By Robert Adler
Monday 15 March 2010
“It’s true! It’s true! The crown has made it clear.
The climate must be perfect all the year.
A law was made a distant moon ago here:
July and August cannot be too hot.
And there’s a legal limit to the snow here
– Camelot, by Alan Jay Lerner & Frederic Loewe
No, the legislature did not follow King Arthur’s lead by attempting to stabilise the state’s climate by decree. Instead, it called for “the balanced teaching of global warming” in South Dakota’s public schools, borrowing the language and tactics of the ongoing campaign to force the teaching of creationism alongside evolution in America’s schools.
On a 36 to 20 vote, South Dakota’s House of Representatives urged the state’s schools to teach that global warming is a theory rather than a proven fact. Teachers are to impress on students that the significance and “interrelativity” of the “variety of climatological, meteorological, astrological [sic], thermological, cosmological, and ecological dynamics” that determine global weather patterns are “largely speculative”, and that the scientific investigation of global warming has been “complicated and prejudiced” by “political and philosophical viewpoints.”
The resolution concludes with a seemingly innocent statement urging that “all instruction on the theory of global warming be appropriate to the age and academic development of the student and to the prevailing classroom circumstances”.
The phrase I’ve italicised is a coded way of warning teachers not to present climate change in a way that might anger students or parents who believe that climate change is a hoax hatched by the UN to frighten ordinary citizens, justify draconian laws and enrich greedy scientists. It’s similar to language advocated by the right-wing group Students for Academic Freedom in its ‘Academic Bill of Rights’, which has been used to attack and even sue college professors whose teaching goes against the beliefs of conservative students.
It’s all too easy to trivialise the South Dakota House Resolution and poke holes in the facts and reasoning advanced to support it. The resolution’s use of “astrological” instead of “astronomical”, the flawed list of anti-climate-change evidence it presents – that the earth has been cooling for the last eight years, that there is no evidence of warming in the troposphere, that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant but “the gas of life” – and the argument that the existence of naturally driven climate change in the past rules out human-caused climate change today, makes for a document that’s hard to take seriously.
Even South Dakota’s senate seems to agree. They stripped out the most embarrassing verbiage before passing their own version of the resolution on 24 February.
I suppose that, from a European perspective, the whole issue may seem quaint and laughable – just another example of America’s amusing lack of sophistication.
Unfortunately, the resolution has to be taken seriously. It stands as the latest – but by no means the last – skirmish in a long and continuing battle for the minds, as well as the hearts, of America’s children. As reported by New Scientist, the Texas school board – whose annual purchase of some 48 million textbooks allows it to determine what most of the nation’s children study – voted last March to require textbooks to question the existence of global warming, and, in an astonishing kowtow to “young-earth creationists”, deleted the 14-billion-year age of the universe from the science curriculum.
It’s not just climate change, evolution, or the age of the earth which are in the crosshairs in this battle, but science as a whole. The religious-conservative movement that helps elect creationist school board members across the country, state legislators like Resolution 1009’s author, Don Kopp, the 110 members of the United States Congress who win perfect ratings from ultraconservative groups, or Senator James Inhofe who now wants to file criminal charges against US and British climate scientists, has a far more ambitious agenda – nothing less than to replace the pluralistic secular humanism that most people think has defined the United States since its inception with religious fundamentalism.
The movement dates at least to the 1980s, when the Rev. Pat Robertson founded the Christian Coalition with the stated goal of advancing a Christian agenda nationwide through grassroots activism. This still-growing movement has made it clear that it is determined to redefine America in the light of the “truth” that the nation was founded not on the basis of the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but on fundamentalist Christian beliefs. They see the Bible as true and the Constitutional wall separating church and state as a dangerous myth. Be it evolution, global climate change, or embryonic stem cell research, when science gets in the way, it will be attacked.
As reported in the New York Times, attacking climate change along with evolution may be a way to get around court rulings that so far have found that singling out evolution for so-called balanced presentation in textbooks and classes is clearly religiously motivated and violates the separation of church and state. By also targeting global warming, the age of the universe, or the origin of life, anti-evolutionists can claim that they are merely advocating academic freedom and fair play.
And I suppose it doesn’t hurt that the same politicians who depend on the votes of true believers also depend on campaign contributions by corporations that are strongly motivated to keep pumping crude oil, mining coal, and pouring greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
At least in the United States, this is not a challenge to which scientists and those who recognise that science can only thrive in an environment that values facts and reason over Bible-based belief and God-given truth can remain indifferent or uninvolved. A war has been declared, and scientists and their supporters can no more wish it away than South Dakota’s legislators can resolve away global climate change.
Published with the author’s permission. ©Robert Adler. All rights reserved.