Political battles over climate change are increasingly being fought in the classroom.
Conservative activists and politicians in states across the country are trying to limit or distort the teaching of climate science to schoolchildren, marking a growing front in the culture war against social movements over race, gender identity and the environment.
State education officials, local school board members and Republican lawmakers in states from Florida to Montana have tried to reshape climate curriculum over the last year, with varying success.
In Ohio, legislators are expected to pass a bill that could require colleges and universities to teach “both sides” of climate change. A member of a local school board in Pennsylvania sought to block the use of a climate-themed novel in middle school because, he said, it was “propaganda.” Meanwhile, classroom content by a far-right group that produces animated videos that denigrate climate action is being approved for use in schools in numerous states.
“Climate change education is part and parcel of the ongoing culture wars,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.
The rise in inaccurate school materials comes amid a summer of climate extremes, including the hottest temperatures ever recorded over a three-month period worldwide. There have been deadly wildfires in Hawaii and Greece, devastating floods in Vermont and Libya and dangerous smoke along the East Coast from unusual forest fires in eastern Canada. On Monday, NOAA said there have been more $1 billion disasters in the U.S. this year than ever before.
Perhaps nowhere are climate lessons being reshaped by conservative politicians more than in Texas, where members of the education board have tried in recent years to block programs that teach about reducing greenhouse gases, emphasizing instead the benefits of fossil fuels. The state education board is now deciding whether it will block textbooks that accurately portray climate science.
In Florida, state officials approved for the first time the classroom use of content from PragerU, a conservative group partially funded by members of the fossil fuel industry that produces partisan videos for students in prekindergarten through high school. Some Texas officials are weighing a similar move.
Last week, the Oklahoma superintendent of public instruction, Ryan Walters, announced that his state would also use PragerU content in the classroom. It will largely be used in social studies classes, Walters said.
“This is also content that will be factually based with no left-wing indoctrination. We always want our kids to know the facts,” he said in a video announcing the move.
Those moves and others contradict climate science, which shows that humans are warming the Earth at an unprecedented pace by burning fossil fuels. Public sentiment among some conservatives has slowly shifted to accept those findings. Polling shows that young people, including Republicans, are far more concerned about global warming than older Americans.
Yet climate science is a relatively new topic for schools that wasn’t taught a generation ago, said Branch of the Center for Science Education, adding that there are regional skirmishes over how and whether to teach climate science, but they are uneven and unlikely to find traction in much of the country.
“The arc is bending toward more and better climate change education nationally, and that’s going to be uneven, and incremental and scattered, but that’s the trendline,” he said.
That may be why plans to restrict climate education have failed in some states.
In Montana, a “scientific fact” bill that would have described climate science as a theory died in the state legislature earlier this year. In North Carolina, lawmakers failed in their bidto replace earth sciences with a computer class. In Utah, the board of education narrowly shot down an effort to remove the teaching of climate science from schools. And in Indiana, students returned to a school in recent weeks with new standards that required a more robust climate education.
Still, in some areas of the country, the efforts to restrain climate education are advancing.
In Pennsylvania, the Kutztown school district backed off a plan earlier this year to have students read Alan Gratz’s “Two Degrees.” The young-adult climate novel focuses on the lives of children and the dangers they face in a world that has already warmed to 2 degrees Celsius. School board member Jason Koch complained that the book was “propaganda” that would make students feel guilty about living in a society driven by fossil fuels, according to the Reading Eagle.
“It is not the purpose of a school to promote a particular political agenda,” he told the paper.
In Ohio, lawmakers passed the Higher Education Enhancement Act, which could require colleges and universities to teach “both sides” of issues that have been deemed controversial, including climate change. The Republican state senator who sponsored the bill, Jerry Cirino, said teaching climate denial is important because there are “different views that exist out there about the extent of the climate change and the solutions to try to alter climate change.” The bill passed the Senate and has been sent to the state House, which has a Republican supermajority.
At a meeting of the Texas state board of education last month, some members questioned why climate change mitigation is a topic being taught to students. Some of them distorted climate science and claimed falsely that researchers are evenly split between those who say climate change is a threat and those who say it’s not.
“This business of saying all the scientists agree that climate change is the problem and all that sort of stuff, it’s simply not true,” board member Patricia Hardy told E&E News. “There are a lot of scientists who don’t believe that, and these are some of your top researchers.”
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, is giving away free copies of his recent book called “The Kids Guide to the Truth About Climate Change.” It veers away from the findings of climate scientists.
“Parents, you may have heard from your kids that the Earth is soon going to be an uninhabitable hellscape,” Huckabee said in a promotional video for the book that ran on Fox News. “Well, that’s because some of their teachers and the media have an agenda, but is it really what kids should be learning?”
One of the most prominent climate denial groups in the country, the Illinois-based Heartland Institute, has been sending materials to teachers that attack climate science for years. The organization sent out 8,000 books to science teachers this year, down from about 25,000 six years ago.
In Texas, efforts by the Republican majority on the board of education may prove to be the most durable. Its recent revisions to science curriculum push teachers to omit talking about climate mitigation and focus instead on the carbon cycle. Those lessons won’t be revisited for about a decade.
That concerns Aicha Davis, a Democrat serving on the board.
“I don’t want students graduating from Texas public schools that don’t even understand how their actions can have long-term effects on the climate,” she said. “When we take away that knowledge, we’re taking away so much from them.”
Davis is hopeful students will overcome those obstacles.
“We have amazing teachers all around Texas that know the students need that information,” she said.