Environmental Education and the Next Generation Science Standards

Enjoyment in chemistry class

The debate over Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) has raised a lot of questions in Wyoming about environmental education. The NGSS seek to imbue students with a particular view regarding the manner in which humans should respond to climate change, sustainability, and other such issues.

Environmental science often reduces to matters of opinion about many controversial issues. The fact that the NGSS take a position on these issues seems to be inconsistent with the view of the U.S. Supreme Court that the state should not prescribe what is “orthodox in politics, religion, nationalism or other matters of opinion.” (West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette)

Several core ideas in NGSS, including this one, deal with the controversial issue of climate change: “Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (‘global warming’).”

While there is evidence that global temperatures may be slowly rising, the causes and future effects of “global warming” are still being debated. In particular, students should be aware that there is widespread debate among climate scientists over (a) the extent to which greenhouse gases (GHG) contribute to changes in global temperature, (b) the degree of climate sensitivity to atmospheric carbon dioxide, (c) whether the consequences of GHG warming will be net beneficial or net harmful, and (d) whether the benefits of any attempts to reduce GHG emissions would be worth the costs. The curriculum needs to be balanced and objective on this topic.

The general idea of protecting the environment and conserving natural resources is not controversial. However, environmental science deals with “politics, religion and other matters of opinion.” It is questionable whether schools should even address unsettled environmental issues with impressionable young minds. If environmental science issues are discussed, then the state assumes an enormous burden of presenting the issues objectively so that they will have a neutral effect. It seems clear that NGSS coverage of environmental issues like climate change lacks the necessary objectivity.