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What will your kids be taught about climate science?

Ezra Klein’s coverage of the NCSE stepping into the climate change battleground is very timely, and asks many very relevant questions.

One revelation from the recent Heartland Institute document leak is that the group is crafting a K-12 curriculum to teach kids that global warming is “controversial.” Heartland officials have confirmed this. So is climate change set to join evolution as the next big classroom controversy?
[...]
But could Heartland actually spread its views? Rosenau says that Heartland could do what creationist groups like the Discovery Institute have been doing for years and simply mail out supplemental materials to educators far and wide. “There will be teachers who are sympathetic to the skeptic view or who think the material looks useful, and they’ll say to themselves, okay, I’ll bring this into the classroom,” he explains. It’s worth noting that the Heartland Institute had already developed a video along these lines — titled “Unstoppable Solar Cycles,” which laid out the long-debunked theory that the sun is driving recent warming — and shipped it off to teachers. (These earlier efforts, according to one Heartland document, met with “only limited success.”)

Even if these materials turn out to be wildly inaccurate or out of sync with a state’s science-education standards, keeping tabs on their use would be quite difficult. “In almost all cases,” Rosenau says, “there are no policies that would prevent a teacher from using such material.” Quite the opposite: A few states, such as Louisiana, have non-binding laws that urge teachers to embrace “supplemental” material on heated topics like evolution and climate change.

Because all you have to do is have enough people believe strongly enough that science is wrong about something, and you can stop it being taught in classrooms. Who knows, maybe in the future some religion will make a tenet of faith out of the flatness of the Earth and yet another chunk of science will become “heated” enough that it can be chucked out of the state-sanctioned curriculum. Maybe the Hare Krishna will come to power or become the dominant religion of the US, and the whole moon landing will be declared apocrypha. Make no mistake that the pushback against climate change comes from one form of magical thinking or another, whether it’s the belief that capitalism and rampant consumption of planetary resources without regard for sustainability is its own virtue, or the belief that humans can’t possibly destroy the planet given to us by God before it’s time for His final judgment anyway.

If you venture too far into the land of plurality, though it is a virtue otherwise, you risk compromising that which is true — e.g., that which is demonstrable by science — for the sake of mollycoddling people’s personal and unscientific beliefs. No matter how good pluralism is for society, the line must absolutely be drawn at the border of scientific knowledge. The fact that our scientific knowledge of the universe is ever expanding, of course, means that line must move with it. If there are belief systems that become casualties of science’s expanding grasp of this universe, too bad.

Comments

  1. Aliasalpha says

    How about a new rule, something like “If the math says your idea is full of shit, you can’t teach it”? Or perhaps “Proof or SFTU!”

  2. fastthumbs says

    What is the “null” hypothesis for climate change? The claim that global warming is occurring is being made by environmentalists. Is it the job of critics to disprove global warming? Isn’t that like asking atheists to prove there is no god?

    However, just to be clear, the data collected by the scientific community does show sufficient peered reviewed evidence that there is definitely a warming trend and that the concentration of greenhouse gasses is much greater now than in the past. Less convincing is the evidence that human industrial activity is the primary cause of greenhouse gas increase – rather than auto’s/coal plant CO2 emissions, it’s seems to me the reduction of forests and the increase of dead zones in the oceans is more likely the cause (the ability for Earth to SCRUB the C02 gasses is being impaired).

  3. Janstince says

    Less convincing is the evidence that human industrial activity is the primary cause of greenhouse gas increase – rather than auto’s/coal plant CO2 emissions, it’s seems to me the reduction of forests and the increase of dead zones in the oceans is more likely the cause (the ability for Earth to SCRUB the C02 gasses is being impaired).

    fastthumbs, I’m confused. What part of deforestation and creating deadzones is NOT a part of human industrial activity? Also, where do you think the CO2 we output is going?

  4. Bob says

    “Less convincing is the evidence that human industrial activity is the primary cause of greenhouse gas increase”

    Yes, just as 98% is less than 99.9%.

  5. fastthumbs says

    @Janstince:

    You’re right, I poorly worded that. What I meant is that the usual suspect of burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas) associated with industry producing CO2 and methane versus natural sources (volcanos, Earth’s biomass) hasn’t been accurately measured from what I read (if you have a good source, feel free to cite). Also note that the greatest contributor to greenhouse is water vapor, and while that is also a byproduct of fossil fuel burning, natural sources of water vapor (Earth’s surface is after all is covered by serveral large oceans) dwarfs the output generated by all industry.

    I expressed poorly was about deforestation (mostly man made) and the ocean deadzones (which is not clear how much is man made) is the Earth’s CO2 scrubber, and it’s may be diminishing, but it’s probably not the direct results of burning fossil fuel (industrial run off and toxic waste yes, but that’s not all industry).

    I hoped I cleared up my views.

  6. says

    Water vapor acts as a warming supercharger. It is also a feedback effect from more warming — warmer = more vapor = warmer still. However, water vapor’s effect is very transient. Methane also acts similarly: warmer = less permafrost = more methane.

    CO2 on the other hand stays around effectively forever. So we’re both destroying the carbon sinks and outputting more CO2 than the biosphere has had to sink in the first place.

    The null hypothesis is that this is all natural, assuming we can’t measure the effects we’re having. However, we can, and we’ve shown that we’re having very large effects, therefore the null hypothesis does not hold.

  7. idonotknow says

    The rise in CO2 is well known to be a result of human activity (combination of burning fossil fuels, cement production and deforestation / land use change). Records of human activity allow an estimation of total human CO2 output which is found to be more than sufficient to explain the observed increase in CO2 concentration (some of the CO2 we’ve produced has been sunk from the atmosphere). Also, in conjunction with the increased concentration, the isotopic ratio of 13C/12C in the atmosphere has shifted downwards as would be expected if the increase is due to the burning of fossil fuels and plants (via slash and burn deforestation), as they both have a lower 13C/12C isotopic ratio than the atmosphere. Of these processes, the effect of land change use seems to be the most uncertain, but likely small(ish) compared to fossil fuel burning; with cement production definitely being small (about 3% of the anthropogenic total).

    See this RealClimate entry and associated comments as a gateway to more details.

    Or the IPCC AR4 report which reviews work on CO2 generation by human activity. E.g. “From 1990 to 1999, a period reported in Prentice et al. (2001), the emission rate due to fossil fuel burning and cement production increased irregularly from 6.1 to 6.5 GtC yr–1 or about 0.7% yr–1.” and “Carbon dioxide emissions due to land use changes during the 1990s are estimated as 0.5 to 2.7 GtC yr–1 (Section 7.3, Table 7.2), contributing 6% to 39% of the CO2 growth rate (Brovkin et al., 2004).”

  8. says

    If, for the sake of argument, I were to assert that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere in the 20th century has had no observable effect on weather, sea levels, or ice sheets, can you think of any observations that would disabuse me? I have not heard of any so far, and so I am tempted to get more ambitious and assert that the additional CO2 expected in the 21st century will also have no observable effect. To help prepare for disabusing me of that in 88 years from now, can you suggest particular weather variables I should be sure to monitor?

    For the sake of avoiding unproductive argument, please note that I do not assert that CO2, new or otherwise, has no effect on weather, etc. Merely that it has proven quite hard to detect so far, and that that may remain the case for quite a while.

  9. says

    From John Shade @9:

    If, for the sake of argument, I were to assert that the additional CO2 in the atmosphere in the 20th century has had no observable effect on weather, sea levels, or ice sheets, can you think of any observations that would disabuse me?

    I have not heard of any so far

    Then, John, I submit you have a real problem with ignorance.

    Fortunately, this should be ameliorable by reading through, say, the IPCC AR4 and the AR4’s references to the scientific literature.

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