Under Pressure, Texas Textbook Publisher Caves on Climate Denial

Climate scientists can breathe a bit easier.

Pearson Education—the largest educational publisher in the world—has cut material from a proposed Texas social-studies textbook that cast doubt on the human causes of global warming.

The revision arrives one week ahead of a final vote by the Texas Board of Education to adopt the textbook as part of the board's consideration of a new set of social-studies textbooks.

It also follows intense criticism of the publisher from science-education watchdogs and left-leaning advocacy organizations who objected to what they called the textbook's climate skepticism.

Here's how the revised Pearson fifth-grade social studies textbooks teaches global warming:

Burning fuels like gasoline releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, which occurs both naturally and through human activities, is called a greenhouse gas, because it traps heat. 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. 

Here's what the earlier version said:

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. 

When the proposed Texas textbooks were released in September, the National Center for Science Education heavily criticized the assertion that "scientists disagree about what is causing climate change."

95 percent of climate scientists agree that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels, is the primary driver of global warming. For the sake of comparison, that agreement is equivalent to the scientific consensus that smoking cigarettes is deadly.

"Scientists do not disagree about what is causing climate change," NCSE wrote in an analysis of the textbooks. The Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning advocacy organization, also called on Pearson to edit out that statement.

In the wake of the backlash, that sentence has now been cut from the textbook.

Education activists cheered the changes on Thursday. "I couldn't be more pleased," said Josh Rosenau, NCSE's programs and policy director. "The revised textbook provides students with the reliable science they need to understand the social debates surrounding climate change."

But activists say that not all of the major publishers get a passing grade.

McGraw-Hill, the second-largest textbook publisher in the world, also made changes to one of its textbooks amid the backlash. But the changes do not substantially alter the climate content.

Here's how McGraw-Hill's sixth-grade social-studies textbook initially addressed global warming:

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? 

Here's the revised version:

Scientists agree that Earth's climates are changing. Not all individuals, however, agree on the causes of these changes.

The earlier version cast doubt on the scientific consensus that human activity is the primary driver of climate change. The revised version still casts doubt on the science.

Dan Quinn, a spokesman for the Texas Freedom Network, said the corrections "didn't go nearly far enough."

The McGraw-Hill textbook also asks students to analyze "two different points of view" on global warming, a mental exercise activists say is problematic.

The first point of view comes from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that is widely considered to be the leading scientific authority on climate change. The IPCC states that it is highly unlikely that the current increase in global temperatures is due to natural causes.

The second point of view comes from the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank famous for denying the scientific consensus on global warming. Heartland states that it is impossible to say whether warming is due to natural or human causes.

After presenting the two summary statements, McGraw-Hill asks students to "analyze the differing viewpoints about this issue."

That treatment of the topic, activists say, is a major problem.

"The fundamental flaw remains unchanged," Rosenau said. "To have a debate about science that is well understood is simply inappropriate."

But unless McGraw-Hill offers up another revision before next Friday when the Texas Board of Education votes to adopt the textbooks, its version of the science could end up in classrooms across the state.

If the books are approved, they may wind up in other states as well. Texas is the second-largest textbook market in the country, and publishers often resell Texas textbooks elsewhere.

Texas public schools are not required to purchase board-approved books. But schools must prove that they have complied with state education standards, and buying the textbooks counts as compliance. The Texas Education Agency reports that most public schools use textbooks approved by the board.

For now, activists hope that the board will either reject the McGraw-Hill book or that the publisher will make a last-minute correction. But there is no guarantee that will happen.

"It would be unfortunate if, at the end of this adoption process, McGraw-Hill is the lone holdout among the publishers and continues to mislead students," Quinn said.