The Classroom Climate Battle: A New Heavy Hitter Joins the Fray

Read time: 4 mins

For a year now, I’ve been covering the growing fight over the teaching of accurate climate science in American classrooms. The conflict is being driven by politics, of course, but also by the fact that school districts are, increasingly, bringing information about global warming into the educational curriculum–leading, inevitably, to pressure on teachers, backlash from parents, and even, in some cases, school board or legislative interference.

This is, of course, happening most often in ideologically conservative communities, where we have already seen climate science teaching conflicts start.

So what do you do about it?

As it happens, there is a national organization that already has decades of experience in dealing with politicized fights over the content of science education. It is the Oakland, CA-based National Center for Science Education (NCSE), which has defended the teaching of evolution across America going back nearly 30 years.

And now, NCSE has just announced it is adding climate change to its docket. (The group's arrival in this space is such a big development–at least to my mind–that I just devoted a full Point of Inquiry podcast episode to interviewing NCSE director Eugenie Scott about it.)

As this effort unfolds, I think there will be a few things to keep in mind. First, the climate education is not like the evolution education issue in several key respects, and so cannot be handled in the same way:

Place in the Curriculum. Basic biology is fundamental to science education, and evolution is the cornerstone of biology. Accordingly, evolution is taught (or at least, should be taught) as a bedrock part of the high school science curriculum across America. This is not the case, however, with climate science. It is not even clear, necessarily, which science “class” this interdisciplinary subject belongs in: Physics? Chemistry?

So there is vast heterogeneity in how climate science is being taught in U.S. schools, in what class–and indeed, in whether it is being taught at all.

Legal Precariousness of Messing With Good Science. Defenders of the teaching of evolution in public schools have always had held a kind of trump card in their hands. It is called the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and it bars mingling church and state. Creationism and “intelligent design” are obviously fundamentally religious ideas, so teaching them in public schools is easily shown to lack a legitimate secular purpose–to be all about advancing religion. Through such a strategy the defenders of evolution have won again and again in court.

But with global warming, this advantage disappears. Is climate denial a religious idea? I actually do think that it is a doctrine believed “religiously” by many–but I wouldn’t want to have to go into a courtroom and try to demonstrate that, say, libertarianism is a religion.

So I don’t expect the defenders of good climate science to be using lawsuits as a strategy to defend its teaching.

There Is No Clear “Opponent.” In the evolution fight, there was the Institute for Creation Research, and then the “intelligent design” promoting Discovery Institute. In the climate education battle, there is no central clearinghouse organization on the political right that is pushing global warming denial in schools. There are many think tanks and individuals putting out educational materials, of course, but this is really more of a conservative grassroots phenomenon.

As my interview with Eugenie Scott showed, she is keenly aware of all of this. So how can she and her organization manage climate education conflicts profitably and, hopefully, both improve and also depolarize U.S. science education?

For one thing, NCSE will need onsite allies wherever it gets involved–and a way of presenting the climate issue that does not lead to political conservatives getting very defensive, and thus sharpening the conflict even further.

So allying with evangelical Christians who care about saving the planet is a very, very good idea whenever possible. I also wonder if NCSE will experiment with framing the climate issue around nuclear power or geoegineering—both controversial approaches, but both shown to work to depolarize the issue overall, and to make conservatives more open to what science has to say.

This struggle will be long and hard; and the problem will likely get worse before it gets better. In many school districts, attacks on climate education will occur but we won’t even hear about them—they’ll never make their way to NCSE in the first place.

But I for one feel much better knowing that the country’s premiere science education defender is now on the case.

Watch NCSE's new video:

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Why did I know, in advance, that there would be an appeal for cash at the end.

Yes, in the video. 

I agree, I’m better off not watching videos. I recall an interesting one posted at Climate Progress about variablity that, at the end had, links to several others including the now debunked “Climate Refugees” idea (oops!) complete with starved looking poor children from various 3rd world countries =\

As a teacher I resent the idea that I can’t tell when the curriculum I’m teaching is “politically motivated”. I know exactly what’s going on. I’m a student of history and would rather play the long game. Which means that pushing climate THEORY into a science class and equating it with experimentally provable science is premature. Especially if it’s based on the algorithms and models coming out of East Anglia and the IPCC.

1: Do you believe human activities are at least in part responsible for driving global climate change? [Hulme] YES
2: Do you feel the evidence for this is sufficiently strong to start reducing emissions?
[Hulme] NO – to reduce emissions requires more evidence than that humans are altering climate. We need to know something about the potential risks associated with future climate change, whether these risks can be minimised through adaptive action and then have some socially negotiated basis for deciding about the necessity and extent of desirable emissions reductions. On none of these issues do we have a good basis to work from. The precautionary principle, if chosen, would imply start reducing emissions now – but I am not convinced a blind application of the precautionary principle in this case is the most appropriate instrument.

I am not convinced. I would present it as theory not scientific fact.

Joanne Nova has an excellent article at her blog about this very subject.

She quotes an L.A. Times article (which is on the Green side of things);

“Any time we have a meeting of 100 teachers, if you ask whether they’re running into pushback on teaching climate change, 50 will raise their hands,” said Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who meets with hundreds of teachers annually. “We ask questions about how sizable it is, and they tell us it is [sizable] and pretty persistent, from many places: your administration, parents, students, even your own family.”

Common sense appears to be winning here, despite what Chris Mooney would have us believe!

Since 1988 relatively little has changed in modeling man made GHG in the atmosphere.  The very air you breath is getting older.

Appearetly Hansen’s sensitivity to CO2 was off by 5% or so.  Imagine all the hurt and loss Americans do without if economists were that bang on accurate?  In scientific terms this is a home run.

What have you read?  Where are you getting your information now?  Precisely what evidence are you looking for?

On a funny note an X girlfriend worked on a video for the forestry industry in BC.  She was desperate for money, so she took the job.  “Clear cutting gives deer room to roam.” The teacher’s union refused to run the video.

Its a real concern that there are teachers like msjustwatchme. Completely conned & susceptible to their political confirmation bias, rather than facts.

I gather you advocate Intelligent design in classrooms also………because we just dont know do we?

Poor kids. I’m glad the school my kids go to teaches science to my kids & not fossil fuel/right wing political science.

…and even with 30 years of conservative rule they have managed to stay out of the classrooms.

The schools don’t talk about climate change.  There are ‘environmental’ classes, but that is about it.  They stay away from both sides, and particularly, they stay away from pushing false garbage from bloggers.  (Meaning anything counter to AGW which is currently upsupported by any facts or measurements.)

The reason for this state of things in Alberta is simple.  Oil field workers don’t want their kids coming home and telling their parents that they are destroying the earth.

However I consider it a win since I’m not getting any anti-AGW propaganda shoved down my kids’ throats.

You obviously do not understand how science works. AGW is a scientific theory, I suggest you read up on exactly what that means.

There has been empirical (you do know what that means, don’t you?) evidence for 150 years that increasing CO2 concentrations will have a warming effect. The effects of global warming are now being noticed all over the globe.

AGW is a consequence of the theory of planetary climate.  That theory works quite well for Venus, Terra, Mars and Titan (promted to a planet for this purpose as it has a deep and interesting atmosphere above a solid & liquid surface).  For more, read Ray Pierrehumbert’s “Principles of Planetary Climate”.

“That theory works quite well for Venus, Terra, Mars”

How is Mars & Venus going now? Monckton tells us in his videos that the other planets in our solar system are warming also……do they have SUV’s also?…………………which is strange that they “know” these other planets are warming, despite us having no satelites, core or temperature data. Yet deniers somehow “know” that the earth is not warming……despite having a plethora of emprical evidence that says it is.

Wonder if our teacher friend above is echoing Monckton like simpleton statements to pliable children.

Why is it that no one tries to dispute the actual comments found in the emails leaked from the IPCC climatologists? If they have doubts about their own models, shouldn’t I? If they have doubts about the the numbers and attempt to cover up unfavorable data shouldn’t I be skeptical? Wait a minute! Isn’t the scientific process based upon skepticism? Science never was about consensus and has always been about dispute and debate. Why should climate science be any different?

Then you wouldn’t be making the stupid comments you are making. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in the e-mails that disputes what all honest scientists know about AGW.

You are reading right wing denier sites which cherry pick , take out of context and use other dishonest techniques to make their points.

The science of AGW is absolutely solid and has been known for a very long time.

Do you really want to understand what is going on or are you just another denier troll? Please enlighten us so we know who we are conversing with. If you want to understand the science in an honest manner then I suggest you visit Realclimate and Skepticalscience where you will find what the scientists are saying in regard to AGW.

There is nothing to dispute.  Can you perhaps do some work and quote something you know to be wrong?

To put this more concisely, explain to me exactly what statement is incorrect and needs to be examined.

In the mean time I offer this great video;

Now… if you want to discuss the counter papers;

You’d need to also learn about Dog Horoscopes, and potential UFO Landing Sites, because that is the kind of journal that publishes this stuff.  Don’t take my word for it, take a Republican’s;

Oh and the ratio of anti climate change papers isn’t 1 (against) to 1 (for), its 3 (against) to 100 (for).  I know this because I also do my best to read the actual papers.  (I found that a little slow going, but I’ve consistently found that this web page correlates with what I find.

In more than a year of hunting for evidence that climate change is incorrect I have turned up zero evidence.  Mostly I come away from bloggers feeling as though I’ve just received a big wet willy in my ear.

I fully expect you to BS or completely avoid any discussion on this matter.  The track record for you and you ilk is consistent in this regard.  All hot air, and no evidence AT ALL.

Mjustwatchme, besides the link that Oilman linked to that discusses the “climategate” emails, there is this one to add as well from Peter Sinclairs climate denial crock of the week.

“Unwinding hiding the decline”.

Between the video that Oilman posts & this one they explain in two short easy to understand what was meant in the emails & how those emails have been quoted out of context & selectively paraphrased.

Why? Because you say so? For every peer reviev article you find supporting AGW(or should I call it climate change, I’m not sure what the PR spin is these days) I can find a peer reviewed article disputing it. And so it goes. Theory is theory - fact is fact. They are not the same thing. There are pleanty of grant money chasers on both sides of the debate and that is exactly why it should be kept OUT of the classroom.

MsJustWatchMe said:

“For every peer reviev (sic) article you find supporting AGW(or should I call it climate change, I’m not sure what the PR spin is these days) I can find a peer reviewed article disputing it”

That is a downright lie and if you really did read up on the science you would know that approximately 98% of the peer reviewed papers in the area of climate science support the science behind AGW. See papers by Naomi Oreskes (  and the one by Jim Prall at the University of Toronto (

As for your last comment, honesty and science go together and should be included in school curricula. Dishonest junk from deniers should be what is kept out.

“For every peer reviev”


“There are pleanty”

Four of my best friends are teachers who often talk about the movie “waiting for superman” & “the dance of the lemons”, where principals exchange their lemon teachers with other lemons.

Have you seen it? Everyone has typos & I could understand that sort of mistake from me, but a teacher? Twice in the same paragraph? Maybe that’s the issue & NCSE would have far less work to do or perhaps not even exist……if they just got rid of the lemons.