Scientists step in after Idaho lawmakers remove climate curriculum

After the Heartland Institute announced it was sending a climate denial manual to every school in the country, a group of science teachers found a way to fight back.

If these students were in Idaho, they might not receive any lessons in climate science.
 (CREDIT: Getty Images)
If these students were in Idaho, they might not receive any lessons in climate science. (CREDIT: Getty Images)

For two years in a row, lawmakers in Idaho have successfully removed climate science from the state’s public school curriculum despite overwhelming public support from teachers and students. This year, when lawmakers successfully voted for a second time in February to remove key references to climate science from education standards, one representative defended the move by arguing that the decision didn’t prohibit teachers from teaching the science — only that it was no longer required for teachers to do so.

But critics of removing the climate references argued that the lack of statewide standards would leave teachers — especially those in more rural districts, where climate science is considered more politically controversial — without meaningful resources to help teach kids about climate change.

“We are here today not just for those students in classrooms across our state, but for tomorrow’s nurses, farmers, lawmakers, teachers, bankers, and citizens who deserve the very best science, and science education, not some watered down, censored version,” Dick Jordan, a retired high school science teacher, told legislators during a public hearing before the state’s House Education Committee in early February. “We can’t ignore science even when it makes us uncomfortable.”

Now, one group is working to bring climate science to the students no matter what. On February 13, one week after lawmakers approved the climate science-less standards, every public high school in the state will begin receiving The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change — a resource that a group of former science teachers hope will help educators combat misinformation about climate change at a time when lawmakers seem intent on censoring climate science from schools.


As we look forward to the coming decades, the most important challenges that we as a society face are grounded in the very connected issues of climate, energy, water, and soil,” Don Duggan-Haas, director of teacher programs at the Paleontological Research Institution and an author of the book, told ThinkProgress. “If we don’t understand what we’re doing with, and to, those resources, then we are in serious trouble.”

Aside from high-profile cases like Idaho, where lawmakers or education boards have specifically stepped in to quell what kind of climate science teachers are required to cover in their curriculum, students across the United States are generally exposed to at least some climate science during middle and high school. According to a 2016 survey by researchers at Penn State University and the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), three out of four science teachers spend at least one hour of their annual curriculum teaching climate science.

But the survey found that while 97 percent of actively publishing climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity, that consensus didn’t make its way into teaching — 30 percent reported teaching students that climate change is “likely due to natural causes,” while another 31 percent reported teaching climate change as an unsettled science. Less than a third of teachers surveyed knew that the consensus surrounding human activity and climate change was between 81 to 100 percent.

Organizations that routinely peddle climate misinformation have seized upon that gap in teacher understanding of the scientific consensus in an attempt to weaken climate science standards throughout the country.


Last May, the Heartland Institute — a think-tank that routinely challenges the consensus on climate science and counts Exxon and Koch-funded organization among its donorsmailed out 25,000 copies of a book titled Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming, along with an accompanying DVD, to science teachers around the country. The book and DVD asks teachers to “consider the possibility” that climate science isn’t settled, and encourages educators to teach about a “vibrant debate taking place among scientists.”

The goal, according to Heartland, was to eventually get a copy of the book to every science teacher in the country.

The move elicited vocal criticism from both science and education groups, with both the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) issuing statements in opposition to the book.

At the time, scientists at the Paleontological Research Institution were already working on a book, funded by the National Science Foundation, that would help make climate science accessible to teachers across the country. But with the news that the Heartland Institute was working to disseminate their version of climate science to every teacher in the nation, the work took on a renewed kind of importance.

What was supposed to be a short-run project for maybe 100 teachers suddenly became a campaign to counter the Heartland’s climate misinformation. After launching a crowdfunding campaign this summer, Duggan-Haas and his colleagues have been able to print thousands of books, with plans to ship them to every science teacher in New York, Idaho, Florida, North and South Carolina, New Hampshire, Iowa, and Nevada. If the crowd-funding campaign is successful enough, they, too, want to send books to every science teacher in the country.

It’s not a middle school or high school curriculum but rather a resource for the teacher to get them up to speed both on the physical science and the social science that makes teaching climate change a different kind of challenge than teaching photosynthesis for example,” Duggan-Haas said.

Duggan-Haas and his colleagues hope that by getting The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change into public schools around the country, teachers can begin to feel more comfortable with teaching a subject that has become so politically-charged in recent years. The guide is written specifically for teachers that might have a background in science but lack direct experience with climate or earth science, and even includes a Frequently Asked Questions section aimed at addressing persistent climate “myths,” like the idea that there has been no measured increase in global temperatures.


“While there is no shortage of credible science information that teachers can access (NOAA and NASA for example), this guide is different in that it speaks directly to teachers. It shares advice for what educators and students really need to know, and why,” Karin Kirk, a science education consultant who has worked with the authors of the book on separate projects, told ThinkProgress via email. “I love that this book is being used as the antidote to the Heartland Institute’s unwanted mailings, and even more than that I love the idea of an energized generation of students growing up with a solid understanding of this topic.”