Fact/Fiction: Will uni students be forced to go to climate change lectures?

Old news, truthfully retold. This week we delve into claims that students at the University of Sheffield could be taking the radical step of learning about climate change as well as their chosen subject

How it was told

It was hard to miss the climate strike.

Youngsters all over the world hit the streets on September 20 to make adults wake up and take notice of the climate emergency the planet is facing.

Follow that up with Greta Thunberg’s tearful address at the UN General Assembly in New York and the message is clear: the time to act is now.

Recent times have shown that teenagers are the last people who need any education on the battle to save the planet from environmental ruin, but stories last week suggested more lessons were on the way.

Well, if you’ve just started your studies at the University of Sheffield at least.

It was first suggested that students would have to head to lectures on climate change on student news site The Tab. Their story, under the headline “Every Sheffield Uni student will soon have to attend climate change lectures”, was the catalyst for the story to be picked up by bigger national newspapers.

The Mail Online followed that up with: “Every student will have to attend compulsory lectures on climate change at University of Sheffield under radical new plans”.

And the Telegraph also covered the story, opting for: “Sheffield University students to attend compulsory lectures on climate change”.

But are students’ timetables about to be filled up with climate change lectures or is there another explanation beyond the stories?

Facts. Checked

The stories are false.

They all stem from a speech given by University of Sheffield vice-chancellor Koen Lamberts at the climate strike.

Addressing the crowd gathered in the city, Lamberts said: “We are embedding education for sustainable development into the curriculum of every single course.

“There is a reason for doing this: whether our students go on to become engineers, doctors, linguists or historians, it doesn’t matter.

“We want every single one of them to be equipped with the education, the knowledge, the skills, the values and the attributes that they need to work and live in a sustainable way.”

This was misunderstood and misreported by The Tab as the introduction of climate change lectures before the story was then repeated wholesale by the other media outlets.

A University of Sheffield spokesperson confirmed to The Big Issue that no climate change lectures were forthcoming and that the institution’s bid to go green does not include “trying to turn historians into climate scientists”.

Instead of the introduction of lectures, the university is aiming to weave sustainable development into subjects that students are already studying over the next five years. It’s a bid to improve the understanding of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It may seem like a subtle difference but, despite overwhelming scientific evidence, climate change still remains a divisive issue for some people, including US president Donald Trump.

It is also an area where science is moving fast – just last week a UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that oceans and frozen regions around the globe were being decimated by carbon emissions.

Last year, the warnings centred on how a 1.5C temperature rise would cause widespread devastation by the end of the century. That makes it a difficult subject to teach contemporaneously. And restricting the reports to lectures also undermines the work that the university is doing to deliver its pledge to go carbon neutral.

Away from the lecture theatre, university bosses have promised to draw up an action plan to hit that goal, as well as meeting with the students’ union to embed sustainable development into every facet of the university.

This does come off the back of criticism of the university in May for failing to divest fully from fossil fuels.

But none of the action will involve forcing students to head to climate change lectures – it’s more comprehensive than that.

Image: Miles Cole