When it comes to climate change, many American students are learning inaccurate information, or nothing at all. Barely half of middle- and high-school students surveyed by researchers at Yale University in 2011 said that global warming was happening. Some of the misinformation is coming from teachers: At least 30 percent of science teachers are telling their students that climate change “is likely due to natural causes,” a major survey found early this year. It’s also coming from textbooks, many of which describe climate change in terms of uncertainty and doubt.
Last month, the school board in Portland, Oregon, unanimously approved a resolution intended to ensure robust, accurate climate-change instruction throughout the district. “It is essential that in their classes and other school activities students probe the causes and consequences of the climate crisis—as well as possible solutions—in developmentally appropriate ways, and, from pre-K through 12th grade, become ‘climate literate,’” reads the resolution. Board members and other supporters said they were responding to complaints that climate change was taught unevenly, often siloed into advanced elective courses taken by a fraction of students. “Portland Public Schools does not currently have a strategy for helping district educators to develop or to implement curriculum on the climate crisis,” reads the resolution, which calls on the superintendent to work with teachers and students to create one.
The resolution might not have attracted national media attention if not for its final directive: that the district review its textbooks and “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.” As an example, supporters of the resolution pointed to a passage from the text Physical Science: Concepts in Action that reads, “Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources may contribute to global warming.” (Emphasis mine.)
Now Portland is facing a media backlash and accusations of censorship. The editorial board of The Oregonian deemed the resolution “a form of indoctrination,” because it emphasizes environmental justice. The Heartland Institute, one of the country’s preeminent peddlers of industry-funded malarky, dismissed it as “nonsense, ignorance, petty tyranny, and moral preening,” as well as a precursor to book burning. More significant are the “serious concerns” raised by the nonpartisan National Coalition Against Censorship, which often weighs in against ideological meddling in public education. “The resolution is dangerously over-broad,” the NCAC wrote, and is “undermined by the appearance that its adoption was driven primarily by political pressure”—a reference to the fact that environmental groups, particularly the local branch of 350.org, were involved in its development along with students, parents, and teachers.