Kids Don’t Always Believe in Climate Science. Are Schools Miseducating Them?

Scientists agree that climate change is real and urgent. But many kids in the U.S. aren’t so sure—even ones who have experienced its effects firsthand. That’s one thing Katie Worth, a former reporter for the PBS show Frontline, found while researching her new book, “Miseducation,” about how schools teach climate science.

During a visit to a science class in Paradise, Calif., following a devastating wildfire that destroyed most of the town in 2018, she made a startling discovery. After their teacher asked them to reflect on the role climate change would have on their lives, many students weren’t sure what to write. “This was a classroom full of climate refugees, and many of them said, ‘Oh, it hasn’t affected my life yet. And I don't know if it will or not.’”

That wasn’t the only surprising find. For the book, she tracked what schools in each state are actually teaching about climate science, and uncovered the watered-down standards and outright climate change denial adopted by some states, as well as a well-funded campaign of misinformation spearheaded by fossil fuel companies.

Worth joins us this week on the EdSurge podcast to talk about her findings, as well as what great schools are doing to integrate climate science across the curriculum. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Below is an edited sampling of the conversation.

EdSurge: What inspired you to dive down this rabbit hole in the first place?

Worth: A few years ago, a colleague and I went to the Marshall Islands to do a project about climate change and kids for Frontline. The Marshall Islands is an island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Its average elevation is only about 10 feet above sea level and its highest point is something like 20 or 30 feet above sea level. So there’s not a lot of room there for sea level rise. It’s possible that within these kids’ lifetime their whole homeland could become uninhabitable. These kids were just so fluent in climate change, and could speak much more authoritatively than most adults that I knew.

There was one kid in particular who was really into animals. He was 9 years old and he could talk about the impact that climate change would have not only on his island and the reef around it, but on the Arctic and the jungles and so on. His family was thinking about moving to the U.S. because they wanted him to get a good education. And so of course I wondered, if they moved here, what would he learn about climate change?

The book is called “Miseducation.” So I think it’s safe to assume you didn’t find the most promising results about what kids are learning about climate change.

That’s a good assumption. What I found was that there’s a lot of kids who are learning climate denial in the classroom. A third of teachers self-report that they tell students that many scientists believe that climate change is natural. And that is a patently false statement. At this point, we are quite close to 100 percent consensus about the fact that climate change is happening and why it’s happening. So to tell students otherwise is to miseducate them. And it’s pretty common that kids either get miseducated or they just learn nothing at all about the phenomenon in classrooms.

Education is so local in this country. What did you find out about those state-to-state, district-to-district differences?

There’s quite a diversity of how it's handled in classrooms—the classroom is not an ideologically neutral place when it comes to climate change and climate science. There is this sort of red-blue divide. Blue states are doing considerably better at teaching their students, on average, than red states. There's some red states actually that are doing great. But the majority are doing worse than average.

What would you say characterizes a “good” state?

Climate change touches on all sciences. You can learn about it in chemistry, biology, earth science and environmental science. New Jersey recently adopted academic standards that intentionally place climate science in all the different sciences and also in a bunch of civics classes, because in addition to being a science issue, it’s more importantly a question of ‘What are we going to do about it?’

What are the causes of this miseducation?

One of the threads is that kids are learning about it from the adults in their lives sort of passively, and teachers, of course, reflect the political spectrum of this country. Right now, one of the two major parties in this country is very ideologically grounded in climate denialism. People who have that viewpoint, which is close to half the people in this country, just don’t trust science. And if your teacher doesn’t trust science, then you’re not going to learn about it in school.

But then there’s another thread—an intentional campaign by fossil fuel companies and other moneyed interests to insert climate skepticism into classrooms in order to inoculate against future action. If you can get kids to disbelieve in science, then once they become decision-makers, they’re not gonna take action either.

What was your takeaway about how to strengthen climate education in schools?

Washington state is doing this really incredible program where they’re providing professional development seminars for all teachers—every science teacher in the state—specifically about how to teach climate change. In the first two years, I think that they reached one in five teachers, and now they’re expanding beyond just science teachers. A lot of teachers didn’t learn about climate science themselves in school, and they’re not experts on the issue. Having really strong professional development around this topic, and helping teachers think through how to educate kids about it, is really powerful.

There’s also a group called the Alliance for Climate Education, which does a cool assembly where they give a whole song and dance about climate change and get kids really excited about it. And then it sort of works backward because kids go back to class and ask their teachers if they can learn more about it. It goes from the ground up instead of having to be a top-down kind of thing.

Other news