Lawmakers and Campaigners Fight Climate Science Denial in the Classroom


Last month, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) and seven other Democrats introduced a bill to establish a nationwide climate science curriculum to teach high school students about man-made global warming.

The Climate Change Education Act mandates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create a climate science curriculum that would ensure students better understand “climate change and its effects on environmental, energy, social, and economic systems.”

The bill would “encourage and support statewide plans and programs for climate change education… to ensure that students graduate from high school climate literate, with a particular focus on programs that advance widespread State and local educational agency adoption of climate change education, including funding for State education agencies.”

Few think Markey’s bill stands a chance of passing in a Republican-led Congress. Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) introduced a similar bill in 2015 that died in committee.

Although positive action on climate change will likely have to wait for a new Congress to be seated, many advocates of climate science curricula in schools are not waiting.

A loose coalition of educators, scientists, concerned parents and even students are fighting for accurate climate science to be taught in every state and every district, even if it’s outside school walls.

Science Doesn’t Have a Political Agenda”

In many states and municipalities it’s been a constant battle for climate education advocates to push back on climate science-denying boards of education and state and local politicians that have prevented schools from adopting Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Those standards were developed by 26 states and multiple science and education organizations and serve as guidelines for teaching science — including climate change and evolution due to their lack of “balance” about the causes of climate change.

A few cities have been proactive in establishing climate change curricula, sometimes going beyond what is set out by NGSS. In May, the Portland, Oregon Public Schools board voted to ban books and materials that are “found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.”

So far, fewer than half of the states have adopted NGSS nearly four years after the standards were created. In states with strong evangelical leanings and/or entrenched fossil fuel industries, NGSS has been controversial because of what the standards say about evolution and about climate change.

Many states are simply dragging their heels, but in 2014, Wyoming became the first state to reject NGSS outright.

In 2015, the state legislature reversed course, saying the state’s Board of Education could adopt NGSS if it so chose. The Board chose to get broad public buy-in and earlier this year opened the recommended standards to public comment.

State Board Chairman Pete Gosar told DeSmog a second round of public comments will be completed before the start of the new school year in the fall. He added that, even in an oil-dependent state, the public appears to be generally supportive of the standards, even knowing that they point to fossil fuels as the biggest contributor to climate change.

It really was a small group of legislators that stalled (adoption of NGSS),” Gosar said. “They stated that teaching climate science is inconsistent with how Wyoming generates its profits.”

Our current science standards are outdated and the public is becoming aware of that,” Gosar adds. “Through these comment periods we’re making the point that science doesn’t have a political agenda. Now that politicization is out in the open.” 

One of the advocates for teaching accurate climate science is a campaign group Climate Parents.

Lisa Hoyos, the group’s founder, was instrumental in pushing back efforts to stop NGSS this year in Wyoming and West Virginia and last year in Utah, Michigan and Iowa.

Hoyos tells DeSmog at the state level, one or two politicians can block any action on climate education.

It’s the clear influence of fossil fuel money in politics,” she said. She added fighting back requires a constant effort of petitioning and attending board of education meetings, and using allies like the Union of Concerned Scientists to reach out to board members.

Hoyos is supportive of Senator Markey’s bill but doesn’t expect any federal legislative action soon.

There’s a huge problem with climate denial in Congress and the Republicans there are the road block,” Hoyos said.

Sowing Seeds of Confusion

Without national standards, whether students get accurate information about climate change is subject to not only the demands of a few lawmakers but also to the whim of individual science teachers.

That’s a big problem if you want to raise a generation that appreciates the seriousness of climate change. A study published in Science in February showed many K-12 teachers in the U.S. don’t have the time or resources to educate students properly about the science behind climate change.

Possibly even more alarming to climate advocates, the study found one out of three teachers who teach climate change claim scientists don’t agree that climate change is caused by humans. Half of the surveyed teachers have allowed students to discuss the so-called scientific ‘controversy’ over what is changing the earth’s climate.

The survey’s author, Eric Plutzer, a political science professor at Penn State University, said there was some good news from the study.

Few teachers were pressured to avoid teaching about global warming and its causes,” he told the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

Minda Berbeco, programs and policy director at NCSE, says the confusion among science teachers is due to years of climate change denial campaigns, some by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) — a powerful conservative think tank.

ALEC has mainly been about undermining action on climate change, but I haven’t seen it have any direct success in stopping climate change from being taught,” Berbeco tells DeSmog.*

What ALEC and other climate denial campaigns did is get the ball rolling and seeded climate change confusion in society, and that tends to influence teachers and what they think they should teach.”

Climate Education Beyond the Classroom

Berbeco said in states and municipalities where climate change education is stifled, informal education about climate science must take up the slack.

The good news is, there are informal efforts underway to do end runs around curricula that either deny the reality of climate change, or don’t mention it.

One of the largest organizations advocating for climate education outside the classroom is the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) which aims “to fill a critical gap in climate science education,” says its communications director, Leah Qusba.

Qusba tells DeSmog the Alliance, started in 2008, has reached two million middle school and high school students through assemblies that feature animation, hip hop music and explanations of how the climate works from experts, including ex-NASA scientists.

In January, it launched a free 45-minute video of presentations, streaming through Vimeo and aimed at teachers.

The video is meant for use in class time (it comes with a teachers’ guide) but Qusba says some students have heard about it and streamed the video on their own.

The live presentations and the video have a call to action, asking students to join a network of climate campaigners or to help with political advocacy at the state and national level.

Brian McDermott was moved by an ACE presentation several years ago is now interning with the organization and was recently quested by his former middle school science teacher to give a presentation at an all-school assembly there.

McDermott, who graduated from a Boston-area high school last month, also met last month with the environmental aide to Senator Markey to brainstorm solutions to bring climate science to schools.

McDermott points out the need for informal climate change information to be available to students everywhere, even in states like his that have adopted NGSS.

I didn’t get any climate change coursework until senior year,” McDermott tells DeSmog. “It was good, but it was in an elective AP environmental course, and climate change was only one week out of the course.”

That was twenty students out of nearly four hundred in McDermott’s grade level who had the chance to learn about the science of climate change.

That’s just not enough,” he says. “If schools don’t teach climate science to everyone, then the message to students is that climate science isn’t important.”

*This quote has been updated to correct a misquote.

Image credit: Alliance for Climate Education

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