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.”

What We're Following See More »
History Already Being Less Kind to Hastert’s Leadership
1 hours ago

In light of his recent confessions, the speakership of Dennis Hastert is being judged far more harshly. The New York Times' Carl Hulse notes that in hindsight, Hastert now "fares poorly" on a number of fronts, from his handling of the Mark Foley page scandal to "an explosion" of earmarks to the weakening of committee chairmen. "Even his namesake Hastert rule—the informal standard that no legislation should be brought to a vote without the support of a majority of the majority — has come to be seen as a structural barrier to compromise."

Trump Ill Prepared for General Election
1 hours ago

Even if "[t]he Republican presidential nomination may be in his sights ... Trump has so far ignored vital preparations needed for a quick and effective transition to the general election. The New York businessman has collected little information about tens of millions of voters he needs to turn out in the fall. He's sent few people to battleground states compared with likely Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, accumulated little if any research on her, and taken no steps to build a network capable of raising the roughly $1 billion needed to run a modern-day general election campaign."

Congress Can’t Seem Not to Pay Itself
4 hours ago

Rep. Dave Young can't even refuse his own paycheck. The Iowa Republican is trying to make a point that if Congress can't pass a budget (it's already missed the April 15 deadline) then it shouldn't be paid. But, he's been informed, the 27th Amendment prohibits him from refusing his own pay. "Young’s efforts to dock his own pay, however, are duck soup compared to his larger goal: docking the pay of every lawmaker when Congress drops the budget ball." His bill to stiff his colleagues has only mustered the support of three of them. Another bill, sponsored by Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), has about three dozen co-sponsors.

How Far Away from Cleveland is the California GOP Staying?
5 hours ago

Sixty miles away, in Sandusky, Ohio. "We're pretty bitter about that," said Harmeet Dhillon, vice chairwoman of the California Republican Party. "It sucks to be California, we're like the ugly stepchild. They need us for our cash and our donors, they don't need us for anything else."

SCOTUS Will Not Allow ‘DC Madam’ Phone Records to Be Released
5 hours ago

Anyone looking forward to seeing some boldfaced names on the client list of the late Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the "DC Madam," will have to wait a little longer. "The Supreme Court announced Monday it would not intervene to allow" the release of her phone records, "despite one of her former attorneys claiming the records are “very relevant” to the presidential election. Though he has repeatedly threatened to release the records if courts do not modify a 2007 restraining order, Montgomery Blair Sibley tells U.S. News he’s not quite sure what he now will do."