By Ryan Quinn
The Charleston Gazette
The West Virginia Board of Education’s president said the board will discuss the state’s controversial alterations to climate change science education standards at the start of next week’s meeting.
Gayle Manchin, who said she trusts the state Department of Education staff’s assertion that the altered standards are sound, said she’s requested that the item be placed on the school board’s agenda under new business, which usually comes near the end of the often two-day meetings.
Manchin said it will be moved to the start of the agenda Wednesday, so members of the public who want to take part in the discussion won’t have to wait.
“I just feel that when board members start calling and saying that there appears to be a problem ... as soon as you start reading things in the newspaper and people start raising questions, you know you have to do something,” Manchin said.
She said she wants to clear up “misunderstanding” and “misrepresentation” about the changes.
After the Gazette first reported on the changes Dec. 28, the story has been picked up by Salon and several other online outlets, and criticism has come from groups that support teaching students about how human-influenced greenhouse gas emissions have caused global warming. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said it is “extremely likely” — scientists are 95 percent or more certain — that “human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
No state school board member interviewed said he or she emphatically agrees with the scientific consensus.
At the request of 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 placed them on a 30-day public comment period in October and voted to adopt them last month.
The teaching requirements are part of a raft 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.”
Manchin said she knew Linger had concerns about the standards even before he contacted the Department of Education staff about them. Also, unlike fellow board members Lloyd Jackson and Tom Campbell, Manchin said she knew changes to the climate standards had taken place before the board voted to put the full standards out for public comment and later voted to adopt them.
It’s unclear if any other board members knew. Tina Combs previously referred a reporter’s questions to Manchin. William White declined to discuss the issue with the Gazette.
“I don’t make comments until decisions have been made,” White said, declining to give specifics before saying he was in the middle of something and hanging up the phone.
Michael Green, vice president of the board, referred questions about his views on the changes to Manchin and the Department of Education’s spokeswoman. When asked if he believes greenhouse gas emissions are the predominant reason for a global rise in temperatures, he declined comment.
Department of Education staff said they altered the standards in response to Linger’s concerns. Clayton Burch, executive director of the state Office of Early Learning and interim associate state superintendent, said senior staff vetted the changes to ensure they didn’t alter the “intent” of the standards. He said the changes encourage students to think critically about the issue.
Staff members said they didn’t inform the stakeholders — including science teachers and higher education and business representatives — who helped create the standards about the alterations. No one commented on the amended climate change standards, which are part of a 70-page document, during the 30-day public comment period.
Manchin said she can’t remember where she and Linger were and when they had a discussion in which Linger raised concerns, but she recalls encouraging him to talk to Burch and Robin Sizemore, science coordinator for the state’s Office of Secondary Learning.
“I couldn’t answer the questions he had,” Manchin said. “I sent him to the people who could.”
Now curious about whether Linger had actually talked to the staff, Manchin said she asked Burch if changes had been made and Burch confirmed they had, but not to a point that altered the standards’ intent.
“I trust that the work that [staff members] did was highly qualified work,” she said.
Manchin said she read the changes herself after voting to put them out for public comment and was fine with them.
Linger said he remembers speaking to Manchin before he contacted the staff but said he doesn’t remember the details of the conversation. In addition to the sixth-grade standard change, the alterations were:
n Original ninth-grade 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.”
n 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.”
n 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.”
n 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 for their assertion that the Earth is simply in a natural warming period.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change states on its website that the coming and going of Earth’s ice ages is greatly linked to these orbital changes, but it 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.”
Manchin said she believes human greenhouse gas emissions are causing a rise in global temperatures, but she said she doesn’t know how important a factor they are.
“I cannot begin to answer,” Manchin said. “I cannot even begin to tell you how much gas mileage my car gets, but I appreciate the people who are out there doing that research, and I appreciate the people who are looking where we were a thousand years ago, where we are today and, more importantly, where we will be in the future.”
Manchin said the fossil fuels industry hasn’t influenced her view on the changes. Manchin’s husband, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., has said he has “never denied the human impact on our climate” but has criticized federal regulations on greenhouse gas emissions and, on Tuesday, introduced the new Senate’s first bill, which would build the Keystone XL oil pipeline. Gayle Manchin said she doesn’t think the industry has affected the outlook of Department of Education staff or her fellow school board members, whom critics have accused of being biased for coal.
“I believe in the personal integrity of every one of our board members,” Manchin said.