Shhh! Not in Front of the Children!

School officials in Utah think sixth graders are too young to be taught about climate change—but the perfect age to be misled about it.

Al King/Flickr
Credit: Photo: Al King/Flickr

You can’t say Utah’s sixth graders are laggards when it comes to understanding some fairly complicated stuff. Among the concepts they’re expected to grasp, according to the state’s recently updated science education standards, are the roles energy and gravity play in our solar system, how heat can alter the state and density of matter, and how energy flow and the cycling of matter can affect environmental stability.

But if they’ve been deemed smart enough to tackle these sophisticated scientific concepts, one wonders why Utah officials have so little faith in Beehive State tweens to understand a closely related—and certainly relevant—concept: how greenhouse gases trapped inside the earth’s atmosphere are warming the planet and wreaking environmental havoc upon it.

Until last February, Utah was cool with teaching its public-school sixth graders the science of climate change—which, on the face of it, seems like a perfect fit with a curriculum that explores how increased heat “affects stability and change” within physical systems. But then, on the eve of the new science standards’ release to the public, officials lost their nerve. They sent the standards back to the drafters for a revise that would incorporate more “parental input” on certain issues that are controversial outside the scientific community, though not at all among scientists. One of those issues—surprise!—is climate change.

Now, I don't know about you, but if my parents had been granted the power to shape my sixth-grade science curriculum, my class would have learned that Roger Staubach’s game-winning “Hail Mary” pass in the final seconds of the 1975 Cowboys–Vikings NFC playoff game was a direct result of my father’s shouted and thrice-repeated incantation of “Come on, baby, you can do it!” Unless the parents in question are scientists or science educators, perhaps we can stipulate that—just as a general rule—they shouldn’t have too much say in how their children get taught about the motion of heavenly bodies, the laws of thermodynamics, the powers governing photosynthesis, and other scientific phenomena.

Because otherwise, we inevitably end up with sentiments like this one from Vincent Newmeyer, a member of the legislatively-appointed and parent-led committee that reviewed the new science standards. Speaking for himself and other disgruntled parents, Newmeyer told one reporter that any classroom where the well-established facts surrounding climate change are conveyed is “not a science class” but rather an “indoctrination class.” As soon as the words left his mouth, America got another taste of its favorite false controversy: the one over whether climate change should rightly be placed under the rubric of “science” or “politics.”

Just for the record: That some people have chosen to politicize climate change doesn’t automatically relocate it from the former category to the latter. When 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that the earth is getting warmer and that human activity is the cause, we’re not obliged to suspend our normal conventions for asserting scientific truth simply because somebody handed a few well-funded squeaky wheels a microphone into which to do their squeaking.

Yet this is precisely the tactic that the climate-denial machine successfully employs, time and time again, in order to stall meaningful climate action: Reframe the science as politics. Science is something that we’re inevitably asked to accept; politics, on the other hand, is something that we’re allowed to debate endlessly. And therein lies the genius of this tactic. Deniers don’t actually have to convert believers into doubters in order to get what they want. All they have to do is prolong the argument indefinitely—so they can continue to claim that “the jury’s still out” and delay progress.

It’s a trick. And it’s maddening when institutions like the Utah Board of Education fall for it—as they did earlier this month, when they announced that their state’s sixth graders would not be learning about climate change in the classroom after all. Officials may tell themselves they’re simply avoiding an ugly ideological showdown, but what they’re really doing is granting legitimacy to climate deniers’ game of rhetorical bait-and-switch.

Actually, I take that back: What they’re doing is much worse than that. Utah’s education officials are going a step further and actively distorting the science—to the point of egregious misrepresentation. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, instead of studying the ways that climate change is threatening ecosystems worldwide and making life miserable for people and wildlife, these kids will learn that the greenhouse effect “maintains Earth’s energy balance and a relatively constant temperature.”

How lovely. Now, when Utah schoolchildren finally get the chance to study climate change in the eighth grade, they’ll have this dangerously wrongheaded idea in their minds to fuel much-spirited argument over whether excess greenhouse gases are even all that bad for the environment. The forces of climate denial will, once again, get what they want: more “debate” over a set of scientific facts that are beyond debate. Meanwhile, outside the classroom, the state’s people and wildlife will continue to feel the harmful impacts of the greenhouse effect.

There is, however, an out for Utah teachers who find the politicization of climate science deplorable and the state’s new standards lacking. Ignore them. That’s the advice of the editorial board of the Salt Lake Tribune, which saw fit to remind teachers that the document outlining the new standards is “not a law. It’s just a policy.” Furthermore, if school administrators attempt to take any sort of punitive action against teachers for bringing the subject of climate change into sixth-grade classrooms, the editors encourage teachers to “call a news conference.” These administrators, they say, “are acting for a misguided but vocal minority in this state, and the majority will stand with you.”

The only climate debates left to be had are over which remedial measures would be the most effective and how best to implement them. Civics and government classes are ideal forums for sparking those discussions. But if Utah truly wants to protect its sixth graders from “indoctrination,” it should just stick with the facts, as arrived at through the thoughtful application of the scientific method. And we needn’t worry if these kids can handle that one: As it happens, they learned all about it back in the fifth grade.

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Vincent Newmeyer as a member of the Utah State Board of Education’s Standards and Assessment Committee. In fact, he served as a member of the legislatively-appointed Standards Review Committee.

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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