Children, science and climate change

Clearing out earlier this year, I came across my daughter’s old revision guide-books. These were produced by a company called CGP to condense the basic biology, chemistry and physics needed for her to pass Key Stage Three, and subsequently Core, Higher and Advanced science GCSE.

Unlike my daughter and son, I did not learn much science at school, being very much an “arts” student, and my ignorance is a source of some embarrassment, so I decided to read these and try to repair a few of the gaps in my knowledge of the world. (Project for 2021 onwards…)

So far I’ve reached Homeostasis in GCSE Biology section 2(2).

This does not mean I have retained the knowledge of what the liver, kidneys and pancreas do, or the different EM rays between radio waves and gamma. Please do not send in quiz questions!

It’s been an entertaining and useful project, however. Since these books (produced 1998-2006) are intended for teenagers, they contain humorous pictures and jokes, ranging from the wry-smile-able to the appalling. I also have to remember that they are intended for revision, not basic teaching, so not everything is explained. For example we are given a list of substances called the Reactivity Series, but no explanation as to whether it is in any way a complete list, and how any elements that aren’t on it fit in. Telling me that (I quote) “the oxides of non-metals have a pH below 7. This means they’re acidic. So non-metal oxides will react with a base to make salts and water,” is not helpful if you haven’t yet defined and explained pH, acid, or for that matter “salts.”

But I now know the difference between conduction, convection and radiation, and that respiration does not mean breathing.

What made me want to write about these nice books however, was another thought. It has probably not escaped your attention that we are having a major summit to discuss the problem of climate change. I can’t find it now, but I’m sure I’ve heard or read that schools should be teaching more about this.

I thought they already were.

The CGP books, presumably following the official curriculum at the time, are careful to say that human-caused global warming is a “theory,” (2006, remember.) Nonetheless, issues of the environment/global warming/running out of fossil fuels/sources of renewable energy and the like are covered very very thoroughly.

In GCSE Core Science, environmental issues are dealt with on pages 32-5 (Biology). 50-52 (Chemistry) and 79-84 (Physics.) I think this is quite a high proportion, considering they’ve also got to tell you what energy is and the component parts of a cell.

At the bottom of each page is a brief summary-to-encourage-you-to-revise.

Key Stage Three page 61: “It’s all about how the world’s going to end and it’ll be our own fault. Nothing like a bit of worry mixed with guilt to start your day…” GCSE Core Science page 32: “Well, I feel guilty, I don’t know about you. First we kill off loads of animals by hunting them, then we try to manipulate their DNA, and now we’re destroying the land they live on.” Page 34: “We humans have created some big environmental problems for ourselves. Many people, and some governments, think we ought to start cleaning up the mess. Scientists can help, mainly in understanding the problems and suggesting solutions, but it’s society as a whole that has to do something.”

Now I’m not saying I disagree with these comments, nor am I saying that today’s youth shouldn’t be told these things. But it’s not very cheery.

When I was a child, we were all scared of nuclear war. (“Mutual Assured Destruction” was supposed to be the reason that no superpower would start a nuclear war. A pleasant expression.)

CS Lewis wrote a paper in 1948 to answer the question someone had apparently asked him, “How are we to live in an atomic age?” He said robustly, “Why, as you would have lived… when the plague visited London every year, or… when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat any night, or indeed as you are already living in an age of cancer, in an age of syphilis…(etc.)” (Reproduced in Present Concerns, edited by Walter Hooper, 1986.)

He makes a good point, but nonetheless there is a difference between saying “horrible things happen frequently, and may happen to you any day, as you can see,” and saying “we are probably destroying the planet.”

In addition, people/children in an earlier age held this scary knowledge within their religious worldview. Their religious institutions and doctrines may (sometimes or often) have been corrupt or cruel, but they gave a certain level of stability, and for many surely some hope.

This kind of stability and hope are not encouraged in most of modern culture. As the CGP book says: “‘How it all began’ is quite a tricky problem. Some religious people say that God created the world. Among scientists, the theory of a ‘big bang’ to get things started is now generally accepted, because that’s what the evidence suggests.” This seems to imply that belief in God is incompatible with belief in the big bang; it could certainly be read that way, and equally certainly doesn’t encourage anyone to seek comfort or help from God.

Nor, as a science textbook, should it, before you write in to complain.

But we’re told that a worryingly high proportion of young people today have mental health issues. When you add all the other problems of the world to climate change, and then covid (and the ease with which any teenager can obtain information and conspiracy theories about them all) – I’m amazed it’s not more.

This kind of (perhaps justified) terror and guilt is what we are giving to our children to equip them for the future. Poor them.

Love from the PPI Blogger


  • Matthew Perry

    12th November 2021 at 7:09 pm Reply

    Intersting, I had nightmares as a young teenager after watching Alsitair Cooke visit a US nuclear missle silo in the early 70s. Does David attenborough have this effect on today’s youth? To be honest, he probably should!

  • Stephen Sheridan

    15th November 2021 at 2:28 pm Reply

    Sadly guilt and fear have been the most effective tools humanity has discovered to control its members. Alerting people to danger and potential danger is all very well, but unless it is tempered then it gradually has less and less effect and will eventually weaken its proclaimers.

    My Polish relatives told me that during the Cold War, the Communist regime was constantly talking about the threat of nuclear destruction at the hands of the evil capitalist nations and that was another good reason to cling to the “safety” of Communism. It was massively counter-productive. The Polish people said “having endured all the deaths and destruction of Nazism and Communism plus the grinding shortages suppression of freedom of the existing regime, we couldn’t care less about nuclear destruction”.

    They even made a satirical film that managed to get past the censors called Sex Mission, where two typical Polish men, mainly interested in beer, vodka and football are cryogenically frozen. They wake up centuries after a nuclear war to find they are living underground in an all female society (cue some hilarity about all women teams exchanging shirts at the end of a football match and thereby being temporarily topless). They initially think that they will have a great time, but rapidly discover they are to be used as lab rats. At the end of the film it is revealed that female ruling caste are in fact men after all and the surface world is perfectly habitable.

    One of the big issues for rising mental health issues for children in the Western World (it does not apply to most of the rest of the world) is the fact that they are the most spoiled, protected and indulged generation in human history and they have not been given the resilience to cope with the real world. This is compounded by them being buried in a social media that worships selfish individualism. I have noticed it is starting to turn though – my daughter’s generation seem to be aware that things will have to change. the coming hyper-inflation and energy shortages will either toughen them up or produce an epidemic of mental breakdowns.

    On Climate Change it will remain a theory regardless of how much evidence is gathered, until we can conduct falsifiable experiments to prove it and since we cannot simulate it accurately because it is a massively complex and chaotic system, we shall never be able to do that. All we can really go on is a version of the precautionary principle – this is essentially what the IPCC do – and it is better to read their reports in full, rather than the “Executive Summary” designed for dumb politicians. we shall need to learn how live differently, but working class people will have to be respected on how this will transition – a whole load of business and aristocratic hypocrites (including the heir to the throne with his cheese and wine powered car)turning up for gourmet food by private jet to tell everyone else that they need to get poorer, will have the reverse effect.

    If we can fix the energy production gap then the emissions issue can be solved – this might just happen, but it won’t come from burning Canadian wood chippings in an ex-coal-fired station and calling it “renewable’.

    I remember Threads in the 80s was an excellent scare – I didn’t sleep for 4 days, but then I worked out what I would do in the event of a build up – go straight to Greenham, Common and get vapourised. I sleep much better after that!

  • Stephen Hall

    15th November 2021 at 5:55 pm Reply

    Thank you Penny for another thought-provoking blog. Human-caused climate change is real and major policy changes are required to turn this particular supertanker around. But I suspect the ‘destroying the planet’ rhetoric probably overstates reality. Yes climate change is bringing more extreme weather events. But deaths from natural disasters are far lower than previous decades – modern society can deal with these things better. Yes climate change is increasing world temperatures. But ththe planet is still cooler than the average for the World’s history. There being ice at the poles is a relative rarity in geological history – in many periods the poles have been forested. What is problematic is the rate of warming; not the actuality of a planet, say, 2 degrees warmer. I am a keen supporter of policies and individual actions to limit fossil fuels because adapting to a rapidly changing climate is difficult and expensive for both people and plants and animals. But I’m not sure I buy in to the full doomsday scenario.

    Nor am I sure about the exceptionalism espoused that climate change is a worse threat than other challenges we have faced. The Black Death killed a third of our population. Mid-20th century authoritarian regimes were responsible for tens of millions of deaths. You mention the threat of nuclear annihilation since the 1950s. It would take one of the gloomier climate change forecasts to approach the threat of these events. Personally I am more downhearted about the assault on the natural world than about climate change, though the two issues are linked in many ways.

    But your blog isn’t about the ins and outs of climate science, it’s about the effects on children. I wonder if there’s something of a pendulum swinging here between earnestness and hedonism that may not have that much to do with what’s going on ‘in the news’. Each generation seems to react against the prevailing mood of their predecessors. The middle-aged huff and puff about the earnest wokery of today’s millenials, just as they used to complain about ‘young people today’ getting off their faces at unlicensed raves. So 1964, 1988 and 2000 may have been peaks of the hedonism curve, and 1969, 1982 and perhaps 2020 may have been peak earnestness. On balance I think I prefer young people to care about world events than not to care!

    However, a lot needs to be done to cut down on fossil fuel emissions, and there are powerful interest groups (from countries like Russia, Australia and Saudi Arabia down to individuals who like tootling about in their cars) who are resistant to action. So ultimately I think I agree with what my namesake says about fear and guilt having to be stoked up to bring about the changes that need to happen.

    • Stephen Sheridan

      16th November 2021 at 10:42 pm Reply

      Very well put namesake and thanks again to Penelope for raising the issue.

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