Texas weakens climate science education guidelines
- March 17, 2023
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The Texas State Board of Education last month changed its internal guidelines for schools to emphasize the “positive” aspects of fossil fuels in science textbooks.
The changes raise concerns among scientists, education experts and other board members that the body is introducing policies that could lead to the nationwide purchase of textbooks that undermine the fundamental principles of climate change for years to come.
The Republican-dominated board last month passed a series of changes to its operating rules that could affect school decisions about book purchases. The board member who proposed the changes, Patricia Hardy, has dismissed mainstream climate science, arguing that the current teachings on global warming are too “negative.”
“If they’re going to tout how wonderful the alternative climate change stuff is, they have to say all the things that aren’t good about it as well, not just attack the fossil fuel industry,” Hardy said in an interview Wednesday. “Our schools are largely paid for by the fossil fuel industry, so there’s a bit of insincerity.”
The new guidelines also portray the warming of the earth as the result of natural variability – contrary to the consensus of climate scientists that humans are causing it by burning fossil fuels.
The ramifications of the committee’s decision could ripple across the U.S. because the state is one of the nation’s largest textbook markets and publishers closely follow Texas standards, said Rebecca Bell-Metereau, a member of the Texas State Board of Education, a Democrat. the opposite was changes.
She said her fellow Republicans on the board are “ill-informed” about climate change.
“They don’t really believe the geological record; They don’t believe in science,” Bell-Metereau said.
The Rules of Procedure of the State Board have no legal force but are an authoritative determination of the State’s educational priorities. That means they can influence how school districts approach curriculum and textbook selection, said Carisa Lopez, policy director for the Texas Freedom Network, a left-leaning monitoring group that deals with school affairs.
For example, the new operating rules could discourage school districts from using textbooks that teach about climate change in a meaningful way, Lopez said. School districts that opt for more rigorous science classes may face challenges from parents who point to company rules and argue that teaching climate science is a form of political indoctrination.
“It certainly deters school districts. If you give school districts an unofficial opinion, they will try to play it safe,” Lopez said. “School districts generally don’t want to get involved in politics. It certainly deeply politicizes climate change. It politicizes science.”
The State Board of Education did not respond to requests for comment.
Hardy included language in the rules that indicated that educational materials must “represent positive aspects of the United States and Texas and their heritage and rich natural resources.”
The subtle rule changes don’t explicitly dismiss the science that shows humans are warming the Earth in ways that are already wreaking havoc, but Bell-Metereau said they could get schools to buy books that emphasize unsubstantiated climate change theories.
Hardy also included language to “recognize the ongoing process of scientific discovery and change over time in the natural world.” This echoes a common climate denial argument that falsely claims that natural climate cycles are responsible for the rise in temperature over the past century, not fossil fuel use.
Critics of the changes also found cause for concern in the language, which states that books “should present factual information, avoid bias, and stimulate discussion.”
Hardy said at the board meeting that teaching children about fossil fuels and naturally occurring climate change would avoid prejudice by presenting “both sides” of climate science.
“You avoid prejudice by representing both sides when it’s a controversial issue,” she said. “You wouldn’t just present one side.”
For decades, scientists have published peer-reviewed research showing that human use of fossil fuels has been rapidly warming the planet. Global surface temperatures have risen by about 1.1 degrees Celsius since 1900, more than half the warming scientists say is needed to trigger catastrophic change. A small number of scientists, many associated with energy companies, argue that the scientific community is exaggerating the risks.
The sheer size of Texas gives it a notable hold on the national textbook market, as publishers want their books approved for use there. About 10 percent of the nation’s 50 million public school students live in Texas, according to national statistics. The Texas school board has worked for years to ensure that the textbooks used in Texas, including those on evolution and climate, reflect conservative ideology.
The move in Texas comes as prominent Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis are using education to advance issues of the conservative culture war by banning curricula on black history, LBGTQ and the science of climate change.
Members of the Texas State Board of Education include an attorney for Shell Oil Co. and a CEO of an oilfield services company, both of whom have been critical of the way climate science is taught. The 15-member board consists of 10 Republicans and five Democrats.
The oil and gas industry has long had its thumb on the scale of how Texas kids are taught about climate change and fossil fuels, said Katie Worth, author of the book Miseducation: How Climate Change Is Teach in America, published by Columbia University was issued.
“There’s a real red-blue divide when it comes to what kids are learning in classrooms,” Worth said. “If you’re a kid, what you’re likely to learn about climate change probably depends on who runs the state legislature and the state board of education in your states. The bad thing is that climate change doesn’t stop at borders.”
The changes threaten to impact a generation of children who may be “deeply misinformed about a serious risk,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University.
“It seems to me that they have come to the conclusion that having a well-educated population is contrary to their goals and that they are doing everything they can to degrade the education system so that they can impose their policies,” said members of the state school board.
A 2020 analysis by the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating people about climate change and evolution, gave Texas an F for its climate science standards because the state doesn’t allow basic climate science to be taught in classrooms prescribed.
Texas later changed its policy to allow basic climate science to be taught.
The rules the state Board of Education passed last month could reverse those moves by allowing the board to reject textbooks that accurately teach climate science, said Glenn Branch, associate director of the National Center for Science Education.
“Texas is an outlier, and that’s because the State Board of Education has a long history of using the state’s influence in textbook purchases to lean on publishers to try to favor scholarly accuracy.” to compromise any ideology, be it creationism in relation to evolution or climate change,” he said.
The rules already guide outside reviewers examining Texas textbooks, Hardy said in the interview. Books that fall outside the new guidelines will receive lower scores and are unlikely to be used in the classroom, she said. Because Texas is buying so much educational material, she hopes the changes will have a national impact.
Hardy told E&E News that she has been working on the changes with the Texas Energy Council, a coalition of oil and gas companies, as well as newly elected board member Aaron Kinsey, CEO of American Patrols, an aviation oilfield services company.
The group’s goal was to “eliminate textbooks written by non-Texas people who are negative about fossil fuels and positive about electric cars.”
“The climate people who have made climate change their religion don’t want you to be heard if you don’t believe what they’re doing,” she said. “There is plenty of excellent writing that would support my position on climate and we need to look at both sides of the issue.”
Another member of the Texas State Board of Education, Will Hickman, who works as Shell’s in-house counsel, previously blocked implementation of proposed scientific standards that would educate students about the benefits of reducing carbon emissions.
The panel’s priorities align with the Republican Party’s state platform, which calls for climate change and evolution to be taught as “theories.”
“We support the objective communication of scientific theories such as the origin of life and climate change,” says the platform. “These are taught as challengeable scientific theories that are subject to change as new data is produced.”
Bell-Metereau, the board member who opposed last month’s changes, said her fellow board members have invited oil and gas officials and energy groups to testify on climate science, sometimes for hours, while scientists and citizens are often given two minutes to testify to speak.
“The operating rules are important because they give parents more legal opportunities to object, and there’s really a lot that comes from that,” Bell-Metereau said. “It’s a very organized minority of people who have extreme views, and they’re learning how to sway the board members and the legislature with a very hard line on every possible issue in science, in history.”
She added that this small group of vocal people who reject climate science are affecting the educational opportunities of millions of children. And their ideas spread to other states.
“These states are role models for other states and coordinate their efforts,” Bell-Metereau said.
E&E News reprinted with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2023. E&E News provides important news for energy and environmental professionals.