Teaching Climate Science in West Virginia

  • Marshall University students Caitlyn Grimes (L), Jenna Atkins, Jake Waldman and Matt Jarvis. They told the West Virginia Board of education that climate change is not a proven scientific fact. Photo: Roxy Todd, West Virginia Public Broadcasting

February 13, 2015
With reporting by Roxy Todd of West Virginia Public Broadcasting

CORRECTION: The West Virginia School Board's comment period for "Next Generation Content Standards and Objectives for Science" ends on February 17, 2015. We reported the comment period ended in March.

For most scientists, the debate over whether climate change is happening, and whether it’s caused by burning fossil fuels, is settled science. But in West Virginia, there’s a debate about what to teach school children about climate change.

West Virginia is currently in the comment period for a proposal to have science classrooms discuss whether climate change is a reality, caused by human activities.

Craig Rucker is a climate skeptic, and a Washington DC based lobbyist that pushes for market-based solutions to environmental problems. Rucker spoke at a West Virginia board of education meeting about climate education, "Let me categorically state upfront there is absolutely no scientific consensus on the issue of  climate change.,” he said.

Rucker mentors Marshall University student Caitlyn Grimes. She told the board, “The result is a generation who assume manmade climate change fears are in fact, a fact. When it is in fact an unproved theory that is being passed off as such.”

But the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, as well as major scientific organizations, are clear: there is no debate. They say climate change is happening and is caused by human activities.

Jim Sconyers also spoke the school board meeting. He lives in Preston County, West Virginia, which borders Pennsylvania and Maryland. Sconyers is a retired math and science teacher and is President of the West Virginia Sierra Club.

“As a teacher, I would have been furious to espouse falsehoods and propaganda from the fossil fuel industry's well-oiled misinformation campaign as science. I am really sorry to see that this episode has made West Virginia a national and international laughing stock.”

The changes to the standards were made last fall, at the request of state school board member Wade Linger. West Virginia was in the process of adopting national science standards, when Linger asked that a few words be added - words that throw into question the validity of climate science.

The coal connection

West Virginia University Law Professor Patrick McGinley focuses on environmental issues and the coal industry.

He says many in the coal industry and political leaders claim climate change is a threat to West Virginia coalfield communities, "And so there's a connection between people who live in coalfield communities fear of losing their jobs, and recognizing the reality of climate change."

McGinley says for the past ten years the coal industry has spent millions of dollars in a public relations campaign opposing federal regulations that would reduce pollution from coal burning power plants, "Day in and day out telling people who are afraid that they're going to lose their jobs. So it's fertile gruond for myths about climate change."

"I think West Virginians want real science."

West Virginia School Board Member Wade Linger, who was behind the change in the science standards that brought about this controversy, says it makes sense to allow students to debate climate change.

But McGinley says there is no debate. He compares it to debating whether the earth is flat  or if cigarettes cause health problems.

In the end, he doesn't think the state will allow Linger's changes.

"I think West Virginians want real science." McGinley says regulation of power plants is a political issue, and shouldn't affect classrooms, "Science teachers want our students to learn the truth about science, the truth about climate change."