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Making Global Warming Controversial in Public School Classrooms

May 19th, 2009 · 4 Comments

A guest post from “loblolly” in which “A retired science teacher looks at subtle and not so subtle efforts by the oil and coal industry and global warming deniers to subvert environmental education in the public schools, by spreading doubt and making teaching about global warming a controversial topic in public school classrooms.”

Received from a parent, sending forward material to be used in the classroom:

I know you are as sick of environmental extremists as I am. Bjorn Lomberg has a refreshing perspective. Enjoy the videos with the class!

A few years ago, at the very beginning of the school year, we weren’t studying anything more controversial than laboratory safety rules. One of my new 6th graders, handed me this note from his mother, attached to a 100+ page reprint, along with a stack of videos on climate change.

I am a scientist by training and a teacher by profession. I have two degrees in biology and biochemistry. I also confess that I am an environmentalist.  For years, the IPPC reports have stated with more and more certainty that global warming is occurring, and that humans are “very likely” the  cause, so I was taken aback by the assertion that climate scientists who believe in anthropogenic ( human-caused) global warming are environmental extremists who have it all wrong.

I started looking into the sources of the materials on my desk. Although it is sometimes difficult sort out some of the arguments used by global warming deniers, it’s fairly easy to look the references they quote. Some research a  revealed that Bjorn Lomborg is a statistitian with no credentials whatsoever in climate science. He believes that we now live in the best, cleanest, healthiest word ever.  As far the videos, the fine print on the back  said that they were  produced by an organization called the Western Fuels Association, which I learned is a multi-million dollar consortium of coal fired power plants.  Although it was out of the question to just show the entire videos as  this parent wanted,  I tried to appease her by using a few clips of one of her videos, “The Greening of the Earth”. I have learned since then that it was produced and distributed by Western Fuels at a cost of $250,000. Insults and hyperbole abound.  In one clip, climate computer modeling  is called ” garbage in- garbage out” ;  another discussed the how extra CO? from burning fossil fuels would be a great boon for growing soybeans. I also showed a few clips from a video on global warming produced by an environmental group. We discussed  the possible prejudices of different points of view in the two videos. The students were very good at figuring out the biases of each group.  The mother who sent the videos was not mollified, In fact, she was irate.

It’s just an acorn. The sky’s not falling!

I forgot about the episode until last year when a stack of books entitled “The Sky’s Not Falling! Why It’s OK to Chill about Global Warming”  by Holly Fretwell appeared on my desk. The books were  donations to every 6th grade science classrooms in my school district,  complements of the  same global warming denying mom who sent me the aforementioned anti-global warming materials. ( Her second child was now in the 6th grade, but not in my class.) Our  district science department had a group of teachers review the  book and found it “balanced”, even though it begins by essentially calling anyone who believes in the human causes of global warming and the urgency of curbing CO? emissions a “Chicken Little”. At the time, like most full-time teachers, I was overwhelmed with teaching. I put the books on a shelf to collect dust, resolving  to look into it some more once I retired.

Environmental education is supposed to address not only the science behind the issues, but also address solutions  as well. However, there is a counter-movement to stop what some see as teachers “indoctrinating” children in public schools.  In a Wall Street Journal article, “Inconvenient Youths”  , includes stories from parents who are annoyed by their children’s environmentalism, and offers advice on handle their activist progeny when they want to recycle, use energy efficient light bulbs, or have the family buy a hybrid.   In the article, a global warming deniers group, the Science and Public Policy Institute, pans a book on global warming by Laurie David as ” intentionally designed to propagandize unsuspecting schoolchildren who don’t have enough knowledge to know what is being done to them.” , and goes on to praise Fretwell’s book, and as an answer to  a “one sided environmental messages kids are getting in school and from books.”

Public schools are always in need of more funding for science equipment.  In the elementary and middle school levels especially, teachers are in need updating their training in science, so grants and workshops offered by the big corporations are welcome when budgets are limited. Exxon gives scientists time off to volunteer in the science classes in the public schools, to bring engaging hands-on science activities to at risk children, put on Saturday science camps for middle school girls,  or provide expertise for student research projects. I’m eternally grateful to the Exxon scientists who helped in my classroom over the years.  However there is a dark side to corporate largesse too, a hidden agenda that the oil and coal industry have to get their message out on environmental issues. On the one hand, Exxon scientists volunteer in public schools doing genuinely good work giving kids hands-on science experiences. On the other hand, Exxon has poured money into non-profit groups that help spread doubt about the science of global warmint. As  Laurie David, producer of   An Inconvenient Truth,   wrote in a 2006  editorial in the Washington Post, “In the past year alone, according to its Web site, Exxon Mobil’s foundation gave $42 million to key organizations that influence the way children learn about science, from kindergarten until they graduate from high school.”

If it has a corporate logo on it, it is propaganda… You need a foot in the door where somebody else is pushing he door open for you…The people best able to push open the door are non-profit education organizations that teachers already think of as being credible

Peversely under the guise of bringing  “fairness and balance” to environmental education, and countering ” lessons that border on advocacy for a single point of view” , and encouraging “students as well as teachers to think for themselves”, the Property and Environment Research Center, or PERC, is a non-profit think tank which promotes free enterprise solutions. Since 1998.PERC has  received over $155,000 in funding from Exxon.

In 1998, Kathryn Ratte, of PERC,  addressed the Petroleum Association of America on how to get their message into public schools. She said that “politically correct environmentalism invaded U.S. public classrooms years ago, and is helping to hold the door shut on your message.” The solution according to Ratte was form partnerships with groups like PERC thought to be more credible by educators.  Cynically realizing that underpaid teachers can’t resist a free trip, she also suggested that the industry sponsor teacher workshops “in resorts or campuses in pleasant surroundings” to promote their materials. Since then two PERC associates have authored children’s books that cast doubt on the science of global warming, under the guise of promoting “critical thinking”,   a popular education buzz-word. In Texas, promoting critical thinking is now part of the required TEKS or Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills that the State Board of Education mandates in each grade level, which specifies that

The student will make informed decisions using critical thinking and scientific problem solving.
The student uses critical thinking and scientific problem solving to make informed decisions.

Also included  are requirements ,  such as the ” strengths and weaknesses” language, mainly used to justify teaching creationism, but which is now being applied to  issues like global warming:

The student should know that science may not answer all questions. The student will analyze, review, and critique scientific explanations, including hypotheses and theories, as to their strengths and weaknesses using scientific evidence and information;

In 2002, PERC associate Jane Shaw published Global Warming as part the Critical Thinking About Environmental Issues series. The book has an impressively long list of  references. Most people don’t pay much attention to references, but a closer look turns up well-known global warming deniers including S. Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen, Sallie Balilunas, Robert Balling,  Indur Golanky, Willie Soon, Craig Idso, and David Legates. Familiar denier groups funded by Exxon are cited as well- the George Marshall Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Greening Earth Society, the Cooler Heads Coalition, the Cato Institute, and of course , PERC.

Holly Fretwell , another  PERC research associate, says that promoting critical thinking was the inspiration for   The Sky’s Not Falling. “I want kids to get excited about science and to understand that it’s human ingenuity and a can-do spirit, not government sanctions, that will lead us to a bright environmental future. I want kids to learn how to become critical thinkers.” A press release for her  book describes her as ” an expert in the field of global warming”; however,  her degrees are political science and natural resource economics, not climate science.  Fretwell   teaches economics at Montana State University.  Her publisher , World Ahead Media, describes it as a “balanced look at the complicated issue of climate change”. Considering that World Ahead also publishes  such “balanced” books as The Audacity of Deceit (Barack Obama’s War on American Values- why  Obama is more dangerous than you think), and Born Liberal, Raised Right, ( How to push kids past their infantile liberal stage and help them become productive adults.), a balanced look at complicated issues isn’t exactly what one would expect.

Fretwell states that her book contains “a road map of targeted examples and compelling stories that highlight and dispel the dangerous myths about global warming”.  It  recycles some of the same arguments about  global warming that have been already refuted, such as that warming is all natural because the earth has warmed before, that  computer-based climate models are ” garbage-in, garbage-out”, and  that the hockey-stick graph of CO? and temperature is wrong. Looking at her sources is more interesting.

You can actually look up the source where the information came from. That’s an important tool when it comes to making up your own mind


Thirteen of the references listed in the bibliography of The Sky Is Not Falling are scientists  affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a non-profit think tank which promotes free-enterprise solutions, which has  received $676,500 from ExxonMobil since 1998. Heartland puts on a denier climate convention each year, and has a list of global warming ” experts” , many of whom have received funding from Exxon and Western Fuels. Heartland is also part of the Cooler Heads Coalition , a coalition of other right wing think tanks, including PERC. Fretwell profusely thanks two scientists in particular, Timothy Ball and RIchard Lindzen, two of the main global warming deniers, for “keeping me on track” . She also thanks  Mark Morano, who is  a former reporter for Rush Limbaugh, and Senator James Inhoffe’s communications director. Morano  has been called the “drum major of the denial parade”.  Morano is also known for compiling areport on hundreds of scientists who don’t agree with the consensus of the IPPC.  Many of those listed have been found to have no scientific credentials at all. Heartland affiliated scientists whose work is cited in The Sky’s Not Falling include -Robert Carter, C.R. de Freitas, Indur Golanky, P.J. Michaels, Bjorn Lomborg, and Ross McKitrick.

Doubt is an easy product to sell.

There is an interconnecting web of links between global warming deniers, the right-wing think tanks they are associated with, and corporate funding from polluters, particularly the oil and coal  industry. As the New York Timesreported last week, representatives from the American Petroleum Institute, Exxon, Western Fuels, auto makers, and others banded together in 1995 to form the Global Climate Coalition in order  to cast doubt on the role of CO?  from human emissions  as the cause of global warming, even as their own scientific experts were telling them that the science was well established and could not be refuted.

The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied.

Spreading doubt is a tactic adopted from the model used successfully by the tobacco industry. You don’t have to actually come up  scientific research and subject it to peer-review by other scientists , just convince the public that the existing science is shaky, to avoid action by politicians.  In an internal memo, the American Petroleum Institute discussed recruiting  ” a cadre of scientists who share the industry’s views of climate science and to train them in public relations so they can help convince journalists, politicians and the public that the risk of global warming is too uncertain to justify”. The result is –

“an overlapping collection of individuals serving as staff, board members, and scientific advisors that publish and re-publish the works of a small group of climate change contrarians. ExxonMobil has built a vast echo chamber of seemingly independent groups with the express purpose of spreading disinformation about global warming. “

Harper’s Magazine reported on the main scientists who make up the deniers  in 1995, the very same scientists cited as references by Jane Shaw and Holly Fretwell in their children’s books on global warming.

For the most part the industry has relied on a small band of skeptics—Dr. Richard S. Lindzen, Dr. Pat Michaels, Dr. Robert Balling, Dr. Sherwood Idso, and Dr. S. Fred Singer, among others—who have proven extraordinarily adept at draining the issue of all sense of crisis. Through their frequent pronouncements in the press and on radio and television, they have helped to create the illusion that the question is hopelessly mired in unknowns.

Michaels and Lindzen have also appeared as  expert witnesses for Western Fuels. Lindzen was reported to receive $2,500 per day as a consultant, and had a 1991 trip to testify before a Senate committee paid by Western Fuels. Michaels received $115,000 from 1991- 1995 from coal and oil interests.

Trying to sort out the connections between the deniers and the different groups they are associated leaves you with the feeling you are going in circles, because you are. The Union of Concerned Scientists issued a report in 2007 which details how ExxonMobil funded supposedly independent front groups to make it appear that many different groups questioned global warming science when in reality they were  all quoting  the same small group of climate change deniers. The same people. groups, and  references keep coming up. The Union of Concerned Scientists report contains a  helpful chart which shows the amount of funding each group has received from Exxon, as well as the links between individuals and the groups they are affiliated with.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has received $2,000,000 in Exxon funding even produced a commercial for CO?.

They call it pollution, we call it life.

What better group to target for a campaign to spread doubt than among the next generation? As Holly Fretwell says,  “Kids across America are being victimized by global warming hysteria. I wanted to know what kids just like mine are hearing in their classrooms. Running a contest was a fun way to go about it. All of us, and our children in particular, are being confronted daily with half-truths and falsehoods about global warming. It’s just plain wrong.”

Last year, Fretwell held a “The Sky’s Not Falling” video/essay contest  for children to “debunk Al Gore’s global warming philosophy”, sponsored by WND Books. The prize in Fretwell’s contest is  a cash prize, a copy of “The Great Global Warming Swindle” DVD courtesy of, and copies of “The Sky’s Not Falling” for their local school library and their kids’ science classroom. And here’s the WND website announcing the winners of Fretwell’s contest –

Al Gore’s global warming philosophy has been debunked by many scientists and studies, and now it has met the same fate at the hands of children, in “The Sky’s Not Falling” video/essay contest, sponsored by WND Books, formerly World Ahead Media


The winning entries of the contest were a video called ” Global Hoax”, and an  essay called ” Al Gore Causes Global Warming in School Aged Brains”. The essay says that if An Inconvenient Truth is used to teach about global warming, then Hitchcock’s The Birds could be used to teach ornithology., whose video was one of the prizes, is the website associated with the Cato Institute, which has received $125,000 from Exxon and holds regular briefings featuring deniers Patrick Michaels and Robert Balling,  and Competitive Enterprise Institute. It’s creator, Steven J. Milloy, once worked for Phillip Morris main lobbyist. He has appeared on Fox news.  Fretwell’s book uses one of Milloy’s epithets  as the inspiration for the title of her book. Milloy has used the term ” environmental Chicken Little’s” to characterize people who believe that human emissions are causing global warming  and that action by the government is needed to curtail it. Fretwell’s book opens with a version of the story the  Chicken Little story that ends happily when everyone reallizes that there is nothing to worry about.

The National Science Teachers Association ( NSTA) , has received $6 million from Exxon since 1996, and in  2003, NSTA gave Exxon Mobil an award for commitment to science education. Exxon has indeed made significant contributions through the Building a Presence for Science network.  However, there is some evidence  that NSTA’s  relationship to it’s coroprate benefactors may have played a role in the case of its declining an offer by the makers of  An Inconvenient Truth to give away 50,000 copies of the documentary to teachers. The National Science Teachers Association stated that they did not want to make a “political endorsement”, and didn’t think the film would benefit their members.   NSTA  said that accepting the DVD’s would place “unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign, especially certain targeted supporters.”

NSTA also recommends the book  Global Warming: Understanding the Debate,  by Kenneth Green, who is another Heartland Institute scientist. Green  is cited  along with denier Pat Michaels, by Senator Inhofe  as a signatory of a statement  that ” There is no convincing scientific evidence that human release of carbon dioxide, methane, or other greenhouse gasses is causing or will, in the foreseeable future, cause catastrophic heating of the Earth’s atmosphere and disruption of the Earth’s climate.”

When studying science, we have to remember that what we discover later might disprove what we believe now. And when people are stubborn in their beliefs- it’s difficult to convince them that they’re wrong, even when new information appears. Some people believe that humans are causing our planet to warm up, and they can sometimes be very stubborn in their beliefs. – Holly Fretwell

It is important that students learn to think for themselves. Science teaching should include critical thinking skills, but claiming that climate science is shaky, or that scientists disagree on human emissions causing global warming is like teaching children that the earth is flat. The IPPC has been checking  out the facts on global warming since 2001, and putting out reports that with increasing confidence point to human emissions as the cause. In the 2007 report, thousands of peer-reviewed papers from dozens of countries were  examined, and in the most detailed summary of climate change ever undertaken, for which the IPPC was awarded the Nobel Prize. The report  stated  that “Warming of the climate system is unequivocal”, and that “Most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

After  the latest IPPC report in 2007 clearly placed the blame on humans as the “very likely” cause of warming, Exxon has backed off it’s direct financial contributions to the deniers, who increasingly disagree among themselves. Industry seems to have shifted its focus to influencing legislation. The American Petroleum Institute is running ads in newsapers against caps on carbon emissions.

Meanwhile,  global warming seems to be joining  teaching of evolution as an area of controversy. One of my friends is currently dealing with another global warming denier book , It’s the Sun, Not Your SUV, which one of her student wants read for a book report. Like most full-time teachers she doesn’t have time to research the book, but a quick Google search turned up an e-mail from the author, John Zyrkowski to  Mark Morano. I haven’t seen the bibliography, but I’d bet that some of the usual suspects turn up in the list of references. She is planning to allow him to read the book, but also require several peer-reviewed articles which present current science thinking on the role of the sun. I  worry that the industry’s message of doubt will continue to confuse children in science classes. In truth, Fretwell’s book is not going to be very appealing to many 8-12 year olds ( is a definition of carbon intensity as the amount of carbon emitted per productive output really a  “fun fact”? ) However, her thesis that we shouldn’t scare children about global warming, and that we don’t need to worry about it because human innovation will find solutions,  may be appealing to parents.  Fretwell’s book begins with a cheery version of the  Chicken Little story, and the moral she draws is to  calm down, there’s no crisis, the sky is not falling, anyway, the free market will bring us new technologies  to solve any problems. No need for government intervention. I seem to remember that there are many versions of the Chicken Little story, and not all of them have a happy ending like Fretwell’s. In some versions,  Henny Penney and her friends meet the treacherous Foxy Loxy, who offers to help and then eats them all. There is even one version of the Chicken Little story in which  the sky actually does fall.   Evidence for global warming continues to mount. Sometimes, it turns out, Chicken Little is right.

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Tags: bjorn lomborg · catastrophic climate change · climate change · climate delayers · Global Warming · global warming deniers

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 tehdude // May 19, 2009 at 4:27 pm

    What psychological need drives you to deny that people actually disagree with you on scientific grounds?

    No “psychological need” but a failure for deniers to actually respect science and the scientific method.

    It would be like the church trying to convince the public that Galileo was under the pay of the Jews to subvert the church.

    Its a similar ploy, blame big money and decadence, for the failures of your religious teachings, but it never lasts.

    The shallowness of your commentary is sad, to say the least, without substance and with much insult.

    There are many, many reasons for driving denial — money is one of them.

    Folks like you underestimate the men of the west…

    Folks like you are a sad statement about the failures of the American educational process.

  • 2 where4art // May 19, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    This is really interesting for a number of reasons — and it’s great to have the prominent names in the Climate Change Denial industry all in one place! My dad was waving around a book by one of those jokers (I don’t remember which one at the moment) a while back, commanding my (horrified) brother and sister to educate themselves by reading it [sigh].

    Of course there must be many reasons for embracing this alternative, there’s-no-problem-here reality. Financial incentives are one thing; but I have to think you’re onto something when you say that the idea that it’s *appealing to parents* to teach kids that there’s nothing to worry about. And it’s not all about protecting the children, as I’ve learned from my dad. Like many people, he’s just constitutionally unable to come to grips with complex challenges to his need for reality to be simple and uncomplicated. So it’s not just about comforting kids; it’s about comforting adults, too. By denying the bad news, they get to hold onto their need for a simple, unchanging world — with the added bonus of knowing they’re right and everyone else is wrong. And if they can get the kids to agree, so much the better: that way, they’re not coming home from school full of disquieting notions.

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