Is Coal Money Challenging Climate Science In Secondary Schools?

You are here

Is Coal Money Challenging Climate Science In Secondary Schools?
Ken Silverstein,

Not to be deterred, President Obama came out swinging during his State of the Union address, saying that “no challenge” is more daunting than that of climate change. Opponents, though, are bucking that view at all political levels — including the school curriculums that could eventually be offered to students.

West Virginia, for example, is now debating just how it will present climate science to students — as a settled discussion or as something worthy of intensive scrutiny. It is a conversation with many facets, with those who say that all viewpoints should be represented in a free society while others are arguing that the coal lobby has infiltrated and polluted the secondary school system there.

During Tuesday night’s speech, President Obama noted that scientists are now calling 2014 the hottest year on record. But one year does not make for a trend, he added, pointing out that 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have come during the 21st Century. Acknowledging he is not a scientist, the president said that he does know some highly qualified experts at NASA and NOAA, who have concluded that global warming is a man-made phenomenon — not something that is cyclical in nature.

“The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe,” the president said.
It’s a position that he has long championed. To that end, the US Environmental Protection Agency has put forth the Clean Power Plan to cut carbon emissions by 30 percent by 2030. And while the word “coal” never came up Tuesday night, it is that industry that would take the biggest hit as older coal-fired power plants are retired and then replaced with those that run on natural gas.

To be precise, West Virginia is part of a 26-state consortium that has endorsed Next Generation Science Standards that is asking students to carefully examine “rising” temperatures over the last century. The West Virginia Department of Education, however, subsequently altered the language to include a discussion about the “rise and fall” of those temperatures. That modification is now out for public comment.

The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate says that greenhouse gas emissions have risen substantially between 2000 and 2010 — double the rate of the previous 30 years. Such heat-trapping releases climbed by 2.2 percent a year over the first decade of the new century compared with 1.3 percent a year between 1970 and 2000. And it added that humans are the reason, with 95 percent certainty.

Ironically, Big Oil says that it agrees. BP, Chevron Corp., ConnocoPhillips, ExxonMobil Corp., Hess Corp., RoyalDutchShell and Total have all released formal statements that say global warming is real and that heat-trapping emissions are jeopardizing the environment. “Rising greenhouse gas emissions pose significant risks to society and ecosystems,” says Exxon.

While environmentalists would argue that actions speak louder than words, the point here is that those major industrialists are paying homage to the findings of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And that acknowledgment is the first step toward finding a solution — one that preserves nature for future generations while also building a long-lasting prosperity.

Despite falling oil prices, oil companies have huge resources and they operate around the globe. Hence, they can afford to make much-needed investments in clean technologies. On the other hand, Koch Industries is taking a different tack, having created the biggest political action committee to support those candidates that will defy the Obama administration and its efforts to cut carbon emissions. It had poured $9.5 million into its 2014 lobbying efforts.

Meantime, coal companies are all opposed to carbon-curbing legislation. In testimony before Congress, Peabody Energy Chief Executive Greg Boyce says that carbon emission have risen over the last century but he stops there, with the inference being that temperature changes are naturally occurring. Altogether, coal companies donated generously to political campaigns in 2014. And the question is whether that money is making its way down to state educational departments.

As for West Virginia, voters there roundly rejected President Obama and his carbon reduction policies in the 2014 midterm elections. Could education officials be responding to that sentiment?

In a thoughtful editorial, the state’s leading conservative newspaper, the Charleston Daily Mail, said that there’s plenty of evidence to support the pro-warming side. But it added that letting students debate all sides of the issue would be healthy, leading to even broader discussions about how scientific studies are formulated and funded. That view, by no means, is a rejection of the science; rather, it is in the spirit of free speech:

“Instead of fighting over whether we talk about ‘the rise’ in temperatures or ‘the rise and fall,’ perhaps the Board should simply agree to call it ‘the change,’ and let the kids get back to dissecting frogs,” the paper concluded.

President Obama and his supporters will say that the facts are in and that the science is no longer up for debate — that too much time has elapsed and that it is past the time for action. Perhaps, though, the catalyst for progress is a full and open discussion where all the facts and the financial interests are fully fleshed out.