Portland Schools to Ditch Textbooks That Express Doubt About Climate Change

By Liana Loewus — June 08, 2016 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

The school board for the Portland, Ore., school system recently adopted a resolution saying it would stop using instructional materials that cast doubt on climate change—a move that some national groups have labeled censorship.

The resolution, passed unanimously last month, says that the district will “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.” It was spurred by Bill Bigelow, a former Portland public school teacher who is now the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, which focuses on social justice in education, and the environmental group 350 PDX, among others.

The environmental advocates began analyzing curricula used in Portland as part of a larger project looking at how schools should teach climate change, reports Joy Resmovitz of the Los Angeles Times. “In two textbooks found in almost every Portland high school, they found passages on climate change that they considered understated and out of date,” she wrote. “Soon, teachers, parents, and students joined their meetings, and began discussing language for a resolution ‘to deal with this civilization-changing crisis,’ Bigelow said.”

Mike Rosen, a school board member and environmental scientist, introduced the resolution to the board. It passed without much fanfare.

But then, the story began making the rounds on the Internet. Jim Lakely, the director of communications for the right-leaning Heartland Institute, wondered in a blog whether the district might start burning books next. “It’s the logical next step, right?” he wrote. “Because, apparently, their textbooks are infected with terms like ‘might,’ ‘may,’ and ‘could’ in some passages that address climate change. We must make sure those doubts don’t accidentally infect the minds of the children they are charged with indoctrinating. So why not purge all the sin from the books by fire[?]”

The National Coalition Against Censorship said that “for all its good intentions, the resolution raises serious concerns,” including that it’s “dangerously over-broad.”

“Social studies texts accurately describing the political debate around fossil fuels and climate change, for instance, would presumably contain comments from individuals who ‘express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis,’” the group wrote in a statement. “If such material is excised from the curriculum, will students be prepared to face—and argue with—climate change denial when they encounter it in the world outside school?”

Rosen told the L.A. Times that the resolution is not about burning or destroying textbooks. “What we’re talking about is getting up-to-date texts,” he said.

Even the editorial board at the state’s largest newspaper, the Oregonian, which says it agrees that humans are affecting climate change, has questioned the district’s action. “The board’s climate-change resolution is not intended to teach students to think critically, which is what schools should do,” the editorial board wrote. “It’s designed, instead, to produce acolytes.”

Portland isn’t the only place still using texts that treat climate change as an uncertainty. A Stanford study recently found that textbooks being used in California middle schools are out of step with general scientific understanding about climate change. About 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is due in large part to human activity.

Interestingly, it’s a bit unclear whether the resolution in Portland was really necessary. Oregon is among the 18 states that have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards. While the standards don’t address textbooks specifically, they do include the statement that “human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming).” So it should be understood that’s what students will learn in the classroom.

Related stories:

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.