Democrats condemn climate change skeptics for targeting teachers

House Democrats are denouncing a campaign by the Heartland Institute to inject classrooms with materials questioning the scientific consensus around climate change.

Three top Democrats have urged a libertarian think tank to stop mailing climate change skeptical classroom materials to teachers across America.

The ranking Democrats on the House committees overseeing education, natural resources and science condemned the group’s mass-mailing campaign and counseled teachers to throw away the materials when they arrive.

But the Heartland Institute said it has no intention of desisting: It has continued to send books and DVDs rejecting the human role in global warming to public school science teachers in all 50 states. Heartland project manager Lennie Jarratt said packages are also being distributed to science teachers at private and charter schools and to college professors.

An initial batch of 25,000 books was mailed out in early March, and two additional batches have been sent since, Jarratt said. In total, he said, more than 200,000 packages will be sent, with the goal of getting the materials into the hands of every science teacher in the country.

The packages contain a book titled “Why Scientists Disagree about Climate Change” and a related DVD; both dispute the scientific consensus that climate change is a crisis. Accompanying them is a cover letter from Jarratt, who leads Heartland’s Center for Transforming Education. The letter points teachers to an online guide to using the DVD in classrooms.

The campaign was first reported by FRONTLINE in collaboration with The GroundTruth Project.

The Heartland Institute says it will send the book "Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming" to every public school science teacher in the nation. (Photo by Brenna Verre/FRONTLINE)

The Heartland Institute says it will send the book “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” to every public school science teacher in the nation. (Photo by Brenna Verre/FRONTLINE)

“Lying to children about the world we live in to further corporate polluter profits is cruel,” said Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.), ranking Democrat on the Committee on Natural Resources in a statement released last week.

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.) of the Committee on Education and the Workforce told educators, “Public school classrooms are no place for anti-science propaganda, and I encourage every teacher to toss these materials in the recycling bin.”

“Is this a belated April Fools’ Day joke?” wrote Heartland executive director and CEO Joe Bast in response to the lawmakers’ statement. “If not, it should be. This is hilarious.”

Distributing materials on matters of public policy is part of Heartland’s mission, he said, “And no, we’re not going to stop because you happen to disagree with us.”

In an interview, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said that besides drawing attention to the issue, lawmakers have few options.

“It’s unfortunate that they are willing to skew information and put it in the minds of young people,” she said. “But in a free society, you can spread your information as you see fit, so there’s hardly anything we can do.”

Heartland has spent decades promoting doubt about climate change, and it embraces a variety of arguments to that end. At its 12th annual climate change conference last month in Washington, D.C., some speakers claimed that climate change isn’t happening. Others conceded it is happening, but that humans aren’t at fault. Others still argued that even if humans are the cause, change won’t be so bad for the planet.

The organization has long had allies in the Republican party, but its influence has grown with the election of President Donald Trump, who has called climate change a hoax. Trump chose Myron Ebell, a longtime ally of Heartland, to run his transition efforts for energy and the environment. Trump’s appointed administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has also expressed doubts about the human role in climate change, and as attorney general of Oklahoma sued the very agency he now runs 14 times, including over a plan to regulate climate-warming emissions.

Among Heartland’s most influential allies in Congress is Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House science committee and a keynote speaker at Heartland’s climate conference last month.

Asked about the mailing campaign, Smith’s spokeswoman, Kristina Baum, defended Heartland’s right to distribute what it wants.

“The Heartland Institute is welcome to send materials to schools, at no cost to taxpayers, whenever they want, just as environmentalist organizations routinely do,” she said.

The executive director of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), David Evans, said he was not aware of any such mailings from environmental groups. And representatives for a number of leading environmental groups, including Greenpeace, the Nature Conservancy, the Sierra Club and Climate Reality, said that while they have created educational materials, they have never blanket-mailed them to schools.

Heartland spokesman Jim Lakely said in an email that the organization’s mass mailing campaign is its “attempt to counter the wholly one-sided, alarmist presentation of climate science ” that is currently “deeply embedded in the curriculum of our public schools.”

Despite the scientific consensus around the human role in rising temperatures, there is no uniform national standard for how to teach global warming — each state sets its own science standards. Some of those guidelines are clear about how to teach climate change to children, while others send mixed messages about it.

To help guide teachers after Heartland’s packages began arriving in schools, Evans sent a memo to all 55,000 NSTA members reinforcing that scientists do not disagree about the causes of climate change, and referring educators to curricula supported by established climate science.

Evans said he first heard about the materials on a discussion board for science teachers. The comments were overwhelmingly negative, he said. “One person’s recommendation was to shred it. ‘I would hate for someone to find it and think it was reputable,’” Evans said, quoting a message on the board.

The discussion continued in the hallways of the NSTA’s annual conference in late March, Evans said, where teachers discussed who had received the Heartland material. He said there were several sessions on teaching climate science, and they were “largely standing room only.”

Bob Farrace, spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said principals will tend to advise their staff on how to handle climate change education depending on their political leanings.

“The lines are already drawn on climate change, and frankly, with last fall’s election, those lines are only becoming clearer and firmer,” he said. “For educators who are skeptical of what the climate science is telling us, this package will likely reinforce their views. But for the vast majority of educators who believe in science, it’s the kind of thing they won’t even give a second look.”

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between FRONTLINE and The GroundTruth Project examining climate change and its impact on women and children. Katie Worth is FRONTLINE’s inaugural FRONTLINE-Columbia Tow Journalism Fellow.


A version of this story also appeared on FRONTLINE on April 12, 2017