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Climate Change and School Science Standards

Classrooms have emerged as a new front in the increasingly contentious debate over the causes and implications of climate change.

In 2014, two Oklahoma state senators attempted to repeal a set of national education standards for K–12 science they said “heavily promote global warming alarmism.” The senators’ efforts failed, due in part to the efforts of environmentalist lobbying organizations and teachers’ groups.

In Wyoming, a footnote in the 2014 budget signed by Gov. Matt Mead (R) prohibited the state from reviewing or adopting those standards, in part because they are “very prejudiced in my opinion against fossil-fuel development,” according to the state’s board of education chairman. Now a bill reinstating the standards is moving quickly through the legislature.

In Texas, when the state reviewed new textbooks for adoption, the state board of education requested publishers add material mentioning the differing sides in the climate debate. Because Texas is a huge market for textbooks, other states were likely to adopt many of the same books, placing Texas front and center in the debate over what to teach children about climate science. Under pressure from the same radical activist groups that poisoned the well for what could have been a rational climate science debate in Oklahoma and Wyoming, the textbook publishers caved, removing revisions that had provided an accurate portrayal of the current state of climate science.

In each case, environmentalists claim standards should be in line with the majority of scientific opinion. Climate realists counter science is not a majoritarian discipline, and we should be presenting an accurate picture of science, including both sides of the issue.

This brings us to West Virginia. In December, the state board of education (WVBOE) approved national science standards with slight modifications to the language on climate change. After activist groups found those changes to be too sympathetic to climate skepticism, WVBOE voted to rescind the changes.

In April, WVBOE bravely reversed course again, putting sound science back in the classroom. By a vote of 6–2, WVBOE approved amended standards for the discussion of climate change. Where the original standards required students to ask questions only about the rise in global temperatures, ignoring temperature declines, the new standards requires them to discuss “changes,” including temperature increases, declines, and stasis. In addition, the amended standards add “natural forces” as an area of study for its possible influence on climate change.

The introduction of the climate science standards was amended to make clear to students and teachers alike the standards are to “ensure students will develop skills to acknowledge and distinguish claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, support arguments … with evidence, and communicate about science related topics/issues in a knowledgeable, clear and objective manner.”

In other words, West Virginia’s standards, in a break with the rest of the nation, will no longer solely push the unsupportable claim “the debate is over; humans are causing catastrophic global warming.” Instead, students in West Virginia will learn there are different points of view, backed by evidence, and will be encouraged to explore alternative possible explanations for climate change.

Unlike physics, chemistry, and biology, climate science is a relatively new topic, with more unknowns and disagreement than educators may understand or care to acknowledge.

As science writer Matt Ridley wrote, “No prediction, let alone in a multi-causal, chaotic and poorly understood system like the global climate, should ever be treated as gospel. With the exception of eclipses, there is virtually nothing scientists can say with certainty about the future.”

Climate change is indeed occurring. The climate is always changing. However, there is widespread scientific debate about whether human activities are responsible for all, some, or none of the recent climate change. In addition, scientists do not agree on whether a warmer climate would result in more dangerous weather or things would actually improve in a warmer world. Science standards should reflect these uncertainties.

Schoolchildren in West Virginia and beyond deserve the truth. They can handle it. And on the causes and possible consequences of climate change, the scientific truth is there’s too much we just don’t know. WVBOE is to be applauded for recognizing this and standing up to climate alarmist bullies, ensuring the state’s children are taught real science instead of alarmists’ dogma.

Sterling Burnett (hsburnett@heartland.org) is a research fellow and Taylor Smith (tsmith@heartland.org) is a former policy analyst at The Heartland Institute.

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