The greatest climate change battlefield in the US may not be Congress and the White House, but the nation's more than 17,000 elected school boards and the classrooms they run. Disputes over local curriculum make fewer headlines, but those decisions shape the generations that will be most affected by climate change—the citizens (and voters) who will have to respond to climate change. As the National Research Council explained in a framework for new, national science standards, "Though the magnitudes of humans’ impacts are greater than they have ever been, so too are humans’ abilities to model, predict, and manage current and future impacts. … [S]cience and engineering will be essential both to understanding the possible impacts of global climate change and to informing decisions about how to slow its rate and consequences—for humanity as well as for the rest of the planet."
In 2006, the Ouachita Parish, Louisiana, school board passed a policy listing global warming along with evolution and human cloning as "controversial scientific subjects," and left room for teachers and students to undermine textbooks on these topics. In 2009, Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed a law that drew heavily on that parish policy. In 2012, the Tennessee legislature passed a similar law. Laws like this have been proposed in over a dozen states.
In 2010, parents in Mesa County, Colorado, petitioned the county school board to remove climate change lessons from classrooms. "It is not a proven scientific theory. There is not evidence to support it,” explained Rose Pugliese. Local scientists pushed back, telling a "tittering" audience that climate change is real and caused by humans. The board considered the petition, but ultimately took no action.
That same year, legislators in South Dakota approved a nonbinding resolution "calling for balanced teaching of global warming in the public schools of South Dakota," asserting that "global warming is a scientific theory rather than a proven fact," and claiming "there are a variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological, thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics that can effect world weather phenomena and that the significance and interrelativity of these factors is largely speculative." The stars were not aligned for that reference to astrology, but the resolution was later adopted by House and Senate in amended form.
In 2011, the school board in Los Alamitos, California, passed a policy requiring "political balance" in all classes, and demanded that the teacher of a new Advanced Placement Environmental Science class report to the board how that balance had been achieved. One board member explained that, while some accept climate science, "There are others on the conservative side who believe it’s much ado about nothing. It’s overhyped and politically motivated, and the science is not solid, and there’s room for more studies. … On this particular issue, I’m not pushing my view. I just want the kids to be presented with balance." After public outcry, the board rewrote the policy, dropping the requirement for "political balance."
Early this year, The Heartland Institute—one of the major institutions generating climate change misinformation and denial—announced plans to spend $100,000 on its own climate change curriculum. In previous years Heartland has mailed to teachers copies of "Unstoppable Solar Cycles," a DVD denying that climate change is caused by humans.
Discussing his plans for the curriculum, Heartland's David Wojick explained his perspective: "Twenty years ago the U.S. Government endorsed the hypothesis of human induced global warming, when the science was immature. Since then we have done about $40 billion in climate research and a very different picture has emerged. Much, perhaps most of the warming may be entirely natural, we really do not know how much at this point. There are now multiple competing hypotheses, ranging from ocean circulation to solar variability." This, he claims, "is one of the greatest scientific debates in history."
To defend against such misguided policies and misinformation campaigns, America's teachers, parents, and students need our support. According to a survey by the National Earth Science Teachers Association, five percent of K-12 educators teaching about climate change are required to teach "both sides" of climate change. And almost two in five have "been influenced in some way (directly or indirectly)" to do so. Many other teachers, fearful of backlash or lacking adequate training or curriculum, simply skip climate change lessons.
To combat this pressure, teachers and administrators need to hear from parents who want climate change in classrooms. Concerned citizens need to keep track of what their local and state school boards are doing to ensure students are informed about what climate change is, why it's happening, and what their options will be for addressing climate change.
Climate change poses an enormous global challenge. In order for future citizens to be able to make scientifically informed decisions about how to deal with the challenge, the science of climate change needs to be taught—accurately, thoroughly, and without compromise—in the classroom.
At NCSE’s website, we have suggestions of ways you can help defend climate change in the classroom, support good teachers, and prepare the next generation of citizens.