Textbooks Out of Step With Scientists on Climate Change, Study Says

By Liana Loewus — December 01, 2015 4 min read
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President Barack Obama joined world leaders from about 200 nations this week in Paris to discuss ways to cut greenhouse gas emissions and curb climate change.

“I’ve come here personally, as the leader of the world’s largest economy and the second-largest emitter, to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it,” Obama said in a speech.

He also reiterated a vow to reduce U.S. emissions to 26 percent to 28 percent below 2005 levels over the next 10 years.

But while the U.S. president is speaking about human impact on climate change in very certain terms, a recent study out of Stanford University found that middle school textbooks in use in California schools are sending a different message.

Researchers looked at four 6th grade science textbooks that were published nearly a decade ago and are still being used in some California schools. In those texts, “the causes of climate change were shrouded in uncertainty,” K.C. Busch, a doctoral candidate in science education at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, and Diego Román, an assistant professor in teaching and learning at Southern Methodist University, wrote in their recent study. “Specifically, the human contribution to climate change was presented as a possibility rather than a certainty.”

The texts were all approved in the most recent California adoption process, which took place in 2006. “People are like, of course they’re not accurate because they’re old,” said Busch in an interview. “But if you look at the general scientific understanding then, they’re still not scientifically accurate for the time they were written.” She cited the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which released a report in 2007 asserting humans have had an impact on climate change.

“And regardless of when [the books] published, they’re still at play, kids are still interacting with them and they will be for awhile,” Busch said.

Overall, the textbooks send the message “that climate change is possibly happening, that humans may or may not be causing it, and that we do not need to take immediate mitigating action,” the report says. In contrast, about 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is due in large part to human activity, the report states.

The texts often refer to what climate scientists “believe” and “think,” using verbs that convey uncertainty, rather than discussing what they’ve done such as collecting data, the researchers write. And two of the books mention potential positive effects of global warming, including a longer farming season.

Materials adoptions in California, which serves more than 6 million public school students, have historically had a hefty impact on the textbook market nationally. The texts reviewed for the study were earth science books published by CPO Science; Glencoe-McGraw-Hill; Holt, Rinehart, and Winston Inc.; and Prentice Hall.

Societal vs. Scientific Debate

“I was shocked at how bad [the textbooks] were,” said Busch, who previously taught middle and high school science for 12 years. “You see a political ideology at play in these textbooks, and we’re in a state that politically has an ideology that doesn’t tend to correlate with climate denial.”

The study points to 2011 research saying that only about half of U.S. teens believe climate change is occurring. And it says that teachers are reliant on textbooks to guide their instruction.

“It would be totally fine if the textbooks talked about this as a societal debate—but [it’s not fine] to muddle the societal debate with the scientific debate, which doesn’t exist,” said Busch. “In Paris right now, they’re not debating whether or not climate change is happening, they’re debating what could or should be done.”

California adopted the Next Generation Science Standards two years ago, and is expected to approve materials aligned to those standards in the next couple of years. The Next Generation standards document states that humans have had a large impact on global warming. The document’s language on climate change has caused controversy in some states, including Wisconsin and West Virginia.

“This is a tremendous opportunity to improve the texts,” said Busch.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks off after delivering remarks during the COP21, United Nations Climate Change Conference, outside Paris on Nov. 30. —Evan Vucci/AP

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