Leaked: Conservative Group Plans Anti-Climate Education Program

Earth from space. (Image credit: NASA)

Update, 4:55 pm ET: The Heartland Institute released a statement this afternoon calling the document leaks "criminal" and claiming that one of the documents, which purports to be the organization's climate change strategy, is faked. However, blogger Anthony Watts and geologist Robert Carter have confirmed online and to news organizations that they have been paid or pledged money by the Institute as outlined in the documents. James M. Taylor, a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, confirmed to ThinkProgress Green that the school educational project is ongoing. 

Leaked documents from the free-market conservative organization The Heartland Institute reveal a plan to create school educational materials that contradict the established science on climate change.

The documents, leaked by an anonymous donor and released on DeSmogBlog, include the organization's 2012 fundraising plan. It lists Heartland Institute donors, from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation (established by Koch Industries billionaire Charles G. Koch), to Philip Morris parent company Altria, to software giant Microsoft and pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

The climate change education project is funded so far by an anonymous donor who has given $13 million to the Institute over the past five years. Proposed by policy analyst David Wojick, who holds a doctorate in epistemology and has worked for coal and electricity generation companies, the project would create education "modules" written to meet curriculum guidelines for every grade level.

"Many people lament the absence of educational material suitable for K-12 students on global warming that isn't alarmist or overtly political," the report reads. "Heartland has tried to make material available to teachers, but has had only limited success."

Funding skepticism

Heartland focuses on free-market issues across the board, including promoting charter schools, lobbying for business-friendly finance, insurance and real estate rules and promoting prescription drug availability before full Food and Drug Administration testing.

In the area of climate change, the leaked documents revealed that the group funds vocal climate skeptics, including Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change founder Craig Idso ($11,600 per month), physicist Fred Singer ($5,000 plus expenses per month), and New Zealand geologist Robert Carter ($1,667 per month). They've also pledged $90,000 to skeptical meteorologist Anthony Watts, who blogs at WattsUpWithThat.com.

The documents also reveal a communications strategy aimed at "keep[ing] opposing voices out" of publications such as Forbes Magazine, where the audience is "reliably anti-climate."

On the education front, Wojick would be paid $5,000 per module, or $25,000 per quarter, according to the report's tentative estimates, to produce the Heartland climate curricula. The Institute's anonymous donor has pledged $100,000 to the project, which the Institute hopes to match from other donors.

Each module would inject skepticism into the scientific consensus on climate change. Example statements in the report include: "Whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy;" "Models are used to explore various hypotheses about how climate works. Their reliability is controversial;" and "Whether CO2 [carbon dioxide] is a pollutant is controversial." The modules would also teach that the idea of carbon dioxide as a pollutant is "controversial," arguing that carbon dioxide is crucial to life on Earth and that natural emissions are 20 times those of human emissions.

Creating controversy

In fact, while some of these statements may be politically controversial, they are not particularly scientifically controversial. For example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 Fourth Assessment Report, which synthesizes global scientific findings about climate change, states: "Since the start of the industrial era (about 1750), the overall effect of human activities on climate has been a warming influence. The human impact on climate during this era greatly exceeds that due to known changes in natural processes, such as solar changes and volcanic eruptions."

Likewise, while models cannot represent the climate system perfectly (thus the uncertainly in how much the Earth will warm for a given amount of emissions), climate simulations are checked and re-checked against real-world observations and are an established tool in understanding the atmosphere.

And while carbon dioxide is crucial for plant life, the carbon balance on Earth is a delicate cycle, with oceans and land able to absorb only so much CO2. Humans do emit only a fraction of the 750 gigatons of CO2 that move through the atmosphere each year, but small changes in the total amount can overwhelm so-called carbon "sinks" such as the ocean, resulting in important, and cumulative, changes in the atmosphere. [10 Ways the Weather Changed History]

"These documents are breathtaking, and they reveal what many of us have long suspected: That there is a campaign afoot by groups directly funded by the fossil fuel industry and right-wing foundations such as Koch Industries to mislead the public about climate change," Pennsylvania State University climatologist Michael Mann wrote in an email to LiveScience.

Other donors giving more than $10,000 a year to the Institute include Allied World Assurance Company, Amgen, USA, AT&T, Bayer Corporation, Comcast Corporation, GlaxoSmithKline and General Motors. Links to all documents can be found at DeSmogBlog.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.