States of Denial: We Don't Need No Climate Education


Given the flagging rank of American students in science and math, updated science standards would seem to be a good idea. But some are trying to block this progress. (iStockphoto/clearstockconcepts)

Oil and gas interests trump truth for many state legislators. The second in a two-part series.

Our story of the cozy partnership between political leaders and the fossil fuel industry now moves to Wyoming, where the state has moved to block the efforts by 26 states to modernize the science curriculum taught in our nation's schools.

A New Science Curriculum

Unless you're an education wonk or a parent in the weeds of your child's education, you probably haven't heard about the Next Generation Science Standards. (I confess that I hadn't until I came across this article in the New York Times this week.) The standards -- developed by "26 lead states, with a writing team of 41 experts in science education … through a broad collaborative process that included many teachers and stakeholders in science and science education" -- are based on the Framework for K-12 Science Education from the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences. According to the Next Generation Science Standards website, the

"new K-12 science standards ... are rich in content and practice and arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education."

I don't know about you, but given the flagging rank of American students in science and math, the promulgation of such updated standards would seem to be a good idea.

Of course, we're talking about science and so climate is one of the subjects covered in the new standards. Some of the topics are fairly innocuous, including the following.

In Earth system and solar system studies, there’s this:

"Changes in Earth's tilt and orbit cause climate changes such as Ice Ages."

In weather and climate studies, this:

“Complex interactions determine local weather patterns and influence climate, including the role of the ocean.”

And on the topic of global climate change a thumbnail summary reads like this:

"Human activities affect global warming. Decisions to reduce the impact of global warming depend on understanding climate science, engineering capabilities, and social dynamics."

As you might expect, this last bit of the new science standards has some folks antsy, especially those legislators in states dominated by the oil, gas or coal industries. And if those legislators are in a Republican-dominated body like in Wyoming? Well, they can go to town.

Putting Bricks in the Wall of Science Education

Wyoming is the first state whose legislature officially rejected the new science standards. It was done in a back-door sort of way -- as a last-minute footnote added to a budget bill. Last-minute or not, Governor Matt Mead, a Republican, signed the bill, leaving lawmakers and other interested stakeholders to figure out if it prevents “the wholesale adoption of the standards” as they currently read or prevents the "state from considering any part of" them.

And this, in spite of the fact that, according to the New York Times, a group of Wyoming science educators studied them for a year and a half and “unanimously recommended … that the State Board of Education adopt the guidelines."

Of course there can be any number of reasons why Wyoming lawmakers might want to put the kibosh on the updated standards. For example, Susan Gore of the Wyoming Liberty Group said: "I don't think government should have anything to do with education." I wonder if that means she wants to see all public schools closed.

But if you check out the local papers like the Wyoming Star-Tribune, it seems pretty clear that climate change and its implications for the future of oil, gas, and coal industries are at the heart of the matter. (This, despite the fact that some major companies officially support the standards.)

For example, State Representative Matt Teeters, who co-authored the footnote, said he didn't think the standards would be good for Wyoming’s economy. And Ron Micheli, chairman of the State Board of Education, was reportedly "concerned about any teaching on climate change that did not consider ‘the cost-benefit analysis in terms of the expenditure of the effort to bring under control global warming,’” and characterized the standards as "very prejudiced, in my opinion, against fossil fuel development."

Apparently in Wyoming any science that might have negative implications for the state economy is verboten.

Alas, Wyoming is not alone. Opposition to the standards has become a rallying cry for many on the far right side of the spectrum. One e-magazine claims the "Standards Preach Climate Hysteria, Evolution."* Oklahoma, another state heavily invested in the fossil fuel industry, could very well be the next state to follow Wyoming's lead. Last week, a committee of the Oklahoma House voted to reject the scientific standards.

Back in Wyoming the state board is reportedly preparing its own science standards. Rumour has it that the climate change section will be substituted by a culinary section entitled "Cooking With Gas and Other Flammables."


End Note

* Another theme of opposition to the updated science standards comes from objections that it treats evolution as a scientific fact.

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