‘The debate over the science of climate change is well and truly over.” So said David Miliband in February. Mr Miliband, who was then environment secretary, was responding to a report from the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This left the minister so confident that there was nothing more to say on the matter that he and Alan Johnson, the then education secretary, announced that they would be sending a film about climate change to all 3,385 secondary schools in England.
A neutral, objective assessment of the evidence, perhaps? One that took care to present all sides of the argument so that pupils could make up their own minds?
Not at all: it was Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, described by Mr Johnson as “a powerful message about the fragility of our planet”. Since ministers regarded the debate as well and truly over, they were “delighted” to send school children a polemic that took as its central thesis the argument that climate change – the increase in global temperatures over the past 50 years – was mainly the result of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
This is indeed the view of the IPCC, and most of the world’s climate scientists. But other people disagree. One of them is Stewart Dimmock, 45, a lorry driver and school governor from Kent. His sons, aged 11 and 14, attend a secondary school in Dover which has presumably received a copy of Mr Gore’s film.
“I care about the environment as much as the next man,” says Mr Dimmock. “However, I am determined to prevent my children from being subjected to political spin in the classroom.”
You might think there ought to be a law against this – and there is. Section 406(1)(b) of the Education Act 1996 says that local education authorities, school governing bodies and head teachers “shall forbid… the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school”.
And if political issues are brought to the attention of pupils while they are at a maintained school, the authority, the governors and the head are required by the next section of the Act to take “such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that… they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views”.
What precisely do these words mean? No court has yet ruled on them. But that opportunity will come in a week’s time when Mr Dimmock takes legal action against Ed Balls, the new Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. Mr Dimmock’s lawyers are trying to prevent the film being shown in schools. At this stage, they are asking for permission to challenge the Schools Secretary’s decision to distribute it. This was refused in July after a written application. But if permission is granted at an oral hearing next Thursday, the judge is expected to consider the merits of Mr Dimmock’s application for judicial review straight away.
A day in court, with expert evidence, does not come cheap – especially if Mr Dimmock loses and has to pay part or all of the Government’s costs. Where will the money come from?
“The funding is a private matter for him,” says John Day, Mr Dimmock’s solicitor. Mr Day will not be drawn further, but he does confirm that his client is an active member of the New Party. Its manifesto says that “political opportunism and alarmism have combined in seizing [the IPCC’s] conclusions to push forward an agenda of taxation and controls that may ultimately be ineffective in tackling climate change, but will certainly be damaging to our economy and society”.
What, though, of the issues? According to his solicitor, Mr Dimmock accepts that the planet is getting hotter; he is not trying to prevent climate change being taught in schools. What he does not accept is that sending out a 93-minute film made by the former vice-president of the United States is the right way to do it.
“Gore has gone on record as saying he believes it is appropriate to over-represent the facts to get his message across,” says Mr Day. “One of the very clear inferences from the Gore film is that areas such as Bangladesh will be under water by the end of the century. He is talking about sea levels rising by 20 feet.”
But this is not backed up by the IPCC, the solicitor says. Their view is that sea levels will rise by 1.3 feet over the next 100 years. A rise of 20ft would require rising temperatures to continue for millennia. “This film is a very powerful piece of work, says Mr Day. “There is a real risk that children are going to gulp on this and just digest it and accept it.”
Michael Sparkes, also from the law firm Malletts, adds that Mr Gore’s central premise – that carbon dioxide emissions are causing the recently observed global warming – is taken by the film as proved. “There is no discussion of the fact that the climate is changing naturally all the time, whether warming or cooling.” He questions the examples given in the film, suggesting that there are often local causes for shrinking lakes and melting glaciers. Mr Dimmock’s lawyers will therefore argue that distributing this film to schools is either unlawful under section 406 of the 1996 Act or unlawful because it does not offer the balance required by section 407.
But, says the Government, balance is precisely what we are providing. Teachers need only go to a public website called teachernet.gov.uk to download and print – at their schools’ expense – a 48-page guidance note. The current version of this note acknowledges that “teachers have a duty to give a balanced presentation of political issues and to avoid political indoctrination”. It advises teachers to divide the film into three strands:
* areas where there is undisputed scientific consensus, such as the clear evidence that global temperatures are rising;
* areas where there is a “strong scientific consensus but where a small minority of scientists do not agree”, for example that gas emissions from human activity are the main cause of climate change. “When dealing with such issues teachers may wish to refer to alternative views but make it clear that they do not accord with the weight of scientific opinion,” the Government says; and
* areas where there is political debate, such as how we should respond to climate change. “When addressing these areas, teachers must take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that pupils are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views.”
The Schools Department says: “The law does not prevent teachers or schools from showing material which includes expressions of political opinion. But it does require that, when such material is shown, the opinion is presented in a balanced way.”
Mr Day says his client is not satisfied with this. “You have a fundamentally flawed film, scientifically and politically, where the onus is being placed on teachers to draw the thorns and to remedy the defects,” he says. “Is that fair on teachers?”
Whether the written guidance is enough to balance the impact of Mr Gore’s undoubtedly political views will no doubt be at the heart of next week’s hearing. But is the debate over the science of climate change “well and truly over”? Not a chance.