Dueling Books Compete to Educate Kids on Climate Change
Students get back to work in their third grade class at Oakwood Elementary School, Friday, May 4, 2018, in Peoria, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
The group that mailed books and DVDs arguing that global warming isn’t real to science teachers around the country last year is redoubling its efforts: It plans to publish and distribute a new book — this one aimed at both teachers and students — in the coming months.
But this time, teachers looking for alternative resources will find far more options available than they did just last year: At least three books about how to teach human-caused climate change to middle- and high-school science students will be published by early next year.
The dueling education campaigns are the latest sign of the extent to which children’s understanding of climate change is seen as up for grabs — a fight FRONTLINE and The GroundTruth Project have been reporting on over the past year.
“The public school science classroom is where the majority of U.S. citizens will get any formal instruction on climate science — if they get any at all,” said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education. “So it makes sense that classrooms would be a battleground for those who want climate change to be taught — and those who want it to be mis-taught.”
A 2016 nationwide survey of 1,500 public school science teachers found that 31 percent reported they teach that causes of climate change are up for debate, 10 percent teach that humans have no major role in climate change and 5 percent avoid the topic. Less than half of middle-school and high-school teachers reported they understood that scientists are in consensus that humans are causing climate change.
Last year, the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that has dedicated itself for more than a decade to opposing action on climate change, said it mailed more than 200,000 copies of a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and an accompanying DVD to science teachers; the material was criticized by climate scientists for misrepresenting climate research and manipulating data. Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives decried the campaign, and Democratic senators questioned Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
Now, Heartland senior fellow James Taylor says he is editing a new “global warming guide” that presents “brief summaries of global warming topics.” Details about the Heartland book are still scarce — Taylor did not provide its title, and the distribution plan for the new book is not yet finalized, though Taylor said another mass mailing campaign is under consideration. The initial book they mailed out was for a general audience; this will be aimed specifically at educators and students, he said.
“We’re very excited about it,” said Taylor. “What we’re looking to do is present the science in a format that is accessible and digestible for educators and students.”
Heartland’s earlier campaign inspired a Cornell University-affiliated publisher, Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) to start a counter-campaign, mailing out very different materials to science teachers: A book called The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change, which offered recommendations on how to present the prevailing climate science to children. The publisher is in the process of sending the books to 50,000 educators, and is raising funding for more mailings.
A separate Cornell-affiliated group last month published Communicating Climate Change, A Guide for Educators, which it is making free for download. The book presents the best practices in climate communication — a body of research that has “exploded” recently because “people want to know how we can do this,” said co-author and Cornell postgraduate student Anne Armstrong.
And a third book, Understanding Climate Change, Grades 7-12, is scheduled for publication by the National Science Teachers Association in early 2019, said David Evans, the group’s executive director. It will provide step-by-step instructions on how to teach climate change. Evans said the book aims to help teachers beef up their own understanding of climate science, in order to teach it better.
“You have to realize that most classroom science teachers now are late 40s early 50s — that’s their average age — and most of those folks did not receive explicit classroom instruction on climate science, let alone climate change, as part of their undergrad education,” Evans said.
Until recently, the NSTA had not taken a public stand on the politics of climate science in the classroom. But when its members began receiving the Heartland book, Evans responded with an email to all members stating that scientists do not disagree about the causes of climate change. Then, the group went a step further: After hearing reports of “a fair amount of pushback in some states about teachers teaching climate change,” the organization formed a committee to fashion a formal position statement, which took months to write and review, Evans said.
“Because of confusion and misinformation, many Americans do not think that the scientific basis for climate change is established,” said the statement, which was posted online and distributed to 350,000 subscribers. It encouraged teachers to push back on this confusion by explaining to their students “that no scientific controversy exists regarding the basic facts of climate change” and teaching “climate change as any other established field of science.”
There is some evidence this tactic will work, said Cornell’s Armstrong. While adults who have a strong belief that humans are not causing climate change tend to hold tight to that view even when confronted with a wealth of information to the contrary, one study showed that teenagers are different: Learning more about climate science correlated with a greater acceptance that humans are causing climate change — even in conservative-leaning teens.
“High-school students are less entrenched in the worldviews that polarize adults than adults are,” she said. “That’s a good thing.”
Katie Worth is a GroundTruth Fellow and a 2018 O’Brien Fellow in Public Service Journalism at Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communication.