By Amanda Litvinov
Under Trump appointees, the topic of climate change has been eradicated, subverted, and changed across government websites, including those that hold information and resources used by public school educators and students.
Where mentions of climate change have not been eliminated altogether, the language has been altered to eradicate the link between climate change and human activity. And that poses a serious threat to K-12 science education, says veteran science teacher Toby Spencer.
“Separating our species from the changes that we are in fact driving releases us from taking responsibility and removes the impetus for policy changes to stop it,” said Spencer, who teaches biology at Rio Americano High School in Sacramento, Calif.
Science teacher Toby Spencer speaks at the March for Science, Sacramento.
In his role as chair of the National Education Association’s Science Caucus, Spencer has worked with other science teachers across the nation to monitor changes to online resources on government sites that teachers commonly use in class, and come up with strategies for teaching climate change.
“We used to be able to say to students in the past that if it’s a dot-gov website, it’s the best information available for scientific topics,” Spencer said. “Now we have to devote much more time to source evaluation.”
Some examples are glaring: A resource for kids maintained by the U.S. Energy Information Administration was changed to put fossil fuels in a more positive light and gloss over climate change, as documented by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative. The Student’s Guide to Climate Change, a popular offering on the EPA website, seemingly vanished after Scott Pruitt took over the agency. The resource still exists, but a visitor to EPA.gov won’t find it unless they know to search for it, because the link was removed from the home page.
Other changes are less glaring, but significant. The topic heading for “Climate Change and Health” on the web site of the National Institute of Environmental Health Science was changed to “Climate and Health.” Using the Wayback Machine, an archive of old web pages, Spencer discovered that an EPA web page that talked about climate change used to include a photo of an African-American man sweltering under the sun. That has been replaced with lovely farmscape with no people in it.
“Each of these changes works to lessen the impact and the urgency,” Spencer explained. “The moral call is being buried, and the net effect cultivates a sense of mistrust in climate scientists.”
Clear definitions of climate change are being replaced with “vacuous terms that are ambiguous and laden with hyphens and caveats and that don’t convey the urgent need for action,” Spencer said. “It makes it harder for us to properly educate and empower the next generation, who have the greatest right to this information.”
Science in general has not fared well since Trump took office in January 2017. Since then, more than 200 scientists and hundreds of other employees have left the Environmental Protection Agency, disheartened by the agency’s new direction. Because the president has not nominated anyone for the top post at the Office of Science and Technology Policy its de facto leader is a 31-year-old who studied political science.
FEMA’s recently released strategic plan dropped all references to climate change, instead using the nebulous term “rising natural hazard risk.” Climate change was yanked out of the mission statement of the Department of the Interior, as well—but it has since been restored.
It’s one sign of a return to reason, says Spencer. Another sign: Congress rejected what would have been devastating cuts to federal science programs proposed in the president’s budget.
The entire education program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—one of the most renowned climate change resources around—would have been eliminated if lawmakers had enacted Trump’s cuts.
“America has the most robust scientific research programs in the world. It’s how we got to the moon and fought off deadly diseases, and thankfully there are enough lawmakers who understand that,” Spencer said.
It has also been heartening for Spencer and his peers to see the scientists, educators, students, and other citizens across the country participate in events like the March for Science. Spencer spoke on behalf of K-12 educators and the California Science Teachers Association at the Sacramento march last year.
“It was amazing to see all ages there, from the youngest kids to all the lab scientists out of their facilities to defend science,” Spencer said.
“Our students need the top officials of our federal agencies to stop obfuscating science that they don’t like, and empower our young people to fight climate change.”