Since at least the 1950s, fossil fuel organizations such as the American Petroleum Institute have targeted U.S. classrooms as they sought to shape future opinions of their industry, documents show. In just Oklahoma, whose budget is heavily reliant on oil, 14,000 educators teach math and science using a curriculum developed by industry.
The conservative Heartland Institute, in particular, has targeted climate science in its recent outreach to schools, and it has ramped up its campaign. Heartland drew attention early this year when it mailed 350,000 copies of its publication "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming" to middle, high school and college science teachers around the country, out of concern that "the upcoming generation learn the truth," said Jim Lakely, a spokesman. The booklet and DVD try to challenge the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is dangerously heating the planet.
This fall, as we traced the fossil fuel industry's campaign of misinformation about climate change and analyzed its impact on public and political opinion, we reached out to middle and high school teachers to ask if and how they use the Heartland materials. Ninety teachers from across the United States responded to questions posed on social media and through educators' groups. Many told us they rejected Heartland's mailings as misinformation. A few said they found it useful to teach "all sides" of the climate issue. Lakely said negative feedback that had appeared on social media was "unscientific" and "close-minded."
Here is a selection of what the teachers had to say. (Some teachers requested that InsideClimate News withhold personal information, such as name or school name, because the teaching of climate science is controversial in their communities.)
Edward Sinkler, Southern Lehigh High School in Center Valley, Pennsylvania: "Heartland did not provide supporting data beyond opinion."
"The materials were obviously biased against climate science without supporting data. We need to reframe the conversation, so that those making the false claims need to provide the evidence to support their position. If you do not have facts, then you do not have a seat at the table."
Lori Baker, North Putnam Middle School in Roachdale, Indiana: "I found them extremely disingenuous."
"The book is designed to appear like a legitimate reference, but there are clear problems with the sources of information. I did not use the materials, however I did discuss the fact that these items were sent to me. My students had a discussion about why The Heartland Institute might want to influence what I teach. My community is small, rural and politically conservative. I have been teaching climate change my entire career, and have had three instances of parents questioning my curriculum. My administration was very supportive of me and what I've been teaching."
Mike Whaley, Pendleton High School in Pendleton, South Carolina: I used the Heartland materials "to provide another viewpoint."
"For the most part, yes [I find the materials accurate]. Most information out there has bias one way or another. I teach my students how to discern fact from spin. Climate change is real. Human actions and activities have an impact on climate. Natural forces are dominant, however. The true impacts of climate change need to be presented in an even manner. There should be no bias in science."
Rob Norville, Glenwood Springs High School in Glenwood Springs, Colorado: "Educators have a lot of work to do to combat science denialism and cultivate a critical thinking generation."
"No, [I did not use the materials.] They were misleading due to cherry-picking of evidence to support predetermined claims that ignored a massive body of evidence to the contrary. The fact that this survey exists confirms the notion that climate change deniers have won. The seeds of doubt have been sown and grown to a size that even those profiting from the carbon economy could not have predicted. The very idea that anthropogenic climate change is debatable is all that is needed for maintenance of the status quo. Educators have a lot of work to do to combat science denialism and cultivate a critical thinking generation of citizenry who can move beyond the false debate and engage with the monumental task of managing the consequences of global warming."
Nathan Chisholm, Air Academy High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado: The materials "do not reflect scientific thinking or processes."
"[Using the materials] would undermine the quality of instruction for my students. It is getting easier and more acceptable to the public to teach the prevailing science regarding climate change in my community after two very destructive forest fires fueled by high temperatures and low humidity/rainfall destroyed many local houses and businesses."
Dan Vandenberg, Springfield High School in Springfield, Pennsylvania: "I do not and will not back down on this issue."
"I use the book as an example of the nonsense that is climate denial. I show the students how they made it look official, gave a good 'look' to the materials, but that the content is hogwash. I find students who I can tell are hearing things differently at home."
Suzanne Banas, South Miami Middle School in Miami, Florida: I use Heartland materials "mostly as supplemental information."
"Our district has pacing guides and state assessment. Climate change is not directly touched on, but alluded to when we discuss global wind patterns, human impact upon the environment (mostly lithosphere and atmosphere and ecology). I live in South Florida and sea level rise is very evident. I go to most of the South Florida Climate Change conferences held for community leaders and business people. I am a firm believer in climate change and feel that it needs to be directly shared with my students. So I use all information and materials I get to add to my conversations."
Alexis Black, Mayfield High School in Las Cruces, New Mexico: "Global warming is not #fakenews."
"[I don't use the materials] because they are not scientifically accurate."
Middle School Teacher in Ohio: "They distort the facts and seem to seek to muddy the waters and cause confusion and doubt."
"Honestly, I recycled them. I did pause and consider using them in a discussion about misunderstanding science, but ultimately I recycled them because I did not want to give any students who might believe that material an opportunity to continue to spread disinformation. I also felt I was on weak footing as this content is not explicitly contained in my curriculum, and I live in a community where there is a strong, small minority who doubt climate change."
Kathleen Couchon, Narragansett High School in Narragansett, Rhode Island: "I used the materials as a teaching tool to show students how some climate deniers were attempting to obstruct the teaching of real climate science."
"I have no problem teaching climate science in my classroom and school. It remains a favorite unit in my freshman Earth & Physical Science classes. I have been trained as a Climate Reality Leader through Al Gore's organization and remain committed to teaching climate change science."
Lauren Slanker, Freedom Middle School in Berwyn, Illinois: "Climate change is too important of an issue to the future of my students to accept this anti-science rhetoric."
"They used biased findings and half-truths to get their message across. I did bring up the fact that I received the materials to my students as an example of the ways in which companies are promoting their own self-interests at the sake of my students' futures."
Heather R. in New York: "I felt [the materials] didn't warrant my time, but I did inform the seniors that this propaganda was sweeping the country."
"[I would not use them in the classroom] not even for the purposes of debate in my environmental elective for seniors. I live in a community where there are plenty of climate deniers, but I've had little push-back because New York State is very good about informing communities about how national curricula is established and followed."
Amanda Laden in Minnesota: "The mailing prompted me to begin a conversation with key individuals in my district. We decided to send a letter to all high school teachers."
"Luckily, I teach in a district where the Director of Curriculum Instruction was a Chemistry teacher and the Superintendent was a science teacher as well. They know that science is under attack and give full support to the science department to teach real science. Other than some students and parents who have questioned our curriculum, the community is mostly supportive. The mailing prompted me to begin a conversation with key individuals in my district. We decided to send a letter to all high school teachers."