An Oakland group vows to keep climate science in the classroom.
As the climate change debate creeps into classrooms across the country, an Oakland non-profit vows to stem the tide of climate denial in California. They also plan to conduct a comprehensive review of science textbooks to help teachers separate the sound from the shaky in climate science.
The Oakland-based National Center for Science Education (NCSE) has announced that it will now offer support to teachers facing resistance to climate science in the classroom, similar to their long-standing work to keep the instruction of evolution in schools. “We’ve already had a couple of calls along the lines of, ‘I know you guys do evolution, but I’ve got this problem with [teaching] climate change and do you have any suggestions for me,’” said Dr. Eugenie Scott, executive director of NSCE.
Scott says parents often argue that schools should teach both sides of a controversial scientific issue. But she doesn’t consider the fundamental conclusions of climate science to be controversial. “The idea that scientific topics that are well grounded in basic science, like evolution or climate change, should be balanced, or that all views should be taught, is not one that is very scientifically or pedagogically supportable,” said Scott. She readily agrees that many of the details of climate science are debated between scientists, such as differing approaches to modeling climate change. However, she maintains that “the science community is pretty uniform in its acceptance of the fact that the planet is getting warmer.” Nevertheless, Scott said skepticism toward climate science has gained traction with the general public, so legislators and some school boards are starting to demand that science curricula provide room for doubt.
The Center’s approach to dealing with these issues has always been local. “We provide information to people in communities,” Scott emphasized. “We get local people to appear at school board meetings because all politics is local and this is politics.” The Center’s staff isn’t nearly big enough to fly around the country defending climate science in 1,500 school districts. So it provides support to teachers who ask for it. “Teachers in general are conflict-averse; they just want to do their jobs,” explained Scott. Unfortunately that means that it is often easier for a teacher to avoid the issue completely than to stand up for the climate science.
California is not immune. The Center in Oakland has documented at least two cases of climate change flare-ups in California classrooms. When an Advanced Placement environmental science class was introduced in Los Alamitos, a small city in Orange County, the school board ruled that global warming should be taught as a “controversial subject,” meaning that the teacher should present both sides of the controversy to students. And, in Portola Valley, a stone’s throw from Stanford University, a parent demanded a debate between a climate scientist and a climate denier after learning that the teacher had shown Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth in class.
One of the biggest challenges to NCSE’s new initiative will be the distinctly political nature of the climate change debate. In their battles to allow science teachers to instruct on evolution, NCSE always leaned on the First Amendment and its directive to separate church and state as a backstop to its argument. “There is no constitutional amendment supporting good science,” sighed Scott. “We merely have to try to persuade people to try to do what’s best.” Largely that persuasion has focused on moving the “controversy” part of the topic into the social science sphere, where policy is debated, and leaving the science alone.