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Climate Change Denial Supplementary Materials

Teachers often feel the need to use supplementary materials when covering climate change, particularly because the topic is often left unaddressed in state science standards, curricula, and textbooks. Unfortunately, climate change deniers have developed and are distributing supplementary materials (such as lesson plans and DVDs) that foster confusion about the occurrence, causes, and consequences of climate change.

Such climate change denial supplementary materials may be used by teachers who are themselves climate change deniers, who lack the scientific competence to recognize the materials as flawed, or who misguidedly seek to provide “both sides” of a supposed scientific controversy. Teachers may also be pressured by parents, colleagues, or administrators to use such materials in their classrooms.

If you know of a teacher who is using climate change denial supplementary materials in his or her classroom, or if you are being pressured to use such materials in your own classroom, get in touch with NCSE and we can help you stand up for accurate climate education.

Climate change denial supplementary materials typically manifest two of the pillars of climate change denial: that climate change is bad science and that acceptance of climate change is driven by radical ideological motivations and leads to undesirable social consequences. And the argument for their use in the classroom typically involves appeal to the third pillar: that it is only fair to acknowledge a scientific controversy over climate change.

But as NCSE’s Mark McCaffrey explained (PDF, pp. 25-29) in The Earth Scientist, “having students engage in a ‘phony’ debate about whether climate change is happening, and whether humans are responsible, is counterproductive. Research has shown, and experience confirms, that teaching ‘both sides’ of climate change is not sound, and can lead to more student confusion, not less.”

The following are examples of climate change denial supplementary materials that are reportedly in use in educational settings (whether or not they were designed for use in such settings), with brief descriptions of their content and their reception by the scientific and educational communities. The descriptions are not intended to serve as full reviews, and the list of examples is not intended to be exhaustive.

The Great Global Warming Swindle

A 72-minute documentary billed as “the definitive response to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth” that aired on Channel 4 in Britain in 2007, The Great Global Warming Swindle identifies a number of supposed contradictions and inconsistencies in the evidence for climate change, claiming, “many senior climate scientists say the actual scientific basis for the theory is crumbling.” The scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is supposed to be, as the film’s title suggests, a hoax aimed at securing research funding and promoting ideologies hostile toward capitalism and industrialization; the effects of accepting the reality of climate change are claimed to harm the poor in Africa and the rest of the developing world. And by alleging that scientists who deny climate change are unjustly persecuted, silenced, or ignored, the film in effect argues that it is only fair to acknowledge a scientific controversy over climate change. In 2007, climate change deniers were reportedly funding distribution of the film in British schools.

Response from the scientific community to The Great Global Warming Swindle was uniformly negative. John Houghton, a former cochair of the IPCC’s Scientific Assessment Working Group, described (PDF) it as “a mixture of truth, halftruth and falsehood put together with the sole purpose of discrediting the science of global warming as presented by the main world community of climate scientists and by the IPCC.” The British Antarctic Survey responded with a statement that insisted, “The evidence for an unusual recent global warming is unequivocal, and it is very likely that this is due to human activity ... Recent changes in solar activity bear no resemblance to temperature changes. ... [And] Channel 4 used seriously flawed data on which to base their programme.” And reacting to the initial broadcast of the film, Martin Rees, then the president of the Royal Society of London, commented, “Those who promote fringe scientific views but ignore the weight of evidence are playing a dangerous game.”

Unstoppable Solar Cycles

A fifteen-minute documentary produced by the Free To Choose Network in 2008, Unstoppable Solar Cycles acknowledges that climate changes, but insists that natural solar cycles are responsible, arguing that the Little Ice Age, ending about 1850, shows that the current upswing in global temperature is the effect of a natural cycle. The student narrator says, “Some of my friends think the debate [over the causes of global warming] is over. Now I’m not sure.” The scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change is described as the result of “a corrupted process”; concern is expressed about efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change creating “disaster for poor countries and hardship for all of us.” Accepting the scientific consensus is described as “shutting ourselves out from the real truth which is what science is all about after all.” Unstoppable Solar Cycles is distributed to teachers by Izzit.org, a branch of the Free to Choose Network, as well as by the Heartland Institute, which reportedly sent unsolicited copies to schools in Canada in 2008.

Perhaps because of its brevity and its limited public exposure, Unstoppable Solar Cycles was not widely discussed by either the scientific or the educational communities. Susan Buhr, the Education and Outreach Director of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, evaluated Unstoppable Solar Cycles in 2011, accusing it of using “rhetorical tricks ... questions that are raised but not answered, false choices, and red herrings,” and concluding, “I would not use this video in class on purpose, because it is hard to dispel misconceptions after they have been introduced. People remember what they heard or saw, not how credible it was.” It is worth noticing that although the film claims that “Physics and Society, which is a publication of the American Physical Society with a membership of over 50,000 physicists, now welcomes debate of the question,” the journal is not a scientific publication, and the American Physical Society accepts the reality of climate change.

Understanding Climate Change: Lesson Plans for the Classroom

A collection of six lesson plans produced by the Fraser Institute in 2009 and freely available on-line, Understanding Climate Change: Lesson Plans for the Classroom purportedly “will help students learn about how our climate works and will teach them to critically evaluate the data that they are often presented.” The lessons claim that “[w]hether carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human actions have contributed to climate change is a matter of intense debate”; intimate that climate scientists are guilty of data mining (“whether by a selective use of data subsets or by graphing and charting tricks”) and suggest that efforts to control carbon dioxide emissions will harm the inhabitants of the developing world by diverting resources from supplying their medical, agricultural, and energy needs; and imply that the essential revisability of scientific knowledge requires the claims of climate change denialists to be taken seriously. The Fraser Institute reportedly intended to distribute copies of the lesson plans to all high schools in Canada.

Perhaps because of its limited public exposure, Understanding Climate Change: Lesson Plans for the Classroom was not widely discussed by either the scientific or the educational communities. A leading climate researcher, Andrew Weaver of the University of Victoria, reportedly described the lesson plans to the Vancouver Sun (March 6, 2008) as “agenda driven” and having “nothing to do with what the scientific consensus is,” adding, “There are factually correct statements there, but it’s like picking the data which supports a pre-conceived opinion.” Scott Mandia, a meteorology professor at Suffolk County Community College, described the lesson plans as “expert pieces of propaganda” on his blog in 2010, contending that they “include many of the oft-debunked arguments such as: CO2 lags not leads temperature, intense debate about the role of CO2 in global warming, human emissions are a fraction of natural emissions, carbon cycles are not well understood, models are unreliable, etc.,” and protesting, “These lessons are being sent to our children!”

Climate Change Reconsidered

“Climate Change Reconsidered” is a 2013 document prepared by the Heartland Institute’s Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (NIPCC) and sent, unsolicited, in a mass mailing to K–12 and college teachers in October 2013. A cover letter asked recipients, “Will you tell your students the ‘science is settled’ on global warming, as the United Nations’ International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claims it is? Or will you explain to them that real science is never settled—that the essence of science is skepticism …?” Also included was the “summary for policymakers” of a recent volume produced by the NIPCC, which was described as “comprehensive, objective, and faithful to the scientific method” and explicitly compared to the IPCC: “Like the IPCC’s reports, NIPCC’s report cite thousands of articles …” although it “arrives at conclusions very different from those of the IPCC.” Recipients were invited to inquire about having speakers from the NIPCC appear “in your classroom or at a school event.”

Although the NIPCC purports to be an authoritative counterpoint to the IPCC, which is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, it is in fact sponsored by the Heartland Institute, a partisan think tank that specializes in fighting government regulation of tobacco and fossil fuels, notorious for its billboard comparing those who accept the scientific consensus on climate change to the Unabomber. And although the NIPCC claims to be comprehensive, objective, and faithful to the scientific method, it is not. The NIPCC’s primary goal is to suggest that there is a scientific debate about climate change. There is not. At least three studies have shown that upward of 97% of climate scientists have concluded that human activity is warming the world’s climate system. (For details on these studies, see the Consensus Project.) The National Center for Science Education produced a flyer (color PDF, black-and-white PDF) explaining why using the NIPCC in classrooms is a bad idea.