School Scandal

In states whose economic engines run on dirty fuel, teaching kids about climate change is under new attack.

Credit: Photo: Alliance for Democracy

Every now and then you come across a statement by a public official that is so ridiculous, so perfect in its unabashed wrongness, you have to read it a few times to fully appreciate it as a work of demagogic art.

My current favorite in this category comes courtesy of one Scott Weber, a member of the Park County School District #6 Board of Trustees in Cody, Wyoming. Two weeks ago, when he and his fellow board members were supposed to be voting on whether to purchase new textbooks and reading materials for the district, Weber put a stop to the vote by taking a bold stand in defense of climate denial, political cronyism, and intellectual closed-mindedness.

Here’s what he said about one of the reading materials the board was considering for purchase, as reported by the Casper Star-Tribune:

As a board member, I will not authorize any of the $300,000 allocated for this purchase to include supplemental booklets about "global whining." …Our Wyoming schools are largely funded by coal, oil, natural gas, mining, ranching, etc. This junk science is against community and state standards.

This junk science is against community and state standards. Stop for a moment and give that sentence the attention it deserves. For thousands of years, going back to Aristotle, humanity’s greatest minds have sought to safeguard the precepts of the scientific method by keeping them away from the corrupting influence of political culture. Defending the integrity of science from powerful people is what got Galileo imprisoned. And yet, 400 years later, here we are: watching a public official tasked with guiding the educational trajectories of his community’s children rail against the accepted science on climate change—because its conclusions threaten to undermine the local political culture.

What I find most remarkable about Weber’s statement, though, is its refreshing forthrightness. Note how he just comes right out and admits what everyone already suspects to be the case: that his slurring of climate science as “junk science” is rooted in nothing more scientific than his understanding of which side his bread—and Cody’s—is buttered on.

While oil and natural gas operations may have taken something of a downturn in the state over the last five years, Wyoming is still, incontestably, coal country. It’s by far the top coal-producing state in the United States, responsible for nearly 40 percent of our domestic yield. Wyoming, in fact, produces more coal than the next five coal-producing states combined. And according to a recent study published by the University of Wyoming’s Center for Energy Economics & Public Policy, coal-mining operations directly account for more than 11 percent of Wyoming’s gross state product and a nearly identical percentage of state revenues.

Weber may be channeling some of the nervous frustration that Wyoming is experiencing as a result of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which is expected to be finalized this summer. The plan requires states to design individual programs to dramatically cut carbon pollution from their power plants. Wyoming will have to reduce its emissions from coal-based plants by nearly one-fifth. According to the authors of the University of Wyoming study, complying with these new regulations could end up slashing coal production in the state by one-third. This might then—gasp—force state officials to rethink their investments in renewable energy. Despite its sizeable potential for wind power production, Wyoming is one of only two states west of the Rockies to have no Renewable Portfolio Standard.

Interestingly, there’s another coal-dependent state that’s never gotten around to adopting an RPS where schoolchildren are also being used as pawns in the battle between science and the status quo. Last December members of the West Virginia Board of Education convened to vote on the adoption of the Next Generation Science Standards. Among other things, the standards offer an accurate representation of the scientific consensus on the causes and effects of climate change. (No surprise there, given that the standards were drafted and vetted by science educators.) One board member, however, refused to accept the standards as written, citing his own personal belief that human influence on climate change was not “a foregone conclusion.” He persuaded his colleagues to subject the standards to a 30-day comment period, during which 7,000 people shared their opinions—6,500 of them expressing a desire to keep the standards just as they were.

Despite this clear display of community support, when the Board of Education reconvened in April to vote once more on the science standards, the aggrieved board member was allowed to insert into them the kind of equivocating language that has become climate deniers’ preferred rhetorical weapon of late. Let that sink in: Over the objections of the science educators who drafted the standards and the overwhelming majority of public commenters, language specifically designed to sow doubt about the truth of global warming has been built into West Virginia’s state-approved science curriculum.

In Wyoming, where Scott Weber so passionately stood up for the antiscience cause recently, conservative lawmakers are pushing to revise the wording of that state’s Next Generation Science Standards along similarly specious lines. The standards are currently stuck in legislative limbo. There are similar battles being waged over climate education right now in Texas and Oklahoma. In those states the energy economies may be based on different hydrocarbons, but the political and cultural pressure to sustain the myth of sustainable fossil-fuel extraction is every bit as great.

When a community is economically and systematically linked to the root cause of global warming, any threat to the system—from federal pollution rules to the basic tenets of the scientific method—could be viewed as an obscene violation of “community standards,” and thus something to shield schoolkids from. But what’s really obscene is endeavoring to keep young people from learning the truth about climate change—an empirically observable phenomenon that will harm future generations far more than it has already harmed this one.

Anyone who would deliberately misinform children about the gravity of the problem that awaits them when they grow up doesn’t deserve to be in charge of their education.

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

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