What Are Kids Learning About Global Warming?

Most of the existing standards for teaching global warming provide little to no direction as to how the controversies should be handled, forcing teachers to devise their own strategies.
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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."

The standards have so far been adopted in 11 states: California, Delaware, Kansas, Kentucky, Illinois, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, along with the District of Columbia.

But elsewhere, the academic framework has been rejected. In March, Wyoming lawmakers blocked their adoption. Two months later, an Oklahoma House committee voted to prevent them from taking effect. And South Carolina's Legislature passed a measure to prohibit the guidelines in the state before they had even been made final.

While the fight drags on, most of the existing standards that mention global warming provide little to no direction as to how it should be taught. And some make it exceedingly easy for educators to teach the controversy.

Georgia's state science standards ask students to "judge the current theories explaining global warming." West Virginia compels high school science classes to "debate climate changes." Louisiana and Tennessee, meanwhile, have laws on the books protecting teachers who promote climate denial.

The net result is that climate skeptics get equal airing in many classrooms. 

Georgia teacher Virginia Kirima asks her 11th-grade environmental-science students to debate whether climate change is natural or man-made. According to Kirima, there is no right or wrong answer. The team that offers up the most compelling scientific evidence wins. "It's up to them to accept whether climate change is natural or caused by humans," Kirima said.

Meanwhile, several thousand miles away in sunny California, high school teacher Heather Wygant ensures her students understand the consensus. "We talk about the fact that most scientists agree on this and we look at the evidence. I also spend a lot of time talking about misconceptions and why people don't believe things because I don't want there to be any confusion," she explained.

In West Virginia, where the coal industry wields massive political clout, high school science teacher Kathy Jacquez's students leave the classroom with a firm grasp on the global warming consensus. And, she says, that lets them think critically about the political battles currently unfolding in the state. "If you look at the headlines, they talk about cutting air pollution and say it's the death of the coal industry," Jacquez said. "But when I talk to my kids it's really amazing. None of them think this is up for debate. They know climate change is real, and it's something we have to deal with."

Other teachers stop short of spelling out facts simply because they're afraid. "I stay out of the process because when I first started teaching this I was labeled an evangelist. I have a kid of my own, and I have a job to keep," said Colorado science teacher Cheryl Manning. "I want my students to come away understanding that human activity has caused global warming. But I don't tell them that explicitly."

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Clare Foran is an energy reporter at National Journal.

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