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Climate groups oppose changes to W.Va. science standards

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By Ryan Quinn 
The Sunday Gazette-Mail

Groups that support teaching students about the evidence showing that humans are contributing to a global rise in temperatures are speaking out against West Virginia’s changes to the state’s new K-12 science education standards.

At the request of state school board member Wade Linger, who said he doesn’t believe human-influenced climate change is a “foregone conclusion,” the teaching requirements concerning climate change were altered before the board adopted them last month.

The teaching requirements are part of a draft of new standards based on the national Next Generation Science Standards blueprint.

The changes, for example, added “and fall” after “rise” to a proposed standard requiring that sixth-graders “ask questions to clarify evidence of the factors that have caused the rise in global temperatures over the past century.”

The other changes West Virginia Department of Education staff members made in response to Linger’s concerns were:

• Original ninthgrade science requirement: “Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth systems.”

• Adopted version: “Analyze geoscience data and the predictions made by computer climate models to assess their creditability [sic] for predicting future impacts on the Earth System.”

• Original high school elective Environmental Science requirement: “Debate climate changes as it [sic] relates to greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and relevant laws and treaties.”

• Adopted version: “Debate climate changes as it relates to natural forces such as Milankovitch cycles, greenhouse gases, human changes in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, and relevant laws and treaties.”

Milankovitch cycles are long-term changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun, and some who do not believe in man-made global warming use that theory as the basis of their assertion that the Earth is simply in a natural warming period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has released dire reports about climate change impacts with a more than 95 percent certainty that humans are the main cause, states on its website that the coming and going of Earth’s ice ages is greatly linked to these orbital changes, but adds that since the start of the industrial period around 1750 the “human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions.”

Lisa Hoyos — director and co-founder of Climate Parents, a national nonprofit she said has members in all 50 states, including 200 in West Virginia — said the group plans to circulate a petition early next week asking the school board to rescind the changes to the science standards, which she said are flawed.

Hoyos said group members would be attending future board meetings.

“When it comes to the accuracy of peer-reviewed science, it is important to teach actual science and not theories that are based on the politics of the coal industry,” Hoyos said.

Hoyos said Climate Parents has been working in other states, such as Wyoming, to fight what she said are officials’ efforts to undermine the Next Generation Science Standards because of influence from the fossil fuels industry.

According to The Casper Star-Tribune, legislators in Wyoming passed a last-minute budget footnote last year that blocked the standards there. One author of the footnote, Republican Rep. Matt Teeters, said teaching global warming as a fact would wreck Wyoming’s economy, the paper reported. Hoyos said another Republican state representative is introducing a bill to remove the block.

Chad Colby, spokesman for Achieve, the Washington, D.C., nonprofit that helped craft the national Next Generation blueprint, said 13 states plus D.C. have agreed to implement standards based on the Next Generation standards. According to U.S. News and World Report, Wyoming was the first state to reject the standards, and South Carolina lawmakers banned adoption in 2012, before the final draft was published.

Jim Probst, West Virginia’s state coordinator for Citizens Climate Lobby, said his group is considering responding to West Virginia’s changes, which he called irresponsible.

“They’ve instituted inaccuracies into the standards, and that, just on face value, seems wrong,” Probst said. “And it’s a disservice to our kids, it just really is. Reality is one thing, and hoping that it isn’t is something else entirely.”

Mark McCaffrey of the National Center for Science Education said topics like climate change are often avoided in schools or taught as controversies, despite robust science supporting them. Several studies have found that about 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are contributing to a global rise in temperatures.

The attention to the climate change teaching requirements comes as Mountain State Republicans are considering repealing math and English/language arts standards based on the Common Core national standards, which are separate from but were written with connections to the science standards.

Now that Republicans have captured both houses of the Legislature for the first time in eight decades, Sen. Donna Boley, a Pleasants County Republican who is the new vice chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, told the Gazette-Mail on Friday that she plans to go beyond her past failed bill to place a moratorium on testing students on the Common Core standards by introducing a bill this session that would repeal the standards entirely.

Boley said she believes the Legislature has more time to consider the separate science standards because they’re not set to be implemented until the 2016-17 school year, and she said she’s willing to hold hearings on the standards that she said Democrats previously didn’t allow before Common Core took effect.

As of now, though, she doesn’t see a problem with the changes made to the climate standards. When asked if she believes human greenhouse gas emissions are a major contributor to climate change, she said she hasn’t completely made up her mind and has concerns with what she calls overreach from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

“I feel for the people who lose their jobs because of the Obama regulations and the overreach,” Boley said.

Experts say that, despite local Democratic and Republican politicians’ blaming of the EPA for job losses in the coal industry, coal in the state’s southern counties remains in a long-term downward spiral, regardless of what the EPA does or doesn’t do about global warming.

Production in the Central Appalachian basin, which consists mostly of Southern West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky, peaked at about 290 million tons in 1990 and again in 1997, according to federal government data. In a 2010 report, the Morgantown environmental consultant group Downstream Strategies listed federal Energy Information Administration projections that regional coal production would decline another 46 percent by 2020 and 58 percent by 2035, to just less than 100 million tons.

Hoyos said it’s problematic that other board members apparently weren’t aware that the climate standards had been changed.

State education officials — who have defended the changes as a way to encourage students to debate and think critically about the issue — said they also didn’t inform the stakeholders who helped write the standards about the changes. They said opponents could have protested during the 30-day public comment period before the school board made the final vote to implement the standards.

Board attorney Mary Catherine Funk said that, if a board member wants to propose a change to adopted policy, he or she could request an agenda item for discussion in open session. If other members then want the change, the staff person in charge of the policy would prepare an amended/revised policy to present at a future meeting, at which point the policy cycle begins. The policy cycle includes a 30-day comment period, opportunity for change based on comments and a final vote to implement the change.

Hoyos said board members either don’t understand the science showing that humans are influencing temperatures or they are being “actively deceptive.”

“It’s a deeply inappropriate concern that the kids shouldn’t get to learn the truth about climate change because it might impact the coal industry,” she said.

Linger said he hasn’t changed his mind about the alterations, and said he doesn’t know why people are accusing board members of being influenced by the fossil fuels industry. “People can make up whatever they want to make up,” Linger said. “I have no idea where they would get that from.”