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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.