Inside W.Va.’s battle over teaching climate change

By Pola Lem | 04/29/2016 09:07 AM EDT

In a coal state struggling with environmental regulations and a fiscal crisis, teaching climate science has hit a nerve.

In a coal state struggling with environmental regulations and a fiscal crisis, teaching climate science has hit a nerve.

After months of heated debate, West Virginia has decided to move forward with national science standards that recognize the role of human activity in causing rising global temperatures. The measure caused an uproar in the state Legislature, prompted hundreds of teachers to put their signatures behind the standards and induced at least one climate skeptic to drive across state lines to protest.

Yet while the effort of some lawmakers to repeal the standards altogether failed, critics are still faulting the state for "watering down" climate standards as part of the package.


The battle may be over for now, but analysts say it points to a larger question: What happens when science education hits a nerve with a lucrative state industry like coal?

"We’ve seen in state after state where Climate Parents worked on [science standards] that other bodies will often try to get climate denialism back in," said Lisa Hoyos, the director of Climate Parents, a national organization that supports clean energy policies and climate education and has backed petitions supporting national standards.

"It’s intimately connected to the fact that the fossil fuels industry has a stranglehold on far too many elected officials," she said.

The flare-up over the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) comes at a time when coal giants like Arch Coal Inc. and Peabody Energy Corp. are filing for bankruptcy. West Virginia’s Legislature also is about to enter a special session in May to discuss the state’s multimillion-dollar budget shortfall.

The new K-12 science standards, adopted in 2015, aim "to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education." Developed by 26 states in collaboration with partners across the country, the standards are part of an effort to get science education up to speed with current scientific knowledge, but they’re also part of a bigger educational debate on contentious issues, like testing.

So far, 18 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the NGSS, according to a map by Education Week. But across the country, the standards have come under fire for highly politicized subject matter like climate change and evolution.

A partisan dispute

A large part of the legislative dissatisfaction with the NGSS in West Virginia was due to its treatment of climate change, experts said.

The specific line that caused the brouhaha read as follows: "Changes in the atmosphere due to human activity have increased carbon dioxide concentrations and thus affect climate."

It’s a sentence that describes a basic scientific principle underlying the discussion of the NGSS’s treatment of climate. None of the disciplinary core ideas from the NGSS, which include this sentence, made it into the West Virginia standards.

Del. Michael Moffatt (R), who introduced an amendment (which ultimately failed) to scrap the standards this spring, said he took exception to the language.

"My concern is in regards to the climate change agenda — that Next Generation is teaching kids as early as kindergarten that man has negative impact on Earth, and that could be interpreted wrong, especially in an energy-producing state like West Virginia," Moffatt said.

West Virginia is the largest coal producer east of the Mississippi River and second-largest producer in the nation after Wyoming, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"Fossil fuels have made this country what it is. Cheap energy has developed lots of areas," added Del. Frank Deem (R).

Other lawmakers argued hard against slashing the standards, arguing it would have added hundreds hours of work for teachers who have already written lesson plans and assignments around them.

"Children need to be exposed to all facets of education," said Del. David Perry (D), vice chairman of the state’s Education Committee, "but as far as changing standards in the middle of the stream, I think it’d be a mistake."

Some praise W.Va.’s curriculum

West Virginia is among a handful of states that have disputed the treatment of climate change and the adoption of NGSS. But the state is unique in the oversize part climate change language has played, according to observers like Glenn Branch, who has kept a close eye on the issue as deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that works to keep evolution and climate science in public school education.

"The controversy has been persisting there. It’s been in two venues rather than one," said Branch, noting that West Virginia’s board of education has been chipping away at the climate language even as the state Legislature was prepared to repeal the standards altogether.

Not everyone agrees with Branch’s take on the situation.

Clayton Burch, chief academic officer at the West Virginia Department of Education, played down the role of climate change in the most recent flare-up of the battle over standards in the state’s Legislature this spring.

"We dealt with this over a year ago. I know folks think it raised its head again this year; it popped its head into the Legislature," said Burch. "It didn’t become a science debate at all — it was a standards and assessment debate."

There’s a lot to praise in the state’s most recent standards, said Kim Kastens, a special research scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who conducted a review of the previous state standards. West Virginia’s new curriculum, and especially its ninth-grade focus on Earth and space sciences, homes in on climate for the first time. That’s a big step for the state, she said.

"You have to realize that the climate part of NGSS is set amid a much larger emphasis on human-Earth interactions," Kastens said. "Within Earth and space sciences, there are three different themes — one is Earth and human interactions — that’s huge, a big change in and of itself."

Just ‘pros and cons’

West Virginia’s current standards, adopted in 2015 and passed despite recent debate in the state’s Legislature, use NGSS as a backbone. But West Virginia standards do not link climate change explicitly to human causes — something NGSS does — and instead hint at the connection.

Some critics argue the state’s board of education watered down climate language when it made a few tweaks to NGSS last year, potentially opening room for climate change skepticism.

For instance, one of the state’s amendments replaced the word "rise" with "change" in a sixth-grade standard that initially required students to "ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century," the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported last April.

Another added the term "natural forces" to a high school environmental science elective that asks students to "debate climate changes as it [sic] relates to natural forces, greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and relevant laws and treaties," the newspaper reported.

The Department of Education, however, stands by the changes, said Burch.

"They got targeted as climate changes, when in essence it really focused on pros and cons, and the ability of students to research and argue both sides of a claim," said Burch.

Legislators’ plan to scrap West Virginia’s take on NGSS was not realized, and the state’s governor signed the 2015 version into effect last month. The Education Department’s tweaks aside, supporters of climate in education say keeping the standards is better than slashing them altogether.

In line with the current bill, a committee will review the state’s standards. A panel, appointed by deans from Marshall University and West Virginia University, that will be in charge of making sure the standards, science, English and mathematics are up to snuff is a "good idea," Perry said.