Conflict abounds in climate education

May 21, 2012

Teachers are loath to teach climate science because it exposes them to charges of politicizing the classroom. They have reason to be cautious.


May 21: Climate science education graduates to next level
Sidebar: Joint climate effort pushes science literacy
May 22: Digging into climate change, students find more than science 

By Lisa Palmer
For the Daily Climate

The battles over teaching climate change science in schools are diverse, myriad and, like teaching evolution, being fought mostly district by district, classroom by classroom.

No-150Unlike evolution, climate change doesn't have a U.S. Supreme Court ruling requiring that teaching efforts be accurate. 

Some recent conflicts around the nation:

    • This spring the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill, with broad, bi-partisan support, to protect teachers who do not agree with accepted climate science and want to teach alternative explanations. Gov. Bill Haslam, acknowledging the veto-proof majority in a press release, allowed the bill to become law without his signature but noted that the measure won't change state education standards.
    • Last year the southern California town of Los Alamitos, the school board passed but then rescinded a policy identifying climate science as a controversial topic requiring special instructional oversight.  
    • Earlier this year an Oklahoma House committee approved a bill permitting teachers to review "scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories" such as evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning. It remains stuck in the Senate, with the Legislature adjourning this week.
    • A 2007 study found that 20 percent of Colorado’s earth science teachers disagreed that "recent global warming is caused mostly by things people do," while nearly half agreed that "there is substantial disagreement among scientists about the cause of recent global warming." Meanwhile in Mesa County, in western Colorado, tea party activists tried to prohibit the teaching of manmade climate change.
    • An earth science teacher in Clifton Park, N.Y., taught a global warming unit but inserted his own view that climate change is not caused by humans. A parent complained, pointing to the New York State Regents science standards, considered among the best in the nation. The teacher relented after the school’s science administrator clarified what was expected according to the standards.

Earlier this year the National Center for Science Education stepped into the climate arena, announcing it would apply techniques it honed in the evolution wars to defend and promote climate science education. 

McCaffrey-150"It’s one thing to have climate in the standards and assessments, and another thing altogether to make sure the teachers are well prepared, are not teaching the debate, if they teach about climate change at all, and are using effective practices," said Mark McCaffrey, the center's program director. 

The Oakland-based nonprofit's effort hit a snag in February after Peter Gleick, a prominent scientist recruited to help advise the organization's climate education effort, disclosed that he had improperly obtained internal strategy documents from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank. Gleick withdrew his nomination to the NCSE's board a few days before his term was scheduled to begin. 

But the Heartland memos show that the institute, known for undermining climate science in political and scientific arenas, is working to influence climate education in schools, too. The budget memos Gleick obtained indicated the group had raised an initial $100,000 for a "global warming curriculum" designed by a part-time consultant at the Department of Energy. 

The curriculum, designed for grades 10 through 12, according to the Heartland memos, would emphasize that climate change is a "major scientific controversy" and that models underlying the science are questionable.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance reporter in Maryland. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Nature Climate Change, Fortune, and The Yale Forum, among other outlets. is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change.

Photos: "No" icon created by Paula Spence for the National Center for Science Education. Photo of Mark McCaffrey courtesy NCSE.


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