Climate Change Is Impacting West Virginia…but Will Our Students Learn about It?

January 13, 2015 | 5:03 pm
Jeremy Richardson
Former UCS Fellow & Energy Analyst

UPDATE (Jan. 14, 2:40 p.m.): The West Virginia state school board has decided to reinstate the original language of the Next Gen science standards and repost the proposed standards for a 30-day public comment period.

Much has been written about last week’s kerfuffle involving the West Virginia State Board of Education and its decision to alter science standards relating to climate change. Ironically, as the state plans to weaken its science standards to blur what’s known about climate science, a West Virginia group is releasing a report today focusing on the impacts of climate change on the Mountain State.

Teaching climate science in schools

The state has been engaged for several years now, along with 25 other states, in developing new standards for teaching science—and, among other things, the new standards acknowledge the overwhelming evidence linking observed climate change to human activities like the burning of fossil fuels. Before adopting the new standards, however, the WV Board of Education unilaterally made changes to the standard that science educators say will weaken it, and many groups cried foul.

Interestingly, the board member who initially requested the changes claims to be trying to separate politics from science education, as reported by the New York Times:

L. Wade Linger Jr., the board member who asked for the changes, said in an interview that members had improved the curriculum. “We simply added some balance, to get the politics out of it,” he said. “Adding balance to the classroom is a good thing, not a bad thing.”

But the changes actually confuse politics with educating students about climate change. For one thing, language around studying the rise in global temperatures was changed to say “rise and fall” in temperatures. While that may sound like balanced language, given that average annual temperatures do indeed rise and fall over time, in reality global temperatures continue their upward trend. Other troubling changes include modifying language to cast doubt on the credibility of climate models predicting future warming; in actuality, models can tell us a great deal about future impacts from climate change, and the idea that models are unreliable is a common misconception.

The members of the Board certainly believe they are acting in the best interests of West Virginia students. Unfortunately, their ideas are misguided because the changes misrepresent the scientific consensus around climate change. To their credit, the Board scheduled a public meeting to hear concerns and reconsider their decision—so if you are an educator or a concerned parent, please take part.

West Virginia University’s Faculty Senate voted unanimously yesterday to request that the Board adopt the unaltered standards, and a number of WVU professors wrote to the Board calling the modifications “deceptive” and urging the Board to reconsider.

West Virginia impacts

Discussion of the impacts of climate change usually focus on the most obvious and dramatic consequences, like sea level rise, increased droughts, and more frequent heavy precipitation. But climate change will impact all of us—even those living, working, and playing in the mountains.

Today, the Allegheny Highlands Climate Change Impacts Initiative is releasing a report on how climate change is expected to impact the Mid-Atlantic Allegheny Highlands. This area encompasses some of the highest peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, stretching from Pennsylvania, through Maryland and West Virginia, and down to Virginia. The report stems from a conference last June looking at how climate change is projected to affect the region. Experts presented a range of impacts facing the region, including forests, habitats, streams, and the region’s ski industry. In particular, the iconic Eastern brook trout is disappearing from cold water streams as temperatures rise.

Eastern Brook Trout

Eastern Brook Trout. Photo: Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr

The real issue

Unfortunately, the state Board of Education, in trying to remove politics from the classroom, is doing just the opposite. Many politicians, from the local level to the national stage, reject climate science—but whether it’s in the classroom or the state house, we shouldn’t confuse political debates about responding to climate change with misleading debates about whether or not climate science is valid.

A few leaders are working to build a more diverse economy in West Virginia, which is crucial as coal production slows down. Board members might well ask themselves if they really want to pick a fight second-guessing established science, especially when West Virginia students need their help to prepare for the economic changes that are well underway in the Mountain State.