Climate change in US classrooms

Ideological conflicts over global warming are heating up, drawing in teachers, scientists, politicians, religious groups, corporate lobbyists, judges and ordinary parents. They all want a voice in American children’s green education. Jan McGirk reports.

Ever since the menace of greenhouse gases and global warming was first touted widely by the mass media in 1988, ideological battles between climate contrarians and eco-activists have raged in the United States. Decades later, prominent climate scientists still find themselves vilified by Americans opposed to environmental regulations and fending off attacks about their research in newsrooms and courtrooms. The mutual contempt and distrust displayed in these highly publicised clashes over climate has trickled down and now interferes with rational discussion inside ordinary school classrooms.

When it comes to teaching climate change, the heat is on. Politically conservative parents across the country are upset about what children are taught inside America’s schools.  Self-styled climate-change sceptics, who routinely challenge the scientific community’s consensus that emissions from burning fossil fuels have raised the average global temperature, now object to science lessons about these findings –unless they include counter-arguments from critics of the man-made warming consensus. (Only 3% of scientists disagree with the theory.)

Typically, sceptics within the Tea Party movement sneer at educators and label them alarmists or “warmists” who aim to “perpetrate a hoax” in order to scare students into embracing green activism. Facts often get lost or obscured when non-specialists scrutinise science lesson-plans and try to insert political balance. Denialists scorn any semantic shift as political correctness and, if the phrase “global warming” is replaced with “climate change”, many consider it a tacit admission that warming trends do not follow predictions. Teachers and climate sceptics both claim to be safeguarding impressionable students from ideological spin. 

Attempts to dissuade or intimidate science teachers from teaching climate change in US high school and elementary classrooms are not unusual.  A recent online survey by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) found that 82% of elementary and high school science teachers have encountered climate scepticism from students, and 54% have experienced hostile reactions from parents after discussing global warming in class. Around 36% say they attempt to teach “both sides” of the issue.

Wherever extracting petroleum is big business, these political concerns seem to gain more traction and the pressure on local schools intensifies. State legislators in Louisiana, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Utah already have introduced bills to prevent “propaganda” from being taught in science classrooms and to mandate the inclusion of “theoretical alternatives” to human-caused climate change.

Much of the language in this new legislation comes from model bills concocted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded advocacy group opposed to big government and environmental regulations. Such efforts are also championed by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), which advocates free-market perspectives on government policy. Matt Patterson, a CEI fellow, describes climate change as a “mass delusion”. He warned: “There is a danger that man will be convinced by these climate cultists to turn his back on the very political, economic and scientific institutions that made him so powerful, so wealthy, so healthy.”

In May 2011, a local school-board member in southern California, who was bothered by the “liberal dogma” of a proposed environmental science course, insisted that “multiple perspectives” be taught at Los Alamitos High School – even though all these views are not backed up by scientific evidence. “I believe my role on the board is to represent the conservative voice of the community and I’m not a big fan of global warming,” the board member, Jeffrey Barke, explained. “The teachers wanted [the class], and we want a review of how they are teaching it.” 

The course in question, advanced-placement environmental science, followed California’s approved curriculum and was already offered at numerous other high schools without any objections. When the new policy of special oversight for controversial subjects was rescinded after just four months, most teachers felt relieved. Kathryn Currie, the science department chair at Los Alamitos High School, said in an email: “The school board has left us alone to teach science and that’s exactly what we should be doing.”

While academic freedom is valued in most American university research halls, the concept does not necessarily extend to public-school classrooms in the United States, where elected local school boards hold sway and teachers can’t count on tenure, or job security. There is no federally approved national curriculum. Course work in climate change is expected to be included in these new guidelines.

In Washington, congressman Henry Waxman, the leading Democrat on the House of Representatives’ energy and commerce committee, urged the US energy secretary, Steven Chu, to launch a national campaign for climate-change education. Waxman cited concerns that the public’s grasp of climate change is undermined by “powerful vested interests in the oil and coal industries successfully fanning disbelief”.

Educators despair when their science lessons are challenged by politicians who may also receive election-campaign donations from wealthy energy corporations. Using climate change as a wedge issue has become a favorite tactic (especially in this election year) of populist candidates, such as the Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum. Before dropping out of the White House race on April 10, Santorum got wild applause for this soundbite: “I refer to global warming not as climate science, but political science!” Santorum complained about “radical environmentalists [who] have it upside down… we’re not here to serve the earth.”  He belittled his Republican party rivals because they “bought into the science of man-made global warming, and they bought into the remedy, both of which are bogus”.

In such a politically charged atmosphere, most public schoolteachers and students interviewed by chinadialogue were reluctant to speak on the record about climate-change lessons in their own classrooms. A Michigan-based teacher recounted how parents had complained about biased views in her junior-high class: “According to them, ‘global warming’ isn’t caused by people. It is manufactured by the liberal media.”

The press, by exaggerating or simplifying scientific trends and discoveries, often contributes to public confusion about climate change. Anomalies get trumpeted as theory-refuting data, and the scientific method itself is called into question. “Global warming is so hyped – just like that Y2K [year 2000 “millennium bug”] computer freak-out or swine flu. I don’t believe in it,” commented one jaded teenager from Arizona.

Patrick Ray, a life-sciences teacher in Monterey, California, pointed out that in discussions about global warming, “most of my students tend to echo their parents’ attitudes, if they care at all. The majority are sceptical and very susceptible to false information on the internet.” Even though the standard textbook is way above most of his students’ reading ability, Ray explains the scientific vocabulary and spurns “those dumbed-down hand-outs” many teachers rely on to supplement the text. Usually downloaded from specialised websites, these colorful educational materials range from a series of video lessons to carbon-footprint competitions.

Most US handouts on scientific topics are produced by government agencies, Discovery Channel, non-profit educational organisations such as McREL or private curriculum consultants. Climate-change lesson packets tend to stress the “need to shut down energy production and scientific dissent”, according to James Taylor of the Heartland Institute, a high-profile conservative think tank. E-mails recently obtained by subterfuge and leaked by the Pacific Institute’s Peter Gleick disclosed that Heartland hired a coal-industry consultant last year to develop a set of children’s educational materials that would stress disputes about climate change and carbon pollution.

But some religious groups opposed to environmentalism get their message out this way, too.  “Resisting the Green Dragon”, a study series produced by the Cornwall Alliance, is particularly popular with home-schoolers (parents or tutors who educate children outside a formal school setting), who view it as an antidote to An Inconvenient Truth, former US vice-president Al Gore’s award-winning 2006 documentary.

Parents who want to shield their children from scientific ideas that might conflict with their religious beliefs often opt out of the US public school system, which provides sex education and instruction about evolution. (Although families need not register with the authorities in some states, the National Home Education Research Institute (NHERI) estimates that roughly two million, or 4%, of American children currently are home-schooled.)

However, churchgoers are not unified in opposition to the notion of climate change. Earlier this year, pastor Rick Warren, who led the prayer at president Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, persuaded 300 leaders from evangelical Christian churches to lend their support to conservation efforts.

“Many of us have required considerable convincing before becoming persuaded that climate change is a real problem and that it ought to matter to us as Christians … it is a spiritual issue that we need to take better care of the earth. And whether global warming is as big a deal or not, or we’re the cause of it or not, we just need to take better care of the planet,” asserts Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church, one of the country’s most influential mega-churches.

Enter the National Center for Science Education (NCSE). This California-based watchdog group has promoted the teaching of evolution in public science classrooms for 21 years, while resisting demands to include creationism (the belief that the universe and living organisms originated from specific acts of divine creation)  or “intelligent design” (an offshoot of the “creation science” movement) in biology classes. 

The non-partisan and not-for-profit NCSE has just begun to monitor climate-change education, too. It found that science teachers often are labeled arrogant, smug or un-American if they cast doubt on biblical scripture.

Mark McCaffrey, NCSE’s project director, told chinadialogue: “A priority should be that the science being taught is current. But the topic of climate change is becoming polarised and politicised.  The gloom and doom aspect really backfires.” 

Studying emissions and rising temperatures frequently leads students to contemplate a dire future. The result is the antithesis of American can-do optimism. In fact, a new pop psychology term, ecophobia, describes a feeling of powerlessness to prevent Earth’s catastrophic end.

“Ecophobia gets blamed on environmental education and some parents complain about depression in very young kids,” McCaffrey continued. “If science is well taught, the focus is on solutions. But the science of environment is complicated –both interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary, with complex math projections. It’s not an integral part of the science curriculum, so it tends to fall through the cracks. Our concern is that so few students take classes that deal with climate change. It’s under the radar.”

A retired middle-school teacher, Ralph Cross, confessed:  “In recent years I felt so much pressure to boost my students’ performance on California’s standard math tests that I sometimes gave short shrift to environmental topics. We made do with field trips to the ocean or after-school assemblies.”

“Teachers often feel under pressure to ‘teach to the test’,” observed Rebecca Anderson, a staff scientist for the Alliance for Climate Education (ACE), which in three years has reached over a million teenagers through after-school programmes. ACE was founded by a Californian, Mike Haas, after he launched Orion Energy, a wind-power company. 

“Teachers are looking for guidance in how to teach this sensitive subject,” Anderson said, “and ACE guarantees that everything we say is based on sound science. Politics really doesn’t play into it. We make sure that science is being learned by young people – the very ones who will be most affected by climate change. We encourage all students to [make] a commitment to ‘do one thing’ to help the environment and cool the climate. Anybody can do one thing.”

When political tit-for-tat interferes with the teaching of science, it exasperates Francis Q Eberle, director of the National Science Teachers Association (NTSA). “In a public debate,” he pointed out, “people tend to say things that are not evidence-based… but quality science is based on what we know, what we can observe and then model mathematically. Climate science is based on modeling and predicting. It isn’t always intuitive. There are multiple ‘sides’, not just two – many different ways to think about the physical world, continually testing and modifying. It takes about 20 years to gather enough evidence to alter the way science is taught.”

“In my own lifetime, for example, plate tectonics has become much more mainstream,” Eberle said, adding: “My perception is that climate science now is less controversial than it has been in the recent past.”

Indeed, the latest National Survey of American Public Opinion on Climate Change showed 62% of the public now believes there is solid evidence showing that the average temperature on Earth has been getting warmer. Despite the uptick in these statistics, a sense of urgency is barely detectable. A decade of denial effectively has scuttled long-term fixes for short-term economic gains. Most scientists stuck to their laboratories and avoided politics until politicians began distorting their scientific findings.

Outspoken scientists are considered bogeymen, people to fear. Michael E Mann, best known for creating the iconic “hockey stick” graph of rising global temperatures, has been pilloried by global-warming deniers for allegedly tweaking temperature data to fit his theory. In the past decade, his graph has morphed into a symbol of the rancour between mainstream climate scientists and their detractors. Although Mann was exonerated by several investigations, his detractors have been relentless in their search for supposed fraud. 

The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled in early March that the state’s crusading attorney-general, Ken Cuccinelli, could not gain access to research notes, handwritten memos and private e-mails belonging to Mann. An American Civil Liberties Union spokesman praised the outcome of this benchmark court case, saying: “If academic freedom means anything, it is that scientists and other scholars should be able to communicate freely without fear that the government is looking over their shoulders.”

Jan McGirk is a former correspondent for
The Independent (London) who has reported on environmental issues and disasters in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. 

Homepage image from the Worcester Academy of a US classroom discussion on climate change