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Does America’s heartland really support “the Extreme Right’s War on K-12 Climate and Environmental Education”?

February 18th, 2012 · 4 Comments

At the NWF’s Wildlife Promise, Kevin Coyle provides An Inside Look at the Extreme Right’s War on K-12 Climate and Environmental Education. Highlighting that the two-page document that the Heartland Institute claims didn’t originate with them is irrelevant, Coyle lays out “five common tactics that extreme right organizations, such as Heartland, use to keep children from being equipped with the knowledge they will need to cope with the future problems we “adults” are imposing on them.”

1. Create Controversy Where There is None

No matter how well-established a complex scientific subject is (human-caused climate change for example) it is still complex! There will always be fringe theories, factual inconsistencies, and even whacky ideas that run counter the mainstream scientific view. But, much as an attorney will strive to get a criminal off by planting “reasonable doubt” in a jury’s mind, the extreme right will seek to elevate these fringe theories and minor inconsistencies to the level of full credibility and parity. ….

This has been a core element of industry-backing “sound science” for decades: recruit scientists with credentials that will sound impressive (even if irrelevant for the issue at hand) and leverage their voices to cast doubt for forestall action … whether that action is to restrict the use of pesticides, put in employee safety rules, or to mitigate climate change.

Frank Luntz, perhaps the star Republican ‘sound bite’ advisor, emphasized the importance of this telling Republican politicians that, when it comes to Global Warming, “”you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.” They should “challenge the science,” he wrote, by “recruiting experts who are sympathetic to your view.”” Luntz explained that if the public actually understood the science it would be ‘game over’ for Republican efforts in support of their fossil-foolish financial backers.

2. Exploit the “Radical Media’s” Inherent Reasonableness

The American media loves to report stories that compare opposing viewpoints. This is mostly thought of as balanced journalism. … Even when a subject is largely without serious scientific controversy, journalists will often find a contrarian and give his or her viewpoint equal time. …. Climate change science suffers from a bad case of this problem. Studies done that compare scientific literature to media reports show there is zero disagreement over climate change’s causes in peer reviewed scientific literature but more than half of all news articles treat this same science as “in doubt.” It is highly ironic that, for all of the extreme right’s whining about liberal radicalism in the media, it is so completely skilled at capitalizing on the tendency of journalists to want to present both sides of an issue even when there is no real issue.

‘He says, she says’ invades the mainstream reporting on climate change. And, along with the serious anti-science syndrome sound machine efforts to forestall climate change mitigation, this is a key reason why the public’s confusion over climate change (and humanity’s role in driving it) is at such odds with the near unanimous accord among scientists with the relevant expertise over these key points:

  • The climate is warming.
  • Human activities are a major driver in this warming.
  • Global Warming is having impact on species and ecological systems.
  • Unchecked, climate change could have catastrophic impacts on human civilization.

With an acknowledgment of this as the best scientific understanding of our situation, the debate over “what’s the worst that can happen” shifts from (distorted) discussions of economic costs to decision-making about the best courses of action to mitigate humanity’s climate impacts and what investments are merited in climate adaptation.

3. Demonize the Nation’s Hardworking Educators

Principals and teachers are the extreme right’s favorite punching bags. Instead of seeing America’s 3.5 million educators and school administrators as hard working Americans to whom we have safely entrusted the future of our children for the past two centuries, the right describes them as agenda-driven radicals bent on filling students’ minds with politically loaded dogma. …  they share … a desire to provide the most professionally delivered and helpful education possible to our children. … and, as such, are not inclined to even teach subjects deemed controversial in that community. It is true that schools do offer sex education and science teachers will indeed avoid treating creationism as a bonafide scientific subject, but this does not make them crazy radicals. America’s educators are real people, working in real places and doing the very best they can for our kids.

Scientists have been vilified with falsehood laden attacks of being in some sort of criminal cabal (across all of humanity’s leading relevant scientific institutions) to falsify data to get more grant money and in service to an imaginary Black-Helicopter-like conspiracy.  Scientists face Spanish Inquisition like investigations and have received death threats.  All of these even as scientists are among the most respected people and profession in American society.  However, this vilification serves to undermine “experts” and opens the door for anyone to enter the (imaginary) climate science debate to sow doubt and undermine any impetus for positive action to reduce America’s risks from catastrophic climate chaos.

4. Play the Worried Parent Card

If you want to get American parents riled up, just tell them their kids are getting faulty information and flawed education at school. This favorite tactic by the extreme right is used to keep climate change or environmental education of any sort out of the classroom. It portays it as “junk science,” inaccurate, one-side or any of a dozen labels that translate to “bad education.” Truth is the environmental education community and science educators are rigorous and careful about the integrity of their teaching and the materials they provide. It has been a decades-long mission by environmental educators to have programs that are fair and accurate, scientifically sound and balanced. This has been proven, even in Congressional inquiries. What makes environmental education different from many classroom subjects, however, is a focus on skill development and that includes going beyond education on scientific principles and problems to having students actually learn about solutions. Most people think of education on problem solving as an educational breakthrough but the extreme right wants parents to think of this as brainwashing radicalism. The real question: is it kinder to hide information about environmental challenges from our children and keep them in the dark about climate change or to give them the tools to handle it as they takes the reins of society?

5. Paint with the Government Conspiracy Brush

When the extreme right gets really frustrated with a lack of traction for its campaigns to keep climate change and environmental education out of K-12 schools, it resorts to the old “loss of freedom” ploy and describes such educational efforts as signaling a government takeover. It is always interesting how the concept of providing our youngsters with the tools they need to fend for themselves in an uncertain environmental future is somehow cast as a government conspiracy. To most, developing self-help environmental skills is a very American idea steeped in the notion of free choice and individualism.

The Heartland Institute is not a lone participant in the extreme right’s war on climate change education and giving our kids a real understanding of what is happening and what can be done about it. It is unfortunate, but noteworthy, that the Institute and other combatants in the war on k-12 and climate change and environmental education have such deep roots in funding from the fossil fuel industry.

There are other tools beyond these five.  For example:

  • Provide free educational material and other resources to cash-starved schools to influence the educational program (example and example)
  • Politicize the School Board election to embed anti-science syndrome sufferers in a majority role
  • Legislate ‘teaching the controversy’
  • Politicize the science (focus on “Al Gore” as spokesperson rather than the science)

In any event, as Coyle

Take a look at Coyle articulately lays out, Heartland’s statements about the two-page climate strategy document are irrelevant in the face of a long record of efforts to undermine the K-12 science education to promote industry-backed “sound science” above scientifically sound and accurate education.

In addition to the Coyle piece, here are two recent articles worth a read:

And, certainly related, the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) effort to defend climate change science in education is discussed by John Timmer at ArsTechnica.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 John Egan // Feb 18, 2012 at 11:48 pm

    You make the classic logical fallacy of “If A and B”.

    Climate change and environmental education are two separate issues. In the hierarchy of environmental threats – climate change is rather low.

    Actually, I believe that most of the relevant scientific community would disagree with you.

    Even as most would recognize / agree that there is a massive intertwining of issues (environmental and otherwise) that makes it difficult to look at these issues in stove-piped fashion and be honest.

    That does not mean that there is not a warming trend – although the variability and degree of human contribution are debatable. Also, that does not mean that humanity’s use of fossil fuels at an ever increasing rate is wise.

    Still, I believe strongly that articulating the two issues does harm to greater environmental awareness since the means, issues, and practices of the AGW community violate the principles of open academic research dating back to the Enlightenment.

    A case in point, the dessication of Lake Chad is far more likely to be due to the massive increase in surrounding populations than any AGW contribution. Since 1960, countries bordering on Lake Chad have quadrupled their populations – yet one rarely if ever hears about population issues from the AGWers. Talk about species loss and desertification.

    Agreed, the Lake Chad example in An Inconvient Truth could have been far more nuanced. Very easy to watch and think ‘this is all due to climate change’ when climate change was only one of many intertwined issues, with the water diversion (to support the increased population) and the removal of trees (burned by the increased population) likely (use that word because I haven’t looked closely at the science around it and thus don’t know) more important than Global Warming in terms of the Lake Chad’s dessication.

    For the past four years, I have considered myself a left skeptic precisely because the current direction of the climate debate will cause long-term harm to the overall environmental movement.


    Without dealing with Global Warming (and it human contributory factors), just where do you think we’ll be in 50 or 100 years.

    Looked at the predicted extinction rates? Sea level rise? Disruption to water supplies? Disrupted weather patterns? At what point would it become the dominant environmental issue, in your opinion?

    And, since Global Warming could overwhelm all other issues …

    But to discuss population is almost taboo – certainly a direct result of Ehrlich’s extremism in the late 1960s – –

    This is a serious problem in terms of discussion.

    Now, there is a reasonable argument (see Rosling about this — eloquently lays out his theory for a natural peaking (and, perhaps, plateauing — if not a decreasing from) in the 9-10 billion range) that there is a natural peaking coming. Rosling also advocates that we look to seeing how to cope with that size population amid climate change (adaptation).

    And, just as too many green groups are talking about “green jobs” and ‘clean energy’ without leading with climate change as one of the reasons, the absence of discussion of population in the face of (real and percieved) political fall out for doing so isn’t the right path. Yet, amid a developed world that spends how much more on fertility research than contraceptive research and where “family planning” is a 4-letter world for a good share of the American electorate, what is the right path forward?

    of which the current AGW cant is a near perfect copy. One of the primary reasons Copenhagen failed was that most South nations aspire to significantly higher standards of living – and thus, much higher energy consupmtion per capita. Although Westerners consume far more energy per capita today, that will not remain so in the future. And to insist otherwise is colonialist.

    And … what should be done is to help them leap frog to more efficient use of cleaner energy sources rather than helping them develop through our legacy energy system. Africa is booming in cell phones. They aren’t putting copper wires to pull out to replace with fiber optics to then put up wireless, they are leapfrogging to that last. The ‘developed’ world should help them (World Bank and otherwise) do the same with energy services: leap frog to 21st century technology rather than shiny versions of 1920s technology.

    Population and consumption pressures will far exceed any impacts that AGW has over the next 50 years. And yet AGW steals 95% of the oxygen from the room.


  • 2 John Egan // Feb 20, 2012 at 2:03 am

    You’re sounding more like Rick Santorum every day.

    Anyone who does not share Santorum’s beliefs cannot be a true Christian.
    Anyone who does not share your AGW conclusions cannot be honest.

    And that is why the left is so profoundly unappealing in this generation. The preachiness is bad enough – – add to that a nice helping of dystopia and they go running for the exits.

    If you doubt me, check out the political maps of Europe/North America/Oceania in the late 1990s vs now. We are about to be swept away – not by rising ocean levels – but by a tide of rightist hegemony.

    Throughout our disagreements –
    I have thought you wrong –
    And you have thought me dishonest.

    That explains everything.

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