The Truth About Climate Change in Schools

by | Nov 24, 2021 | Environment, Policy

Katie Worth is an Emmy and Edward R. Murrow award-winning investigative journalist, who was most recently with the PBS series “Frontline.” Her latest book is “Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America.” The book charts how climate change is (and isn’t) being taught to children all over the country. Worth spoke to Signal about the book, which features Texas prominently. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

In your book “Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America,” you’re going around different classrooms to see what children are being taught about climate change. What inspired you to take on that project?

A few different origin stories. But one of them was this project that I did at “Frontline.” I went to the Marshall Islands to work on a film that had to do with climate change and kids. And the kids there were just so fluid, and the way that they could talk about it was really impressive. One of those kids, Izerman, his parents were thinking of moving to the States. And so that of course raised this question, ‘well, if they move to the U.S., what will they learn about climate change?,’ which is of course trending, existentially in their homeland. And I went and talked to dozens and dozens of teachers, students, administrators, and parents. What I found was that in the U.S., first of all, there’s a lot of tension over this issue. And second that there are actually quite a lot of climate denial talking points being taught to children in this country.

You mention how many teachers will frame it as an ongoing debate. And, in fact, that can actually be even worse than just outright climate denial. And that there’s a historical aspect to this with what happened to teaching evolution.

I had been looking at how textbooks were treating climate change and I was just really horrified by how much doubt they included. Or they would give legitimate information about climate change, but then that information would be undermined by ‘yeah, but there’s the other side’ language. ‘Well many scientists believe that humans are causing climate change, but some propose that it’s natural.’ There’s a textbook that says something like ‘climate change can have positive effects and some less positive effects.’ It was just pretty stunning to me how much language was in there. So I went back and looked at the history with how evolution was treated in textbooks, it suddenly crystallized for me.

That point was very illuminating.

It’s all very well-documented with evolution that textbooks started to put evolution in high school biology textbooks in the teens and twenties, and then along came the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial.” And that put a freeze on the issue. The amount of words devoted to evolution in science textbooks plummeted. And they basically remain that way with a few exceptions through the 20th century. And it was because in places like Texas, the governor of Texas at the time…

I know who you’re talking about! ‘Of course God wants us to teach the Bible and that’s why it’s in English.(Editor’s note: The actual purported quote from Ferguson is: “If English was good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for Texas schoolchildren.”)

Yeah, she said, ‘I’ve been a Christian mother, I’m not going to let this kind of rot go into Texas schools’ basically. And she ordered the State Board of Education to ban human evolution from being mentioned in any textbook that was adopted in Texas. There were biology textbooks that basically said nothing about it for a long time. Mainly because they were worried about selling their textbooks in places like Texas. And so then the same thing happened with climate change. So from the people that I talked to in [the textbook] industry, basically there were some pretty explicit conversations that were had as they were writing these textbooks. It’s the major scientific issue of this century. We do need to include it, but we’re going to have to be very careful how we talk about it. It’s just like history repeating itself.

Ma Ferguson was her name. She was actually our first female governor of Texas. Another thing that you also talk about is the very insidious relationship that the fossil fuel industry has with teaching, and the lengths that they go to. Could you speak a little bit about that?

Absolutely. There’s this long history, essentially, of the fossil fuel industry taking and trying to get their messages into schools specifically because they are shaping the next generation narrative about history. You can do that through, like, advertising on cartoons or whatever, but [with] schools, you’re kind of taking advantage of this trusted relationship between children and their teachers. This dates to the fifties when American Petroleum Institute created this traveling show called “The Magic Barrel.” Hundreds of thousands of students saw this [show] about the magic barrel of oil that does all these things for our lives. So sure enough when this issue came up with climate change threatening the fossil fuel industries profits, one of the places they turned to battle potential regulation was classrooms. That not only affects what kids think today, but what adults will think tomorrow.

Recently our State Board of Education met to discuss a couple of things, including how climate change is taught in middle schools. This comes as there has been a lot of discussion over how to deal with books with anti-racism messages, or discussing LGBTQ issues. It almost seems that if certain politicians disagree with something, then our Texas school children aren’t going to hear about it.

There’s a lot of ways that adult politics insert [itself] in this domain of children. We would like to think that schools are somehow ideologically neutral. And kids go to school and learn the facts and they are prepared for future life. But, in fact, it does get super political. And it’s because it’s powerful shaping what the next generation thinks about the world. And it’s also emotional. People have legitimately a lot of opinions about what kids should learn. It’s really clear that climate change gets politicized so much so that you can roughly guess what a kid will learn about this phenomenon by knowing who controls their state’s legislature.

Another really interesting thing you bring up is that this younger generation of Americans are the most in favor of policies to stop climate change. Yet, it’s still a lower percentage than what you’ll see in other parts of the world.

First of all, yes, kids do care about this issue more than their elders and they have reason to, because it will affect their lives more than anyone else’s right? There’s also the matter that no matter what they’re taught at school, many of them do become really active on this issue. They recognize it as a crisis. But, the percentage of kids [in the U.S.] who accept that it’s a crisis or believe that it’s a crisis is lower than anywhere else in North America or Western Europe. And that’s not an accident. I sat in a classroom in my hometown of Chico, California, which is in the same county as Paradise, which famously burned down in a mega-fire in 2018. And I sat in on this class of kids who had been displaced by that fire and were learning in science class, a unit on climate change. These were seventh graders. And at some point after days of learning, seeing all this data, temperature records, learning about the greenhouse effect, one of them raised his hand and was like, ‘Hey, I’m confused because my parents say that climate change isn’t real.’ It was just really gutting, because he himself was arguably a climate refugee as well as everyone else sitting in that classroom. And yet here he was being told that the phenomenon that had absolutely contributed to his whole life being burned down wasn’t real.

Photo: Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

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A longtime writer and journalist, Jessica was thrilled to join the Texas Signal where she could utilize her unique perspective on politics and culture. As the Features and Opinion Editor, she is responsible for coordinating editorials and segments from diverse authors. She is also the host of the podcast the Tex Mix, as well as the co-host for the weekly SignalCast. Jessica attended Harvard College, is a onetime fitness blogger, and has now transitioned to recreational runner (for which her joints are thankful).

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