Transcript of the episode “Distortions and fabrications: The state of climate education”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi, I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:17] Amy H-L: And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is investigative reporter Katie Worth. From 2015 to 2021, Ms. Wirth worked for the PBS series, Frontline, focusing on the intersection of science and politics. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic, Slate, and The Wall Street Journal. Her book, Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America, came out earlier this year. Welcome, Katie. 

[00:00:44] Katie W: I’m so glad to be here.

[00:00:46] Jon M: In Miseducation, you take a comprehensive look at what children all across the US are taught about climate change and why. What sort of patterns emerge? 

[00:00:56] Katie W: Among other things, I found, first of all, just that there’s a lot of points of tension on this issue. I was in a couple of dozen classrooms around the country, and every single one that I went into had some point of friction over what kids were learning about climate change, whether it was between teachers who disagreed about whether to teach it, whether it was between kids and teachers, so teachers were teaching it and then kids were pushing back. Teachers were teaching denialism and kids were pushing back. Parents were upset about it. Administrators were upset about it. So this is a point of tension and in education and science education. And so that was surprising to me, to see how widespread that tension was. 

Another finding was that there is kind of a rough red blue divide in the country over how this science is taught. The science is not still debated, even though it is in public discourse. But at this point, It’s basically impossible to find a peer reviewed scientistist who says that anything other than humans are causing climate change. And yet kids are being taught to debate it in quite a few places. Or they’re not taught at all in some places. And so what we found was you could roughly guess whether your kid was going to get a robust education about this topic that will influence their lives and the century that they were born in, or learning nothing about it or learning that it’s debatable, based on kind of which political party is running their statehouse.

[00:02:33] Amy H-L: Do pre-service teachers receive training in teaching accurate climate change? How prepared are they to teach about what the science and the social justice aspects of manmade climate change? 

[00:02:45] Katie W: I think largely they are not. And of course, this is a subject that a lot of teachers never learned at all themselves in their own education. You know, some teachers certainly are given some instruction about how to navigate controversial issues. But I think one of the main problems that I heard from teachers is that they wanted more training on how to address this because they’re not experts in this. And you know, a lot of teachers barely have enough time in the day to go get a cup of coffee from the break room. So, you know, they’re not, it’s a big ask to learn all about this new subject and figure out how to talk about it to your students, even though it’s going to be controversial, possibly. Lots of teachers do take that on, but a lot of teachers don’t really have the time or capacity to do so.

And there are some really interesting programs out there. The best I know of is a program called Climetime in Washington state, where the state government is putting millions of dollars into training teachers in that state with lesson plans, real specifics about how to address this issue in their class. And not just science teachers, but teachers in all disciplines.

[00:03:55] Amy H-L: And is that for teachers all across the country? 

[00:03:57] Katie W: No, it’s just in Washington state. I believe that they’re hoping to reach every teacher in Washington state. I think in the first two years that they had already reached one in five teachers, but that’s a really big investment and it’s one that powerfully pays off in classrooms. And you know, we know that kids care about this issue if they’re informed about it. Young people care about it much more than their elders do, but they need information about it to care. So getting it to them through public schools is a way to engage them in something that means something to their lives.

[00:04:33] Jon M: I just want to mention that we’re going to be interviewing Deb Morrison from Climetime. So we’ll be able to get more detailed information.

[00:04:42] Katie W: That’s great! She will know much more than I do about that program. I just really admire that program quite a lot in its ambition and its putting its money where its mouth is.

[00:04:52] Amy H-L: We have many teachers among our listeners. What would you suggest for a professional development program for a teacher who doesn’t happen to be in Washington?. 

[00:05:02] Katie W: There’s a great resource called I believe CLEANET. It’s a group of climate educators who did a survey of tens of thousands of online resources about teaching climate change and found most of them were outdated or the science in them was questionable or produced by fossil fuel companies or their allies. And they found just 700 of them to really be valuable. And so those 700 are all put together in a database on that website, and that’s a really good place to start. I know the National Science Teachers Association has been doing some trainings on this issue, and seminars. And the National Center for Science Education also does some trainings. They’re a really great resource for anyone interested in this. 

[00:05:55] Jon M: What do state science standards say that children should learn about climate change? And how does this differ among the states? 

[00:06:03] Katie W: Well, so, as your listeners will know, there’s no national curriculum in the US. There’s no top-down federally-enforced curricula, and efforts to do that have not been very successful. So every state is empowered to decide what the kids in their state learn. But there’s a lot of local control over this, and that’s a really good thing. And sometimes it’s not such a good thing. What that means is that the way that this plays out is that states create academic standards, which are sort of like kids should learn this in this grade and subject. And that’s their most powerful lever of control over what every kid in the state might learn. And so, those academic standards have to be approved by the state legislature almost always. They’re usually written by a panel of educators and professionals, but then they have to go to the state legislature for a thumbs up or thumbs down in most in most states. And that’s where it can get kind of political.

There are instances like in Idaho, where there was several year battle over whether climate change should be in the standards. So the panel of educators suggested it and put it in the standards. And then the state legislature just refused to adopt those standards. And so then the panels was panel was undeterred. The educators came back the next year with a kind of slightly revised standards. The next year, the state legislature adopted all of the standards except the five that had to do with climate change. So they just axed those five and told them to come back the next year. So the next year they came back again, included climate change, and at that point it had gotten some real national attention and there was some pressure. And, of course, the science teachers and parents who care about this issue in that state were putting a lot of pressure on the state legislature. And so that third year, finally, they gave it a thumbs up. Barely. And then in the years since, there have actually been efforts to take them out again. So it’s not even resolved now that it’s been adopted. So that’s just one example of how state politics, and partisan politics, infiltrate the classroom in this top-down way.

[00:08:22] Jon M: You talk a good bit about textbooks. What have you found about what kind of information textbooks provide on climate change? 

[00:08:30] Katie W: Well, as part of my reporting, I read through dozens of textbooks. It was rather mind-numbing at times, but it was also so interesting because what we were looking for is how do these textbooks handle this scientific issue of modern climate science. We were looking specifically at middle school science textbooks because that is often the last time a kid might be exposed to earth science content because earth science, space science, environmental science, they’re usually electives in high school if they’re often offered at all. Students very rarely take them and much more frequently take biology or chemistry, but climate science fits most soundly in earth science.

There are earth science units in middle school that all students have to take. And so, you know, that became like a proxy for the lowest common denominator of what a kid might learn. And so these textbooks almost all of them today, do talk about climate change, but what they say about climate change.. .They’ll have some good information about it, but then there’s almost always this caveat, like “many scientists believe that humans are causing climate change, but some think that it’s caused by natural sources.” And that is just a patently false statement. It’s not true. It wasn’t true when it was written. There just is not scientific debate over this, no matter what we’re told in the media and by our politicians. The debate happens in the political sphere and not in the scientific sphere. 

The science is very basic, truly. We’re adding pollutants to the atmosphere that are known to warm the atmosphere, carbon dioxide. We know it’s a greenhouse gas. We know it warms the atmosphere, and we’re putting millions of tons of it, I think more than 4 billion, tons of it a year into the atmosphere. And you know, it doesn’t take a super genius to figure out what happens when you do enough of that, right. So the science itself is not particularly complicated, and all of the models have played out. And this has been known for decades and decades. The fossil fuel companies’ own scientists knew this was happening as far back as the forties and fifties. So this is this is not the controversy that some people think that it is because of their media diet and what has been told to them. But if you read the textbook, you’d think that there was still a debate, even though the science does not reflect that. You know, there’s things like climate change “will have some positive effects and some less positive effects,” as though all of the effects are going to be positive. Some are just going to be less positive. There’s this tendency to put climate change at the very last unit of the very last chapter. So, you know, teachers may never get to it or they might skip over it. 

I talked to the people who actually wrote and edited these textbooks that are on shelves all over the country. And they told me that there were very explicit conversations happening in those meetings where they were saying, like, “we know this is a controversial issue. We don’t want to go out too strong here or we’re going to piss off Texas because Texas is one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the country. And we know that there’s a very political board of education there that looks at these issues very carefully.” And so they were like, “well, we can say these things, but we’re not going to say these things. And we’re just going to be like, walk the line very carefully.” So we know that that was very much a consideration as these science textbooks were written. And, you know, we like to think of science as like this field that operates on data and evidence and not politics, but clearly that’s not the case. 

[00:12:24] Amy H-L: Would you tell us about some of the private public partnerships that provide climate change programming and customs. 

[00:12:32] Katie W: Yeah. You know, there’s this long history of the fossil fuel industry being involved their getting– and many industries, actually, getting their messages to kids through schools, right. It’s a good business practice because, you know, you plant an impression of your industry in young minds, and that pays off in the long run. And so, in the fifties, they created this show-and-tell program called The Magic Barrel. And they had a thousand oil industry, gas industry, workers going classroom to classroom, all over the country, giving this program that talked about all the magic that was in a barrel of oil. And some of that is good information. Surely, our world is constructed from fossil fuels. Our modern life is, but it’s not a completely, whole picture. This has continued through the decades. I was in a–sitting in a seventh grade science classroom in Arkansas one day and a representative of the Arkansas oil and gas industry came in with a PowerPoint presentation for the seventh graders. And it was a lot of similar content as happened in the fifties. Like this is what fossil fuel is. This is where you can find it in Arkansas. This is the geology involved. This is the technology that’s used to pump it out. So a lot of good information, but then when it came to talking about the environmental impact, that impact was very downplayed. So she said, “well, some people have a problem with fossil fuel cars because of the carbon problem.” She didn’t define what that problem was or give any information about it. 

But then she said, but “somebody is going to have a problem with any of these sources of fuel. So windmills kill birds and solar panels use rare earth minerals. And what happens if there’s no sun one day, you just don’t get any power and you might not be able to–people who don’t have power, it’s a life and death situation. You know, you might get sick and you couldn’t get to the hospital” and this very one-sided view that’s filled with fossil fuel talking points . There’s a lot of counterpoints to those points, right, that were not presented to those seventh graders, but the seventh graders didn’t know that. How could they know that? And the teacher was very deferential to this woman, and so were the students. And they were mostly interested in just knowing how much they could get paid if they worked on a drilling rig, things like that, that seventh graders are concerned with, but they certainly didn’t get a whole picture of both the benefits and the costs of the industry that they were learning about. And one of those costs, climate change is certainly going to cost them, and is already costing our world in very direct, big ways. 

[00:15:20] Amy H-L: In your book, you talk about Oklahoma’s Energy Resources Board as being one of the most sophisticated of these programs.

[00:15:28] Katie W: It’s such an interesting setup. So the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board is actually a state agency, but it’s what’s called a “privatized state agency,” meaning that it’s paid for by a voluntary tax of the fossil fuel industry, which they happily pay because the state agency then creates all of these educational resources. And some of them are very legit. Like basically it’s an educational program that’s like, stay off of oil derricks because they can be dangerous, which in a place like Oklahoma that has oil derricks everywhere you look, you need that. You need kids to know that in a way that they don’t need to know it in New York City. So some of that is really important education, but a lot if it is basically propaganda for the fossil fuel industry. So this ranges from field trips to the petroleum museum or field trips to see an oil derrick. Every single grade there’s curricula, they give teachers trainings, and the teachers go to these trainings put on by the fossil fuel industry. And if they go, they get paid for their time and then they walk away with $300 to $500 worth of lab equipment, which is really important and a big resource in a state like Oklahoma that has so underfunded their schools that they went down to a four day school week for a while, right. 

So this is like an under-resourced system, as most of our schools are in this country. And then their offer, of course, any teacher that cares about, wants to give their kids some good lab instruction and doesn’t have those resources, would take them up. And they’re listening to the spiel of the fossil fuel industry and these, the curriculum that they design for every level, including storybooks that they write for 5, 6, 7 year olds that they send to elementary schools all over the state and actually beyond the state’s boundaries. One of the ones that has gotten a lot of attention is Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream. So this is a story book about a little boy named Petro Pete, who wakes up one day and his toothbrush is missing and he walks outside and the bus doesn’t show up, so he’s going to ride his bike, but the bike is missing its tires and so on and so on. And eventually he realizes, oh, “I know what’s going on today. I’m missing all of my petroleum products,” and then he wakes up and it turns out it’s just been a terrible, bad dream. And he is like, “Oh man, not having petroleum products is a real nightmare.” And that’s, that’s the lesson of this story book that’s being read by 5, 6, 7 year olds or being read to 5, 6, 7 year olds all over the state of Oklahoma. Yes, petroleum products are important to our life. That’s not false, and that’s an important thing for us all to realize. And also there are solutions to that problem, and there are other potential ways to navigate the world that are less reliant on petroleum products, and that’s what scientists tell us that will have to happen if we’re trying to forestall the worst impacts of the climate crisis. 

[00:18:47] Jon M: What kinds of pressures from their communities do teachers who are trying to teach accurate science face? And what kind of patterns have you found in terms of how willing schools and school districts are to stand up to pressure against teaching climate science?

[00:19:04] Katie W: One of the things that I was told quite a bit is that that’s why it’s useful to have it in the academic standards, because if you live in a place in a community where it is a controversial issue, and you’re trying to teach it, you can just say, “Well, It’s in the state curriculum. I can’t do anything about it. It’s my job. I have to teach it.” So you can kind of like pass the buck on if you run into pushback. So that’s why there’s been a lot of attention to trying to get it into the standards. But yeah, there’s a lot of pushback. Teachers who are teaching it frequently run into pushback from kids who are saying like, “Wait, I heard this was a hoax,” and you know, “Why am I learning this, it’s not real.” They’re very confused and getting mixed messages in their own lives about it.

 In my own hometown, I grew up in a town called Chico, California. I went to my alma mater, Chico Junior High School. And I returned there and I was talking to a sixth grade science teacher there who told me that she teaches a climate unit every single year. And one year, she realized the students were coming back and like not wanting to learn about it and just saying, “This is stupid. Why are we learning about this?” And she got to the bottom of it and found out that the students were leaving her class and walking into a history class where the teacher was showing them YouTube videos from a climate denial organization that was talking about how climate change is actually not real, that it’s natural and that it’s all this big conspiracy by scientists to exert power over society and all of the stuff that has absolutely no, there’s no evidence for it, but it’s very widely spread [inaudible] strand of society, and it was being shown to kids. And then they were walking back into science class and rightly being like, well, why are we even learning this? So she had to confront the history teacher and she said, ” These kids are 11. We have to be careful when one adult that they trust says one thing and then another adult says like, oh, don’t worry about that. And he said, well, you know, ” I just want them to know both sides,” which might be fair in a situation that has two sides, but this is one of those that, you know, you don’t have kids debating whether mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell, you know, like he’s not there showing them YouTube videos about how that’s a scientific conspiracy, right. You know, he’s also at this point, not showing them videos that cigarettes don’t cause cancer. And if he were, that would be a real cause of concern for a lot of community members. And yet, at this point, there is more evidence that humans are causing climate change than that cigarettes cause cancer. And yet it’s completely normal for us to [inaudible], and for teachers to tell kids, that it’s still debatable.

[00:22:06] Amy H-L: You write that those who object to climate science and religious brands have become very skillful in cloaking religion in academic sounding language. Would you tell us about the Discovery Institute’s role in climate denial?

[00:22:21] Katie W: Yeah. So that was one of the really interesting strands of this reporting. Most people have heard of the Scopes monkey trial back in the 1920s, when a science teacher in Tennessee was prosecuted for teaching evolution to his high school students shortly after Tennessee enacted this ban against teaching evolution, right. And so that conflict over whether to teach evolution in classrooms played out over the entire 20th century. And we have enshrined in our First Amendment the separation of church and state. And courts have repeatedly, you cannot teach creationism in science class because that’s a biblical teaching. And like this is science class, right. And you can’t teach things that there’s no evidence for in science class. I mean, you can believe whatever you want. You can teach it in theology class. You can teach it at home and in your church, but when it comes to public instruction, you can’t have the state teaching religion, right.

 But the creationists or the anti-evolutionists have really held on to this movement to try and get their beliefs into schools. The last court decision on this was as recent as 2005, when intelligent design was struck down. Right. And then even just in the last few years, periodically, some school district is court ordered not to spread religious ideology and science class. So this is just an ongoing issue. And in a lot of communities what happened was after the intelligent design was struck down, these bills started popping up all over the place called “academic freedom acts.” And what they would do, they were written, they were written so they would protect teachers from being disciplined if they taught the full range of scientific views on controversial subjects, and the controversial subjects that were listed were origins of life and evolution and climate change. And what’s interesting about that is that creationists and anti-evolutionists are motivated by adherence to the Bible, to, to scripture. It’s an interpretation of strict scripture, right. And anti-climate change education folks are motivated by sort of this free market fundamentalism. And those are not necessarily natural allies, you know. Free market fundamentalists may not be religious at all. Many of them are not. And many religious folks have a great care for the environment, but in this case they kind of joined forces because it allowed the anti-evolution folks to say like, look, we’re this, isn’t just a religious issue. We’re just talking about academic freedom. We’re just talking about controversial issues of all sorts, and kind of glom on to this other movement that gave them legitimacy. And then the anti-climate change education folks got this whole grassroots network of foot soldiers to push their agenda for them. That that was all over in communities all over the country. 

[00:25:41] Jon M: And, and how does the Discovery Institute fit into this?

 So the Discovery Institute is an organization that has really pushed alternate theories, pushed against the theory of evolution and questions the theory of evolution and has pushed alternate theories. They were very involved in pushing for intelligent design, which is this concept that an unknown, intelligent entity made life, life form intact at some point. And so it’s not quite the Biblical story, but it’s sort of derived from it, and it depends on sort of the making of miracles happen. So they have pushed that and then they created a model bill, a model academic freedom act that has been proposed in at least 75 times, in 20 states since 2006. So they kind of have been the people who have pushed these acts. And most of these times, these have been defeated, usually because science teachers get wind of it and organize against it. But it’s actually passed in a few states. So in Louisiana and, and Mississippi, and in Tennessee, of all places. This is now a law that governs two million public school students in this country. 

Thank you, Katie Worth, investigative journalist and author of Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America. 

[00:27:16] Katie W: Thank you. I’m really glad to be here.

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