PAUL SMITHS, N.Y. — The Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank known for attacking climate science, has been mailing a slim, glossy book to public school teachers throughout the United States. The institute says it plans to send out as many as 200,000 copies, until virtually every science educator in America has one.
The book, “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,” presents the false premise that the evidence for human-driven climate change is deeply flawed. To understand where the Heartland Institute is coming from, consider a recent comment by its president, Joseph Bast, who called global warming “another fake crisis” for Democrats “to hype to scare voters and raise campaign dollars.”
The book was first published in 2015, to coincide with the Paris climate conference and influence policy makers. The second edition was released this year with an instructional DVD.
Public school teachers are not the only ones on the institute’s mailing list. College educators are getting copies of the book, too. One academic in Albany told me that hers arrived in an envelope bearing the headline of a New York Times article about an investigation into Exxon Mobil for possibly lying about climate change. “I was in a rush, and all I noticed was the word ‘climate’ in a New York Times headline,” she said. “That made me open it rather than throw it out.”
The cover letter inside, however, made the book’s premise clear. “Claims of a ‘scientific consensus’ ” on climate change, it read, “rest on two college student papers, the writings of a wacky Australian blogger, and a non-peer-reviewed essay by a socialist historian.” In fact, multiple surveys of the scientific literature show that well over 90 percent of published climate scientists have concluded that recent global warming is both real and mostly the result of human activity.
For example, a study in 2010 found that 97 percent of the 200 most-published authors of climate-related papers held the consensus position, and a survey in 2013 of 4,014 abstracts of peer-reviewed climate papers found 97 percent agreement. The Heartland-distributed book disputes the methods used in these and similar surveys but provides no definitive counterarguments against the overall weight of evidence. The fact is that survey after survey, involving multiple approaches and authors, finds a strong consensus among scientists who are most knowledgeable about climate change.
Ms. Noon introduces the book’s three authors as “highly regarded climate scientists.” Not quite true. Despite their academic credentials, none have the publication record of an accomplished expert in the field, though they may be lauded by the conservative media.This latest edition contains a foreword by Marita Noon, described by the book as a columnist for Breitbart and executive director of Energy Makes America Great.
Having been cautiously skeptical myself before reaching the consensus position, I remember that some legitimate uncertainty about the human contribution to global warming did exist within my specialty of paleoclimatology several decades ago. Since then, however, high-quality climate reconstructions from ice cores, tree rings, lake sediments and other geological sources, coupled with rigorous analyses of solar activity, volcanism and fossil fuel emissions, have made it clear that the recent warming is not simply a result of natural variability or cycles. Long after the newer, better data convinced me and the vast majority of other climate scientists of the powerful human role in global warming, climate-change deniers still cling to the outdated idea of natural causes.
Unfortunately, many teachers seem unaware of this. A survey of 1,500 American science teachers published last year in the journal Science found 30 percent of those surveyed said they emphasized in their classes that recent global warming “is likely due to natural causes.” Less than half also correctly identified the degree of consensus among climate scientists that human activities are the primary cause of global warming.
They may therefore be vulnerable to suggestions that they should “teach the controversy” for the sake of balance, particularly in places like Tennessee and Louisiana, where state law permits the teaching of alternative interpretations of evolution and climate change in public schools. The Heartland Institute is now exploiting this opportunity to influence the next generation on a national scale.
The book is unscientific propaganda from authors with connections to the disinformation-machinery of the Heartland Institute. In a recent letter to his members, David L. Evans, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, said that “labeling propaganda as science does not make it so.” He called the institute’s mass mailing of the book an “unprecedented attack” on science education.
Judging from the responses of educators I know who have received “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming” in recent weeks, most copies of it are likely to be ignored or discarded. But if only a small percentage of teachers use it as intended, they could still mislead tens of thousands of students with it year after year.