Lines forming over climate-change curriculum

Academics and citizen groups are gearing up opposition to the West Virginia Board of Education’s alterations to science education standards on climate change, with the release Tuesday afternoon of a report outlining damage that global warming is already doing to state’s Allegheny Highlands and a unanimous vote by West Virginia University’s faculty senate speaking out against the changes.

Also, following the West Virginia Science Teachers Association’s recent comments that the alterations compromise and misrepresent climate change science, the larger National Science Teachers Association also released a statement Tuesday urging the board to reverse the changes.

Temperatures are increasing in the highlands region, causing significant changes to historic weather patterns, more intense precipitation and flooding events and more seasonal drought. The changes threaten “the widespread loss of historic ecosystems and related wildlife, forestry and sporting resources,” says the new report from the Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Impacts Initiative.

“Climate change impacts are already affecting temperatures, precipitation, weather, growing seasons, streams, forests, plants, animals and humans — and future impacts will be severe, unless global warming is reined in,” says the report, called “On the Chopping Block: The Impacts of Global Warming and Climate Change on the Mid-Atlantic Allegheny Highlands.”

The state Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the changes today. School officials said the changes were 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.

Opposition has grown since the Gazette first reported on the changes — made at the request of school board member Wade Linger — in late December. The changes, for example, added “and fall” after “rise” to a proposed standard requiring that sixth-graders “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”

After Linger raised concerns, the state Department of Education staff altered the climate change standards, which are part of a raft of new state science standards based on the national Next Generation Science Standards blueprint. The school board voted in October to put out for a 30-day public comment period the version of the standards containing the controversial alterations, and voted last month to adopt the new science standards with the plan to implement them by the 2016-17 school year.

On Tuesday, Richard Thomas, chairman of West Virginia University’s biology department, sent a petition signed by 83 faculty members from various disciplines to state school board members. After Thomas spoke with the university’s faculty senate Monday, that body also unanimously voted to send a letter to board members asking them “to adopt the Next Generation Science Standards relative to Climate Change without any modification.”

Jennifer Orlikoff, chairwoman of the faculty senate, said she believes there were around 100 senators at Monday’s meeting out of the 123 in the full body.

“[Thomas] explained the situation and he gave us some examples of where the modifications had occurred and he explained how the modifications sort of weakened the impetus of the Next Generation Science Standards,” said Orlikoff, an associate professor who also directs the WVU Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.

“So we just wanted to make sure that the students that come to WVU — well, higher education everywhere in the country — we wanted them to be prepared as possible,” she said.

Thomas’ petition says faculty are concerned that the modifications “deliver a deceptive interpretation of the scientifically accepted human influence on current climate change,” providing “a great disservice to our young students and our teachers in West Virginia.”

The petition urges the school board to reconsider the changes “that add erroneous interpretations of climate change to the [West Virginia] Science Standards.”

“It has become axiomatic that the American public is increasingly unable to comprehend the complex scientific information needed to make rational policy decisions concerning the rapid changes in the sciences,” the letter states. “We believe that it is important to teach students at a young age to think critically and challenge them to learn the underpinnings of all scientific issues so that they may participate intellectually in the series of ongoing debates and discussions about current events, such as climate change.”

Thomas said he may send to state school board members a follow-up with more signatures before today’s 10 a.m. meeting at the Capitol Complex. He said he got the 83 signatures — including from Gay Stewart, a physics professor who directs the WVU Center for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Education — after sending out the petition Sunday.

“It’s from all over campus, originally I was just looking for people who had worked for something in climate change … but people from creative arts signed it, people from physics signed it, so I was just very pleased that people thought this was an important issue,” Thomas said.

Climate Parents, a national nonprofit that claims to have members in all 50 states, including 200 in West Virginia, also announced Tuesday it will present to the school board petitions, circulated by several organizations and signed by more than 3,500 West Virginia “parents and science supporters,” asking for members to “correct inaccurate and misleading content in the altered climate change standards.”

The National Science Teachers Association, representing its 55,000 members, said the “and fall” addition risks “confusion among students between the concepts of weather and climate,” and critiqued another of the three modifications.

“We are pleased that West Virginia state leaders have been at the forefront of developing the [Next Generation Science Standards], and we will continue to support West Virginia science teachers as they bring high-quality science to all students,” the statement reads.

“NSTA supports the NGSS the way the writers wrote it because it reflects the best research in science and on how students learn science. It is our hope that you will reverse the changes indicated above so as not to compromise the work of so many science and education experts, including many science teachers in West Virginia.”

Tom Rodd, project director for the Friends of Blackwater’s Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Impacts Initiative, said the group had planned to present his group’s report next week but decided that the school board needed to see it. The report is a summary of the science presented during a June conference at Blackwater Falls State Park that examined climate change impacts in the region.

The report notes that the Northeast Regional Climate Assessment found that temperatures in the region that includes the Allegheny Highlands have risen about 2 degrees Fahrenheit over the last 100 years. The average period of frost-free temperatures has moved about 10 days forward in the spring and 10 days backward in the fall, the assessment reports.

“Under ‘business-as-usual’ high-greenhouse-gas-emissions scenarios, the number of days when temperatures in the highlands fall below 10 degrees will continue to decline, by 50 percent or more, and cold periods that have historically lasted for a week or more will more likely last only a day or two,” the new report says. “The number of ‘heat-wave’ days where the temperature exceeds 95 degrees is expected to triple.”

Temperature and precipitation changes are making the region’s forests more vulnerable, with major species such as sugar maple, black cherry, yellow birth and red spruce projected to decline substantially, the report says. Increased stream temperatures pose a serious threat to stream ecology and biodiversity in a region known for its brook trout, the report says.

Also, the report notes that the state Division of Natural Resources has classified eight amphibian species, four bird species, 11 fish species, six mammal species, two reptile species, 18 mollusk or shellfish species, 12 crayfish species, 20 insect species and 21 plant species as “extremely vulnerable” to “moderately vulnerable” to the impacts of climate change.

The report also says that climate change puts at risk the region’s “distinctive outdoor recreation and hospitality industry,” citing Penn State experts who warned that the region’s ski season could decrease by as much as 50 percent under a high-emissions scenario without strong action on climate change.

Students in schools now will see much of these changes if trends aren’t reversed. Brandae Mullins, who’s on the staff of Friends of Blackwater, said her family originated in the Allegheny Highlands.

“It’s one of those places I can still go and see that heritage,” Mullins said at a news conference on the report Tuesday. “It’s very Appalachian and very West Virginian, so when we start to lose these species and we start to lose these streams, and we lose the trees, we are not just losing things that you can touch and you can feel, you’re losing your heritage.

“I’m losing my heritage, my children are losing their heritage, and I don’t want that.”

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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

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