By Bob Peterson
While hundreds of thousands of concerned global citizens march for science and climate justice, a massive corporate-financed disinformation campaign on climate change is flooding our nation’s schools.
The right-wing Heartland Institute, which is financed by the Koch brothers and other billionaires, is sending out 200,000 glossy books, Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, and an accompanying DVD to the country’s science teachers.
The purpose of their book is to sow confusion and doubt, not unlike previous campaigns the Heartland Institute has conducted, such as the one in the 1990s, financed by the tobacco company Philip Morris, to raise doubts about the dangers of second-hand smoke.
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, the Heartland Institute has for years “received funding from fossil fuel interests such as ExxonMobil and the coal magnate Koch brothers.” Heartland even sponsored a billboard campaign in 2012 casting climate change activists as “murderers, tyrants, and madmen.”
This campaign has come under recent criticism by Curt Stager in a New York Times op-ed, but his exposé touches only the tip of a massive iceberg. School textbooks rarely do the issue justice, teachers are not well-versed on the subject, and conservative politicians in many states frown on even discussing the issue. Moreover, the oil and coal industry continue to pour money into various pseudo-educational materials to obfuscate the truth.
Victories can be won against such corporate-financed curricular materials. Educator Bill Bigelow recounts how in 2012 a coalition of education and environmental groups, spearheaded by Rethinking Schools and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, exposed the cozy relationship between the coal industry and Scholastic, the world’s largest publisher of materials for children. After publication of an exposé of Scholastic’s propagandistic “The United States of Energy” in Rethinking Schools magazine, a campaign to pressure Scholastic to break its ties with the coal industry led to a New York Times editorial, “Scholastic’s Big Coal Mistake,” and then quickly to Scholastic pulling the curriculum off its website and promising not to shill for the coal industry any longer.
Last year the inadequacy of school textbooks on climate change led students, teachers, and climate activists to convince the Portland, Oregon, school board to adopt a climate justice resolution and to “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its root in human activities.”
Despite attacks by the Heartland Institute and other climate deniers, the Portland schools are moving forward engaging parents, community members, students and parents to create a climate justice curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade.
People interested in learning how to organize similar resolutions in their school district can visit the Rethinking Schools site and download a free Climate Justice Kit.
People can also make sure their school library and child’s teacher has a copy A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, edited by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart. The 410-page book contains resources, lessons, and engaging role-plays. Naomi Klein called it “an educators toolkit of our times.”
It is a good antidote to the poisons that are being spread by the Heartland Institute and other climate deniers.
As we march and organize for climate justice, the schools are an important battleground. Our children and grandchildren should have the right to learn the science behind climate change, the stories of those most affected, the impact on all living fauna and flora, and what they might do to work for climate justice.
Bob Peterson is a founding editor of Rethinking Schools, taught fifth grade at the La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and served for two terms as the president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. This article was originally posted on Peterson’s blog, Educate for Democracy.