The Plan to Get Climate-Change Denial Into Schools

Activists are pushing educators to teach that human-caused global warming is an opinion—rather than a fact—by issuing textbook ratings of their own.

Jeff Kubina/Flickr

"As the amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases increase, the Earth warms. Scientists warn that climate change, caused by this warming, will pose challenges to society."

That language—featured in a fifth-grade Texas social studies textbook from Pearson Education—is exactly the kind of global-warming alarmism that Emily McBurney wants to protect schoolchildren from.

McBurney was a lot happier with an earlier version of the textbook that said, "Scientists disagree about what is causing climate change." But the publisher cut the material amid pressure from groups like the National Center for Science Education.

The edited educational material, McBurney says, amounts to "a one-sided global-warming climate-change agenda."

McBurney is a member of the Truth in Texas Textbooks coalition, a volunteer-run organization of more than 100 activists that wants global warming to be taught as an opinion rather than fact.

"If you're a car salesman and you have a car that has bad ratings, that car is not going to sell," says Roy White, the founder of Truth in Texas Textbooks and a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. "That is what is going to happen with these books."

To shape climate curriculum, the coalition plans to rate textbooks as "good," "acceptable," "poor," or "worse." The group will score books on an array of subjects—and any educational material that treats global warming as settled science is guaranteed to get low marks.

Truth in Texas Textbooks formed last year to shape how climate change and scores of other topics are taught. It has no political or religious affiliation but organizers recruit volunteers through tea-party networks and church groups—as well as teachers associations, Rotary clubs, and other civic organizations—and have accused publishers of creating textbooks with an "anti-Christian" and "anti-American" bias.

Teaching that the global-warming theory is controversial reflects public opinion, as there is a sharp divide over the connection between human activity and Earth's evolving climate. But that approach is sharply at odds with climate scientists, who nearly universally believe the former is driving the latter.

Textbooks are often the first conduit between climate science and young people. The books that the Texas truth coalition is fighting over are expected to be used by more than 5 million Texas public school students for at least a decade. Texas is also the second-largest market for textbooks behind California, and publishers often peddle best-selling Texas textbooks in other states.

And that's not all: The coalition's system of rating textbooks could soon spread beyond Texas. White says that activists in California, Florida, Indiana, Maine, Nevada, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin have already contacted the coalition to learn how they can create their own rating system.

Advocacy groups giving grades to Texas textbooks is not novel: A conservative Christian organization called Educational Research Analysts has been rating educational material in the state since the 1960s. The group questions scientific evidence for evolution and supports education that promotes abstinence until marriage. Educational Research Analysts also has ties to the Texas truth coalition: Its president, Neal Frey, advised White as he worked to get Truth in Texas Textbooks off the ground.

But Educational Research Analysts hasn't worked on climate science, which is a targeted area for Truth in Texas Textbooks.

So far, however, the group has struggled. The coalition faced a setback when the Texas Board of Education voted last month to adopt new social-studies textbooks for public schools. Ahead of the vote, major publishers—including McGraw-Hill and Pearson—stripped out passages that cast doubt on climate change. The revisions followed fierce criticism of the content from groups like the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning advocacy group that pushes for man-made global warming to be taught in the books, and Climate Parents, an organization dedicated to teaching climate science.

Eighty-nine new social-studies textbooks have now been approved in the state. But school districts have a lot of leeway over exactly which books to buy, a series of decisions that they're slated to make this spring.

The coalition sees that policy as an opportunity. It plans to send out a report to school districts detailing the grades assigned to each book. Volunteers are also gearing up to distribute their ratings among concerned-citizens groups and parent-teacher organizations.

"We have created a tool so that now people will have a sense of which books are best for their kids," White says.

Still, options for altering climate curriculum are limited. None of the approved textbooks that will be used in classrooms next fall dispute the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is underway.

The coalition is working to encourage publishers to make last-minute changes before the books go to print this fall. Barring that, volunteers hope public pressure will inspire teachers to teach climate controversy even if textbooks do not mandate that approach.

"Children are so vulnerable in their younger years and what they hear they believe is truth," said Karin Gililland, another volunteer with the coalition. "Truth is what this is all about. We want truth."

Emily McBurney echoed that concern: "I'm afraid that [teaching climate change] is instilling fear in children at a very young age that either we're going to run out of something or overpollute the Earth. I didn't want them to come away with the wrong impression of America."

But opponents of the coalition insist that teaching the controversy and not the consensus on climate change will lead to devastating consequences.

"Whether climate change is real and caused by humans is not scientifically disputed, and textbooks or teachers who pretend that it is would be miseducating students," said Josh Rosenau, the programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, doubts the coalition will gain traction. He called their reviews "amateurish" and "overtly political" and believes "school administrators and teachers who make the purchasing decisions will see right through the nonsense."

Volunteers with the coalition remain optimistic and determined to achieve their aim.

"This is just the beginning," McBurney said. "We're hoping to spread the word throughout the United States, throughout the world."