This winter, a small group of advocates, teachers, parents and students began meeting each week at a church in Portland, Ore., to figure out how their schools could do a better job of preparing the next generation to fight climate change.
Together, they wrote a resolution that, with some changes, was unanimously adopted by the Portland Public School Board on May 17. The district, the board resolved, "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."
But a few days after the vote, the story took on a life of its own, mostly outside Portland: Some websites called the move a "ban" on specific books, while another claimed that the district would scan its libraries and remove all books that weren't up to snuff. One of the advocates fielded emails calling him an "idiot" and a "d-bag."
The Heartland Institute, a conservative group, posted on its blog that the school district was "demanding that their unshakable faith in catastrophic anthropogenic global warming be the only thing taught in school." In an email, Heartland's director of communications, Jim Lakely, said the resolution was harmful because "it teaches kids in Portland public schools the falsehood that the science is settled." He said he's concerned that kids will be "indoctrinated instead of taught how the scientific method works."
The story of how an attempt to bring a school district's textbooks up-to-date with modern science turned into something much more politicized shows how touchy it can be to try to regulate how schools teach about an emerging field.
"It feeds into the more politicized context of climate change," said Josh Rosenau, programs and policy director for the National Center for Science Education. "I certainly think that climate education is important and should be accurate … but I tend to be a bit leery when a single subject is singled out for any reason."
America's culture wars have filtered through school boards for decades. Ground zero was Texas — it's the second-biggest state and its textbooks were frequently adopted by other states, giving it outsized market clout. There, tensions flared over such topics as creationism and sex education. Recently, a woman named Mary Lou Bruner, who has written that school shootings spring from a curriculum that teaches evolution, made it into a runoff election for a seat on the Texas State Board of Education.
"Many believe schools will be a place where their children will learn fundamental, core values," said Trey Kay, a journalist who produced a documentary on the Texas textbook controversy and whose podcast, "Us and Them," covers culture wars. "It's possible that a teacher or principal or a whole curriculum is going to teach knowledge and values that are contradictory to what they're being taught at home."
Texas, though, has lost some of its clout since many states are teaching the Common Core, which creates a larger market for books that teach similar lessons.
Since there are thousands of school districts in the U.S., it's hard to track where each one stands on climate change. Currently, Rosenau said, he is unaware of any other district that has gone as far as Portland.
In 2008, the Los Angeles Unified School Board passed a resolution that mandated "environmental awareness education" for elementary school students that included "the concepts surrounding global warming and climate change." California has since adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, a set of common learning goals in science perceived to support the teaching of global warming.
So how did Portland come to adopt the resolution? A former Portland public school teacher turned environmental advocate named Bill Bigelow teamed up with teacher Tim Swinehart to write a book called "A People's Curriculum for the Earth." Then they embarked on a project, sponsored by the environmental group 350 PDX, focused on how schools should deal with climate change. They scrutinized their own city, and were appalled by what they found.
In two textbooks found in almost every Portland high school, they found passages on climate change that they considered understated and out-of-date. They thought the district should begin looking through its materials systematically.
Soon, teachers, parents and students joined their meetings, and began discussing language for a resolution "to deal with this civilization-changing crisis," Bigelow said. Among their suggestions was that the district sever ties with fossil fuel companies and their allies.
After a few meetings, Bigelow looped in Mike Rosen, an environmental scientist who joined the school board in July. Rosen helped shepherd the resolution, and along the way, it shed the language about the district cutting those connections.
The way Rosen saw it, the resolution called for a "comprehensive curriculum that addresses the issue." Ideally, he said, textbooks would present climate change as the prevailing truth, but still mention that there are skeptics — who are wrong. "That's what teaching is about," Rosen said.
Then the board meeting came, and a few environmentalists, including high school junior Gaby Lemieux, testified. She supported the resolution, saying, "I don't see a whole lot of climate education in my school."
The vote passed without controversy, and made few waves in Portland — an eco-friendly mecca where few question the science behind climate change.
Then, the story hit the Internet. Headlines declared, among other things, that the district had banned books. "There's been a huge misconception," said Christine Miles, a spokeswoman for the district. "We're updating scientific materials for our students."
The district, she said, was accused of being "un-American."
The confusion might stem from Bigelow's testimony. At the school board meeting, he pointed to two textbooks — a modern history book and a science book — that he said don't adequately characterize climate change. "The text is thick with the skeptical language of 'might' and 'could' and 'may,'" he said at the time.
That could explain why the story took on a life of its own, Rosenau said. And, in fact, Lakely, the Heartland Institute spokesman, said his organization opposed what he characterized as a ban on textbooks that use the words "might," "may" and "could" about climate science. The resolution, however, doesn't actually use those terms.
Bigelow and Rosen felt a backlash. Rosen and the other board members got a vulgar email that said: "One can only hope that Mount St.Helens erupts again and spews 'Global Warming' on you morons."
These screeds, Rosen said, missed the point. "I'm not saying that we're going to burn the textbooks. I'm not saying that we're going to destroy the textbooks," he said. "What we're talking about is getting up-to-date texts."
Lemieux, the student, was excited to see the resolution generate so much interest. "It's wonderful that it made it into one of the top trends on Facebook," she said. "But it's not about taking anyone's freedom of speech away. It's not about that at all."