friend returned last year, the cabin was surrounded by wooden packing cases. Inside, he was struck by the smell of decay. As his eyes adjusted to the dim interior after the brilliant sunlight reflected from snow, he saw that the dog-harnesses were covered with a film of mould, and the tins were rusting.
The packing cases, of course, had been there all along; they belonged to Scott. It is only now with the onset of global warming that they, along with the rot and the rust, have risen up through the receding snow.
Research from around the world suggests that carbon dioxide emissions, for which man is responsible, are changing our climate. But while the facts are clear, getting pupils to develop a personal understanding of this huge and seemingly distant problem is a different matter. Very few will make it to the Antarctic.
This is one reason why I decided to join 40 other people on a 13,000-mile train journey to the UN Climate Conference in Kyoto, Japan, next month to lobby for a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions. We hope that schools will follow both the conference and our progress on the Internet.
One of the purposes of the "Climate Train" is to highlight the connection between our everyday lifestyles and climate change with a vividness that sometimes eludes the classroom.
The changes could have consequences of infinitely greater importance than the mouldering relics in Antarctica. In Canada, fir trees are dying back, unable to adapt to rising temperatures. The frozen soil, the permafrost, that acts as a foundation for roads, railways and pipelines in the far north from Siberia to Alaska, is melting. Methane gas, trapped as frozen bubbles in the soil, is being released. As methane itself is a potent greenhouse gas, there is a danger of runaway "feedback" accelerating the rate of warming.
For our own little islands, the most worrying prospect is that the Gulf Stream warming the west of Europe may slow, as the temperature gradients that drive it change. Without the massive input of heat from the tropics carried north by this current, Britain, lying on the same latitude as the Hudson Bay in Canada, would suffer a dramatic cooling. The only certainty is that the prospects are uncertain.
The Climate Train is more than a media device. Our route will take us across Europe by rail, through Berlin and Warsaw to Moscow, and then on the Trans-Siberian railway to Beijing. We hope to pick up people from almost every country in Europe on the way, until there are 40 of us bound for Kyoto. En route we will participate in climate-conferences in Moscow, Novosibirsk and Beijing. And, of course, by travelling by train, we minimise our own carbon dioxide emissions, as well as having time to share experiences and knowledge.
The challenge I would like to make to my colleagues in the teaching profession is not only to teach the facts behind climate change, something that happens competently in classrooms up and down the land every day, but to try to engage their own and their pupils' emotions with the issue.
I believe that in order to fulfil our responsibility as teachers, stating the facts is not enough. We have to grapple with the policy issues and political actions that flow from those facts. This means that we must help pupils to compare the record of the political parties on these issues, so that they become an informed electorate.
We need to explain how it is possible to buy, consume and invest in ways that minimise our impact on the planet. I am sure the colleagues I am about to meet would join me in urging you to take your part in achieving a sustainable future for us all.
Richard Scrase is a secondary science teacher and a Green Party activist. Schools can follow his progress on: www-gn.apc.orgsgrkyotojourney.html