What Are They Teaching Your Kids About Global Warming?

Pupils attend a class at 'les Vignes', a girls preparatory school in Courbevoie, outside Paris, on May 9, 2014. 
National Journal
Clare Foran
June 26, 2014, 1:10 a.m.

It starts with Al Gore.

When it comes time to teach his high school sopho­mores about glob­al warm­ing, Wyom­ing sci­ence teach­er Jim Stith shows An In­con­veni­ent Truth. The green doc­u­ment­ary de­liv­ers an un­am­bigu­ous mes­sage: Hu­man activ­ity is driv­ing dan­ger­ous cli­mate change.

But the third-year teach­er is no de­votee of the former vice pres­id­ent. “I make sure they watch it on a day I’m gone be­cause I can’t stand to listen to him talk,” Stith said.

And he doesn’t teach Gore’s con­clu­sions as settled sci­ence. After the film, his class watches a movie called The Great Glob­al Warm­ing Swindle. It trots out an ar­ray of sci­ent­ists, politi­cians, and eco­nom­ists who dis­pute the idea that cli­mate change is man-made.

Then Stith asks his stu­dents to take a po­s­i­tion. They can ar­gue whatever they want as long as they back their claims with evid­ence. In the end, the class is left to draw its own con­clu­sions. “We’re put­ting stuff in­to our at­mo­sphere that isn’t great. And it’s un­deni­able that the cli­mate is chan­ging,” Stith said. “But wheth­er hu­mans are the cause, that’s a bit more open to in­ter­pret­a­tion.”

It’s a con­clu­sion that drives cli­mate sci­ent­ists crazy, es­pe­cially when it’s passed on to stu­dents. Here’s why: Ninety-sev­en per­cent of cli­mate sci­ent­ists agree that glob­al warm­ing is un­der­way and hu­man activ­ity is the primary cause.

The sci­entif­ic con­sensus, however, has no equi­val­ent polit­ic­al agree­ment. In­stead, re­jec­tion of the link between hu­man activ­ity and cli­mate change has be­come a near-uni­ver­sal stance in the Re­pub­lic­an Party.

All this puts sci­ence teach­ers in an awk­ward po­s­i­tion: Sci­ent­ists in­sist that teach­ing the con­tro­versy — and not the con­sensus — is a derel­ic­tion of duty and a propaga­tion of false­hood. But a power­ful con­ser­vat­ive co­ali­tion op­poses any ef­fort to stand­ard­ize a con­sensus cur­riculum, and they’ve had suc­cess in block­ing such a stand­ard from tak­ing ef­fect.

The end res­ult: a patch­work of cli­mate in­struc­tion guidelines that largely leaves teach­ers to their own devices, fa­cil­it­at­ing massive dis­par­it­ies in glob­al-warm­ing edu­ca­tion from school to school and state to state.

“There’s a lot of vari­ab­il­ity in how this is taught right now,” said Minda Ber­be­co, the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Sci­ence Edu­ca­tion’s pro­grams and policy dir­ect­or. “What’s really troub­ling is a lot of stu­dents are not re­ceiv­ing ac­cur­ate sci­entif­ic in­form­a­tion.”

An ef­fort to change that is un­der way, but has so far faced sig­ni­fic­ant head­winds in a hand­ful of red states. Last year, a co­ali­tion of sci­ent­ists and edu­cat­ors re­leased a set of aca­dem­ic stand­ards for kinder­garten through 12th grade that re­quire schools to teach the sci­entif­ic con­sensus on man-made glob­al warm­ing.

That aca­dem­ic frame­work — known as the Next Gen­er­a­tion Sci­ence Stand­ards — has won praise from high-pro­file sci­entif­ic or­gan­iz­a­tions like the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence and the Amer­ic­an Met­eor­o­lo­gic­al So­ci­ety. They say teach­ing the con­sensus is cru­cial, es­pe­cially as glob­al warm­ing be­gins to in­tensi­fy.

Con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions with tea-party ties, however, op­pose the stand­ards, par­tic­u­larly the part that deals with glob­al warm­ing. Truth in Amer­ic­an Edu­ca­tion, a net­work of tea-party and con­ser­vat­ive groups, has come out against them. A re­search­er with Heart­land In­sti­tute, a think tank that pro­motes glob­al-warm­ing skep­ti­cism, said the guidelines “im­pose alarm­ist glob­al-warm­ing ideas on chil­dren,” and con­ser­vat­ive ad­vocacy or­gan­iz­a­tion the Wyom­ing Liberty Group said they “drive an eco-agenda.”

The stand­ards have so far been ad­op­ted in 11 states: Cali­for­nia, Delaware, Kan­sas, Ken­tucky, Illinois, Mary­land, Nevada, Ore­gon, Rhode Is­land, Ver­mont, and Wash­ing­ton, along with the Dis­trict of Columbia.

But else­where, the aca­dem­ic frame­work has been re­jec­ted. In March, Wyom­ing law­makers blocked its ad­op­tion. Two months later, an Ok­lahoma House com­mit­tee voted to pre­vent it from tak­ing ef­fect. And South Car­o­lina’s Le­gis­lature passed a meas­ure to pro­hib­it the guidelines in the state be­fore they had even been made fi­nal.

While the fight drags on, most of the ex­ist­ing stand­ards that men­tion glob­al warm­ing provide little to no dir­ec­tion as to how it should be taught. And some make it ex­ceed­ingly easy for edu­cat­ors to teach the con­tro­versy. 

Geor­gia’s state sci­ence stand­ards ask stu­dents to “judge the cur­rent the­or­ies ex­plain­ing glob­al warm­ing.” West Vir­gin­ia com­pels high school sci­ence classes to “de­bate cli­mate changes.” Louisi­ana and Ten­ness­ee, mean­while, have laws on the books pro­tect­ing teach­ers who pro­mote cli­mate deni­al. 

The con­sequence of this is that cli­mate skep­tics of­ten get equal air­ing in the classroom. 

Geor­gia teach­er Vir­gin­ia Kirima asks her 11th-grade en­vir­on­ment­al-sci­ence stu­dents to de­bate wheth­er cli­mate change is nat­ur­al or man-made. Ac­cord­ing to Kirima, there is no right or wrong an­swer. The team that of­fers up the most com­pel­ling sci­entif­ic evid­ence wins. “It’s up to them to ac­cept wheth­er cli­mate change is nat­ur­al or caused by hu­mans,” Kirima said.

Mean­while, sev­er­al thou­sand miles away in sunny Cali­for­nia, high school teach­er Heath­er Wyg­ant en­sures her stu­dents un­der­stand the con­sensus. “We talk about the fact that most sci­ent­ists agree on this and we look at the evid­ence. I also spend a lot of time talk­ing about mis­con­cep­tions and why people don’t be­lieve things be­cause I don’t want there to be any con­fu­sion,” she ex­plained. 

In West Vir­gin­ia, where the coal in­dustry wields con­sid­er­able clout, high school sci­ence teach­er Kathy Jac­quez’s stu­dents leave the classroom with a firm grasp on the glob­al warm­ing con­sensus. And, she says, that lets them think crit­ic­ally about the polit­ic­al battles cur­rently un­fold­ing in the state. “If you look at the head­lines, they talk about cut­ting air pol­lu­tion and say it’s the death of the coal in­dustry,” Jac­quez said. “But when I talk to my kids it’s really amaz­ing. None of them think this is up for de­bate. They know cli­mate change is real, and it’s something we have to deal with.”

Oth­er teach­ers stop short of spelling out facts, in part, be­cause they’re afraid of what might hap­pen if they do. “I stay out of the pro­cess be­cause when I first star­ted teach­ing this I was labeled an evan­gel­ist. I have a kid of my own, and I have a job to keep,” said Col­or­ado sci­ence teach­er Cheryl Man­ning. “I want my stu­dents to come away un­der­stand­ing that hu­man activ­ity has caused glob­al warm­ing. But I don’t tell them that ex­pli­citly.”

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