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The Energy 202: A wave of state bills could threaten science and climate education


State lawmakers from Connecticut to Florida are proposing measures that some groups say could threaten how science and climate change are taught in the classroom. More than a dozen such bills have popped up this year, including from state lawmakers pushing back against broad scientific consensus that people are warming the planet, according to the National Center for Science Education.

The measures have emerged as many young people around the nation and world intend to skip school this week to demand government action on climate change, and as there is renewed emphasis in Washington on a Green New Deal to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions, despite skepticism President Trump and his appointees have expressed about the state and causes of global warming.

Glenn Branch, the deputy director at NCSE, which tracks the measures, told me the organization has seen more activity on this front in 2019 than it usually tracks in an entire year -- Branch usually expects to see a half dozen to a dozen of bills annually aimed at changing how science is taught in elementary and secondary school classrooms. While many of the measures have already failed, they’re an example of how the climate debate is trickling down to states, where there’s entrenchment from some conservatives as the issue rises in importance in national politics.

Most of these measures were introduced by state Republicans and are aimed at affecting public education in a range of ways, from removing language about climate science from statewide standards to repealing those state standards for science instruction or by broadly requiring "balance" in the teaching of “controversial issues.”

And there's no evidence they will necessarily pass, though the wave of introductions is notable.

A state lawmaker in Connecticut, for example, has proposed prohibiting the use of the Next Generation Science Standards, which were developed by states to improve science education and have been adopted by 19 states and the District of Columbia. A similar proposal was introduced in Iowa.

State Rep. John Piscopo (R-Conn.) introduced one bill to eliminate the section on climate change from the standards and another to prohibit schools from using the standards at all. Piscopo told me he let both of his bills die and is working on a measure to specifically address language in state education standards that say human activity is a major factor in global warming.

He wants those standards to say instead there is a “continuing scientific debate over how much global warming humans are causing and the amount of warming.” “The people that object to this totally deny — they’re the deniers — there’s a scientific debate about the causes of man-made greenhouse gases,” he said. “To be just resigned in the comfort of consensus is not science at all.”

In Florida, GOP state Sen. Dennis Baxley wants to pass a bill requiring schools to teach “controversial theories and concepts” in science standards in a “factual, objective and balanced manner.” Baxley’s bill doesn’t define what would be deemed “controversial theories,” and he told me groups worried the bill would target climate change or evolution are “mischaracterizing” the measure.

“I’m not telling them what to teach... There is some language to make sure we teach different schools of thought. There are all kinds of areas as you know where everybody is not in complete agreement,” he told me. “It’s important for [students] to know the different schools of thought out there on science.”

But there’s little debate within the scientific community about the reality and severity of climate change. Last year’s consensus report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned the world has about a dozen years to address global warming to avoid its dire effects.

Some of the bills NCSE tracks don’t explicitly refer to climate science or even science at all, but Branch said they could still have an impact on science education.

Two other bills in Florida, for example, would require instructional materials in public schools to “provide objective, balanced and noninflammatory viewpoints on controversial issues.” Branch said even though these two bills don’t mention science, such measures could “expand the ability of Floridians to challenge instructional materials to which they take exception.”

Even if the measures don’t ultimately advance, Branch said it’s important for people to know their state legislators are eyeing changes to how science is taught. “They’re not aware there’s a sizable constituency that likes to see these bills introduced and hopes they will be passed,” Branch said. “The only way to be sure they don’t pass is to raise public awareness of them and to localize concerns about the integrity of public science education by speaking about them.”

Nationwide, there’s overwhelming support for education about global warming, according to data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication — 79 percent of adults believe schools should teach about climate change causes and potential solutions. There is 83 percent support among adults for climate education in Connecticut, for example, and 78 percent support in Florida.

That support is reflected in the effort from lawmakers in Connecticut and Washington state who want to bolster climate education. Connecticut Democratic Rep. Christine Palm,for instance, introduced a bill this year to require public schools to teach climate science starting in elementary school. While Connecticut has adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, she said they don’t go far enough.

“Next Generation Science Standards are great, but they’re more like recommendations than mandates,” she said. “They don’t talk about climate change in any meaningful way until the fifth grade, and I think it’s too late.” Palm told me her original bill wasn't raised by the necessary committee but she is pushing to include the content in another bill. 

Washington state Democrat Sen. Claire Wilson proposed a bill requiring schools to teach science “with special reference to the environmental and sustainability standards,” and would establish grants to train teachers on the Next Generation Science Standards.

“We know there’s a growing crisis called climate change,” Wilson told me, “and we believe it’s underrecognized by many people … We cannot crack this nut and deal with it until we believe it’s true and we start teaching young people about it and have them help us come up with the solution.”

Palm said she has “tremendous hope in Millennials and Gen Z and X kids who are in fact globally doing walkouts and changing what the United Nations is doing … Once you raise someone’s awareness to a problem and to what they can do about the problem, it empowers them to take a stand.”


— Trump officially nominates Bernhardt: After tweeting more than a month ago that he intended to name David Bernhardt to permanently run the Interior Department, Trump officially nominated the acting secretary for the post on Friday.

The 49-year-old Colorado native has been leading the agency in an acting capacity since Ryan Zinke resigned amid multiple ethics investigations, leaving the administration at the beginning of the year. If confirmed, Bernhardt would be “well positioned to roll back even more of the Obama-era conservation policies he has worked to unravel since rejoining Interior,” The Post’s Darryl Fears writes.  

— Trump tours tornado-ravaged Alabama: Trump and first lady Melania Trump visited communities damaged by deadly tornadoes on Friday, meeting with survivors and victims’ families. “We saw things that you wouldn’t believe,” Trump said as he surveyed the wreckage.

During a visit to a Southern Baptist Church in Opelika, Ala., Trump also signed several Bibles when asked by the churchgoers. “After Trump added his unique, frenetic signature to a 12-year-old boy’s Good Book, the crowd of onlookers erupted in applause, a pool report noted. One church volunteer, Ada Ingram, told the reporters that Trump’s visit was a blessing. Hopefully, it brings the community together,” The Post’s Reis Thebault and Sarah Pulliam Bailey report.

“In keeping with his vow to the state, Trump confirmed that officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency are indeed doing an ‘A-plus job.’ The crowd there praised Trump, who, in turn, told them, ‘We couldn’t get here fast enough. . . . We love the state of Alabama.’”

— “It’s time to act on climate change”: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) penned an op-ed in The Post calling for pragmatic and bipartisan solutions to tackle climate change. “There is no question that climate change is real or that human activities are driving much of it. We are seeing the impacts in our home states,” they write. Although the pair doesn’t refer to specific proposals emerging on Capitol Hill to address global warming, such as the ambitious Green New Deal, they refer to a debate among lawmakers “about the appropriate way to tackle climate change.”

“This is often portrayed as an issue with just two sides — those who support drastic, unattainable measures to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, and those who want to do nothing,” they write. “We believe the time for sensationalism is over. And we are seeking ideas that will bring people together, rather than drive them apart.”

— A surprise Bill Nye sighting at SXSW: At South by Southwest, Bill Nye surprised Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) with a question during a panel event, asking her about “fear” related to climate change. “So do you have a plan to work with people in Congress that are afraid? I think that’s what’s going on with many of the conservatives, especially when it comes to climate change. People are afraid of what will happen if we try to make these big changes,” Nye asked. Ocasio-Cortez, applauding the Science Guy’s appearance, responded: “One of the keys to dismantling fear is dismantling a zero-sum mentality…It means the rejection outright of the logic that says someone else’s gain necessitates my loss and that my gain must necessitate someone else’s loss.”

— Food stamp benefits cut for beneficiaries in hurricane-stricken Puerto Rico: Benefits paid out by the U.S. territory’s food stamps program have been reduced by an average of 25 percent, The Post’s Jeff Stein reports, “as federal lawmakers have not provided the island with additional emergency disaster funding amid opposition from the Trump administration.” The cuts are a way to sustain the program, used by more than 1 million residents, that has seen a growth in demand following the devastation of 2017’s Hurricane Maria. “The benefit cut, caused by an impasse among federal lawmakers over aid funding for the U.S. territory, has sparked new fears among Puerto Ricans about a critical lifeline for poorer residents amid an explosion of hunger since the hurricane hit,” Stein writes.

— Federal agencies battling over “spectrum” policies: NASA and the Commerce Department are warning a proposed policy from the Federal Communications Commission could put at risk critical data needed for weather prediction. The federal government’s science-focused agencies are battling with the FCC over policy and allocation of wireless radio frequencies known as “spectrum,” which enable “transmission of information from satellites, weather balloons, ocean buoys, weather radars and other technologies that are used by government agencies and the private sector,” The Post’s Jason Samenow reports. “But some of this same spectrum is coveted by commercial wireless providers for their next-generation 5G networks … The question in this dispute boils down to in essence: What’s the bigger priority — the 5G network for wireless providers or accurate weather forecasts?”

— Pipeline woes: The German-Russian Nord Stream 2 pipeline project has “been a bone of contention between Berlin and Washington, which fears it will make Europe’s largest economy excessively reliant on Russian energy,” the Wall Street Journal reports. During a visit to the White House last year, Trump urged German Chancellor Angela Merkel to “stop buying gas from Putin.” Despite concerns from the Trump administration, Berlin says the pipeline will improve energy security. And a year after that White House meeting, “work continues on the gas link under the Baltic Sea financed by several Western firms and PAO Gazprom , the Russian state-controlled energy company,” per the Journal. “The dispute is coming to a head, in a graphic example of how Russia’s estrangement from the West, far from bringing its members closer, is driving a wedge between the closest of allies.”


— Last year was California’s worst year of fire: The state experienced more fires in 2018 than any time in its history, the Los Angeles Times reports, with 1.8 million acres burned by wildland fires, according to the National Interagency Coordination Center. It also had the worst year of fires of any state. “That’s the highest in the recorded history of California,” California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection spokesman Scott McLean told the L.A. Times. In total, crews responded to more than 8,000 blazes. “The last time California saw the most acres burned of any state in the nation was 2003, when a series of blazes killed dozens and scorched more than 750,000 acres in a matter of weeks,” per the report.

 — Game Changer: The Elfstedentocht, an iconic skating race in the Netherlands, only happens when conditions are right – the 135-mile ice-skating race happens when temperatures are low enough for canals, on which the race takes place, to freeze over, The Post’s Rick Maese writes as part of a series of stories examining the impact global warming has on sports. “But the Netherlands is no longer a romantic wintry wonderland, and there hasn’t been an Elfstedentocht since 1997, marking the longest drought ever between races,” he writes. “Climate change has endangered the race and is slowly dousing hopes across the province.”


— Venezuela watch: The United States is urging India to stop buying oil from Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, a message the Trump administration has also sent to other governments and that comes as it has threatened further sanctions to cut off any financial support going to Maduro, Reuters reports. “The talks with India come as the United States and its regional allies, who back Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, threaten more sanctions to cut off revenue streams to Maduro’s government and force him to step down,” per the report. “The Indian market is crucial for Venezuela’s economy because it has historically been the second-largest cash-paying customer for the OPEC country’s crude, behind the United States, which through sanctions against Maduro has handed control of much of that revenue to Guaidó.”


Coming Up

  • The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on energy and mineral resources holds a hearing on “Examining the Policies and Priorities of the Bureau of Land Management, the United States Forest Service, and the Power Marketing Administrations” on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources subcommittee on Water, Oceans and Wildlife holds a hearing on the state of wildlife on Tuesday.
  • The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security holds a hearing on recovery efforts for 2017 and 2018 disasters on Tuesday.
  • The House Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on the review of national monuments on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee holds a hearing on the Diesel Emissions Reduction Act of 2019 on Wednesday.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Environment and Climate Change holds a hearing on the EPA’s management of chemical risks on Wednesday.
  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee holds a hearing on opportunities to improve access, infrastructure and permitting for outdoor recreation on Thursday.

— Not all clocks shifted on Sunday: The National Weather Service says its climate records remain on Standard Time, even as most of the United States returned to daylight saving time this weekend.