There has been a disturbing tendency to equate the evolution and climate change education issues. These two issues are not equivalent, and saying that they are distorts the nature of the challenges science educators face in the US.
That Earth’s climate is warming is beyond debate. Anybody who doesn’t think the climate is warming is willing to dispute the fact that 3 is greater than 2. But that is not the usual climate change education problem, which concerns the cause of this warming. It is quite likely (overwhelmingly likely, in fact) that releases of particular gases that take place in the course of human activity – primarily carbon dioxide – are responsible for some or all of the observed warming of the climate. It is fashionable among some members of the political class to either deny this likelihood, or to insist that since the link between human-caused emissions and climate warming is not incontrovertible that no policy steps should be taken to significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions.
However, there have been variations in Earth’s climate for as long as there has been an Earth. It is possible to come up with an explanation for the present warming that does not rely (or does not rely entirely) on the human-caused injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Such explanations are almost certainly wrong, but we cannot completely rule them out. And this is the most important point here: Such explanations rely entirely on natural processes and can be explained within the framework of the laws of nature (or the laws of physics, if you prefer).
And this is where the difference between the climate change and evolution education issues becomes clear. I will recast the evolution education discussion as a cosmology education discussion because I am a physicist and I am more comfortable with this framing: The universe appears to be 13.8 billion years old, but about half of Americans believe the universe is less than 10,000 years old.
The difference between the climate change and evolution (cosmology) education issues can be stated this way: While it is possible to explain the present warming of Earth’s climate in the framework of natural processes, any explanation of the origin of a 10,000-year old universe must invoke supernatural processes. So while an explanation of Earth’s present warming that doesn’t require a human contribution might be fringe science, no explanation of a 10,000-year old universe can be science at all.
Opposition to climate change education is driven by economic interests. It is possible to imagine a time in the not-so-distant future when opposition to climate change education will decline significantly.
Opposition to evolution education is driven by religious beliefs. While many Christians are members of churches (notably the Catholic Church) that embrace the idea of a 13.8 billion year old universe, many are not. The argument over whether children should be taught that the universe is more than 10,000 years old has been quite durable and has been going on ever since the idea was brought to the fore by Darwin’s Origin of the Species. It is difficult to see how opposition to evolution/cosmology education will decrease any time soon.
While there may be parallels between the two issues at the political and classroom levels, it is important to keep in mind how different their their origins are. The evolution/cosmology education issue is likely to be with us much farther into the future than the climate change education issue is.