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Will your kid be taught that climate change is a hoax?

at 09:04 AM ET, 02/23/2012

One revelation from the recent Heartland Institute document leak is that the group is crafting a K-12 curriculum to teach kids that global warming is “controversial.” Heartland officials have confirmed this. So is climate change set to join evolution as the next big classroom controversy?


This “global circulation model” business is more complicated than I thought. (Jupiterimages)
Things do seem to be trending that way. Joshua Rosenau spends most of his time defending the teaching of evolution in schools for the National Center for Science Education. But a few years ago, he noticed that the teachers he was doing workshops with were far more interested in learning how to talk about global warming. “They were getting pressure from their own communities, from parents,” Rosenau says. “And they were looking for help on how to deal with this issue.”

At the moment, it’s still unclear how frequently spats over climate change actually break out in classrooms. There are some 17,000 school districts around the country, and there’s no set curriculum for climate science. In some states, students might first encounter the topic in middle school; in others, it might show up in high-school earth science, or biology. “The main things we’re looking at right now are state standards and textbooks,” says Rosenau, whose organization is only beginning to gather data on how climate science actually gets taught. But even that’s an imperfect metric — a state-approved textbook might lay out basic climate science clearly, but there’s no guarantee teachers will use it.

Now, let’s say a skeptic group like the Heartland Institute wants to stir up doubts about mainstream climate science in the classroom. Could they actually succeed? Heartland’s president, Joseph Bast, recently told the Wall Street Journal’s editorial board that he wants to promote a curriculum that urges teachers to question climate science. “Many kids get to watch ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ by Al Gore over and over again and they pass that off as scientific construction,” Bast lamented. (The Heartland Institute did not respond to a request for comment.)

And so, according to internal documents from the Heartland Institute, the group is paying $100,000 for David Wojick, a coal-industry consultant, to develop “modules” for classroom discussion. (Wojick has confirmed this.) These modules would include material for grades 10-12 on climate change (“whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy”) and carbon pollution (“whether CO2 is a pollutant is controversial”). In fact, none of these issues are scientific controversies — the vast majority of climatologists believe, with a high degree of confidence, that man-made carbon-dioxide emissions are heating the planet.

But could Heartland actually spread its views? Rosenau says that Heartland could do what creationist groups like the Discovery Institute have been doing for years and simply mail out supplemental materials to educators far and wide. “There will be teachers who are sympathetic to the skeptic view or who think the material looks useful, and they’ll say to themselves, okay, I’ll bring this into the classroom,” he explains. It’s worth noting that the Heartland Institute had already developed a video along these lines — titled “Unstoppable Solar Cycles,” which laid out the long-debunked theory that the sun is driving recent warming — and shipped it off to teachers. (These earlier efforts, according to one Heartland document, met with “only limited success.”)

Even if these materials turn out to be wildly inaccurate or out of sync with a state’s science-education standards, keeping tabs on their use would be quite difficult. “In almost all cases,” Rosenau says, “there are no policies that would prevent a teacher from using such material.” Quite the opposite: A few states, such as Louisiana, have non-binding laws that urge teachers to embrace “supplemental” material on heated topics like evolution and climate change.

And as global warming becomes an increasingly emotional political issue, teachers will face pressure to either adopt a skeptical stance or skip over the topic entirely. An online poll by the National Science Teachers Association in 2011 found that 54 percent of teachers had encountered climate skepticism from parents — and many teachers said they now teach climate change as a he-said, she-said issue. (“I teach that we are always evaluating and learning,” said one elementary-school educator in California. “Nothing is in stone... I teach both sides.”) In that environment, a group like the Heartland Institute, offering up its own skeptical teaching materials, could find plenty of fertile soil.

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