NCAC has released the following statement on the climate change controversy brewing in Portland:
On May 17, the Public School Board of Portland, Oregon unanimously adopted a resolution to “Develop an Implementation Plan for Climate Literacy,” which concluded with this recommendation: “The implementation plan should include a review of current textbooks for accuracy around the severity of the climate crisis and the impact of human activities. PPS will 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.”
For all its good intentions, the resolution raises serious concerns:
Most critically, the resolution is dangerously over-broad, potentially affecting a wide range of valuable educational materials. Social studies texts accurately describing the political debate around fossil fuels and climate change, for instance, would presumably contain comments from individuals who “express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis.” If such material is excised from the curriculum, will students be prepared to face – and argue with – climate change denial when they encounter it in the world outside school?
Purging the curriculum of this kind of material will undermine public education, which should equip students for critical and informed consideration of important matters of public policy and controversy. This goal is clearly identified in the 2011 Oregon Social Sciences Academic Content Standards, which state that “Students learn to assess the merits of competing arguments, and make reasoned decisions that include consideration of the values within alternative policy recommendations.”
Even if some scientists questioning the human causes of climate change do so apparently at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, it is still a fact that environmental policy is a subject of ongoing debate. Students should be conversant with, and equipped to address, the various questions and issues that are the subject of public discussion.
The resolution is also unnecessary. Oregon has standards in place to insure that education in science and social studies is consistent with current scientific and scholarly consensus. In March 2014, the Oregon State Board of Education adopted as the Next Generation Science Standards based on a framework developed by the National Research Council. These include as a “disciplinary core idea” the role of human activity in global warming: “Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming).”
Finally, the resolution is undermined by the appearance that its adoption was driven primarily by political pressure, rather than pedagogical considerations, because it represents the views of environmental groups that have lobbied the school board for many years. Curricular decisions that appear to be a result of political pressure are suspect no matter from which political side the pressure comes. This is especially true when such decisions are made by school board officials who generally lack the subject-area expertise essential to the development of accurate and effective curricula. Under these circumstances, it is incumbent on the board to defer to professional educators and subject matter experts in determining the content of curricula.
Deciding how to approach the existing political debate around the causes of climate change should be left to those who teach about it: science professors, social studies and civics professors may approach the issue differently in accordance with the requirements of their subject matter. Elected officials have an important role in ensuring the availability of an adequate education to all students; they should devote their energies to that worthy goal, and leave decisions about what and how to teach to the people who are trained to do it.