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Conservatives Use Creationist Playbook to Attack Climate Change Education in Schools

The overwhelming scientific evidence that says humans are causing the warming of the planet has emerged as the new battlefield in middle and high schools in the U.S.

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But there are also well-organized campaigns to get school districts and state legislatures to mandate teaching “balance.”

  • In 2010, in Grand Junction, Colo., a Tea Party activist gathered  700 signatures on a petition that teachers stop talking about climate change. The effort was supported by the  Independent Women’s Forum, a conservative group that had targeted Grand Junction to kick off a national “Balanced Education for Everyone” campaign. When the petition failed, the campaign was scrapped.
  • Last summer, the school board in Los Alamitos, Calif., voted unanimously to require the teaching of “multiple perspectives” on climate change in an environmental science class. The issue was pushed by a school board member who maintained there are  “legitimate, mainstream, normative opinions that differ from the liberal dogma of belief in global warming.” After the action received national and international attention, the mandate was rescinded.
  • State boards of education in  Texas and Louisiana have introduced standards to require teachers to present climate change denial as a valid scientific position. Legislators in Tennessee, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Kentucky have introduced bills to require equal time for climate change skeptics. 

Attacks on the teaching of climate change often go hand-in-hand with efforts to insert creationism or “intelligent design” into public schools. In 2009, the Texas Board of Education mandated that teachers present all sides of the debate on both evolution and climate change. Leslie Kaufman of  The New York Times wrote that the linkage was a canny legal strategy:

Courts have found that singling out evolution for criticism in public schools is a violation of the separation of church and state. By insisting that global warming also be debated, deniers of evolution can argue that they are simply championing academic freedom in general.

Campaigns against climate science and evolution are part of a national crisis in science education, said NCSE’s McCaffrey. 

“Teachers are overburdened and often teaching out of their area of expertise,” he said. “Environmental education tends to be heavy on ‘get the kids out in nature’ and light on science. By middle school, many students start to be turned off by science. Our efforts are geared toward re-invigorating science education for the 21st century in order to prepare our young people to become informed citizens and leaders of tomorrow.” 

Bill Walker, a contributing writer for Climate Central, is a former newspaper correspondent and for more than 20 years a communications strategist for leading environmental organizations. He lives in Berkeley, Calif.

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