UK Gov't Helps Teachers Deal With Gore's Climate Errors

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:18 PM EDT

( - Teachers in Britain who show their students Al Gore's Oscar-winning climate change documentary must draw attention to inaccuracies in the movie -- or run afoul of a law that bans the promotion of partisan politics at school.

A parent's legal effort to have "An Inconvenient Truth" banned from schools in England failed this week, but the High Court in London did say that in order not to breach legislation, screenings would have to be accompanied by appropriate guidance that points out the flaws in Gore's argument. Judge Michael Burton identified nine significant errors in the film.

Copies of the documentary have been sent to all secondary schools in England, where it is shown to children aged 11-14.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families' guidance now available to schools is a 60-page document that goes through the film segment by segment, pointing out where Gore's assertions "do not accord with mainstream scientific opinion," and where further input from teachers will be needed.

Teachers are told to bear in mind that the documentary "promotes partisan political views," and to be careful that they themselves do not promote those views.

Teachers must also "help pupils examine the scientific evidence critically (rather than simply accepting what is said at face value) and ... point out where Gore's view may be inaccurate or departs from that of mainstream scientific opinion."

At the same time, however, the guidance document -- like the High Court ruling -- does not call into question the underlying assertion of "An Inconvenient Truth" : that most scientists believe climate change is happening; that it is caused mainly by manmade emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide (CO2); and that it will have serious consequences.

In fact, teachers are told that they are not required to be neutral on this.

"Teaching staff will be aware that a minority of scientists disagree with the central thesis that climate change over the past half-century is mainly attributable to manmade greenhouse gases," the guidance document says. "However, the High Court has made clear the law does not require teaching staff to adopt a position of neutrality between views which accord with the great majority of scientific opinion and those which do not."

U.K. Children's Minister Kevin Brennan in a statement reiterated that nothing in the court's ruling detracted from the argument that the central thesis of Gore's film is "supported by the vast weight of scientific opinion."

'Armageddon scenario'

Some climate change campaigners have long been uneasy that some of the assertions Gore makes in "An Inconvenient Truth" are exaggerated or untrue, and that this could weaken the overall case he and they promote. Others have defended him, attributing his willingness to fudge the truth in the film to the deep frustration of a "true believer" in the face of global warning skepticism.

Gore himself -- as the court heard -- has spoken about the need to overstate the case when faced by skepticism.

"In the United States of America, unfortunately we still live in a bubble of unreality," he said in one often-cited May 2006 interview. "Nobody is interested in solutions if they don't think there's a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is."

Of the film's nine inaccuracies identified by the High Court, arguably the one least unexpected was Gore's claim that sea levels could -- as a result of melting ice caps -- rise by 20 feet "in the near future."

Burton called the claims "distinctly alarmist" and an "Armageddon scenario," and said such a rise in sea-levels would take place "only after, and over, millennia."

Of the film's assertion that polar bears are drowning because they have to swim long distances to find ice, Burton said there was no evidence to support the claim. The study cited by Gore said only that four polar bears had been found drowned after a storm.

The judge also picked up on Gore's claims involving Hurricane Katrina, Mount Kilimanjaro's melting snow, the drying up of Africa's Lake Chad, threats to the Gulf Stream, CO2's role in temperature rises that ended previous ice ages, loss of species, and evacuation of Pacific islanders due to sea-level rise.

Burton did, however, agree with four main points - that global temperatures are rising and are likely to continue to rise; that this is mainly attributable to man-made greenhouse gas emissions; that climate change will cause serious damage if left unchecked; and that it is possible for governments and individuals to reduce the impact.

He described "An Inconvenient Truth" as powerful and highly professional, but said it was now commonly understood that it is a political film, "not simply a science film."

The ruling was the result of a legal case brought by Stewart Dimmock, a truck driver and father of two who accused the government of "brainwashing" students by promoting the documentary, and wanted it banned from schools in England.

Dimmock, who was awarded two-thirds of legal costs, said he regarded the judgment as "very good" although he still hopes the government will pull the film altogether.

"As a parent, I find it perplexing that, despite agreeing that that the film was riddled with errors and exaggerations, the court failed to issue an outright ban on its use in the classroom," he said in a statement. "Perhaps the government will now do the honorable thing and bin it."

Britain's 1996 Education Act forbids "the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject in the school." It requires education authorities to take steps to ensure that when political issues are brought to students' attention "they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views."

See Also:
Gore's Film an Oscar Favorite but Violates Academy Standards, Critics Say (Feb. 22, 2007)
Role of Climate in Polar Bears' Fate Under Dispute (Feb. 22, 2007)
Arctic Ice Melting, Polar Bears Endangered, Govt. Says (Dec. 28, 2006)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow