Climate change and school: What should children be taught?

Editor’s note: Below are two guest columns presenting opposing views on teaching climate change in District 51 schools:

Doubt-mongering and climate change: Will Americans get fooled again?

By Richard Alward

“To my knowledge it has not been proven that cigarette smoking causes cancer ... We don’t know what causes cancer, in general, right now, so I think that we may find out what causes cancer, and we may find out some relationship, which has yet to be proven.” — W. Campbell.

“It [global warming] is not a proven scientific theory. There is not evidence to support it.”  — Rose Pugliese.

Despite differences in subject, the similarity of these two statements is significant and intentional. Both speakers repeated talking points first developed by the tobacco industry and public-relations consultants in the 1950s.

“Doubt-mongering” is a tactic to manufacture controversy and undermine scientific consensus, using deception and misinformation. It has been used to obscure the cause and effect relationships of (a) tobacco to lung cancer, (b) pollution to acid rain, (c) industrial chemicals to ozone destruction and (d) carbon dioxide to climate change.

Recent events before the Mesa County Valley School District 51 School Board are motivation to review and learn from these manufactured “controversies.”

The first quote above is by William Campbell, president of cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris, when testifying before the House subcommittee on Health and the Environment in 1994.

By 1953, scientists had clearly demonstrated cigarette tar was carcinogenic. For 40 years, tobacco industry leaders, and the consultants and “think tanks” they funded, challenged the science and zealously marketed their second-most lucrative product: doubt.

Selling doubt was surprisingly easy, despite a scientific consensus linking smoking to lung cancer. Scientific uncertainty was recast as a “lack of proof” that there was a link between lung cancer and smoking. Attention was misdirected toward other causes of cancer. These tactics produced decades of delay and the premature deaths of millions of smokers, and non-smokers exposed to second-hand smoke. As we now know, the early scientific consensus was correct.

Other industries recognized the benefits of doubt-mongering. In the 1970s, manufacturers and utilities adopted the playbook to confuse Americans about causes and consequences of acid rain.

By 1974, smokestack pollutants were identified as the principle cause of acid rain.

Despite scientific consensus, industries promoted doubt in prominent newspapers and magazines, helped White House operatives delay and alter scientific reports, argued that natural causes for acid rain and acidic soils meant there was no “proof” pollution was the cause, and insisted control would be too costly.

Eventually, Congress approved solutions to abate acid rain. Within two decades of implementation, emissions dropped 50 percent, the United States GDP increased 200 percent, and the value of health, property and ecosystem benefits realized were over 10 times the compliance costs. The scientific consensus was confirmed.

Also during the 1970s, scientists investigated chemical impacts on stratospheric ozone. The consensus, identifying chlorofluorocarbons as the principle culprit behind ozone destruction, was presented before the U.S. Senate in 1975.

Manufacturing and chemical industries adopted the playbook and assaulted science. Industry PR teams again cited natural sources, lack of “proof,” and high costs as reasons to postpone solutions. But in 1988, the Montreal Protocol was ratified by the U.S. Senate, phasing out the manufacture and use of ozone-destroying chemicals. The scientific consensus was confirmed, again.

Today, the playbook is guiding a coalition of fossil-fuel industries, manufacturers, PR consultants and think tanks betting the American public can be suckered once again.

This coalition, employing many of the same prominent partners from the tobacco, acid rain and ozone campaigns, is claiming that human causes of climate change lack “proof,” the issue is complicated by too many natural causes and solutions will be too expensive. Sound familiar?

The scientific consensus on human-caused climate change is based upon evidence provided from many decades of research confirming the warming potential of carbon dioxide and unprecedented recent increases in atmospheric CO2. Isotope chemistry reveals the increased CO2 is from burning fossil fuels. Increasingly sophisticated climate models show natural factors cannot explain recent global warming trends.

This brings us to the quote, above, from Rose Pugliese, during the May 25 School Board Meeting. She supported a failed petition to “prohibit the teaching of man-made climate-change theory as scientific fact in the students’ curriculum.” This would have introduced the doubt-mongers’ playbook, promoting a fake controversy in our public schools.

Both policy debates and science instruction should build from the scientific consensus, regardless of whether the topic is atomic structure, germ theory, cancer or climate change. Additionally, citizens and students should be trained and encouraged to critically evaluate the evidence, methods and process used to develop consensus.

However, doubt-monger tactics are the products of PR consultants, not scientists. They do not represent “the other side” of any real scientific disagreement. They are as inappropriate for science instruction as they are destructive for rational policy discussions.

Richard Alward is an environmental scientist from Grand Junction. He applauds the School Board decision, on June 15, to forcefully reject the petition regarding global warming.

Schools should teach contrasting views regarding climate change

By Rose Pugliese

There were many concerned parents and students who approached me about partisan politics in the classroom. They said that many students felt like their conservative ideas were being silenced. We added the petition regarding man-made climate change because it was being talked about in our classrooms as fact and without offering alternative perspectives, which made our children uncomfortable with the education that they were receiving.

The exact wording of the two petitions that were presented is as follows:

✓ “We, the undersigned, petition the Mesa County Valley District 51 School Board to create and enforce a policy that prohibits teachers from applying their political views to the teaching and grading of students. Partisan politics do not belong in our classrooms.”

✓ “We, the undersigned, petition the Mesa County Valley District 51 School Board to create and enforce a policy that prohibits the teaching of man-made climate change theory as scientific fact in the students’ curriculum.”

The purpose of the petitions was to raise awareness to the School Board of the problems that community members were hearing. We do not believe that they had any prior knowledge of the issues being raised by our petitions. All we asked — not demanded — was for the School Board, now aware of these issues, to investigate the situation and come up with a way to resolve it to ensure that our students were receiving the best education.

Some 700 people supported the petition on not teaching man-made climate change as fact. Seven hundred. This is obviously an issue, not only to parents and students, but to the whole community.

Our petitions have had national and international attention. There are people in communities across Colorado, across our country and across the Atlantic Ocean looking to learn more about what we are doing right here in Grand Junction. They are ready to take up this fight in their communities.

I have heard that our students are watching Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” from two to four times in their high school careers, without hearing about the numerous fallacies contained in the movie.

Critics say that I am making science political. No, Al Gore has made man-made climate change political. Critics say that I am a lawyer, not a scientist. Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but Al Gore is a lawyer, not scientist.

The School Board claims that man-made climate change is part of the state-mandated curriculum for science. Can someone please tell me where in these science standards it says that our children should be taught man-made climate change by showing “An Inconvenient Truth?” How is this movie accepted science and not political rhetoric?

The School Board, in its decision on Tuesday night, stated that man-made climate change is being taught in a balanced way in accordance with the science standards. But this debate was a golden opportunity that the School Board missed to raise the standards in School District 51 and challenge our students and teachers. By encouraging teachers to explore alternative curriculums, such as the Balanced Education for Everyone program, in conjunction with the state-mandated standards, the board could have allowed our students to learn beyond the status quo and set a new standard for science education on this subject.

Did the board even look at the alternative materials that we presented at the School Board meeting? We may never know, as it was not addressed in the School Board’s decision.

There is another side to the man-made climate-change debate. All we are asking is for our students to hear both sides of the debate and that one side not be taught as fact. There are different perspectives, different theories relevant to the debate. It is important that we foster independent thinking and the ability for our students to debate and discuss both sides of controversial issues, such as man-made climate change. They deserve a balanced and fair education.

Many parents have reported to me that when they asked their children’s science teachers to teach the “other side” of the man-made climate change debate, the teachers said that they had no idea there was another side of the debate. They had no idea that there were alternative theories and perspectives.

Contrary to the belief of some scientists in our community, man-made climate change is not settled science and it is surely not a globally accepted scientific fact. The scientific data behind man-made climate change has been questioned and challenged by many scientists. To teach our students that man-made climate change is a fact is an injustice to them and to their education.

To those who say there is only one side to the man-made climate change debate and that the curriculum should not be changed to include alternative theories, we say this to you:  “What are you so afraid of?”

Rose Pugliese is an attorney in the Grand Valley. She carried the petitions discussed here and presented them to the District 51 Board of Education.


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