Reporting from Washington — A flash point has emerged in American science education that echoes the battle over evolution, as scientists and educators report mounting resistance to the study of man-made climate change in middle and high schools.
Although scientific evidence increasingly shows that fossil fuel consumption has caused the climate to change rapidly, the issue has grown so politicized that skepticism of the broad scientific consensus has seeped into classrooms.
Texas and Louisiana have introduced education standards that require educators to teach climate change denial as a valid scientific position. South Dakota and Utah passed resolutions denying climate change. Tennessee and Oklahoma also have introduced legislation to give climate change skeptics a place in the classroom.
In May, a school board in Los Alamitos, Calif., passed a measure, later rescinded, identifying climate science as a controversial topic that required special instructional oversight.
"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."
Against this backdrop, the National Center for Science Education, an Oakland-based watchdog group that supports the teaching of evolution through advocacy and educational materials, plans to announce on Monday that it will begin an initiative to monitor the teaching of climate science and evaluate the sources of resistance to it.
NCSE, a small, nonpartisan group of scientists, teachers, clergy and concerned individuals, rose to prominence in the last decade defending evolution in the curriculum.
The controversy around "climate change education is where evolution was 20 years ago," said Eugenie Scott, executive director of NCSE.
At that time, evolution — the long-tested scientific theory that varieties of life forms emerged through biological processes like natural selection and mutation — was patchily taught. Teaching standards have been developed since then, but it's unclear how widely evolution is taught, given teachers' fear of controversy.
Studies show that teachers often set aside evolution for fear of a backlash. Scott worries this could happen with climate science too.
"The question is self-censorship and intimidation. What you have to watch for is the 'hecklers' veto,' " she said. "If a teacher ignores a particular topic, it will likely go unnoticed."
Climate change skeptics like James Taylor, environmental policy fellow at the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, said the pushback in schools and legislatures reflected public frustration at being told "only one side of the global warming debate — the scientifically controversial theory that humans are creating a global warming crisis."
"It is therefore not surprising that state legislatures are stepping in to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not spent in a manner that turns an important and ongoing scientific debate into a propaganda assault on impressionable students," Taylor said.
Climatologists say man-made climate change is not scientifically controversial.
Instruction on climate change is typically introduced in middle school earth science classes and in recently popular high school environmental science courses, often electives.
In 2007, science teachers said their greatest challenge was making climate change fit in with their curriculum, according to a survey by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, a joint project of NOAA and the University of Colorado at Boulder. By 2011, the biggest concern wasn't the curriculum but the controversy, said Susan Buhr, director of the education outreach arm for the institute.
Resistance to the scientific consensus breaks down mostly along regional lines, Buhr said, with greater pushback in the South and in regions where "livelihoods have been built on extractive industries" of fossil fuels.
Attacks on evolution come largely from conservative Christians who believe in a literal reading of the biblical creation story. Climate change denial is mostly rooted in political ideology, with foes decrying it as liberal dogma, teachers say. The NCSE's Scott said that made it much harder to use the courts to protect climate science education.
New national science standards for grades K-12 are due in December. The standards — based on a framework by the National Academy of Sciences and developed by a partnership of private industry and state governments — are expected to include climate change. But some science educators predict that could heat up local and state resistance in some areas.
"You could see more states or localities challenging the topic," said Niepold, who is familiar with the NCSE initiative. "Given the polarized nature of how people take this issue, having a community organization that looks at the issue could be valuable."