Schools Foster Climate Illiteracy

In ultra-green Portland, textbooks offer superficial take on global warming

While visiting Portland recently, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood proclaimed that "Portland is the green capital of our country." Well, maybe when it comes to streetcars and light rail, but not when it comes to the public school curriculum.

Today's most pressing environmental issue is climate change. James Hansen, chief climatologist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, warns of "a potential for explosive changes with effects that would be irreversible -- if we do not rapidly slow fossil fuel emissions over the next few decades." Climate change, noted environmental writer/activist Bill McKibben declares, is "the one overarching global civilizational challenge that humans have ever faced."

And yet the textbooks used in the Portland area -- texts that are playing a larger and larger role in the curriculum -- adopt a Rush Limbaugh-like skepticism toward global warming.

In Oregon, high school students take only one required class devoted to the state of the world: Global Studies. The textbook for this course in many area school districts -- Portland, Beaverton, Reynolds, Tigard-Tualatin, Sherwood, among others -- is "Modern World History," published by McDougal Littell, a subsidiary of the giant Houghton Mifflin. "Modern World History" buries its discussion of climate change on Page 679. The second of its puny three paragraphs devoted to the issue begins, "Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect."

This is simply false.

French mathematician and physicist Joseph Fourier discovered the "greenhouse effect" in 1824, and today no scientist disagrees with it. The textbook writers likely intended to say that not all scientists agree with the theory that the climate is changing as a result of human-created greenhouse gases. But even if we forgive the book's sloppy scholarship, why are Portland-area schools endorsing material that calls into question the human role in global warming?

The rest of the book's three paragraphs is little better. Acknowledging that the Earth's climate is "slowly warming," the Global Studies textbook tells students that, "To combat this problem, the industrialized nations have called for limits on the release of greenhouse gases. In the past, developed nations were the worst polluters." They still are. Per capita greenhouse gas emissions of the wealthy nations far exceed the emissions of any of the so-called developing countries. Instead, the textbook turns poor countries into eco-villains: "So far, developing countries have resisted strict limits."

Remember, this is not one of those tattered textbooks of yesteryear. This book is copyright 2007 and was adopted by Portland during Vicki Phillips' tenure as superintendent. (Portland purchased these books for all high schools, whether or not teachers wanted them.)

And it's not only social studies texts that adopt a ho-hum attitude about global warming. In the widely used Pearson/Prentice Hall textbook "Physical Science: Concepts in Action," high school students don't meet the concept of climate change until Page 782. The few paragraphs on the human causes of climate change are littered with doubt. The section begins: "Human activities may also change climate over time." May? And then in boldface as the key to the section: "One possible climate change is caused by the addition of carbon dioxide and certain other gases into the atmosphere."

Possible climate change? The text is thick with a mealy language of "might," "could" and "may": "Carbon dioxide emissions from motor vehicles, power plants, and other sources may contribute to global warming."

Last year, NASA's Hansen said the CEOs of large fossil fuel companies should be put on trial for high crimes against humanity and nature for spreading disinformation about climate change. Hansen said these distortions would end up in school textbooks. He could pay a visit to schools in the USA's supposed "green capital" to find evidence for his indictment.

What makes all this even more troubling is that increasingly school districts regard the textbooks not as curricular supplements but as the curriculum itself. In fact, after about 25 years as Global Studies, Portland administrators renamed the course Modern World History, adopting the exact name of the McDougal Littell textbook. And Portland Public Schools' Office of Teaching and Learning has announced the development of uniform course guides built around the textbooks, along with assessments to make sure that teachers toe the line.

Recently, I met with Portland's high school social studies specialist Rick La Greide to talk about what students should learn in Global Studies/Modern World History. La Greide showed me the list of "eligible content" for the course assessments -- i.e., material that might end up on districtwide tests for students. It's a laundry list that includes Social Development, Nationalism, the Industrial Revolution, the Chinese Revolution of 1911, the Mexican Revolution of 1911-17, World War I, the Russian Revolution of 1917, Nazism, the Holocaust, Japanese Expansion and Indigenous Populations, among other topics. Although the list includes a broad category called Physical Environment, there is no mention of arguably the most pressing issue of our time: global warming.

Because the school district plans to build a common teaching guide and "set of assessments" around this content, it will encourage a wide and shallow curriculum, one that seems designed to keep students away from urgent environmental concerns.

Fortunately, many teachers and schools have not waited for official approval to teach about climate issues. For example, last April, Sunnyside Environmental School, a public school in Southeast Portland, held a weeklong, schoolwide teach-in for its middle school students that featured speakers, discussions, a writing contest and a field trip to the Bagdad Theatre to watch the PBS "Nova" film "Extreme Ice."

And teachers at Franklin and Lincoln high schools, as well as LEP High (Leadership & Entrepreneurship) and Trillium charter schools have also taught innovative curriculum on the implications of our warming planet -- highlighting the stark inequality that those who are most immediately at risk from climate change are the least responsible for its causes.

But this important teaching takes place in spite of, not aided by, school district leaders. How can this change? Individual teachers will continue to create imaginative and relevant curriculum in their own classrooms, but teachers alone cannot transform the curriculum. This will require parents and activists demanding that children encounter lessons on today's environmental challenges -- especially climate change -- that go well beyond the biased and simple-minded descriptions in district-adopted textbooks. And while we're at it, let's find alternatives to these Exxon-friendly materials.

We can't count on multinational curriculum corporations like Houghton Mifflin to provide educators with cutting-edge resources about issues that matter. School districts need to abandon the top-down, textbook-as-truth model of curriculum development in favor of creative grass-roots efforts like those piloted at Sunnyside Environmental School. As the bumper sticker says: Think Globally, Act Locally.

The climate activists of tomorrow are in school today. If Portland is, in fact, to become the green capital of the country, all of us need to pay more attention to what's going on in our classrooms.

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