The Classroom Climate Battle: A New Heavy Hitter Joins the Fray

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For a year now, I’ve been covering the growing fight over the teaching of accurate climate science in American classrooms. The conflict is being driven by politics, of course, but also by the fact that school districts are, increasingly, bringing information about global warming into the educational curriculum–leading, inevitably, to pressure on teachers, backlash from parents, and even, in some cases, school board or legislative interference.

This is, of course, happening most often in ideologically conservative communities, where we have already seen climate science teaching conflicts start.

So what do you do about it?

As it happens, there is a national organization that already has decades of experience in dealing with politicized fights over the content of science education. It is the Oakland, CA-based National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which has defended the teaching of evolution across America going back nearly 30 years.

And now, NCSE has just announced it is adding climate change to its docket. (The group’s arrival in this space is such a big development–at least to my mind–that I just devoted a full Point of Inquiry podcast episode to interviewing NCSE director Eugenie Scott about it.)

As this effort unfolds, I think there will be a few things to keep in mind. First, the climate education is not like the evolution education issue in several key respects, and so cannot be handled in the same way:

Place in the Curriculum. Basic biology is fundamental to science education, and evolution is the cornerstone of biology. Accordingly, evolution is taught (or at least, should be taught) as a bedrock part of the high school science curriculum across America. This is not the case, however, with climate science. It is not even clear, necessarily, which science “class” this interdisciplinary subject belongs in: Physics? Chemistry?

So there is vast heterogeneity in how climate science is being taught in U.S. schools, in what class–and indeed, in whether it is being taught at all.

Legal Precariousness of Messing With Good Science. Defenders of the teaching of evolution in public schools have always had held a kind of trump card in their hands. It is called the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and it bars mingling church and state. Creationism and “intelligent design” are obviously fundamentally religious ideas, so teaching them in public schools is easily shown to lack a legitimate secular purpose–to be all about advancing religion. Through such a strategy the defenders of evolution have won again and again in court.

But with global warming, this advantage disappears. Is climate denial a religious idea? I actually do think that it is a doctrine believed “religiously” by many–but I wouldn’t want to have to go into a courtroom and try to demonstrate that, say, libertarianism is a religion.

So I don’t expect the defenders of good climate science to be using lawsuits as a strategy to defend its teaching.

There Is No Clear “Opponent.” In the evolution fight, there was the Institute for Creation Research, and then the “intelligent design” promoting Discovery Institute. In the climate education battle, there is no central clearinghouse organization on the political right that is pushing global warming denial in schools. There are many think tanks and individuals putting out educational materials, of course, but this is really more of a conservative grassroots phenomenon.

As my interview with Eugenie Scott showed, she is keenly aware of all of this. So how can she and her organization manage climate education conflicts profitably and, hopefully, both improve and also depolarize U.S. science education?

For one thing, NCSE will need onsite allies wherever it gets involved–and a way of presenting the climate issue that does not lead to political conservatives getting very defensive, and thus sharpening the conflict even further.

So allying with evangelical Christians who care about saving the planet is a very, very good idea whenever possible. I also wonder if NCSE will experiment with framing the climate issue around nuclear power or geoegineering—both controversial approaches, but both shown to work to depolarize the issue overall, and to make conservatives more open to what science has to say.

This struggle will be long and hard; and the problem will likely get worse before it gets better. In many school districts, attacks on climate education will occur but we won’t even hear about them—they’ll never make their way to NCSE in the first place.

But I for one feel much better knowing that the country’s premiere science education defender is now on the case.

Watch NCSE‘s new video:

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