The State Board of Education’s new anti-science campaign ignores the truth about the renewable energy transition.
Recent news articles report that the Texas State Board of Education has asked that writers of the state’s K-12 science textbooks focus on the positive impacts of fossil fuel energy sources such as coal, natural gas and petroleum. They also ask textbook writers to highlight natural fluctuations in Earth’s climate and not to focus on the link between manmade contributions of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and global warming. The board, which is dominated by Republicans, adopted changes proposed by board member, Patricia Hardy. “If they’re going to tout how wonderful the alternative climate change stuff is, then they need to also say all the things that are not good about it and not just hit on the fossil fuel industry,” Hardy said in an interview with The Scientific American.
Is this just another political battle between conservatives and liberals, or does science support the board and the proposed changes? As a professor of Geosciences at UTD, I have been studying the Earth and how it works for all my 41 years here. For the last four years, I have been teaching a graduate course in sustainable energy. I know something about the related topics of climate change and energy. And as director of UTD Geoscience Studio, I am committed to informing students and the public about Earth science topics like these.
There’s a lot to unpack in the TSBE’s “internal guidance.” First of all, the board’s denial of human-induced climate change is absurd and harmful. It is clear that our climate is changing and that humans are responsible for the increased addition of carbon dioxidein the atmosphere . M More needs to be said on this issue, beyond the usual rhetoric that denying human-induced climate change is “politics as usual.” K-12 students should be taught about human-induced climate change so that they can help fix the problem.
But Hardy and the board are partially right; the Earth has experienced many radical changes in climate over its 4.5 billion-year history, from times when the Earth was encased in ice to times when it was warm and humid, and the seas covered where UTD is today. These changes happened long before there were humans around to cause them, so there is some climate change that is not caused by humans.
The board is also correct in that K-12 students should be taught about natural climate change and Earth’s 4.5 billion-year history. But many board members who ask for students to be taught about natural climate change — the evidence for which is preserved in sedimentary rocks —– deny what science has established about the age of the rocks that contain this evidence! Their denial is motivated by a religion-based disbelief of biological evolution, partly because evolution takes a lot of time. Take the evidence that the Earth was encased in ice about 650 million years ago, in a period called “Snowball Earth,” a time before the first fossils of primitive animals appeared. Do they want schoolteachers to explain Snowball Earth without explaining how long ago this happened? Or do they want to jam the Earth’s great natural climate changes into their story of a 6,000 year-old Earth? If you’re going to teach K-12 students what science has learned about the Earth’s climate history, teach it to them correctly!
Energy is the key to modern civilization. If you disagree, just imagine your daily routine without electricity and gasoline. Everything that makes modern civilization possible relies on abundant energy, including electricity, and right now, that energy is dominated by fossil fuels. Anyone who advocates immediately dispensing with fossil fuels is advocating for civilization to collapse. This is not a sane approach. Instead, we want it to improve civilization in many ways, including addressing human-induced climate change. The importance of cheap, reliable energy to human progress cannot be overemphasized. Modern civilization took off with the industrial revolution, which was made possible by an energy transition from muscles to coal. This happened over several decades in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. A second energy transition, from coal to petroleum, occurred in the first half of the 20th century. A third energy transition to nuclear energy began in the ‘70s and ‘80s but has stalled due to safety concerns. The fourth energy transition to renewable energy is now underway. Energy transitions take decades to accomplish, so we are going to need fossil fuels for a long time as we invent and adapt renewable energy.
The good news for UTD students is that Texas is a key player in the transition to renewable energy. Texas leads the nation in oil and natural gas production, and we lead the US in wind energy and will soon lead in solar energy. Texas is truly the “Energy State.”
Four points need emphasizing. First, the electrical grid will be increasingly important as electric vehicles and wind and solar energy proliferate. Reliability of the grid will become paramount because renewable energy poses special challenges to grid stability, and wind and solar energy are intermittent sources of electricity. We will always need electricity from other sources to fill these gaps. Batteries can store excess electricity from solar and wind, but we are a long way from having enough battery storage to do away with fossil fuels or nuclear power.
Secondly, there is a major transition happening in the mix of fossil fuels used to generate Texas’ electricity. Coal is the dirtiest of the fossil fuels and releases the most carbon dioxideper unit of electricity generated. Luckily, coal is being replaced by plants burning cleaner natural gas and renewables.
A third point is that if we want to move faster to remove fossil fuels from the energy mix used to power the grid, we need to use more nuclear power, which produces no carbon dioxide. There are challenges with nuclear energy, but the technology is improving rapidly. We didn’t stop flying airplanes because early ones crashed. Our faith in technology paid off, and now air travel is the safest mode of transportation. We can expect similar benefits from improving nuclear energy.
Finally, UTD needs to teach more about energy at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Students at UTD, a leading university in the Energy State, should be leading our energy transition and help the Texas Board of Education improve K-12 climate and energy education!
About the author: Professor Robert J. Stern has been on the UTD Geosciences faculty since 1982. His research specialty concerns many aspects of plate tectonics. He is director of UTD Geoscience Studio and co-director of the Permian Basin Research Lab, the UTD Microimaging Lab and the UTD Meteorite Education and Research Lab.