Climate deniers ejected from teachers conference for deceptive comic book – The Washington Post
To science teachers attending a recent convention, the comic book titles “Simon the solar-powered cat” seemed unremarkable at first. The story began with Simon, an orange-and-white cat, begging for more food in typical feline fashion.
But on Page 5, the story took an unusual turn: A “friendly scientist” explained that Simon subsisted not on kibble, but on carbon dioxide. The scientist concluded that CO2 was a “miracle molecule” that fueled all life on Earth by helping plants turn sunlight into food.
That message and the comic book were the brainchild of the CO2 Coalition, a group that rejects the scientific consensus that carbon emissions are causing catastrophic climate change. The group claims that it distributed about 700 comic books to teachers at the National Science Teaching Association’s convention in Atlanta last month before being kicked out of the event.
“We were overwhelmed by the positive response from the teachers at the convention,” Gregory Wrightstone, executive director of the CO2 Coalition, said in an interview. “In fact, by the second day, we had handed out all of the comic books we had brought.”
The episode, details of which have not previously been reported, raised concerns among scientists and education experts that the teachers could spread climate misinformation to their students. It comes as states take divergent approaches to climate instruction in public schools, with New Jersey requiring students to learn about climate change in nearly every class and the Texas Board of Education calling for science textbooks to emphasize the “positive” effects of fossil fuels.
A large majority of climate scientists agree that humans are causing global warming by emitting massive amounts of CO2 and other greenhouse gases. Humanity must rapidly reduce these emissions, scientists say, or face catastrophic consequences such as dramatic sea level rise over the next few decades.
“By focusing 100 percent on this idea that plants need CO2, they’re intentionally misleading people by avoiding the real problems of CO2, which they didn’t talk about at all,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University. “It’s kind of like if you’re talking about cigarettes, and all you talk about is how cool they make you look.”
The influence of climate denial groups has waned over the past several decades, as the science has become clearer and the impacts of global warming have become starker. But the Virginia-based CO2 Coalition, which describes its mission as informing policymakers and the public of the “important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy,” has persisted in spreading its message.
Members of the coalition, which has received money from far-right organizations and donors with ties to the fossil fuel industry, ran a booth at the National Science Teaching Association’s convention. They spent the first day distributing three comic books and accompanying lesson plans to some of the roughly 6,500 attendees.
All of the comics featured three young sisters named Sophia, Ariana and Elyssa — the owners of Simon the cat — and their neighbor, a scientist named Mr. Gordon. In a book titled “Once upon a time: A true story about the miracle molecule — carbon dioxide,” Gordon tells the sisters that CO2 has net benefits for the planet.
“Everything green in our very green world owes its existence to carbon dioxide,” Gordon says to them. “And every person and every animal … are built from the carbon in CO2, which we get from eating vegetables and meat.”
While it is true that CO2 helps plants grow, its accumulation in the atmosphere will have net negative effects for plants and people alike, Dessler said. Telling kids they need CO2 to survive, he said, “is like telling a drowning person they need water to survive. It’s not helpful.”
On the second day of the convention, an official with the National Science Teaching Association asked members of the CO2 Coalition to stop distributing their materials or leave, according to a YouTube video uploaded by the coalition.
“You can take down your literature or you can go home — it’s your choice,” NSTA chief operating officer Ryan Foley says in the video. When Wrightstone refuses to comply, Foley responds, “All right, then you’re being kicked out. You should pack up and get out.”
When coalition members requested a booth at the convention, they signed a contract certifying that their materials were consistent with the association’s position statement on the teaching of climate science, NSTA executive director Erika Shugart said in an email. But then they violated the contract, she said.
In addition to the comic books, she said, coalition members circulated a pamphlet that criticized the position statement, which recognizes the “overwhelming scientific consensus” that the “Earth’s climate is changing, largely due to human-induced increases in the concentrations of heat-absorbing gases” such as CO2.
Debating the science
The CO2 Coalition does not disclose its source of funding, and it declined to do so for this story. But in 2017, the coalition received $170,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation and more than $33,000 from the Charles Koch Institute, according to tax filings obtained by the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group.
The Mercer Family Foundation — financed by New York hedge fund executive Robert Mercer and directed by his daughter Rebekah — has also helped finance the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank that has denounced climate science as rigged. Heartland in 2017 mailed some 200,000 teachers books titled “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.”
It remains unclear whether the Mercers have continued to fund the coalition. Wrightstone said in an email that although “we cannot release details on our funding sources,” the “vast majority” of donors are individuals making small contributions. While the CO2 Coalition paid an artist to create the comic books, the members of the group’s Education Committee are unpaid volunteers, he said.
These volunteers include William Happer, a physicist at Princeton University who has challenged the idea that carbon dioxide could damage the planet. Under President Donald Trump, Happer served as a senior director on the National Security Council, where he oversaw a controversial initiative to reassess the federal government’s analysis of climate science.
Sharon Camp, a retired high school science teacher, designed the lesson plans accompanying the comic books. One lesson encourages teachers to use beads, Legos or Styrofoam balls to help students visualize CO2 molecules.
Camp, who taught Advanced Placement environmental science at Walton High School in Marietta, Ga., for 15 years, said students should be allowed to reach their own conclusions about climate science. “This is the only branch of science where you are not allowed to debate, you are not allowed to question,” she said in an interview. “Science is not supposed to work that way.”
Climate in the classroom
The coalition’s efforts come as some states have failed to update their standards for teaching climate change in public schools, leaving students at risk of learning incorrect ideas.
In a 2020 report, the National Center for Science Education and the Texas Freedom Network Education Fund graded all 50 states on their standards for teaching climate change. The groups examined whether the standards helped students understand that climate change is real, caused by humans, and already affecting nature and society, among other criteria.
Twenty-seven states scored a B+ or better. Of the rest, 20 scored a C+ or lower. In the coal state of West Virginia, the standards require students to debate climate change in their science classrooms, despite little debate among scientists. Those standards received a D. And in Alabama, which received an F, the standards suggest that human activity “may have caused” a rise in global temperatures, similarly downplaying the scientific consensus.
In March, the Republican-dominated Texas State Board of Education altered its internal guidance to say science textbooks should emphasize the “positive” aspects of fossil fuels, a leading cause of global warming. As a result, the state would probably still score an F if the report were conducted today, said Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education.
Some Democratic-led states have moved in the opposite direction. New Jersey in 2020 became the first state to adopt learning standards obligating teachers to instruct kids about climate change across grade levels and subjects.
Shannon Falkner, an English teacher at Chatham High School in Chatham, N.J., said her freshman English students have written climate fiction, or “cli-fi.” Some students have penned dystopian tales about flooded cities, while others have offered more hopeful stories about the nation’s transition to renewable energy. Falkner said the reaction from students has been largely positive, and no parents have complained about the assignment.
There is evidence that climate instruction is popular. About 77 percent of Americans agreed with the statement that “schools should teach about global warming” in a 2021 poll by Yale University’s Program on Climate Change Communication; about 22 percent disagreed.
“It’s actually one of the most supported policies we have measured,” said Tony Leisorowitz, director of the Yale program. Both the CO2 Coalition and conservative policymakers, he said, “are standing in front of the tide of public opinion and trying to hold it back with a piece of cardboard.”