Give Them the Facts

An interview with Katie Worth
Katie Worth (Emma Varsanyi)

Katie Worth is an investigative journalist who writes about the intersection of science and politics. Most recently, she worked for Frontline PBS for six years on multimedia projects, including the Emmy-winning interactive documentary The Last Generation, which focused on the effects of climate change in the Marshall Islands. Worth spoke with assistant managing editor Isabella Simon about her newly released book, Miseducation: How Climate Change Is Taught in America. This interview has been edited for clarity and length. You can listen to the full interview here:

Isabella Simon: Your book analyzes the question of how climate change is taught, or frequently not taught, in schools across the United States. What motivated you to choose this topic for your research?

Katie Worth: I was on a reporting trip to the Marshall Islands, a low-lying atoll in the Pacific Ocean and one of the nations whose very existence is threatened by climate change. It’s only ten feet above sea level. While talking to kids there, I was stunned by how fluently they could talk about climate change in a way that is not common in the United States.

One of the kids that we met was a nine-year-old named Izerman. His family was considering moving to Oklahoma because they had extended family there and they wanted their kids to get a better education. That immediately brought up the question: What would their kids learn about climate change in Oklahoma?

I wound up spending time at the high school in the Oklahoma town where Izerman’s family was considering moving. Of the five or six kids that I spoke to, only one had ever heard a teacher bring up climate change. That gave me a sense of the real disparities in climate change education: in some places there’s a serious discussion around the subject, and in others it’s absent. I wanted to answer the question of why is this happening—and does it matter?

IS: You grew up near Paradise, California, a town that burned down in a 2018 wildfire. Tell us about your personal connection to climate change.

KW: I’m from Chico, in the same county as Paradise, which burned down in 2018. Ninety percent of the buildings were destroyed and eighty-seven people perished in the flames, and everyone in Paradise evacuated that day to Chico. I wondered what kids there were learning about climate change.

I reached out to a teacher at Paradise Intermediate School, which had been displaced by the fire and was temporarily housed in a former big-box store. I spent a week or two observing a seventh-grade science class. The teacher was teaching a unit on climate change to a group of kids who had all been burnt out of their homes and were arguably climate refugees.

Politically, Paradise is fairly red. So for many of the kids, if they’d heard anything about climate change at all, it was that it was a hoax. Of course, scientists can’t pin any given disaster on climate change, but we know that climate change had its fingerprints all over this fire, which was preceded by the five hottest summers in California’s history. It also hadn’t rained. These kids were actual victims of climate change, and it was gutting to see them reject the very idea of this phenomenon that had already transformed their lives.

IS: Miseducation includes a map of the United States in which every state is labeled with its partisan affiliation and graded on the strength of its climate education from A to F. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no Democratic states earned less than a B-, while nineteen Republican states earned a C or below. How has partisanship created what you call a “two-tiered system”?

KW: Every state has its own set of academic standards, specifying everything a kid should know at the end of each grade or class. These are usually updated every five to ten years. The process works like this: a panel of educators in a given subject looks at the old standards, figures out what’s working, what’s not, and so on. Then they make a recommendation to the state legislature, which issues either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.

Sometimes, there’s conflict. Almost invariably, science educators advocate for including climate change in science education. But then the state legislatures, especially in red states, reject them.

IS: Another place where this partisan divide appears is in the language used in textbooks. What did you discover about the ways publishers market books in different states, and how one state’s standards can affect the content of textbooks across the country?

KW: There’s actually a lot of variation in how textbooks are approved across the country. Some states approve them at the state level, while others leave it to the discretion of individual school districts.

One of the largest states to approve its textbooks statewide is Texas, whose legislature reviews textbooks with a fine-toothed comb and a political eye. Textbook companies don’t want to just make a special textbook for Texas alone. They need a version that can be sold and used in districts across the country. So this gives Texas an outsized influence in textbook content nationwide.

My team found a remarkable amount of climate denialism in dozens of middle-school textbooks. Sentences like “many scientists believe that climate change is being caused by humans, but some scientists believe that it’s natural.” That’s patently false, but it helps the books make it through Texas’s arduous approval process. Publishers pay attention to the political winds, and preemptively censor themselves.

Somebody put in just eight words what kids should know by the end of their education about climate change: “It’s real, it’s us, it’s bad, there’s hope.”

IS: One seemingly innocuous result of this self-censoring is that textbooks often frame climate change as a debate. Why is that so dangerous?

KW: Well, debate is actually good pedagogy for critical thinking, and good teachers often try to incorporate debate in classes. But there’s harm done when you ask kids to debate something that’s not actually a matter of debate. Scientific findings are indeed turned over all the time, but when a finding is replicated tens of thousands of times, and there are no other studies showing something else, that finding takes on the status of a fact.

It’s something we’ve known for a long time. The evidence for climate change dates back to the beginning of the twentieth century. In fact, fossil-fuel companies were some of the first people to realize it, and even hired researchers to study it throughout the forties, fifties, and sixties.

In 1965 the scientific community was worried enough about climate change that they created a report to brief President Lyndon B. Johnson about it. They stated that fossil fuels “may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in the climate by the year 2000,” which turned out to be true.

So there hasn’t actually ever been real scientific debate over why it’s happening or whether it’s going to happen, though there has been some debate over what the effects are going to be. There is no evidence to support theories about solar cycles or gravitational waves. There’s a lot of pseudoscience out there, but no alternate theory supported by any real evidence.

The trouble is that once you accept these facts, it requires an overhaul of a pillar of our economy. For the last couple centuries that has been fossil fuels. This is obviously very concerning to people making money in that industry. And in the 1980s, the fossil-fuel industry became increasingly defensive and was much less interested in the facts. They laid off their scientists and invested in communications experts instead.

IS: Big Tobacco faced a similar dilemma when scientific consensus linked smoking with cancer in the mid-twentieth century. Instead of changing their business model, tobacco companies invested in a campaign of denial. What did the anti–climate science movement learn from Big Tobacco?

KW: A book called The Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway details this in a really helpful way. After a lawsuit, Big Tobacco had to turn over all of their internal communications documents. They realized that if you can get the public to doubt the science even a little, that inoculates against change. The status quo had inertia: people didn’t want to give up smoking or think it was going to make them sick. If there’s not incontrovertible proof, if there’s any question around it, they can justify it to themselves and regulators can justify not regulating it.

So the tobacco companies hired scientists who went on TV and produced reports that cited “other factors” as the cause of cancer and highlighted lifelong smokers who didn’t get sick. Their doubt campaign probably delayed regulation of tobacco products by decades. In the meantime, the tobacco industry made lots of money.

When the fossil-fuel industry was starting to think about communications with the public, they actually hired some of the exact same people who were working for Big Tobacco. Most scientists aren’t going to go against the majority of people in their field, but there are some that will. One was Frederick Seats. Another was Fred Singer. Both were well-known and well-respected in their fields. But then they started working for corporate interests and not only spoke out against tobacco regulation, but also questioned the science linking asbestos and health, as well as chlorofluorocarbons and the hole in the ozone layer.

After climate change came to greater public attention, Seats and Singer started questioning the science relentlessly. They were on TV all the time, publishing op-eds and criticizing reporters who didn’t include “both sides” of the issue. The media completely lapped it up. They provided “both sides” of an issue that didn’t have two sides for many decades, and surely slowed action by doing so.

IS: How did that doubt campaign affect education?

KW: There are a couple of threads that are worth mentioning. One is a leaked memo from a 1988 meeting hosted by the American Petroleum Institute and attended by Exxon as well as several other members of the coal, oil, and gas industries. Conservative think tanks were there, too. At the time they were worried about carbon regulations emerging from the Kyoto Protocol. They created a communications plan to hire more scientists to plaster the media and lobby politicians with the fossil-fuel industry’s message on climate change.

In that memo, there are some tactics listed specifically to get into classrooms. And it says that the purpose of this is to “begin to erect a barrier against further efforts to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future.” So they really laid it out, and they succeeded. They partnered with the National Science Teaching Association to create pro–fossil fuel curricula that wound up in classrooms. They funded books, lesson plans, and an ad campaign, some of which did explicitly deny climate change, but most of which was more subtle than that.

And that continues to this day. In 2019 I was in a classroom in Arkansas, and a lobbyist working for an Arkansas oil-and-gas-industry organization walked in. She was there to give a presentation to the seventh graders about Arkansas’s oil industry. Some of it was legitimate: the geology, the technology. But then there was a whole portion telling kids that every source of fuel has problems, and climate change wasn’t something that they needed to stress about.

This campaign has also been so effective with adults that it seeps into education in a much more natural way, because teachers exist at all points along the political spectrum. A lot of them didn’t learn anything about climate change in their own education, so they’re going to present it as a debate if they don’t know better. Kids also absorb the views of their parents. It’s an adult problem, but it gets into the classroom by osmosis, if not through a direct campaign.

IS: But not every classroom is this way. You observed dozens of teachers in classrooms around the country. What were some examples of what victory in the battle for accurate climate education looks like?

KW: There are intrepid teachers in every community in America who are taking this on and that are giving kids a real, robust education about the climate crisis. I’ve seen teachers give kids the chart of carbon levels in the atmosphere and then have them look up their city and its historic average temperatures to see how temperatures are trending. Almost always, they’re trending up. Then the kids start putting it together themselves. They learn what the greenhouse effect is, and they can come to some conclusions about cause and effect and discover it themselves like scientists have.

That is really powerful because providing kids with direct data helps seed some protection against anti–climate science messages. If we say, “I’m just going to give you the evidence, you get to decide, you get to think for yourself on this issue,” maybe the kid doesn’t walk out that day believing in it, but enough of that information adds up to help them find the truth.

IS: Once they have the truth, there is still a question about whether the goal of our climate education should be action. How do you address people who are concerned about turning classrooms into a “political space”?

KW: Many people push back on the idea that classrooms are neutral to begin with. And then there are also people who say teaching climate science is neutral, since it’s simply a matter of looking at the evidence. Imposing the framework of “debate” is where politics comes in. Sure, there are things you can debate: Should we do anything at all about this? How much should we overhaul our society? What should we do when we start seeing these major changes and people are displaced? Those are things that adults debate, and bringing them into a classroom is reasonable, especially if your goal is to create future citizens who are participating in civic discourse and tackling society’s problems.

If that’s a goal that you have for a good public education, then climate change should absolutely not just appear in science class, but in civics classes and history classes, too. There are ways to incorporate the issue across all subjects.

Somebody put in just eight words what kids should know by the end of their education about climate change: “It’s real, it’s us, it’s bad, there’s hope.” If they leave their education fundamentally understanding those four things, they will be ahead of most of the American population.

That last part about hope is essential. Frank Niepold, the climate-education czar for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, put it like this: “Kids know there’s a problem. And often, when climate change is taught, it’s presented as 99 percent problem and 1 percent solution. But kids don’t want that. They want 20 percent problem and 80 percent solution.”

Not only is that better received by the kids, but it primes them to become adult decisionmakers. Climate change is a massive challenge, and we need their brains working on how to fix it. Education not only alleviates the despair that they—and many of us—might otherwise feel right now. It helps them roll up their sleeves and get to work.

Published in the December 2021 issue: 

Isabella Simon is the assistant managing editor at Commonweal.

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