National Teachers Group Confronts Climate Denial: Keep the Politics Out of Science Class

The association urged science teachers at all levels to emphasize that 'no scientific controversy exists regarding the basic facts of climate change.'

Understanding climate science should start in science class, the NSTA says.  Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

"If there are controversies or other issues to deal with, we want them to have a good solid foundation in evidence-based knowledge to carry out that conversation," said David Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association. Credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

In response to what it sees as increasing efforts to undermine the teaching of climate science, the nation's largest science teachers association took the unusual step Thursday of issuing a formal position statement in support of climate science education.

In its position statement, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) calls on science teachers from kindergarten through high school to emphasize to students that "no scientific controversy exists regarding the basic facts of climate change."

"Given the solid scientific foundation on which climate change science rests, any controversies regarding climate change and human-caused contributions to climate change that are based on social, economic, or political arguments—rather than scientific arguments—should not be part of a science curriculum," it says. 

It also urges teachers to "reject pressures to eliminate or de-emphasize" climate science in their curriculum. And it urges school administrators to provide science teachers with professional development opportunities to strengthen their understanding of climate science.

"Now, more than ever, we really feel that educators need the support of a national organization, of their educational colleagues and their scientist colleagues, because they have encountered a lot of resistance," David Evans, the executive director of NSTA, said.

"In climate science, as in other areas, we really emphasize the importance that students learn the science in science class, and if there are controversies or other issues to deal with, we want them to have a good solid foundation in evidence-based knowledge to carry out that conversation," he said.

Judy Braus, executive director of the North American Association for Environmental Education, said her organization fully supports the NSTA position statement. "We feel that it's important to address the misinformation that's out there about climate" change, she said.

Only Evolution Draws This Kind of Response

NSTA has issued position statements in the past on topics such as safety, gender equity and the responsible use of animals in the classroom, but this is only the second focused on the teaching of subject matter that can be controversial for reasons not related to the science itself but for societal or political reasons.

"Over the last five years, the two issues that have had the most controversy with them have been evolution on a continuing basis and climate change, and there has been more controversy around climate change," Evans said.

Teachers and school boards have been under pressure from organizations that oppose climate policies, including some that have promoted misinformation and aruged for climate change to be removed from state science curricula. Last year, the Heartland Institute, a conservative advocacy organization with close ties to the fossil fuel industry, mailed approximately 300,000 copies of its publication "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming" to middle, high school and college science teachers around the country. 

Evans said Thursday's position statement was not a direct response to the Heartland mailings but was precipitated by attacks on climate science curriculum that have been building since the National Research Council recommended climate science be included in K–12 science education in 2012.

Pressure to Change State Science Standards

Battles have erupted in recent years in states including Texas, Louisiana and Idaho, over the role climate science should play in new state science standards.

Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that defends the integrity of science education against ideological interference, said the position statement comes at a key time: Arizona is now devising new science standards and arguing over climate change. The draft standards have not yet been approved by the state Board of Education, but he said "the latest revision deletes a whole slew of high school level standards on climate change."

Branch, who was not involved in developing NSTA's position statement, said the document should help classroom teachers who may feel political or societal pressure to eliminate climate science instruction.

"A teacher who is being pressured by a parent or an administrator can say 'look, I'm a professional, I'm trained for this, both before I became a teacher and through continuing education, I have responsibilities to my profession, and my professional organization, the NSTA says this is what I should be doing,'" Branch said. "I think that will be empowering for many teachers."

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