BELFAST, Maine — Last week, thousands of science teachers across the nation, including several in Maine, got a special delivery from an organization trying to convince them that scientists are split on the science of global climate change.
“It’s a pathetic attempt at trying to sway some people’s minds,” Paul Mayewski, director of the University of Maine’s Climate Change Institute, said during a phone interview Monday. “There’s a tremendous amount of misinformation.”
The mail, which includes a book and DVD, came from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that wades into debates ranging from education reform and health care to hydrofracking and, most notably of late, climate change.
The title of the booklet they sent: “Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming.” The DVD rejects the human role in climate change, arguing that rising temperatures have been caused primarily by natural phenomena rather than emissions and pollution. It also included a letter saying that the “science isn’t settled” and that there was an ongoing, “vibrant debate” among scientists.
Multiple studies conducted in recent years have opposed the Heartland claim, finding that roughly 97 percent of scientists specializing in climate research agree not only that climate change is happening, but also that human activity has dramatically contributed to warming trends.
It’s unclear how many of the 25,000 initial mailers made their way to Maine classrooms, but some Maine teachers have reported receiving them.
Mickie Flores, a middle school science teacher at Deer Isle-Stonington Elementary School, found the mailer in her inbox when she arrived at school last Monday. She said the Heartland mailings have created a stir among science teachers, who are vetting the information and trying to determine how to best handle it in their classrooms.
Flores, who was a semifinalist for Maine Teacher of the Year in 2015, said during an interview last week that she plans on using this as a “teachable moment” for her students. She hadn’t yet watched the video included in the package or read through everything it contained, but had thumbed through some of contents.
She plans on having her students look at the claims made by Heartland, comparing and contrasting them with other scientific findings in the field. She said the students could conduct their own experiments to verify some of the science. For example, using a modified soda bottle to simulate the greenhouse effect.
“Education today, under Common Core, is all about critical thinking and making evidence-based decisions,” Flores said.
The Heartland Institute is expected to send out 175,000 more of these mailers in coming weeks and months, according to PBS Frontline.
Mayewski said he likes Flores’ approach, and says that teachers should consider comparing Heartland’s claims with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. He said the IPCC report was based on the findings of thousands of climate scientists, had 500 authors and has been thoroughly vetted through peer review.
The Heartland book is based on the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change report (NIPCC), which was created by three authors and 35 contributors to counter the IPCC findings, but without undergoing the same strict scientific peer review process as the IPCC.
The Heartland campaign has met strong criticism from both education and science groups, including the National Center for Science Education.
Before venturing into promotion of climate change skepticism, Heartland was best known for its tobacco advocacy on behalf of cigarette companies. More recently, the company has openly acknowledged that cigarette smoking does cause deaths, and has instead been promoting smokeless vaping products and “harm reduction” smoking practices.
A 2016 study conducted by Yale University found that while the consensus among Americans on climate change isn’t as strong as it is among scientists, it’s still overwhelming. Yale found that about 70 percent of Americans believed climate change is happening, while 12 percent denied it. About 53 percent of Americans said they thought climate change was largely caused by human activity, while 32 percent disagreed.
Yale also found that 28 percent of Americans believed that “there’s a lot of disagreement among scientists” over climate change, and just under half believed that most scientists are in agreement.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.