A look at global warming curriculum in the Philadelphia School District.
The past six months have seen something of a renaissance in climate-change skepticism. Hacked emails revealed climate scientists being less than forthright in response to freedom of information requests; the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change admitted to errors in its report; and Al Gore, the punch line that can somehow instantly discredit the work of thousands of scientists worldwide, has been accused of profiteering in his advocacy of strong action to mitigate climate change.
These revelations, regardless of their merits or relative significance to the mountain of evidence pointing to a potentially dangerous human influence on climate, were probably on the minds of South Dakota legislators last month when they passed a resolution demanding a “balanced” approach to teaching global warming in the state’s public schools. If geriatric policy makers and silver-haired pundits want to dose themselves with spin before assessing the threat of climate change, so be it.
The kids, however, deserve an unbiased and apolitical introduction to the matter.
Here in the deepest-blue corner of a Democratic state, there is little to fear over this kind of right-wing legislative meddling. But Philadelphia-area schools might be just the sort of global-warming-alarmist indoctrination centers that the South Dakota resolution is trying to prevent.
There are few top-down science curriculum guidelines at the Philadelphia School District to draw from in assessing how climate change is taught. Test-prep guidelines for sixth, seventh and eighth grades all mention global warming in passing, with straightforward bullet points like “Explain the relationship between the greenhouse effect and global warming.”
Beyond this, how to teach climate change or whether to cover the subject at all is left entirely up to the teacher’s discretion.
Bob Herbstritt teaches Advanced Biology to juniors in the International Baccalaureate program at Bodine High School for International Affairs, in Northern Liberties, where he covers climate change in surprising depth.
“I show [my students] data indicating that the Earth has warmed and cooled many times in the geologic past … including the fact that 10 or 12 thousand years ago there was a glacier a mile high in Eastern Pa.,” Herbstritt says. “Obviously that wasn’t caused by anthropogenic pollution … and there is a lot of unknown here, but also the rate of change is very rapid right now.”
This leads Herbstritt to a discussion of the precautionary principle: the idea that when there are high levels of uncertainty on an issue—as there are on the specifics of how badly and when climate change will impact human societies—people should err on the side of caution.
The M.O. of climate-change skeptics is the inverse of this idea: Until scientists can provide a concrete picture of global warming’s impacts, nothing should be done that might have economic consequences.
Apart from this fundamental difference, Herbstritt’s unit covers much of what skeptics fear is not being taught to students: natural climatic variability throughout history, the inescapable uncertainty in science and even the wide range of computer-model projections for potential sea-level rise.
But Herbstritt also stresses those meddlesome strengths of the scientific establishment that skeptics would rather ignore.
“I try to get across the idea that [climate change science] is the result of a process that is pretty darn reliable,” he says. “When you submit peer-reviewed research, it’s looked at by your peers and 99 times out of 100 you are going to catch really serious errors.
Lauren Feldman, a communications professor at American University, sees merit in this kind of approach.
“One thing that could be effective that is in large part missing from school curricula is a science-literacy component—teaching kids how to interpret science and scientific policy information in media and how to make sense of it,” she says.
Feldman recently analyzed a survey conducted by George Mason University in conjunction with Yale University that suggests America’s youth aren’t on the same page with the scientific community. The results showed that only 54 percent of 18 to 22 year-olds believed that global warming is happening. Fifty percent also thought that there is a lot of disagreement among scientists about the basics of the global-warming hypothesis.
Teachers at the private, girls-only Springside School, in Northwest Philly, say their climate-change curriculum leans closer to advocacy but still falls far short of hysteria.
“The debate is focused where it should be, not on whether climate change is a reality,” writes Scott Stein, head of the Science Department at Springside, in an email. “We try to help students become critical scientific decision-makers who don’t fall prey to political propaganda.”
But Springside science teacher Ellen Kruger revealed something that skeptics view as the ultimate in political propaganda: She shows her students Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and uses it as a framework for their studies on climate change.