Schools in Portland, Oregon Drop “Doubt” from Climate Change Lessons

Bill Bigelow shares a look at how schools in Portland are rejecting traditional (and insufficient) ways to teach students about climate change. This article is excerpted from the latest edition of State of the World which examines how, by rethinking education, people worldwide can better adapt to a rapidly changing planet.

According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, fewer than half of U.S. citizens surveyed (45 percent) believe that climate change is a “very serious problem.” Compare that to India (76 percent), Brazil (86 percent), or Burkina Faso (79 percent). Interestingly, Pew notes that the “countries with high per capita levels of carbon emissions are less intensely concerned about climate change.”

Fewer than half of U.S. citizens surveyed (45 percent) believe that climate change is a “very serious problem.”

The relatively ho-hum attitude about climate change in the United States no doubt has many explanations. But one of these is the widespread doubt, expressed in mainstream textbooks, about the human origins of climate change and its severity. Writing in Environmental Education Research, Diego Román and K. C. Busch cite as culprits numerous sixth-grade science texts currently used in California schools, including Focus on Earth Science, which states: “Not all scientists agree about the causes of global warming. Some scientists think that the 0.7 Celsius degree rise in global temperatures over the past 120 years may be due in part to natural variations in climate.”

Social studies texts are equally egregious. The widely used Holt McDougal text, Modern World History, includes three paragraphs on global warming. The second one begins: “Not all scientists agree with the theory of the greenhouse effect.” Acknowledging that Earth’s climate is “slowly warming,” the global studies textbook tells students: “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.” The textbook then turns poor countries into eco-villains, noting that, “[s]o far, developing countries have resisted strict limits,” even though the per capita greenhouse gas emissions of developed countries still far exceed those of any so-called developing countries.

The good news is that school districts and teachers are beginning to reject this approach.

The good news is that school districts and teachers are beginning to reject this approach. The most comprehensive “climate justice” policy of any U.S. school district was passed in Portland, Oregon, in May 2016. Initiated by Educating for Climate Justice, an organization of parents, teachers, students, and climate activists, the Portland board of education passed a resolution requiring the school district to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its roots in human activity.” The resolution commits Portland to develop a plan to “address climate change and climate justice” in all of its seventy-eight schools.

School board members voted unanimously to affirm: “All Portland Public Schools students should develop confidence and passion when it comes to making a positive difference in society, and come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice—especially through seeing the diversity of people around the world who are fighting the root causes of climate change.” At its 2016 representative assembly, the National Education Association, the largest teachers union in the United States with about 3 million members, used the Portland resolution as a model when it passed a measure urging local affiliates to create and promote climate literacy resolutions in their own communities.

These policy initiatives have been sparked, in part, by imaginative classroom efforts to bring the climate crisis alive for students.

These policy initiatives have been sparked, in part, by imaginative classroom efforts to bring the climate crisis alive for students. In Portland, the public K–8 Sunnyside Environmental School has held weeklong teach-ins on climate change and energy issues, featuring role plays, simulations, and presentations from community groups. In March 2016, Sunnyside students traveled to the U.S. District Court in Eugene, Oregon, to witness the historic Our Children’s Trust lawsuit hearing, in which twenty-one young plaintiffs are suing the federal government for failing to protect their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness by neglecting to adequately address the climate crisis—an action that climate activists Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein called “the most important lawsuit on the planet right now.”

In classroom activities, teachers have put fossil fuel companies on trial; introduced (through video and poetry) students to the people of Kiribati, whose island nation is being drowned by the rising ocean; played a game simulating the conflict between a profit-­driven economy and climate sanity; and asked students to role play individuals around the world who suffer from but also exploit the climate crisis. In one activity, a teacher takes out a cigarette and lighter and casually asks the class whether they would mind if he smoked. When they object, he presses them on why and asserts his individual “freedom.” He uses this to provoke students to compare the air they share in the classroom to the atmospheric commons.

The gulf between the enormity of the climate crisis and our schools’ climate curriculum is huge.

The gulf between the enormity of the climate crisis and our schools’ climate curriculum is huge. Increasingly, the classroom will be one of many battlefields where we decide how we will make sense of, and respond to, a warming planet.


Bill Bigelow is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the codirector of the Zinn Education Project. He is a contributing author in the Worldwatch Institute’s EarthEd: Rethinking Education on a Changing Planet.

About EarthEd

00-cover-SOTW2017_mg-768x989With global environmental changes locked into our future, what we teach must evolve.

Worldwatch’s EarthEd, with contributions from 63 authors, includes chapters on traditional environmental education topics, such as ecoliteracy, nature-based learning, and systems thinking, as well as expanding the conversation to new topics essential for Earth education, such as character education, social emotional learning, the importance of play, and comprehensive sex education.

Ultimately, only by boldly adapting education do we stand a chance in adapting to our rapidly changing planet.

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