Proposed Texas Textbooks Teach Climate-Change Doubt

Texas Board of Education member David Bradley wants to set the record straight on global warming.

"Whether global warming is a myth or whether it's actually happening, that's very much up for debate," Bradley said. "Don't listen to anyone who tells you otherwise."

Bradley is not a climate scientist, but he's about to make big decisions governing what Texas students learn about climate change.

In November, Bradley and the rest of the state's 15-member board will vote to adopt new social-studies textbooks for public schools from kindergarten to 12th grade. When he does, he says that part of his mission will be to shield Lone Star schoolchildren from radical green rhetoric.

Instead, Bradley plans to push for textbooks that teach climate-science doubt—presenting the link between greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity and global warming as an unsubstantiated and controversial theory.

For people who do study the climate for a living, that mission is infuriating as it misrepresents the state of climate science: Surveys of peer-reviewed academic studies show that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity is the primary driver of global warming. That's not universal agreement, but it's a far cry from the "some-say-yes-some-say-no" treatment of the topic that Bradley hopes to see in Texas classrooms.

When it comes time to review the textbooks, however, Bradley will have plenty of instructional materials created by some of the publishing industry's major players to back his viewpoint.

Here's how McGraw-Hill—the second-largest publisher of educational materials and a mainstay of the Texas public-school system—describes climate change in a proposed textbook for sixth graders.

Scientists agree that Earth's climate is changing. They do not agree on what is causing the change. Is it just another natural warming cycle like so many cycles that have occurred in the past? Scientists who support this position cite thousands of years' worth of natural climatic change as evidence. Or is climate change anthropogenic—caused by human activity? Scientists who support this position cite the warming effect of rapidly increasing amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases occur naturally, but they also result from the burning of fossil fuels. Which side's evidence is more convincing?

A fifth-grade social studies textbook submitted by Pearson—the largest educational publisher in the world—similarly casts doubt on the science.

Burning oil to run cars also releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Some scientists believe that this carbon dioxide could lead to a slow heating of Earth's overall climate. This temperature change is known as global warming or climate change. Scientists disagree about what is causing climate change. 

The Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning education watchdog, says this fits a disturbing pattern of textbook companies peddling climate denial to Texas students. The watchdog group commissioned an independent review of the textbooks by the National Center for Science Education. Out of 19 textbooks surveyed, at least seven—including several from high-profile publishers that have gotten approval from the Board of Education in the past—distort scientific fact, the study found.

"It's really an insult to science," said Minda Berbeco, the National Center for Science Education's programs and policy director. "The old line was that global warming didn't exist. Now we're starting to see more people say it exists but human activity isn't responsible. That's just denial by another name."

The skirmish over Texas textbooks is part of a national battle over climate education.

Science-education activists are pushing states to adopt a new set of science standards that reflect the scientific consensus on global warming, rather than the popular controversy. The academic framework, known as the Next Generation Science Standards, has been endorsed by organizations such as the National Science Teachers Association and the American Meteorological Society.

But the standards have faced intense pushback from conservatives and tea-party groups in a number of states. Earlier this year, Wyoming legislators blocked the standards due to the climate-change requirement. South Carolina's Legislature also passed a bill that would prohibit the standards from being adopted.

The Texas textbooks currently under review are not strictly focused on science, but climate change has cropped up as part of lessons on geography, economics, and American government. The books were written to conform to social-studies standards set by the state board in 2010, a set of guidelines that Bradley helped write.

What happens next? The Texas education commissioner, a former chairman of the agency that oversees the state's oil and gas industry, will tell the board which textbooks he believes should be approved. In November, the board is expected to take an up-or-down vote on the recommended textbooks.

After that, school districts receive a list of approved textbooks. Teachers are not required to purchase any particular instructional material, but schools have to show compliance with state education standards. And buying textbooks that have been approved by the board is a quick and easy way to show compliance. Most public school districts use textbooks from the state-approved list, according to records from the Texas Education Agency.

If flawed science finds its way into the classroom, it could become firmly rooted in the minds of the state's citizenry, said Dan Quinn, a spokesperson for the Texas Freedom Network: "If kids don't learn the facts about climate change, they're going to grow up to become uneducated citizens and voters."

Education activists also worry that if the textbooks containing climate-change doubt win approval, they could wind up in classrooms across the country. Texas is the second-largest market in the U.S. for textbooks after California. Publishers consider making it onto the approved list in the Lone Star State a major prize, and they often resell textbooks designed to meet Texas standards in other states.

Bradley, however, is not concerned. "These groups are always complaining. Now they're unhappy because the textbooks are taking a softened approach towards claims of global warming," he said. "There's been a lot of radical advocacy about that in the past, but I think we're starting to move away from that, and that's not a bad thing. It's not all doom and gloom."