Cold Shoulder: Idaho Legislature Committee Censors Climate Change 

"If the target is constantly moving, then who is going to hit that target? Nobody. And who will be blamed for that?”

The temperature in Boise hit 59 degrees on Feb. 2, tying a 137-year record high. It was also the third record high temperature in Boise in two weeks and according to the National Weather Service, followed the sixth warmest January on record. The NWS reports 2017 was one of the hottest years on record across the planet, and the oceans have never been warmer. But don't even think of talking to Rep. Julie VanOrden (R-Pingree) about climate change—let alone global warming. VanOrden is the Idaho House Education Committee chairwoman, and on several occasions during a public hearing Feb. 1 and 2 on revised science standards for Idaho K-12 students, she said she had little desire to hear about climate change. Those standards include revisions on how, or if, references to climate change will be included in Idaho science curricula.

"We are not having a hearing on climate change," VanOrden said continually during the hearing. "We're here to address the changes made in the standards, not climate change." She repeated the warning to students, parents, teachers, a scientist and even a retired wildland fire manager, all of whom were at the Idaho Statehouse to testify on the standards.

She cut off testimony from Dr. Matthew Kohn, a Boise State geology professor.

"This hearing is not about climate change," VanOrden told Kohn.

"But it is about education," Kohn said.

"You're out of line," said VanOrden, indicating the professor's testimony had come to an abrupt end.

Those who incurred VanOrden's wrath looked on, befuddled, at the proceedings. These citizens had been invited to the Statehouse to testify on proposed science standards, only to be chastised for addressing the actual revisions to the standards, which included climate change.

Before the two-day hearing was out, 29 people had testified before the Idaho House Education Committee, all in favor of the revisions—and the public has spoken up about this before.

During its 2017 session, the Idaho Legislature removed references to climate change from K-12 science standards for one year. They then ordered the State Department of Education to come back in 2018 with another revision.

"Happy Groundhog Day," said Rialian Flores, program director at Conservation Voters for Idaho on Feb. 2. "I think it's a bit ironic that we're back here, again revising these science standards. This is a bit like a Bill Murray movie."

As it had in 2017, the Department of Education returned to the committee with revised standards, and department officials once more advocated for references to climate change be included. The packet of proposed revisions was 74 pages long, but it was a handful of changes that caused the most conversation: students being asked to "construct an argument supported by evidence for how increases in human population and per-capita consumption of natural resources impact Earth's systems" (page 47); students asked to consider "human impacts on Earth systems" (page 48); and students asked to consider what "current models project that, without human intervention, average global temperatures will continue to rise" (page 70).

Trent Clark, former Idaho State GOP Chairman and current lobbyist for Monsanto, the agriculture biotechnology company, stood before the committee and urged some of his fellow Republicans to include the references to climate change. Clark said it was long overdue that lawmakers embrace 21st century science standards.

"Look. When I attended Sugar-Salem High School [in Madison County, Idaho], I was taught that Pluto was a planet, a toadstool was a plant and the only man-made object seen from space was the Great Wall of China," said Clark. "Today, we know that every one of those things is wrong. Each and every day, we continue to discover something we once had believed not to be true."

Perhaps the most stunning example of the crevasse between 20th and 21st century understanding was when Rep. Ron Mendive (R-Coeur d'Alene) asked a jaw-dropping question. Mendive had just listened to Department of Education Director of Academics Scott Cook explain some of the proposed changes, including references to human impacts on existing and new species.

"Excuse me. In my lifetime, I've been aware of species that have become extinct; but are you saying there are new species that are being formed?" asked Mendive, a graduate of North Idaho College and a two-term lawmaker. "Am I missing something?"

Mendive's question caused more than a few students in the auditorium to look at each other with astonished expressions on their faces. Cook paused a moment before responding respectfully.

"Representative Mendive. Yes, absolutely. New species continue to be formed through the process of natural selection," Cook said.

A flustered Mendive leaned into to his microphone and said, "Mr. Cook, I'm well aware of natural selection."

VanOrden brought the public testimony to a close, promising the committee would reconvene soon to vote on the proposed standards.

Meanwhile, the NWS has projected that the Treasure Valley will experience warmer-than-normal temperatures and dry conditions in early February. Whether Idaho schoolchildren will understand exactly why that happens remains to be decided.


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