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Climate change learning standards for W.Va. students altered

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — At the request of a West Virginia Board of Education member who said he doesn’t believe human-influenced climate change is a “foregone conclusion,” new state science standards on the topic were altered before the state school board adopted them.

School officials said the changes are meant to encourage more student debate on the idea that humans’ greenhouse gas emissions are causing a global rise in temperatures — a theory that an overwhelming majority of scientists accepts.

Earlier this month, the state school board adopted the new education requirements, based on the national Next Generation Science Standards blueprint, with the plan to instruct teachers how to teach them by the 2016-17 school year.

The science standards are not part of Common Core, which contains nationally suggested standards for English and math, but they do have Common Core connections embedded and were crafted with aid of the same Washington, D.C., nonprofit group. West Virginia’s Common Core standards are also dubbed Next Generation.

Robin Sizemore, science coordinator for the state Office of Secondary Learning, said the new science standards will be the first time students will be required to learn about the evidence for human-driven climate change — the current standards only cover them in elective courses.

But state school board member Wade Linger asked that several changes be made to the drafted standards before they were put out for a monthlong public comment period.

“There was a question in there that said: ‘Ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century,” Linger said. “... If you have that as a standard, then that presupposes that global temperatures have risen over the past century, and, of course, there’s debate about that.”

Linger suggested adding the words “and fall” after “rise” to the sixth-grade science standard. The change was adopted..

The Consensus Project analyzed 21 years of peer-reviewed scientific papers published on global warming and global climate change, culminating in a 2013 report that found that more than 4,000 paper abstracts authored by almost 10,200 scientists stated a position on human-driven climate change. More than 97 percent of the time, the position was that humans are contributing to a global rise in temperatures.

Other studies have found about the same level of consensus, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration says most leading scientific organizations worldwide have stated that global warming is very likely caused by humans.

According to Linger, state Department of Education staff made other changes in response to his concerns before the school board adopted the standards.

n Original ninth grade science requirement: “Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.”

n Adopted version: “Analyze geoscience data and the predictions made by computer climate models to assess their creditability [sic] for predicting future impacts on the Earth System.”

n Original high school elective Environmental Science requirement: “Debate climate changes as it [sic] relates to greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and relevant laws and treaties.”

n Adopted version: “Debate climate changes as it relates to natural forces such as Milankovitch cycles, greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and relevant laws and treaties.”

“We’re on this global warming binge going on here,” Linger said. “... We need to look at all the theories about it rather than just the human changes in greenhouse gases.”

Milankovitch cycles are long-term changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun and fit with some climate change deniers’ assertion that the Earth is simply in a natural warming period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has released dire reports about climate change impacts with a more than 95 percent certainty that humans are the main cause, states on its website that the coming and going of Earth’s ice ages is greatly linked to these orbital changes, but adds that since the start of the industrial period around 1750 the “human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.”

The IPCC says the climate has warmed overall, particularly because of the use of fossil fuels.

“The fact that natural factors caused climate changes in the past does not mean that the current climate change is natural,” the IPCC states. “By analogy, the fact that forest fires have long been caused naturally by lightning strikes does not mean that fires cannot also be caused by a careless camper.”

State school board member Tom Campbell said that in response to the climate change language, Linger brought up concerns about political views being taught in classrooms during an open school board meeting in Mingo County in November. Campbell said he shared those concerns.

“Let’s not use unproven theories,” said Campbell, a former House of Delegates education chairman. “Let’s stick to the facts.”

Technically all theories could be considered unproven — many, like the theory of gravitation or plate tectonics, are overwhelmingly accepted by both scientists and the public based on a bevy of evidence. Even other publicly controversial ones, like evolution, are still overwhelmingly accepted by scientists.

When asked why climate change was the particular “unproven science” that he and Linger were concerned about, Campbell responded that “West Virginia coal in particular has been taking on unfair negativity from certain groups.” He also noted the coal industry provides much money to the state’s education system.

“I would prefer that the outlook should be ‘How do we mine it more safely and burn it more cleanly?” Campbell said. “But I think some people just want to do away with it completely.”

Board member Lloyd Jackson, an attorney and chief executive officer of his family’s natural gas company in Hamlin, said he recalls there being a discussion about climate change in the standards but didn’t know anything had resulted from it. Jackson, a former state senator, said he didn’t read every page of the standards before voting to pass them. He said he wouldn’t be concerned if West Virginia science teachers taught about human-driven climate change in the classroom.

Chad Colby, director of strategic communications and outreach for Achieve, said states can adopt the Next Generation Science Standards blueprint verbatim or change them without facing any punishment. West Virginia was among 26 states that helped write the blueprint. Colby said there’s no federal funding tied to the standards.

Stephen Pruitt, senior vice president of Achieve, said human-driven climate change is a relatively small part of the nationally suggested standards.

“It’s about the science of the fact the climate is changing,” Pruitt said. “We don’t get into the policy and the politics, we just say here’s the science. And the science is showing that we are seeing a rise in the mean global temperatures and we are seeing extremes in weather.”

“... Understanding that humans can contribute to that, sure. But we don’t get into the legislation and the policy.”

State school officials said the changes didn’t alter the intent of the standards, and defended them as a way to get students to debate and think critically about the evidence for and against human-driven climate change.

“I don’t want somebody to think that Wade [Linger] sent these in and we took his words,” said Clayton Burch, executive director of the state Office of Early Learning and interim associate state superintendent.

Burch said senior staff vetted the changes. He said completely removing, adding or substantially changing standards would’ve gone against the intent of the 81 stakeholder individuals — representing West Virginia organizations including K-12 schools, colleges and businesses like Charleston Area Medical Center and coal-burner Appalachian Power — that helped write the requirements over a roughly 3-year period. These stakeholders could’ve protested the climate change standard changes during the 30-day comment period required before adoption.

“We can get students arguing both sides of a research piece, which matches our (English language arts) standards: Think critically, write critically, both sides of the argument,” Burch said. He also said students hear information from many other sources outside of textbooks nowadays.

“Our students are now being faced with every yahoo that decides he wants to jump on the computer and write a blog,” Burch said. “I mean, seriously, that’s what they’re dealing with. Do they know how to critically read and think?”

Language similar to the requirement that students question the credibility of computer climate models doesn’t appear for every other topic, like evolution, that is scientifically uncontroversial but potentially controversial with the public. For instance, one objective will ask tenth graders to directly “communicate scientific information that common ancestry and biological evolution are supported by multiple lines of empirical evidence,” but students are nowhere asked to question whether carbon dating is a viable method of measuring the age of rocks containing fossils.

“Perhaps if it was 30-40 years ago when the evolution thing was a more openly discussed topic in the news, then that might have had our concern,” Sizemore said. “But that’s not where we are at this time period. Our students right now are hearing conversations about climate change.”

Libby Strong, president of the West Virginia Science Teachers Association, said she was involved in the writing of the national Next Generation blueprint but not the customized state standards. She said she doesn’t think the way the climate change standards are written will hamper teachers.

“I have no problem with students figuring out which is the most important component” in Earth’s changing climate, she said.

When asked how the state Department of Education would ensure that teachers instructing students on the climate change standards actually foster fair debate backed up by solid evidence, school officials argued they have little control over local curricula or ability to monitor it, and have a lot of professional development to do before the requirements go into effect. It’s also currently unclear how students will be tested on the standards.

Sizemore called the “and fall” addition to the global temperature rise standard “fabulous.” She said she wants students to be “skeptics” who back up their assertions with evidence.

“The science will be brought to their attention,” Sizemore said. “The students will understand why when this group says this, this is what they think, and when this group says this, this is why they’re thinking this. So I feel at peace that there’s going to be the science that’s going to rule,”

Reach Ryan Quinn at, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.

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