Provoked by questionable propaganda, a group of scientists is setting out to offer an antidote.
There has long been a shadowy campaign to teach schoolchildren that climate change is a hoax. But last year, the Heartland Institute kicked off a firestorm when it sent a book questioning the scientific consensus on climate change to tens of thousands of high school science teachers across the country. According to Alexandra Moore, a Senior Education Associate at the Paleontological Research Institution, it inspired her and her colleagues to respond in kind:
"We had already been working on a book called The Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change, and were about to send it to the printer. But the sheer inaccuracy and broad reach of the Heartland Institute's propaganda reminded us that we shouldn't just be preaching to the converted. So we started talking about how to raise funds and send a copy to every single high school science teacher in the country."
That effort is now well underway, and through crowdfunding platform Give Gab, the group has already raised more than $73,000 of an $86,000 goal. The aim, says Moore, is not just to counter the overt propaganda of climate denial groups like Heartland. It's also simply to correct a very real deficit in teaching resources:
"There was a study done that suggested that 4% of content in undergraduate science textbooks covered the topic of climate change. And it's likely considerably less than that at the high school level. That's compounded by the fact that only a tiny fraction of high school science teachers have an earth sciences background—which is where climate change is most commonly taught—so you end up with teachers being asked to teach something they don't have a background in, and that they don't have resources to help them with. And yet it's arguably the single most important scientific topic for the wellbeing of communities in the 21st Century."
Moore is also under no illusions about the challenges posed by widespread denial or misunderstanding of the topic in broader society. Given a decline in trust of academic and media institutions, Moore argues that we need to start the conversation much closer to home:
"People tend to trust people who know them, and who talk like them. If your neighbor, who you know and trust, swears something is true, it carries a lot of weight. Perhaps more so than peer-reviewed or popular science journals. Teachers have an opportunity to shift that conversation—by talking about the very real, overwhelming evidence that change is happening, and that it's urgent. For every teacher we get a book to, there is a multiplier effect of 100. Ultimately, we reach thousands and thousands of students. And it will be students who will make the change."
In addition to covering the science of climate change, its impacts, and how we can mitigate and adapt to it—the Teacher-Friendly Guide to Climate Change also spends a lot of time talking about the basis of belief, and how emotional reactions can cloud our judgement or bias our understanding of a topic. That's important, says Moore, not just to counteract the well-funded groups that are seeking to sow discord or confusion on the topic, but also to give teachers and students alike the tools they need to process a complex, overwhelming and often emotionally draining topic:
"A teacher needs to feel comfortable with what they are teaching. And you don’t want to feel like you are needlessly scaring your students—you have to give them some place to turn. Every challenge is an opportunity. So give teachers and students a path to making a difference in their own lives, and in their community, that they can see."
For anyone wanting to get involved with this project, you can donate to the crowdfunding campaign here, or buy a print copy via the PRI website. Digital copies of the book are also free to download, but obviously every purchase helps to get this book into the hands of more teachers who need it.