Senator Roger Wicker wants to make sure that public schools can teach students about "the natural causes and cycles of climate change."
The Mississippi Republican and skeptic of the scientific consensus on man-made climate change has introduced an amendment to a sweeping Senate education bill updating the No Child Left Behind Act that calls on federal agencies to provide states and local education agencies with K-12 instructional materials outlining "the natural causes and cycles of climate change."
Wicker's amendment does not mandate that schools teach climate change in any particular way or even that they teach climate change at all. But the fact that it has surfaced as part of the debate over a much broader education bill speaks to the growing controversy over climate education.
It directs the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to dole out educational materials highlighting "the uncertainties inherent in climate modeling and the myriad factors that influence the climate of the Earth."
Natural phenomena do cause changes in the Earth's climate, but the overwhelming majority of climate scientists say that recent increases in global temperatures have been caused largely as a result of human activity that releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere such as the burning of fossil fuels.
So far the debate over climate education has played out in the states and not in D.C., but that could be about to change.
Climate education has sparked intense debate in states such as Wyoming, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, where conservative lawmakers have fought to block the adoption of an academic framework known as the Next Generation Science Standards that says human activity is the primary driver of dangerous global warming. A patchwork of state and local academic standards has ensured that many schools do not teach climate change at all.
"Senator Wicker's amendment would ensure that federal agencies are providing objective, balanced resources on climate theory that take into consideration the natural causes of climate change," an aide to the senator said.
Science watchdog groups across the country say that children should be taught the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is real, but conservative lawmakers and tea-party groups have pushed back against that idea, arguing that students should be taught "both sides" of the climate controversy.
Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey has offered competing amendments to the education bill that would stress that the scientific consensus on global warming is real.
One amendment sets up a federal grant program that would help states "develop or improve climate-science curriculum" or "initiate, develop, expand, or implement statewide plans and programs for climate-change education."
A second amendment offered by the senator states that "the United States has a responsibility to children and future generation of the United States to reduce the harmful effects of climate change." It adds: "Education about climate change is important to ensure that the future generation of leaders is well-informed about the issues facing our planet in order to make decisions based on science and fact."
That amendment is nonbinding, but if it comes to a vote, it would force senators to weigh in on the topic of climate change in schools.
it is unclear whether the amendments will see a vote. They are not slated to be taken up when the Senate votes on a series of amendments to the education bill Thursday, but votes will continue next week and the provisions could come up then.
Environmentalists were quick to criticize the amendment offered by Wicker on Thursday.
"Roger Wicker stood alone as the only Senator who voted in support of the notion that 'climate change' is a hoax,' and now he is trying to apply his flawed understanding of reality to the entire U.S. public school system with a 'No Child Left Informed' amendment," John Coequyt, Sierra Club's director of federal and international climate campaigns said.
"While the rest of the world gets serious about confronting the escalating threat of climate change, Senator Wicker and too many of his colleagues would have the U.S. double down on denial at the expense of our kids and grandkids," said John Friedrich, Senior Campaigner with Climate Parents. "We urge the U.S. Senate to strongly reject Senator Wicker's head-in-the-sand amendment, and to instead help every student in America learn the truth about climate change and what they can do about it."
This story has been updated.