James Shaw clashes with Sean Plunket over teaching climate change in schools

Green Party co-leader James Shaw clashed with media personality Sean Plunket during an interview in which the radio host questioned new resourcing for teaching climate change in schools. 

Plunket, host of Magic Talk, said he was concerned the syllabus would leave no room for students to question or debate the human impact of climate change. 

Shaw, the Minister for Climate Change, argued the syllabus - modelled on a trial at New Brighton School in Christchurch - is "based on the science so you can dispute that all you like". 

Plunket shot back: "Well, clearly you can't dispute that at all you like if you're an intermediate school kid... you're going to be told you can't dispute it."

Shaw replied: "Of course you can, but you'd have to go to town against the entire New Zealand scientific community and suggest that they were wrong."

The new resources for teaching climate change in schools was announced on Sunday by Education Minister Chris Hipkins, who said kids will be taught the "role science plays in understanding climate change".

The resource, called 'Climate Change - prepare today, live well tomorrow', includes video, text and guidance. It will be available for students in years 7-10 and will be optional. 

It will teach things like the difference between weather and climate, as well as sea-level rise impacts and the effects of agriculture on the climate, according to Shaw. 

The pilot was picked up by the Ministry of Education and is supported by organisations including NASA, NIWA, and National Geographic for Kids, among others. 

"We're getting a lot of demand from teachers so the fact that there were some resources that had been developed, once it was piloted and some changes were made, it seemed appropriate to be rolling out," Shaw said. 

Climate Change Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw.
Climate Change Minister and Green Party co-leader James Shaw. Photo credit: Getty

It follows mass protests last year in New Zealand and around the world against leaders' lack of action on combatting climate change.  

Plunket asked Shaw what the school course will include, and whether it will tell students to become vegan and "destroy the agriculture economy". 

Shaw sighed before replying: "Do you really think that the Ministry for Education would publish a resource on behalf of the Government that suggests to people to destroy the agriculture economy?"

Plunket said he's "not sure these days, to be honest". 

The minister told Plunket arguments about humankind's influence on climate change "has been comprehensively dispensed with". 

Plunket said Shaw hasn't been looking hard enough and claimed he could find hundreds. 

"Every major scientific institute in the world thinks that climate change is happening due to human activity including those in the United States, whose federal government is acting in precisely the opposite direction," Shaw said. 

Magic Talk host Sean Plunket.
Magic Talk host Sean Plunket. Photo credit: Magic Talk

Plunket also argued that New Zealand's emissions contribution is small compared to larger countries. It accounted for about 0.17 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions in 2014. 

But per capita, New Zealand was the 21st biggest contributor. 

"Small countries don't get off the hook because collectively we add up to a greater total of emissions than the larger countries do," Shaw said. 

The minister's Zero Carbon Bill passed into law in November last year. It includes a net-zero emissions target by 2050 and a 24-47 percent reduction in biogenic methane below 2017 levels by 2050. 

Debate over climate change 

There has been some debate about humankind's contribution to climate change and whether humans can realistically reverse the effects of a warming planet. 

National MP Judith Collins is sceptical and believes the "likely impacts of climate change are being hugely overstated by the media and political left". 

But a stark warning was issued in October 2018 in a report about global warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body made up of experts on the topic. 

It said if Earth warms by 2degC, hundreds of thousands of species could go extinct, natural environments will die and coastal communities will be flooded out of existence.

The key finding was that meeting a 1.5degC target is possible but would require "deep emissions reductions" and "rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society". 

New Zealand agreed to help keep global average temperatures below 2degC and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5degC, when it signed up to the Paris Agreement in 2015.

Collins has said she doubts that goal can be met, saying despite New Zealand's best efforts, there is "almost no chance" the world will avoid reaching 1.5degC.

The Government admits that emissions forecasts based on current policies show that New Zealand is not on track to meet this target.

The IPCC report does say that global warming will likely rise to 1.5degC above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052 if warming continues to increase at the current rate.

But some scientists are more optimistic. When the report came out, NIWA scientist Dr Jonny Williams said maintaining temperatures below 1.5degC will be "challenging, but certainly not impossible".