Conservative politicians would like to have everyone believe there are “many sides” to issues that go against their own ideas, even in the face of cold, hard science that proves there is only one truly correct side. It’s one thing to personally believe something isn’t true, but it’s an entirely different issue when climate change deniers start slashing climate change curriculums from schools, as they’ve done in Idaho and New Mexico. Both states have proposed curriculums that don’t require teachers to teach kids how old the planet is or how average temperatures have changed over time, and that even include lessons that position climate change as a “debate.”
A 2016 Penn State University study found that 30 percent of teachers report teaching that climate change is “likely due to natural causes,” and another 31 percent say they teach it as an “unsettled science,” even though 97 percent of climate scientists agree that it’s caused by human activity. The Penn State study found that only a third of teachers knew there was a consensus about humans contributing to climate change.
The fact that educators are uninformed isn’t entirely their fault. They so often aren’t given the resources to properly teach kids about climate, and there are organizations that actively work against them.
The Heartland Institute is the largest organization that works to get climate change denial texts into schools across the country. The “think tank,” which is funded in part by the Koch brothers and Exxon, have distributed thousands of copies of Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, which comes with a DVD that asks classrooms to “consider the possibility” that the science isn’t settled and insists that there is a “vibrant debate” about the cause and effects of climate change.
Remember: There is no debate about climate change. What the organization does is akin to you asking your student loan debt collector to simply “consider the possibility” that your loans are all paid off, and you’re not due for another payment in three weeks. It’s fake news, all around.
High school science teacher Brandie Freeman told the Desmog Blog, “If a teacher already didn’t want to teach climate change or they already had their own bias, they could read into it and instead of seeing red flags, they could have confirmation. The tax dollars that I have spent on oil company subsidies that have somehow indirectly filtered down through the Heartland Institute to send me this misinformation. I wish that money would be invested in public education instead so that we could stop this cycle of ignorance.”
Luckily, a group of climate change scientists banded together to create their own pamphlet for teachers to use instead of the erroneous Heartland version. The Paleontological Research Institution and the National Science Foundation were working on a book when they heard about the Heartland Institute’s materials being given to school teachers, so they decided to go nuclear. Instead of creating something for just a hundred teachers, they launched a crowdfunding campaign to mass produce their own literature for teachers, the Teacher Friendly Guide to Climate Change. They’re still collecting funds, if you want a good place to throw some money.
Don Duggan-Haas, director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institution told ThinkProgress, “It’s not a middle school or high school curriculum but rather a resource for the teacher to get them up to speed both on the physical science and the social science that makes teaching climate change a different kind of challenge than teaching photosynthesis for example.”
States like Idaho and New Mexico don’t prohibit teaching the facts about climate change, they just don’t require it, which means that, as Freeman suggested, it’s possible they won’t even know they’re skipping some important science. But they could also pick up a guide and use the good resources if they have them. That’s a little scary when you consider that there are thousands of public schools and private schools that participate in their state voucher program taking advantage of the laws that permit teaching creationism in school.
Betsy DeVos, who heads up the Department of Education, hasn’t publicly spoked about her personal views on climate change, but she championed Trump’s pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Although she didn’t say whether she had met with the Heartland Institute during her confirmation hearing, the think tank also backs school voucher programs along with climate change denial, so their politics definitely align. Hopefully, more teachers will be empowered to stand up to conservative lobbies who insist on ignoring science and put students — and the planet — ahead of politics. But it’s going to take a lot more work to get there.