Published on
The San Francisco Chronicle

Bills Would Muddy Lessons on Climate in Schools

Caitlin Grey

As a high school senior and an ardent environmentalist, I have mixed feelings about new legislation in various states that would change science curricula to include "other views" on climate change, much like the way some school districts have tried to open up the theory of evolution for debate.

I know the goal of such legislation - to downplay the severity of climate change and to cast doubt on its man-made causes - is against everything I stand for as an advocate for all things green. And yet, there's something pretty convincing about how lawmakers have framed these bills: as catalysts for "open discussion" and "intellectual freedom." I mean, who's against that? Indeed, often the most memorable parts of my classes are the fiery debates about contentious topics. It's when I learn the most. Like when my environmental science teacher led my class in a discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear energy. I've never been a proponent of nuclear power, which got me into ideological tiffs with some classmates. But being forced to use facts and data that I had read in my textbook to hold my own is probably the only reason I remember so much about something I was once so opposed to.

The wording of the latest of these bills, Kentucky's "Science Education and Intellectual Freedom Act," seems to be a perfect setup for such in-class intellectual throwdowns: "Teachers, principals, and other school administrators are encouraged to create and foster an environment within public elementary and secondary schools that promotes critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of scientific theories being studied."

But how would this mandate to discuss the "disadvantages" of climate change play out in a real classroom? Would teachers hand out articles about NASA scientist James Hansen's hacked e-mails? Would students learn about the "hockey stick controversy" alongside the Kyoto Protocol? Would the objections of a few wayward scientists play down the consensus scientists have built over the past 15 years? At my school, teachers grade classroom debates by giving one point to students who voice an opinion and two points to students who back up their arguments with facts. It's a good system - the winners are usually the students who have studied up the most. If students could support their arguments against anthropogenic climate change with just as much evidence as the arguments for it, then: hear, hear! But I would guess, given the dearth of credible data that goes against the scientific consensus on global warming, student climate deniers wouldn't get the best grades. Underneath a mask of seemingly benevolent requests for more discussion and viewpoints lie political, religious and corporate agendas that ultimately will hurt our nation's next generation, my generation. All it takes is one teacher to gloss over textbook science and overemphasize controversy, and more students will leave the classroom feeling confused about why polar ice caps are melting. These bills would let teachers get away with that. "Open discussion" might sound like unicorns and rainbows, but underestimating the effects of climate change is going to bite our country in the butt - if not in time for today's lawmakers to notice, definitely by the time today's students are in charge of the country.

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Caitlin Grey, 18, is a reporter with Youth Radio, a youth-driven production company based in Oakland.

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