News Section
Stories from Climate Central's Science Journalists and Content Partners

Climate Change: The New Battlefield in Science Education

By Bill Walker

A few years ago, Cheryl Manning assigned a research project on climate change to her high school environmental science class in Evergreen, Colo. She presented the basic facts and data from peer-reviewed studies, then asked the students to look into the issue themselves and report back on what they learned.

Halfway through the unit, three students came to class up in arms. They questioned whether the data was made up and if government scientists were part of a plot — “like conspiracy theorists that say we never went to the moon,” Manning said. At a PTA meeting the students’ parents accused her of trying to undermine their children’s religious belief system.

“Peer-reviewed science is the Kool-Aid of the left-wing liberal conspiracy,” they said, adding a warning: “Be on your guard.”

Manning’s superintendent backed her up, and the parents eventually pulled their kids out of school. But she said her experience is common enough that many teachers shy away from the subject of climate change.

Cheryl Manning, a geologist and teacher, said her experience with climate change education is common enough that many teachers shy away from the subject all together. Credit: Cheryl Manning.

Manning’s experience in Colorado is just a microcosm of a larger fight being waged in classrooms across the country. Reminiscent of the evolution-vs.-creationism clash, the overwhelming scientific evidence that says humans are causing the warming of the planet has emerged as the new battlefield in middle and high schools in the U.S.

“Lots of teachers I talk to just won’t teach it,” said Manning, a geologist before turning to teaching 16 years ago. “They’ll teach about the historical changes but not current trends. Science teachers already get so much pushback on evolution vs. creation that they’re reluctant to invite more controversy. And some teachers don’t know that much about climate change themselves. They’re not sure how firm the ground is they’re standing on.”

Manning is a member of the National Science Teachers Association. Last year an online poll of its 60,000 members found that 82 percent had faced skepticism about climate change from students and 54 percent had faced skepticism from parents. Some respondents added comments: Students believe whatever it is their parents believe. . . . Administrators roll over when parents object. In a recent survey of about 1,900 current and former teachers by the National Earth Science Teachers Association, 36 percent reported they had been influenced directly or indirectly to teach “both sides” of the issue.

That concerns the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) in Oakland, Calif. For 25 years the Center has worked to keep creationism and “intelligent design” out of public schools. Now it has expanded its scope to defend and support the teaching of climate change science, against the efforts of skeptics or deniers to intimidate teachers.

“We have been hearing for several years now that teachers were getting pushback on teaching climate change, and some of the playbook used by those promoting teaching ‘both sides’ was very similar to the attempt to have evolution ‘balanced’ by creationism and intelligent design,” said Mark McCaffrey, who is spearheading the Center’s new initiative. “From my experience working with teachers, it is clear that the so-called ‘controversy’ about climate change science is a major impediment to teachers and the polarized political climate around teaching the topic is a big problem.”

Mark McCaffrey: a pioneer in climate change education. Credit: NCSE. 

McCaffrey is a pioneer in climate change education. He’s cofounder of the Climate Literacy Network and while at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) helped develop the Essential Principles of Climate Science, endorsed by the federal government’s U.S. Global Change Research Program.

As in Manning’s case, many times it’s individual parents who challenge individual teachers. Last year, in a Portola Valley, Calif., high school, a teacher who had shown her class Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was challenged by a parent who demanded that the school provide “balance” with a debate between a climate change scientist and a global warming denier. The teacher’s union representative contacted NCSE, and the Center argued that while policy issues — energy consumption, cap-and-trade, global warming adaptation — were legitimate subjects to debate in a social studies class, a science class should deal only in consensus science. School officials agreed and the debate was cancelled.

But there are also well-organized campaigns to get school districts and state legislatures to mandate teaching “balance.”

  • In 2010, in Grand Junction, Colo., a Tea Party activist gathered 700 signatures on a petition that teachers stop talking about climate change. The effort was supported by the Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group that had targeted Grand Junction to kick off a national “Balanced Education for Everyone” campaign. When the petition failed, the campaign was scrapped.
  • Last summer, the school board in Los Alamitos, Calif., voted unanimously to require the teaching of “multiple perspectives” on climate change in an environmental science class. The issue was pushed by a school board member who maintained there are “legitimate, mainstream, normative opinions that differ from the liberal dogma of belief in global warming.” After the action received national and international attention, the mandate was rescinded.
  • State boards of education in Texas and Louisiana have introduced standards to require teachers to present climate change denial as a valid scientific position. Legislators in Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Kentucky have introduced bills to require equal time for climate change skeptics. 

Attacks on the teaching of climate change often go hand-in-hand with efforts to insert creationism or “intelligent design” into public schools. In 2009, the Texas Board of Education mandated that teachers present all sides of the debate on both evolution and climate change. Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times wrote that the linkage was a canny legal strategy:

Courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.

Campaigns against climate science and evolution are part of a national crisis in science education, said NCSE’s McCaffrey. 

“Teachers are overburdened and often teaching out of their area of expertise,” he said. “Environmental education tends to be heavy on ‘get the kids out in nature’ and light on science. By middle school, many students start to be turned off by science. Our efforts are geared toward re-invigorating science education for the 21st century in order to prepare our young people to become informed citizens and leaders of tomorrow.”

Bill Walker, a contributing writer for Climate Central, is a former newspaper correspondent and for more than 20 years a communications strategist for leading environmental organizations. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.


By Sam Far (Birmingham, England)
on January 26th, 2012

Strange, juxtapositions in this article.  I would have thought that creationism and climate alarmism belong side by side, both being faith-based, both often associated with doomsaying and calls for us all to repent our wicked ways.  On the science side, the climate alarmists have been refuted by observations time and again.  They told us the snows were disappearing from Kilimanjaro, but they are growing there.  They told us hurricances would increase and Katrina was a foretaste, but the hurricances became less frequent.  They told us of a hotspot in the upper troposphere, but every effort to find it has failed.  They told us Antarctica was warming and losing ice, but it has been cooling and gaining ice.  The local alarmists told the Australians drought was to be their lot from now on, and they spent fortunes on desalination plants, but those plants are now mothballed and floods are the problem.  The list goes on and on and on.  The game is up.

Reply to this comment

By Laura (Toledo, OH)
on January 26th, 2012

Climate change is not faith based, it’s happening, and there’s data. There’s migration of mollusc species in Norway that indicate warming seas, there’s more CO2 and CH4 in the atmosphere than has ever been recorded in any maxima of natural forcings- even COMBINED (we’ve got millions of years from ice cores), and the Greenland Ice Sheet is declining in mass. Climate change doesn’t happen like a smack in the face with many concentrated problems surfacing at once. The sky doesn’t fall every ten minutes. The Earth’s circulation systems have lag between them; for example, when there’s increased CO2 in the atmosphere, gradually warming us, that temperature hike isn’t going to show up in the oceans for a while, on the order of a few years even. So, when the ocean heats up, there’s more tropical activity. There was likely a temperature threshold reached in the early-mid 2000s, and combined with other forcings (jet stream, El Nino/La Nina, NAO that year…) it manifested in the 2005 hurricane season.

The take home? Climate change isn’t going to happen the same way everywhere. And seriously, regardless of the severity of global warming, what’s the hurt of reducing greenhouse gas output? The harm of conserving resources and cutting down on pollution? There isn’t any. Stop being a part of the problem and have some respect for the planet you live on and the people that are trying to help it.

Reply to this comment

By dan in illinois
on January 27th, 2012

Here’s a question: why is there even an environmental science class being taught in high school in the first place?  Our children are graduating from these schools horribly prepared for the rigor of a science, math, or engineering profession and so opt instead for a major in sociology, art history, or, dare I say it, environmental science.  I guess if these students had already taken all the physics , chemistry, and math that their high school had to offer and couldn’t come up with that extra elective, I’d feel better about this.  But I hardly think that’s the case.

Reply to this comment

By krissy (satens island ny)
on January 27th, 2012

the opposition isnt only coming from oil companies, its coming from the church too. Dominion theology teaches that man can do no wrong and that ever since noah the lord refuses to send another great flood. Maybe theyre just hoping the northeast is taken out before the south is, but it looks like were all screwed.

Reply to this comment

By nate (Sumerduck VA, 22742)
on January 29th, 2012

It depends on what kind of church and denomination your talking about. Most self-described Christians no longer question the reality of climate change, and most of those that do belong to far right-wing groups that would reject the science even if they were not already religious. Do not try to make an enemy of all Christians and all religions, because they are mostly beginning to come around and accept that something needs to be done.

Reply to this comment

By Phillip Young
on January 29th, 2012

Teaching climate change is a great approach to teach science in general.  Besides being a contemporary science problem, it interrelates many scientific fields ”“ physics, ecology, biology, meteorology, geology, archeology, oceanography, etc.  Teaching climate change also demonstrates nicely how the institution of science works ”“ how a hypothesis becomes confirmed, how science, though a fallible human institution (as all human institutions are) nevertheless, garners confidence over time as differing lines of evidence converge to support (or refute) a given argument.  The scientific support of climate change due to human greenhouse gas emissions is now extraordinarily robust.  The issue now is how bring the scientific consensus into the mainstream dialog of politics and social change in general.

Reply to this comment

By AL (seattle)
on March 10th, 2014

Climate changes: observable fact.
The controversary is over whether human activity causes climate change.  Prove that.
Explain what caused climate change when human activity was negligible.

Reply to this comment

Name (required):
Email (required):
Enter the word "climate" in the box below:

[+] View our comment guidelines.

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled. Your comment will not appear until reviewed by Climate Central staff. Thank you for your patience.