Join the debate for change

19th August 2011 at 01:00
Laughing at denial and teachers as trees will enliven discussions about the climate at the Scottish Learning Festival

The Earth's climate is changing. There is no argument about that. Human activities are the main cause. There is no genuine argument about that. Scientists disagree about the detail - the speed of change, the timing of events, the effects of climate change on local weather.

They do not disagree about the basic facts: 1. carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps energy from the sun; 2. burnt fossil fuels put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere; 3. the Earth is warming as a result.

The basic science is clear and simple, but the politics are complex and disreputable, says Edinburgh University's Richard Milne. "Seeing people being dishonest about something as important motivated me to look at denialist arguments and come up with snappy, accurate ways to refute them - and help others do so."

Invited to deliver conference talks to teachers by the former Learning and Teaching Scotland, Dr Milne based these on his climate science lectures to undergraduates. His Scottish Learning Festival seminar in September builds on these talks.

"I want to give people tools to counter the silliest arguments. It's nearly impossible to get a laugh out of climate change, but climate change denial can be funny."

A vital distinction is between deniers and sceptics, says Dr Milne. "If I'm asked to review a scientific paper, my role is that of a sceptic. Have these authors proved their science and, if not, where have they failed? A sceptic has doubts. We criticise and make the science better. A denier is someone with cast-iron certainty. They tell you the world is not warming, that humans are not the cause. They say a warmer world won't be a problem. They're defending a fixed viewpoint with arguments that can't all be true. They are not interested in the truth."

The variety of arguments can make it hard for teachers to recognise the truth, Dr Milne agrees. "But it gets easier. I don't want anybody to take my word for anything. I'm aiming to give people the tools they need to think about climate change.

One of Dr Milne's examples is "climategate", the media storm that followed the hacking of computers at the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit and the publication of sections of internal emails.

"Every email you've sent for the past 10 years has been hacked and read by the person who hates you most. They've picked out the most incriminating sentences and published them. Would that be a good way to get at the truth about you?", asks Dr Milne.

Or consider the legal system, says Dr Milne. "They say all of climate science can be judged by a few questionable email comments. So, let's suppose there's been a mistake in the papers used in the case against a criminal. A judge might decide his conviction is unsafe and he has to be released. If you follow the deniers' logic, you would release every criminal from prison."

Climate change can seem confusing because that's what the deniers want us to believe and they are skilled at manipulating the media, says Dr Milne. "Scientists aren't. But some are now realising that the lies must be countered.

"When you get into the details of climate science, it is complex and scientists do disagree. But not about the big picture. The Earth's climate is changing and carbon dioxide from fossil fuels is the main cause."

Scottish Learning Festival, SECC Glasgow, September 21-22

Climate change - truth, controversy and evidence by Dr Richard Milne, Wednesday 21 September, 2.30pm


The last thing needed in a classroom is a "dismal story about the world coming to an end", says Alison Motion, education manager at the Royal Highland Education Trust. "So our new education pack is full of activities for learning outdoors. We're wondering if we can get a pile of teachers up during our session at the Scottish Learning Festival to pretend to be a tree."

Forests for the Future, launching at the festival, aims to help teachers and pupils use trees, parks and woodlands to "understand climate change, the value of trees in the carbon cycle, and what individuals and schools can do".

Sally York, education policy adviser at Forestry Commission Scotland, explains the pack is a joint production with the Crown Estate in the International Year of Forests.

"There's a lot of misunderstanding about using trees to mitigate climate change. You can't fly over to Disneyland, then plant a few trees to make up for it. We look at the whole relationship of trees and carbon, how we can look after woodlands and why we want to do so."

Activities in the 144-page pack Forests for the Future are matched separately to Curriculum for Excellence second-level outcomes and experiences and to upper-primary programmes of study.

- Woods for Learning:

- Forests for the Future:

- Scottish Learning Festival

Climate Change and Forests: Using forests in learning, teaching about climate change by Sally YorkeAlison Motion, 22 September, 9.30am

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