Time To Wake Up: Rhode Island’s Teachers Teach Climate Change and the Dishonest Heartland Institute
Mr. President, I have spoken before, as you know, about the fossil fuel industry’s persistent effort to undermine public understanding of climate change and to confuse people about the actual effects of carbon pollution on our atmosphere and oceans. I have mentioned Drexel University Professor Robert Brulles’ follow-themoney analysis, which reveals the complex network of organizations and funding—what we have called the web of denial—that is designed to obscure the fossil fuel industry’s fingerprints and to perpetuate the fossil fuel industry’s climate denial. Dr. Brulle calls this “a deliberate and organized effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate.” That is what this industry is up to.
One front group for that industry is called the Heartland Institute. It is a nice name, but they are not very nice people. For decades, the Heartland Institute has played a prominent role disseminating alternative facts and fake science at the behest of its industry funders. They have a long history of doing the bidding of industry funders. In the 1990s, it was teamed up with Philip Morris to challenge the facts about the health risks of tobacco. Using the same tactics—along with funding from the Koch Family Foundations, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel interests—it undermines public confidence in the established scientific consensus about climate change. Heartland is quite shameless in its methods, once sponsoring a billboard comparing those who accept the science of global warming to the Unabomber.
For my 180th “Time to Wake Up” speech, I would like to explore the Heartland Institute’s latest gambit, which is to airdrop climate denial propaganda directly into children’s classrooms.
This spring, Heartland delivered packages to hundreds of thousands of K–12 and college-level science teachers across the country. These materials were designed to have a veneer of credibility. Each one was stamped with the headline “Study: Science Teachers Giving Unbalanced Education on Climate Change.” This intriguing story was attributed to something called Environment & Climate News.
Inside the package, the teachers found a report titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.” It was issued by something called the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change.
As a bonus, each teacher also received a DVD copy of the “History of Climate Change in Greenland,” produced by Idea Channel.
A cover letter from Heartland’s Center for Transforming Education—transforming education into propaganda, I assume is how that sentence gets finished—asks teachers to “consider the possibility” the science of climate change isn’t settled. That is the package they got. Let’s look behind that veneer. When you do, the smell gets pretty rotten.
It turns out that the Environment & Climate News is not actually news. It is not a news outlet. It is the monthly newsletter of, guess who, the Heartland Institute. They are citing themselves, masquerading their newsletter as a news outlet. The foolishness goes on.
Their featured article, “Study: Science Teachers Giving Unbalanced Education on Climate Change” was written by a person named Bonner Cohen, who is a featured expert—guess where—with the Heartland Institute, who previously held senior positions in—believe it or not—Philip Morris front groups.
Their Nongovernmental International Panel On Climate Change sounds like a well-known actual authority: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The actual Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a United Nations-sanctioned, Nobel Prize-winning scientific body that reports the findings of thousands of climate scientists from hundreds of countries. The Heartland group—this so-called Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change—is a misleading decoy designed to mimic the real entity.
The three experts who wrote the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change report Heartland pushed out do not have degrees in climate change modeling, do not having degrees in climate science. All are paid by Heartland. All their claims have been repeatedly debunked by real science.
There is one faint hint of accuracy in this propaganda publication Heartland put out. There actually is a PBS series called Idea Channel. However, the Idea Channel DVD in the Heartland packet has nothing to do with that series. It was actually produced by something called the Free To Choose Network, whose funding, like Heartland’s, is linked to the fossil fuel industry. It is another masquerade designed to mislead.
One of the tricks of Heartland’s little scheme was to dupe legitimate scientists into participating. One of the experts interviewed, Rie Oldenberg, the curator at Greenland’s Narsaq Museum, was told she was participating in a video on Norse history for the Discovery Channel. When she found out what she had been duped into, she said: “I am somewhat horrified.”
Other participants are frequent fliers in the climate denial circus, like Willie Soon, who received over a million dollars in funding since 2001 from the Koch brothers, the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, and other fossil fuel interests. The year the video was released, Willie Soon received nearly $20,000 from Free To Choose.
The Heartland cover letter asked teachers to “consider the possibility” the science of climate change isn’t settled. Even that is not new. This echoes the infamous Big Tobacco declaration, “Doubt is our product.” The heart of the fossil fuel industry’s scheme is to undermine legitimate science with false doubts. Because of the financial stakes behind industry science denial and because of the communications advantages propaganda has over real science—you don’t need to waste a lot of time in peer review, for instance, you go straight to the networks—this scheme is a real problem for institutions like our schools that cherish and support real science. All this masquerade and subterfuge by Heartland Institute looked a lot like fraud.
Senators Schatz, Warren, Markey, and I wrote to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to ask whether DeVos and her staff at the Department of Education helped or coordinated with the Heartland Institute on this scheme to pollute our classrooms with phony science.
That simple request drew quite the response from our friends at the Heartland Institute.
“Your letter is a monumental misuse of your office and a betrayal of the trust of your constituents,” wrote Heartland CEO Joseph Bast. He called our letter “defamatory” and “despicable.”
“Shame, shame, shame,” he proclaimed in bold font—this, unironically, from that same classy group that put up the billboard comparing anyone who accepts climate science to the Unabomber, just to give you an idea of their level of shame.
Even that little outburst is considerably nicer than in 2015 when Bast called some of us “fascists” and “ethically challenged . . . mental midgets.”
Why is the Heartland Institute so very touchy? We obviously hit a nerve. The lesson is, poke an imposter and the imposter gets very agitated. Fortunately, teachers are smart people who follow real science. Imposters like Heartland that pretend their stuff is coming through an Idea Channel that it isn’t, that mimic the name of real organizations to try to fool people, that pretend their newsletter is real news and package the whole thing up as if it is intended to be helpful to teachers face an uphill battle against informed educators.
One example, Nebraska recently approved new State standards requiring climate change to be taught in schools. According to the Omaha World-Herald, Nebraska’s new standards “challenge kids to think and act like scientists,” which is exactly what our science classrooms ought to do.
One Omaha resident encouraged the school board to “do the ethical thing and tell the next generation what’s going on with climate.” A science professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln said the standards represented “good solid science, good solid science education.”
This is what we need in science education—real-life scientists from real institutions of higher learning engaging and helping our children learn. What we don’t need are fossil fuel front groups pumping out more phony science to pollute public education, just like they pollute our oceans and atmosphere.
I have been pretty heartened to hear about this from teachers working in classrooms in my home State of Rhode Island.
Holly Emery teaches science to seventh and eighth graders at Exeter West Greenwich Junior High School. Her students focus on solutions to climate change—something we could use a bit more of around here. They examined Germany’s plan to significantly reduce its carbon emissions. Students were so motivated by what they heard, they requested to share their projects with other grades in the school. One of Miss Emery’s students said: “This is important and the other kids need to know.”
Students in Jane Ramos’s eighth grade science class at Gallagher Middle School in Smithfield learn about climates around the world. They read, research, and make slides about the human contributions to climate change, including the carbon cycle, burning fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect, deforestation, livestock practices, and the production of methane. They discuss the effects of warmer oceans, expansion of water, melting ice, and rising seawater levels. These are important issues for Rhode Island, the Ocean State.
Science students from Brenda Dillmann’s class at South Kingstown High School planted grass on the Narrow River salt marsh as part of a major unit on climate. During the lessons, the students learned about the role that salt marshes play as carbon sinks—absorbent carbon from the atmosphere. They went out and got dirty and planted by hand some 35,000 seedlings of 3 different types of salt marsh grasses.
Since 2007, more than 500 students have become climate experts in Kara Ratigan and Renee Hadfield’s fourth grade class at James H. Eldredge Elementary School in East Greenwich. Ratigan and Hadfield have developed a curriculum that integrates climate change across all subject areas. For the kids, the year begins with a visit to a local assisted living facility, where students pair up with a senior buddy. The students interview their senior buddies, asking how the climate has changed over time and looking for lessons that can be applied today.
In their math class, students learn how to read charts and graphs and how to frame a convincing argument through data. In social studies, the students learn about the regions of the United States, about their differing climates, and about how each is affected by climate change. In science, the students learn about erosion and weather patterns and the effects of human activity on rock, soils, and sediments. Students make observations about climate change all around them and delve into society’s responses to the harms of climate change.
This past spring, the Norman Bird Sanctuary, in Middletown, hosted seventh graders for a beach ecology lesson at nearby Third Beach. The director of education, Rachel Holbert, and her staff led a discussion with the students about the greenhouse effect associated with burning fossil fuels. They explained how the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere puts stress on the oceans, undermining the oceans’ ability to stabilize the global climate and, of course, leading, as we have seen, to a higher frequency and strength of extreme weather events, such as powerful hurricanes. The kids’ lesson ended with a focus on solutions. If the oceans are the heart and lungs of the climate, what can prevent future damage?
Teachers like them play such an important and formative role in helping the next generation understand the world we live in. They teach our children to make observations, collect information, and use evidence to formulate conclusions. They are honest and they are decent.
The fossil fuel industry, on the other hand, is neither honest nor decent. The filthy hand of the fossil fuel industry has, regrettably, a firm grip on this Congress. There is a reason that we never do anything about climate change, and it does not involve the merits of the issue. It involves the politics of the industry. We have, perhaps, not yet plumbed the bottom of how low they are willing to go, but, surely, this is a new low to reach with their game of phony science, masquerade, and subterfuge into our children’s classrooms, like Ms. Emery’s, Ms. Ramos’s, Ms. Dillmann’s, Ms. Ratigan’s, and Ms. Hadfield’s. These honorable, decent teachers help their students gain a fact-based understanding of the changing world around them and the issues facing our society. Unfortunately, these Heartland Institute materials may require those teachers to teach about politics and propaganda as well.
I yield the floor.
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