September 13, 2023 - 7:00am

My son’s class is studying climate change this term. At dinner the other night he announced with a certain relish that in 300 years’ time, both our house and the school would be submerged beneath the English Channel, as the oceans rise and the impressive-seeming sea defences visible from our front door are exposed as mere pitiful hubris. A terrifying prospect, but I’ll keep paying the mortgage all the same. Don’t meet trouble halfway and all that.

I will confess to a certain uneasiness with teaching climate change specifically to young children. I’m not a sceptic, but it’s such a sprawling, complex and politically contentious subject that I don’t think nine- and 10-year-olds are well-equipped to form opinions about it. They shouldn’t have to bear the heavy psychological weight of adult catastrophising. When I was that age my overwhelming preoccupation in life was what big Lego set I wanted for Christmas, and that’s healthy and right.

So I was not entirely unsympathetic to the Dutch policemen who have allegedly threatened to report parents to social services for taking their offspring on an Extinction Rebellion motorway protest. Quite apart from the safety angle, there is something profoundly distasteful in using children as human shields for a political campaign. It shows a kind of contempt for the normal, everyday business of politics, namely mature understanding of human action, persuasion, compromise, tolerance. Contrary to popular belief and the self-aggrandisement of youth culture, those are typically adult virtues.

What’s more, I can never quite escape the thought that it is extremely convenient for certain kinds of activist if large swathes of the younger generation are well-drilled in the catechism of climate collapse. It lends their political viewpoints and assertions a veneer of moral authority against which it is very difficult to launch a counter-attack without sounding like Mr Burns or the bad guys from an episode of The A-Team.

The appeal to youngsters is anti-political, and therefore anti-human, because it attempts to short-circuit rational discussion in favour of appeals to emotion. It takes advantage of the generally admirable desire, possessed by most normal adults, to not make children unhappy.

This is why so many people were so angered by the use of Greta Thunberg as the public face of global warming alarmism. Not because they bore her any personal ill-will, but because they suspected that there were other forces in play, cynically exploiting a troubled and dissatisfied teenager in order to portray the righteousness of their cause as beyond question. The camera has moved on from Thunberg now that she has reached her twenties, but in her heyday the press ran countless articles suggesting that anyone who expressed any reservation at all about her global calamity tour was a bully, a brute, a boor — or worse.

This is no way to conduct one of the most important and consequential political debates of our time. Childhood is a precious but fleeting time of wonder, curiosity and carefree enjoyment. Let’s not spoil that by making children props in our adult arguments. Leave them kids alone.

Niall Gooch is a public sector worker and occasional writer who lives in Kent.