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 »
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
1 days ago

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”

UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
2 days ago

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
2 days ago

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Trump/Sanders Debate Before California Primary?
2 days ago
California: It’s Not Over Yet
2 days ago

"Clinton and Bernie Sanders "are now devoting additional money to television advertising. A day after Sanders announced a new ad buy of less than $2 million in the state, Clinton announced her own television campaign. Ads featuring actor Morgan Freeman as well as labor leader and civil rights activist Dolores Huerta will air beginning on Fridayin Fresno, Sacramento, and Los Angeles media markets. Some ads will also target Latino voters and Asian American voters. The total value of the buy is about six figures according to the Clinton campaign." Meanwhile, a new poll shows Sanders within the margin of error, trailing Clinton 44%-46%.