California’s new state-issued energy textbook avoids climate change, puts coal on par with solar and wind

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California’s new state environmental education program will distribute an energy booklet to 6th graders that is equivocal on the greenhouse effect, downplays the impacts of burning fossil fuels, and doesn’t address climate change, Climate Science Watch has found.  This new program, the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI), is positioned to be a national leader on the subject, producing textbooks that will be used by millions of students for years to come.

UPDATE: California EPA submitted a response to our posting, available here.

Governor Schwarzenegger vetoed a 2008 bill aimed at assuring that climate change science is taught in schools, citing EEI as the program with responsibility for appropriately incorporating the “climate change” issue in curriculum.  Yet at least one EEI booklet has no mention of climate change when covering the critical subject of energy source choices.  California science educators came to us asking us to look into and publicize this issue.  As we continue to investigate how misleading scientific information came to be included in a major environmental education program, we invite readers and educators to examine the booklet for themselves, join with educators familiar with the program and its development in submitting comments, and share the discussion with their colleagues.

Instead of providing a scientific basis for weighing the costs and benefits of our energy choices, the booklet, called “The Energy Source Buffet,” misrepresents climate science—including the statement “more carbon dioxide can lead to warmer temperatures on Earth” (emphasis added) in reference to the impacts of burning coal—yet fails to even mention climate change and its impacts.  All in all, the impacts from wind and solar power appear about equal to those from coal, and students are invited to “enjoy the buffet.”

UPDATE: Since the publication of this article, and based on public comments predating the article, the sentence above has been changed to read: "Carbon dioxide and other gases trap heat, warming the Earth.  More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms Earth more."

The Education and the Environment Initiative

The state of California has been a national leader in addressing the threat of climate change.  In 2007 the State Legislature passed AB 32, the world’s first program to use regulatory and market mechanisms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Now, the state is positioning itself to “lead the nation in environmental literacy” with a new environmental education program, the Education and the Environment Initiative (EEI), that will provide science, history, and social studies course material for over 6 million students in California’s K-12 public schools.

Despite the size and significance of the program for the future of environmental education in this country, it has received little attention outside of the state.  Several recent national news stories publicized BP’s position on the technical working group that developed guiding principles for the program, but didn’t delve any deeper into the curriculum’s content or the larger question of the fossil fuel industry’s influence on education in California [1].  No evidence was published indicating that BP had influenced the curriculum in any way.  In contrast, a great deal of attention has been focused on the attempt by two Texas oil companies to overthrow California’s landmark emissions regulations [2].

EEI was created under Assembly Bill 1548 (AB 1548), passed in the California State Legislature in 2003.  After a curriculum and field-testing process, the program’s 85 Curriculum Units are being rolled out this fall.  During the development of the Model Curriculum Plan, “input was solicited from state agencies, education organizations, business groups, universities, and environmental organizations.”  Nevertheless, inaccurate and misleading content has persisted into at least one text reader in the final version.

“The Energy Source Buffet”

Core content of what K-12 students will learn about making energy source choices resides in a 35-page reader for the 6th grade called “The Energy Source Buffet,” which introduces students to the different sources of energy available in California, presenting the benefits, drawbacks, and impacts on natural systems of biomass, coal, geothermal, hydro, natural gas, nuclear, solar, and wind power.  Although the reader says it will help students “learn how to weigh the costs and benefits of our energy choices,” it doesn’t address quantitatively how damaging each source is compared with the others.

Several pros and cons are listed for each source, regardless of their magnitude.  In one example, solar power is singled out as requiring mining for copper, without mentioning that all electric power generation equipment, regardless of the source of energy, uses copper as an essential metal conductor.  But it’s still counted as a “con” for solar power as if it were comparable to strip mining for coal.  In effect, each source is presented as a relatively equivalent option within the “buffet.”

The booklet doesn’t differentiate between the materials and energy required to construct certain types of power plants versus the requirements of ongoing power production itself, ignoring a fundamental principle of energy science—life cycle assessment of energy sources.

Most troubling of all, the section contains misleading statements about the basic physical principles underlying the effect of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere, an issue of major concern for a science textbook.  (As noted above, the coal section of the booklet has since been amended to read "Carbon dioxide and other gases trap heat, warming the Earth. More carbon dioxide in the atmosphere warms Earth more.") “The Energy Source Buffet” makes no mention of climate change, ocean acidification, sea level rise, or any of the larger implications of human energy usage for the climate system, the environment, and human health and wellbeing.

The biomass, coal, and natural gas sections contain similar statements about the byproducts of burning them as fuel.

The biomass section reads: “One important byproduct of burning biofuels is carbon dioxide…Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps Earth’s heat.  More carbon dioxide can lead to warmer temperatures on Earth.  Carbon dioxide tends to stay in the air” (emphasis added, p. 5).  As noted above, the coal section has been amended since this posting based on public comments received prior to it, removing the qualifier "can."  The natural gas section, as of January 25, continues to read: "Carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere traps Earth's heat.  More carbon dioxide may lead to warmer temperatures on Earth."

It’s scientific fact that carbon dioxide traps heat and contributes to radiative forcing; the qualifier “can” is misleading and has no place in a science-based lesson.  Moreover, the evidence shows that “since 1750, it is extremely likely that humans have exerted a substantial warming influence on the climate” (IPCC 2007, Executive Summary).

As for the vague statement "carbon dioxide tends to stay in the air," the issue of carbon dioxide’s lifetime in the atmosphere is very complex, because different removal processes have different rates of uptake, and as such it is difficult to quantify.  The 2007 IPCC describes its gradual dissipation over time, saying, "About 50% of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30% will be removed within a few centuries.  The remaining 20% may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years."  The climatic impacts of releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will linger for millennia, an essential lesson.

Together, the two statements about carbon dioxide in this section of “The Energy Source Buffet” present a misleading basis for teaching students to consider how human energy use impacts the planet.

The sections covering renewable energy sources give a misleading account of their benefits and drawbacks:

Solar Power

The solar power section states that production of solar technology uses resources mined from the Earth, that the “mining disrupts the land and releases chemicals into the environment,” and “moves a lot of soil and rock, disturbing habitat for wildlife,” and that building solar plants in the desert “takes habitat away from the plants and animals living in the area” (p. 31).

The section doesn’t clarify that while resources have to be extracted to build a solar power plant, the production of energy from solar cells doesn’t release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, whereas coal-fired power plants continually release greenhouse gases and other pollutants.  Unlike the natural gas section does, it doesn’t acknowledge that on balance, solar is a much cleaner technology than other sources from an environmental and human health perspective.

The reader states: “making one small silicon chip requires gallons of water” (p. 31).  Although coal-fired power plants draw billions of gallons of water each year from surrounding bodies of water, water usage is not addressed in the coal section.

Wind Power

The wind power section states that “some builders put ‘wind farms’ in the path of flying birds and other animals” (p. 34), that “the noise from wind turbines may prevent animals from migrating,” and that “some people believe that noise may also affect people in harmful ways” (p. 35).

Again, this section doesn’t clarify that unlike energy derived from fossil fuels, wind power generation doesn’t release heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, a major impetus for its development.  Nor does the section address the fact that an impact defined as "some people believe the noise may impact people in harmful ways" is not equivalent to an impact like the release of toxic coal ash into the environment.

In this vein, the text reader doesn’t address the larger context of which energy sources were developed first, how long they have been used for, why energy sources not based on fossil fuel combustion are increasingly in use today, and how and why California has committed to improving its energy mix.  There is no discussion of the concept of energy efficiency or of energy conservation as an additional source.

Leading UC Berkeley, International Energy Expert Responds

In June 2010, the eminent UC Berkeley professor of energy Dan Kammen, recently appointed as Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency at the World Bank, expressed his concerns about the “Energy Buffet” textbook in an email to Bonnie Reiss, California’s Secretary of Education, and Manal Yamout, Special Advisor to the Governor.

Kammen wrote: “The idea that our kids could read a document on coal and not see ‘global warming’ mentioned by name is just unacceptable.”

He also expressed his agreement with another critique of the textbook, which was reprinted in the email: “The…booklet unevenly describes, among other things, the environmental impacts of various energy sources.  Examples include…intimating that wind turbines are intentionally placed in migratory routes, and that their noise frightens birds and keeps them from migrating, while neglecting to include that brightly-lit coal and natural gas power plants and refineries frequently attract flocks of night-migrating birds, causing them to circle the plants endlessly until sunrise, when they resume their migration, exhausted.”

The text referred to in the booklet reads: “Some builders put ‘wind farms’ in the path of flying birds and other animals…With wind turbines in these windy areas, these routes are not as safe as they once were for birds and insects.  Some believe wind farms may disrupt migration, but this is under study” (p. 35).

None of the formal reviewers appeared to take issue with the science in “The Energy Source Buffet,” as all curriculum units were “unanimously approved” by the State Board of Education.  However, as noted above, the EEI texts continue to be edited, and some changes have been made.

Discussion

It’s not our intention to question the larger value of EEI as a program, or to suggest that large parts of the course material it has produced are flawed.  We instead want to point to a specific reader that is problematic, in hopes of generating public discussion and further inquiry into how it came to be that misleading scientific information turned up in a major environmental education initiative.

As we continue to investigate and write about the broader context in which EEI was developed in future posts, we hope to hear from readers and educators familiar with the program, with their ideas, concerns, and insight into this issue.  We are pleased to accept comments directly on the blog, or any submissions via email that will remain confidential upon request.  We’ll be writing more about the issue, so stay tuned.


[1] http://www.sacbee.com/2010/09/07/3009448/bp-aids-statesschool-content.html, http://www.democracynow.org/2010/9/10/why_is_oil_giant_bp_helping

[2] http://www.stopdirtyenergyprop.com/, http://climateprogress.org/2010/09/04/koch-industries-valero-tesoro-proposition-23/

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5 Responses to California’s new state-issued energy textbook avoids climate change, puts coal on par with solar and wind

  1. Alice Hendricks says:

    As a California high school science teacher, I am appalled that our State Board of Education has approved for publication the textbook reader "The Energy Source Buffet".

    While it is appropriate to acknowledge and discuss political points of view in the classroom, and recognize that many industries will be affected by our energy choices, we should not be substituting science with highly inaccurate and suspicious course materials that somehow have worked their way into official school curriculum. Science education should not be for sale to the highest bidder, or subject to political manipulation such as this.

    The heat trapping properties of carbon dioxide is a fundamental physical phenomenon, as reproducible by demonstration as gravity. How the greenhouse effect works is actually better understood by scientists than
    how gravity functions. We don't tell kids, if you run off that cliff you CAN fall. Maybe you'll hang there in mid air? No, you WILL fall. When we put more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it does warm the Earth. The larger effects it will have on the planet are more complex, but the basics are very clear. As certain as gravity. Large amounts of added carbon dioxide brings about climate change, and a host of other well studied changes to our planet. Are we to censor that science?

    Will we now be required now in California to teach that these principles are in doubt? In my classroom, students are able to see the evidence themselves. Will we no longer be able to use hands-on scientific evidence, because allowing students to do the science themselves does not sufficiently raise doubts in their minds about the scientific findings?

    Thank you, Climate Science Watch for this enlightening and highly valuable report.

    Bravo!

    Alice Hendricks

  2. Dr. Richard L. Bailey says:

    The debate about how, when and why greenhouse gases cause climate change is over. It would have been over decades ago were it not for the despicable tactics of fossil fuel interests. WE MUST NOT LIE to our children. The refusal of this educational program to recognize the facts about climate change must be challenged in court.

  3. Good job on a great piece of writing, I considered it extremely helpful. Going to have to add this blog to my favorites and i look forward to reading your other blog posts. Keep up the astounding blog posts!

  4. Pingback: Good news and bad on the environmental front « The Berkeley Blog

  5. Michael Roa says:

    I am happy to see that Climate Science Watch is paying attention to instructional materials being produced for use in schools. As the person whose name is listed as author on Energy: It's Not All the Same to You!, which is the unit that includes "The Energy Source Buffet," I would like to clarify some points from the October 13 posting. (I say that I am "listed as the author" because the final version of the document underwent much revision after I submitted it.) I applaud your goals and hope that CSW wants to provide your readers with accurate information.

    1) "The Energy Source Buffet" is a small booklet that is one of eleven parts of a unit of study whose use is optional. It is not what one would normally think of as a "textbook." A textbook is usually hundreds of pages long and is used as the basis for a semester's or a year's course of study. This booklet is intended for use in two or three lessons.

    2) The EEI material is made available to California teachers. The state is not mandating its use and, so far as I know, has no intention of doing so. They don't mandate any other particular curriculum materials, so I don't see why they would mandate these units. The units have, however, gone through the same approval process that actual textbooks undergo.

    3) I agree that the booklet and the unit do not emphasize the negative impacts of fossil fuels, including the greenhouse effect and global climate change. When I wrote the material, I was not supposed to advocate for or against any particular source of energy. (As a long-time "environmentalist," that was difficult for me!) In no way am I a climate change denier, and I did not intend to ignore or downplay climate change.

    4) A letter from the California EPA, dated November 2, 2010, points out that (a) there have been some changes in the wording regarding CO2 and warming in the section on coal (although it is still not as strong as some might like). Based on public comments, the following change was made in the coal section. It now states that "Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere traps Earth's heat. More carbon dioxide can lead to warmer temperatures on Earth." I would hope that similar changes would be made in subsequent editions with regards to other fuels.

    One must keep in mind that this unit is meant for use in the sixth grade. Since it is not part of a textbook, a teacher might use it at any time, including at the start of the year when students are still essentially fifth graders. These units must be developmentally appropriate, and overloading ten-year-olds with a lot of frightening statistics is not developmentally
    appropriate.

    The November 2 letter also points out that global climate change and the greenhouse effect are addressed elsewhere in the EEI curriculum, at lower grades by introducing supporting concepts and at the high school level in two units, including one titled The Greenhouse Effect on Natural Systems. It is also pointed out that oil is discussed elsewhere in the curriculum.

    5) My work on these materials was done between September, 2006 and September, 2007. A lot has changed and been learned since then.

    6) The posting makes mention of BP's presence on a technical working group. I can state unequivocally that BP had no influence on my writing. I didn't even know that they were on the technical working group. I spoke to Dr. Jerry Lieberman, the principal consultant for the EEI, and he informed me that BP participated in only one meeting and never provided any input either written or verbal during the development of the EEI curriculum, including the units that I prepared.

    Thank you, and please keep up your efforts to assure accuracy, both in the groups and agencies that you monitor and in your own work.

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