Climate Change Denial Is Affecting Education

Climate change denial is already threatening the integrity of science education in formal and informal education settings. In the public schools, such threats are primarily due to laws adopted or considered at the level of state government, policies adopted or considered at the level of the local school district, and actions adopted or considered at the level of the individual classroom, where teachers may either deny climate change themselves or encounter pressure from climate change deniers in the community. The following is a selection of recent (from 2007 to 2011) incidents, intended to be illustrative rather than comprehensive; NCSE is now routinely monitoring cases of climate change denial affecting education.

At the state level

In 2010, South Dakota’s legislature adopted House Concurrent Resolution 1009, in which all three of the pillars of climate change denial were on display. The resolution

  • described climate change as “a scientific theory rather than a proven fact” and cited purported evidence against global warming
  • suggested that the scientific consensus on climate change was due to “political and philosophical viewpoints which have complicated and prejudiced the scientific investigation of global warming phenomena”
  • called for “balanced teaching of global warming in the public schools of South Dakota”

As a resolution, HCR 1009 was non-binding, merely expressing the legislature’s view and not requiring teachers in South Dakota to teach differently. But it surely sent a message to those teachers.

Additionally, climate change is now often included along with evolution in lists of “controversial” topics in state legislation. For example, the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act, enacted in 2008, called on education administrators to help to promote “thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories being studied including, but not limited to, evolution, the origins of life, global warming, and human cloning.” These four topics were described as controversial in the original draft of the legislation. Dozens of such “academic freedom” bills have been introduced in state legislatures over the past decade, although successfully only in Louisiana.

Since 2008, antievolutionists in Louisiana have reportedly invoked the law to support proposals to teach creationism in at least two parishes — Livingston and Tangipahoa — and to attack the treatment of evolution in biology textbooks proposed for adoption by the state. As the topic of climate change becomes increasingly prevalent in science classrooms, it is likely that climate change deniers in Louisiana will similarly invoke the law to support proposals to teach climate change denial or to downplay the treatment of climate change in science textbooks.

A further locus of climate change denial is state science standards. Since the 1990s, state science standards have been increasingly important in public education in the United States. Standards provide guidelines for local school districts to follow in developing their science curricula; they determine the content of statewide science examinations; and they are consulted by textbook publishers in developing their science textbooks. They can also provide a bulwark for teachers and administrators facing complaints about the content of the curriculum. But climate change deniers often attempt to undermine the treatment of climate change when standards are updated.

In Texas in 2009, for example, a highly politicized state board of education revised a benchmark for Earth and Space Science from “analyze the changes in Earth's atmosphere through time” to “analyze the changes in Earth's atmosphere that could have occurred through time” and added a benchmark for Environmental Systems requiring students to “[a]nalyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming,” as NCSE's Steven Newton reported (PDF) in The Earth Scientist (2009). The chair of the board at the time was quoted as explaining, “Conservatives like me think the evidence [for human contributions to global warming] is a bunch of hooey.”

At the district level

In 2010, a group of local parents in Mesa County, Colorado, petitioned the school district to stop teaching about climate change at all. Here, too, all three pillars of climate change denial were at work. The leader of the petition drive, according to the Denver Post (May 26, 2010)

  • told the school board that climate change “is not a proven scientific theory. There is not evidence to support it”
  • told the newspaper that she was impelled to start the petition when “parents approached her to complain that their children couldn’t freely express their conservative values in class”
  • argued that “if the subject is going to be taught, the ‘other side’ should be presented so that students aren’t subjected to a frightening untruth”

In the end, the school board declined to act on the petition, and thanks to the concerted action of concerned parents, teachers, and scientists, climate change is still part of the local science curriculum.

In 2011, the Los Alamitos, California, Unified School District adopted a policy requiring teachers addressing any controversial issue to use material that offers “a balance of viewpoints and encourages students to examine each side of the issue.” The policy was adopted at the behest of a district trustee who was concerned in particular about a new Advanced Placement class in environmental science, which addressed climate change. Interviewed by the Orange County Register (May 14, 2011), he managed to repeat all three pillars of climate change denial:

There are two clearly divergent opinions on global warming … There are those who believe that global warming is a fact, created by man’s impact on the environment and the consequences will be devastating. There are others on the conservative side who believe it’s much ado about nothing. It’s overhyped and politically motivated, and the science is not solid, and there’s room for more studies. … On this particular issue, I’m not pushing my view. I just want the kids to be presented with balance.

The adoption of the policy provoked a controversy in the district, and even attracted international attention. Subsequently, thanks to the action of concerned parents and teachers, the policy was revised (with input from NCSE). Instead of requiring teachers to present “each side of the issue,” regardless of its scientific merit, the new policy instructs that teachers to “[r]epresent facts and concepts of controversial issues from multiple perspectives to ensure that students develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills.” The teachers in the district regarded the revised policy as no longer requiring them to compromise the integrity of climate education.

At the classroom level

In 2007, in Federal Way, Washington, a local parent objected to a classroom screening of An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 documentary about former United States Vice President Al Gore’s campaign to educate citizens about climate change. The parent explained his concern to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (January 10, 2007): “The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn’t in the DVD.” The Federal Way School Board then adopted a policy that required any teacher who screened the film to present an opposing view.

The policy was quickly abandoned, however. As the Seattle Times (January 24, 2007) reported, “Dozens of people showed up at Tuesday’s meeting, many of them concerned about the board’s view of the film as controversial and therefore subject to a district policy that requires teachers to present other points of view. In remarks reminiscent of earlier national debates on evolution, residents told the board that, as far as they were concerned, there was no other valid, scientific perspective they could present to students on global warming — apart from the view, presented in the film, that global warming is caused by humans.”

In 2011, after a teacher in California’s San Francisco Bay area showed a video about climate change to her middle school science class, a parent complained, protesting that showing the video was “brainwashing [the students] into believing anthropogenic global warming is a fact, not a theory.” To rectify the problem, the parent demanded that the school host a debate in front of all students in the grade, in which a climate change denier would present a case against the scientific consensus. The district administration agreed to the demand.

Asked by the teachers in the school for help, NCSE explained that such a debate would be pedagogically inappropriate, misleading students about the nature of science: science is settled not in a debate on a stage, but in the scientific literature. (Significantly, creationists, like climate change deniers, are often eager to propose debates: several articles in Reports of the National Center for Science Education 24:6 discuss the counterproductive nature of such debates, although without a focus on the K-12 classroom.) In the end, the district heeded these concerns and canceled the debate.

These incidents at the classroom level are doubtless just the tip of the iceberg: with over 15,000 local school districts across the United States, it is difficult to know exactly how prevalent attacks on climate change education are. Two recent informal surveys conducted in 2011 offer a degree of insight.

  • In a poll of science educators conducted by the National Science Teachers Association, although 60% of respondents reported that they were not concerned about how climate change is taught in their school, 82% reported having faced skepticism about climate change and climate change education from students, 54% reported having faced such skepticism from parents, and 26% reported having faced such skepticism from administrators.
  • In a poll of science educators conducted by the National Earth Science Teachers Association, although only 5% of respondents reported that they were required to teach “both sides” of climate change, 36% reported that they “have been influenced in some way” to do so, and 25 to 30% reported that students, parents, administrators, or community members have disputed that climate change is happening or is the result of human activity.

A rigorous national survey of the prevalence and nature of climate change skepticism in the classroom — such as that conducted with regard to evolution by Michael B. Berkman, Julianna Sandell Pacheco, and Eric Plutzer, published in PLoS Biology in 2008 — apparently remains to be performed.

In informal education

In 2007, there were allegations that officials at the Smithsonian’s Natural Museum of Natural History downplayed climate change in its 2006 exhibit “Arctic: A Friend Acting Strangely” in order to avoid criticism from climate change deniers in Congress and the George W. Bush administration. According to the Washington Post (November 16, 2007), internal documents and correspondence revealed that the museum’s director “ordered last-minute changes in the exhibit’s script to add ‘scientific uncertainty’ about climate change.”

Although the director of the museum told the Post that “there was no political pressure,” he also acknowledged taking a cautious approach “because it had the words ‘climate change,’ which is a politically sensitive issue.” A NASA scientist involved with the development of the exhibit commented, “I never felt that as a scientist, I was pressured to change any of the input,” adding, “The real question is what happened at the highest level after that input came in. That I don’t know.”

In 2009, the San Diego Zoo decided to make climate change the theme of its 2010 calendar, which was distributed to almost a quarter of a million subscribers to its Zoonooz magazine. Indignant climate change deniers “called and sent letters and e-mails criticizing the zoo for taking a position on a topic that has been debated from San Diego to Shanghai,” the San Diego Union-Tribune (November 25, 2009) reported. The managing editor of the magazine summarized their complaints: “we are reporting on it in a way that makes human beings the ones who are causing it, and kind of the ‘bad guys.’”

“The zoo isn’t backing down,” the Union-Tribune explained, “and instead may be stepping more into the realm of political discourse as it strengthens its identity as a conservation organization.” The director of applied animal ecology at the zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research told the newspaper, “When there’s good, sound science behind things, we want to step up and let people know and even advocate for change.” The Zoological Society of San Diego, which operates the zoo, officially recognizes (PDF, p. 64) “the substantial and persuasive data on global climate change and its ramifications for endangered wildlife and habitats.”

NCSE is here to help

NCSE stands ready to defend accurate science education in all of these settings. You can support our work by becoming a member, or by visiting the Taking Action section and learning to be an effective advocate in your own community. You can learn more about the attacks on climate change in the Climate Change Denial section, or brush up on the science of climate change in Climate Change 101.