It starts with Al Gore.
When it comes time to teach his high school sophomores about global warming, Wyoming science teacher Jim Stith shows An Inconvenient Truth. The green documentary delivers an unambiguous message: Human activity is driving dangerous climate change.
But the third-year teacher is no devotee of the former vice president. "I make sure they watch it on a day I'm gone because I can't stand to listen to him talk," Stith said.
And he doesn't teach Gore's conclusions as settled science. After the film, his class watches a movie called The Great Global Warming Swindle. It trots out an array of scientists, politicians, and economists who dispute the idea that climate change is man-made.
Then Stith asks his students to take a position. They can argue whatever they want as long as they back their claims with evidence. In the end, the class is left to draw its own conclusions. "We're putting stuff into our atmosphere that isn't great. And it's undeniable that the climate is changing," Stith said. "But whether humans are the cause, that's a bit more open to interpretation."
It's a conclusion that drives climate scientists crazy, especially when it's passed on to students. Here's why: Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is underway and human activity is the primary cause.
The scientific consensus, however, has no equivalent political agreement. Instead, rejection of the link between human activity and climate change has become a near-universal stance in the Republican Party.
All this puts science teachers in an awkward position: Scientists insist that teaching the controversy—and not the consensus—is a dereliction of duty and a propagation of falsehood. But a powerful conservative coalition opposes any effort to standardize a consensus curriculum, and they've had success in blocking such a standard from taking effect.
The end result: a patchwork of climate instruction guidelines that largely leaves teachers to their own devices, facilitating massive disparities in global-warming education from school to school and state to state.
"There's a lot of variability in how this is taught right now," said Minda Berbeco, the National Center for Science Education's programs and policy director. "What's really troubling is a lot of students are not receiving accurate scientific information."
An effort to change that is under way, but has so far faced significant headwinds in a handful of red states. Last year, a coalition of scientists and educators released a set of academic standards for kindergarten through 12th grade that require schools to teach the scientific consensus on man-made global warming.
That academic framework—known as the Next Generation Science Standards—has won praise from high-profile scientific organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Meteorological Society. They say teaching the consensus is crucial, especially as global warming begins to intensify.
Conservative organizations with tea-party ties, however, oppose the standards, particularly the part that deals with global warming. Truth in American Education, a network of tea-party and conservative groups, has come out against the standards. A researcher with Heartland Institute, a think tank that promotes global-warming skepticism, said the guidelines "impose alarmist global-warming ideas on children," and conservative advocacy organization the Wyoming Liberty Group said they "drive an eco-agenda."