Scientists create their own ‘teacher-friendly’ book to counter climate denial in schools

For two years in a row, lawmakers in Idaho have successfully removed climate science from the state’s public school curriculum despite overwhelming public support from teachers and students. This year, when lawmakers successfully voted for a second time in February to remove key references to climate science from education standards, one representative defended the move by arguing that the decision didn’t prohibit teachers from teaching the science — only that it was no longer required for teachers to do so.

But critics of removing the climate references argued that the lack of statewide standards would leave teachers — especially those in more rural districts, where climate science is considered more politically controversial — without meaningful resources to help teach kids about climate change.

“We are here today not just for those students in classrooms across our state, but for tomorrow’s nurses, farmers, lawmakers, teachers, bankers, and citizens who deserve the very best science, and science education, not some watered down, censored version,” Dick Jordan, a retired high school science teacher, told legislators during a public hearing before the state’s House Education Committee in early February. “We can’t ignore science even when it makes us uncomfortable.”

Now, one group is working to bring climate science to the students no matter what. On February 13, one week after lawmakers approved the climate science-less standards, every public high school in the state will begin receiving The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change — a resource that a group of former science teachers hope will help educators combat misinformation about climate change at a time when lawmakers seem intent on censoring climate science from schools.

As we look forward to the coming decades, the most important challenges that we as a society face are grounded in the very connected issues of climate, energy, water, and soil,” Don Duggan-Haas, director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institution and an author of the book, told ThinkProgress. “If we don’t understand what we’re doing with, and to, those resources, then we are in serious trouble.”

Aside from high-profile cases like Idaho, where lawmakers or education boards have specifically stepped in to quell what kind of climate science teachers are required to cover in their curriculum, students across the United States are generally exposed to at least some climate science during middle and high school. According to a 2016 survey by researchers at Penn State University and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), three out of four science teachers spend at least one hour of their annual curriculum teaching climate science.

But the survey found that while 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity, that consensus didn’t make its way into teaching — 30 percent reported teaching students that climate change is “likely due to natural causes,” while another 31 percent reported teaching climate change as an unsettled science. Less than a third of teachers surveyed knew that the consensus surrounding human activity and climate change was between 81 to 100 percent.

Organizations that routinely peddle climate misinformation have seized upon that gap in teacher understanding of the scientific consensus in an attempt to weaken climate science standards throughout the country.

Last May, the Heartland Institute — a think-tank that routinely challenges the consensus on climate science and counts Exxon and Koch-funded organization among its donorsmailed out 25,000 copies of a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, along with an accompanying DVD, to science teachers around the country. The book and DVD asks teachers to “consider the possibility” that climate science isn’t settled, and encourages educators to teach about a “vibrant debate taking place among scientists.”

The goal, according to Heartland, was to eventually get a copy of the book to every science teacher in the country.

The move elicited vocal criticism from both science and education groups, with both the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issuing statements in opposition to the book.

At the time, scientists at the Paleontological Research Institution were already working on a book, funded by the National Science Foundation, that would help make climate science accessible to teachers across the country. But with the news that the Heartland Institute was working to disseminate their version of climate science to every teacher in the nation, the work took on a renewed kind of importance.

What was supposed to be a short-run project for maybe 100 teachers suddenly became a campaign to counter the Heartland’s climate misinformation. After launching a crowdfunding campaign this summer, Duggan-Haas and his colleagues have been able to print thousands of books, with plans to ship them to every science teacher in New York, Idaho, Florida, North and South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada. If the crowd-funding campaign is successful enough, they, too, want to send books to every science teacher in the country.

It’s not a middle school or high school curriculum but rather a resource for the teacher to get them up to speed both on the physical science and the social science that makes teaching climate change a different kind of challenge than teaching photosynthesis for example,” Duggan-Haas said.

Duggan-Haas and his colleagues hope that by getting The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change into public schools around the country, teachers can begin to feel more comfortable with teaching a subject that has become so politically-charged in recent years. The guide is written specifically for teachers that might have a background in science but lack direct experience with climate or earth science, and even includes a Frequently Asked Questions section aimed at addressing persistent climate “myths,” like the idea that there has been no measured increase in global temperatures.

“While there is no shortage of credible science information that teachers can access (NOAA and NASA for example), this guide is different in that it speaks directly to teachers. It shares advice for what educators and students really need to know, and why,” Karin Kirk, a science education consultant who has worked with the authors of the book on separate projects, told ThinkProgress via email. “I love that this book is being used as the antidote to the Heartland Institute’s unwanted mailings, and even more than that I love the idea of an energized generation of students growing up with a solid understanding of this topic.”


Sea level rise is speeding up, scientists confirm

Climate change is making our seas rise faster and faster, confirms a new study examining 25 years of data.

Published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study finds that sea level rise will not increase at a steady rate. Instead, the rate will accelerate by about 0.08mm each year.

While this doesn’t sound like a lot, it could lead to almost half an inch of sea level rise per year. And if this rate of acceleration continues, by the end of the century sea levels will rise by just over 2 feet. This confirms previous projections put out by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

This expected increase is compared to just 7 cm – or 2.7 inches – of the global average sea level rise experienced since 1993. As the study notes, one of the main causes behind the accelerating sea level rise is the melting of ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica – and this is one of the biggest variables that will impact how quickly the seas will continue to rise.

Because of this, the researchers say their findings are a “conservative” estimate. If the climate starts to change even more rapidly, then the rate of sea level rise could increase even more.

As Steve Nerem, Associate Director of the Colorado Center for Astrodynamics Research at the University of Colorado Boulder and one of the study’s authors, told ThinkProgress, the study’s conclusions are based on the assumption that “the ice sheets [will] just continue going along at what they’ve been doing for the last 25 years.”

This isn’t likely to be the case, Nerem expects. “There may be abrupt changes in the ice sheets,” he said. “That’s why I think that this is a conservative estimate, because it doesn’t consider what if the ice sheets really start to go.”

Basically, he said, the study “has a major caveat that [it assumes that] sea level continues to change into the future at the same rate and acceleration of change as the last 25 years. Like I said, that’s probably not going to happen, [our findings are] probably on the low end.”

The researchers, however, are very confident that sea levels will continue to rise at an accelerated rate.

Commenting on the study, Andrea Dutton, an assistant professor and fellow at the Florida Climate Institute at the University of Florida who wasn’t involved in this research, said there’s an important statement included in the study that shouldn’t be ignored: “The probability that the acceleration is actually zero is less than 1 percent.”

In other words, it is more than 99 percent probable that sea level rise will accelerate. “That’s a very important statement,” Dutton said.

Often, climate models, such as those for sea level rise, include multiple curves on a graph showing the different types of scenarios – at the lowest end, the smallest rate of increase, and at the highest end a curve showing the most extreme case of global warming. When it comes to that lowest curve, said Dutton, “what this paper is saying is we know that that’s not reasonable.”

In order to reach these findings, the team of scientists from CU Boulder, the University of South Florida, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Old Dominion University and the National Center for Atmospheric Research studied 25 years of satellite data.

This includes data from along coastlines but also information collected over the open ocean, making it a much more comprehensive data set. It also takes into account the effects of volcanoes and changes in temperature resulting from El Nino and La Nina. The aim was to tease out the longer-term climate trends.

Effectively, the study uses this real-world data from the past few decades to produce a calculation about the rate of future sea level rise, and found that it matches the complicated climate models produced by the IPCC for a “high emissions scenario” where no action is taken to limit emissions.

The study, of course, added that more research is needed to refine the results. “As we get longer and longer time series there will be better estimates of this acceleration,” Nerem said.

“It’s really interesting,” added Dutton. “For a long time, people had been saying that the satellite data is too short for us to use and make any projections. Now it’s just starting to get long enough to do a reasonable statistical analysis of it. And they find that it has accelerated over this time period since 1993 when we first started measuring sea level using these satellites.”

Satellite data is vital to this research, said Nerem. However, last year under the Trump administration, this scientific data came under fire. Last April, President Trump’s proposed budget took aim at NASA’s climate science, a lot of which is done using satellites. Scientists feared that if a gap in data gathering were to occur due to a lack of funding or cancelling of a project, this would harm climate research. Continuous data records are critical to improving climate models and understanding how increased temperatures may be impacting the world.

“This research would not have been possible without the NASA satellite measurements,” Nerem said. “We really would be blind without those satellites. I mean, we still have other measurements but those measurements have a lot bigger errors, it’s a lot harder to tell what’s going on, and so it’s critical to have the satellite measurements and really I think everybody needs to put in a plug for the satellites so that NASA continues to give us these observations.”