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Warming Up to Climate Change

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Florida’s new state science standards break new ground by including their first-ever reference to a major scientific topic.

And no, in this case I’m not talking about evolution, which got all the attention when the standards were approved back in February.

The 96-page document, in addition to having references to the previously absent e-word, also spells out that Florida’s students should understand the basic science behind climate change.

High school students should “discuss the large-scale environmental impacts resulting from human activity, including waste spills, oil spills, runoff, greenhouse gases, ozone depletion, and surface and groundwater pollution,” it says.

On its own, the place of climate change in any science standard hardly seems unusual, given the growing concern about the issue among scientists and the public. Congress is considering a “cap-and-trade” bill aimed at curbing the carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to climate change, sponsored by Sens. John W. Warner, R-Va., and Joe Lieberman, an Independent from Connecticut.

But to date, climate change has been largely ignored in state standards, which shape the content of state tests, textbooks, and instruction.

This void almost certainly isn’t the result of any political controversy over the issue—such as the extent to which pollution from human industrial activities are causing global warming. It has more to do with the slow cycle for revising state academic standards.

States typically overhaul those documents every five to 10 years—or once in 12 years, as was the case in Florida. (Read the new version of Florida's standards here. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader) Scientists’ understanding of climate change has increased greatly in that time. So has the public’s grasp of the issue, as a a result of media coverage, the attention paid to Al Gore’s documentary on the topic, and other factors.

Florida officials asked for public comments in drafting their standards last year—and they were flooded with thousands of them, many of them related to evolution. The state board of education ultimately voted to include fairly extensive language on that theory in the document. (See my story on the evolution debate here.)

Public comments on the climate-change language were largely positive, according to Paul Ruscher, an associate professor of meteorology at Florida State University, who served on a committee that drafted the standards. The language related to “human activity” and “greenhouse gases” received the most criticism, he told me.

The objections were mostly, “‘Well, I’m not teaching Al Gore’s movie,’” Ruscher recalled. “Well, we weren’t recommending that.”

Ruscher, who specializes in coastal weather patterns, said the document’s drafters felt strongly about including climate change, given public interest in the topic, as well as scientific consensus about it.

For instance, a report released last year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found that evidence of climate change is “unequivocal,” and that there is a “very high confidence” among scientists that humans are contributing to it. (Read a summary of the report here. Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader)

Florida officials also viewed the topic as particularly relevant, given concerns in their state about rising sea levels and stronger storms, and their impact on businesses and residents, Ruscher said. Many science teachers, he added, were asking for more guidance in addressing climate change, as well as on broader weather and climate topics.

“We tried to write language in these standards that was politically neutral,” he said, “but scientifically objective.”

1 Comment

Since the scientific evidence supporting man made global warming is up for debate by more than 31,000 scientists, I am happy that this curriculum cannot be implemented right away. If one googles "global warming is man made myth" then one will find several sites in this controversy. Even CA Representative Dana Rohrabacher has put his thoughts into the House Records in May, 2008. His comment, "Do you think we are morons?" was certainly catchy. Read the speech. It is loaded with facts that counteract the message made by Gore. Go to icecap.org as well. These are legitimate scientific sites which are being ignored. I was told that man's responsibility for global warming was supported by Gore's movie, Gore's Nobel Prize, and the group of businesses promising to go green. They don't have science in common but a way to increase taxes and business profits. Shame on our Congressmen for buying into a myth that will cost the citizens of this country a lot of money for no reason. Why can't they support conservation of our environment? Kyoto reported deforestation as the leading cause of global warming. Where's the call to plant a tree or protect the rain forests of Brazil from being cut for crops? The hysteria need sensible heads. I expected an educational institution to avoid the hysteria and seek the wisdom of scientists. Scientists will tell you that the earth is warming but it comes after a cooling. It's natural. Do you remember the hue and cry for impending doom of global cooling a few years ago? That was supported by all sorts of evidence but proved to be another hoax. We need to have our educators lead us not the politicians who have the goal to raise tax money and be re-elected. No, no, no.

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