In the summer of 1925, John Scopes, a 24-year-old high school science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, became one of most infamous defendants in U.S. legal history. In March of that year, Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. A month or so later, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a newspaper ad offering representation to any Tennessee teacher willing to violate the law and become the face of a legal battle lawyers hoped to take to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ad caught the eye of community leaders in Dayton, who thought a high-profile trial -- and the media attention and tourists who'd come with it -- could give their struggling town an economic boost. They solicited Scopes, who agreed to become the "test" defendant.
Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in a biology class, and his lawyers appealed. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law, but overturned the Scopes verdict on a technicality, preventing higher appeals. It wasn't until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, deeming a similar Arkansas law unconstitutional. But their ruling didn't put the issue to rest. Some states responded by passing laws requiring teachers to give "equal time" or "balanced treatment" to evolution and creationism. Those laws were also struck down. Still, the anti-evolution movement persisted – and still does. In 2012, Tennessee passed a law preventing school administrators from disciplining teachers who choose to teach students about the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of evolution.
But this time, the law included a new twist: It allowed teachers to give climate change the same treatment. Tennessee's approach has caught on in some Western states, albeit less successfully. Bills were introduced in Colorado and Arizona in 2013 to allow teachers to question "controversial" scientific theories – specifically evolution and climate change. These bills represent "the third wave of antievolutionist strategy," wrote National Center for Science Education deputy director Glenn Branch in BioScience last fall. Though the bills ultimately failed, they were the "tip of a menacing iceberg," according to Branch. "It is now routine for evolution and climate change to be targeted together in attacks on science education."
In fact, in Arizona, and more recently in Wyoming, climate change, not evolution, was the primary provocation for the attacks. This month, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a budget passed by the legislature that included a footnote prohibiting the state Board of Education from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (though there appears to be some lack of clarity about what exactly the footnote means for what the Board can and can't do). The standards were developed by more than 20 states, the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, and an independent education reform organization. They establish a common framework for K-12 science education, laying out what knowledge and skills students should have when, and how to assess their progress, but not standardized curriculums. They are the first national science standards likely to be broadly adopted by states, and the first ever to require climate change to be taught in schools.
That change is controversial in Wyoming, a state bankrolled by a cornucopia of fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. "(The standards) handle global warming as settled science," Republican Rep. Matt Teeters, one of the budget footnote's author told the Casper Star-Tribune. Reporter Leah Todd wrote that "Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming's economy."
The state Board of Education has been in the process of revising its science standards for more than a year, and an independent, 39-member committee made up mostly of Wyoming educators unanimously recommended it adopt the Next Generation Science Standards. The Board has so far deferred its decision, however, and has come under some public pressure to reject the standards because of their requirements for teaching evolution and climate change. Prior to the budget footnote's passage, some Board members sympathetic to the concerns about climate change in the classroom have asked Jim Verley, Wyoming Department of Education science content specialist, who convened the independent committee, if it's possible to make modifications to the Next Generation standards. Verley will respond to the question at this month's board meeting.
So far, 10 states – including California, Oregon, Washington and Nevada – and the District of Columbia have adopted the new standards, accounting for more than 20 percent of the nation's K-12 students says Mark McCaffrey of the National Center for Science Education. Until now, McCaffrey says, climate change has been taught inconsistently around the country, if at all. "Teachers avoided it altogether, or they would teach it as controversy or debate," he says. That's problematic because while the fact that climate change is happening and that people have a role in it is the subject of debate in the political sphere, it isn't in the scientific world. Not only that, but climate change is one of the biggest scientific and environmental challenges of our time – not exactly the kind of thing it makes sense to ignore until college. Some teachers are already teaching climate science and doing it well, McCaffrey says, but their reach is typically limited to, say, accelerated earth or environmental science classes. "The most revolutionary thing about the Next Generation Science Standards is that they're for all students."
"If evolution wins, Christianity goes," William Jennings Bryan argued for the prosecution in John Scopes' 1925 trial. "Scopes isn't on trial, civilization is on trial," Clarence Darrow countered for the defense. The debate over whether to teach students about climate change now playing out in Wyoming is less grand than the one between science and religion that lent the Scopes trial its drama. And it's more cynical: If the problem with climate education is that it would deal a blow to the fossil fuel economy, is that not implying that if kids learn about climate change, as adults they might favor less dependence on fossil fuels? That economics justifies ignorance?
"This boils down to children's right to know what's happening in the world," McCaffrey says, "and somebody censoring that."
Cally Carswell is the assistant editor at High Country News. She tweets @callycarswell.