From the Heartland: An Inside Look at the Extreme Right’s War on K-12 Climate and Environmental Education

Kids Learning About Pika Habitat
America’s extreme right has been attacking climate change and environmental education in schools for decades using a variety of tactics aimed at keeping it from becoming core  knowledge our children have upon graduation.

The recent revelation that the Heartland Institute was pledged $100,000 in anonymous funds to develop a K-12 school curriculum to inject how controversial climate change science is is just one of these tactics.

It has been alleged, per a set of leaked internal documents, that the Institute, a free-market policy and advocacy organization, is again working to undermine K-12 climate change education. The leaked documents, which Heartland claims were illegally leaked and faked, are not needed to examine consistent tactics used by the extreme right to keep sound and needed climate change education out of America’s K-12 classrooms.

5 Tactics for Mis-Educating Kids About Climate Change

Here are 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.  These same groups have used this technique, for example, to say that the doctrine of creationism should be given equal time in American science classrooms with the science of evolution.

Though climate change science is settled within the scientific community,  the simple, loud assertion that it remains “uncertain” has a chilling effect on it being used in the classroom and there are thousands of teachers who become nervous about even teaching subjects perceived as controversial.  Moreover, state and school district curricula designers are likewise deterred from promoting climate change education due to the persistent and undeserved cloud of scietific controversy.  Planting seeds of doubt and treating a subject as controversial was a tried and true method used by the tobacco industry during prime smoking and health debates.

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.  It is taught in journalism schools, is considered professional rigor and is a door to exploitation by the extreme right.  Even when a subject is largely without serious scientific controversy, journalists will often find a contrarian and give his or her viewpoint equal time. We saw this practice in operation for many years with respect to smoking.  Each time a public health agency or university would issue a new study on how smoking contributed to cancer, the tobacco industry invariably appeared in the same article asserting that it was not yet proven that smoking caused cancer.  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.

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.  The alleged Heartland Institute documents say that “Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective.”  In reality, America’s principals and teachers are not alarmists.  They are reflective of American society and are made up of all kinds of people with all kinds of religious and political views.  What they share, however, is a desire to provide the most professionally delivered and helpful education possible to our children.  They are also highly responsive to community norms and parent comments 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.

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.