climate change media

The scandal of climate miseducation

I remember a particular lesson from high school, in seventh grade life sciences. We were learning about species and different ideas about where they came from and how they are connected. Some people think they evolved, the teacher told us. Some people think there was a big bang. And of course, we know that the truth is that everything was created by God.

This was an American Christian high school, and young earth creationism was taught as standard. The bit of the lesson that particularly stands out in my mind is how the teacher ridiculed the idea of a big bang. He told us that scientists who held this view thought there was nothing, and then nothing exploded, and then suddenly there was everything. How absurd! It’s like believing that if you set a bomb off in a supermarket, he said, it could make a roast dinner with all the trimmings!

We laughed, and we dutifully filed away ‘the big bang’ as something non-believers cling to in order to avoid the truth about a creator God.

Ironically of course, we were the ones being lied to.

I realised that the first time I read about the big bang in an actual science book. I only needed to read one sentence about the theory to know that we were taught it wrong. It’s about cosmic expansion. Nobody thinks the universe spontaneously sprang into completeness. It was deliberately misrepresented in order to sound stupid, and steer us away from it.

I don’t know if my teacher knew the science or not. I don’t think he had any malign intent, and overall I had a magnificent education that I’m very grateful for. But there’s no escaping the fact that somewhere down the line, someone had chosen to teach children lies in order to protect their orthodoxy, their power and their exclusive claim to truth.

This was unnecessary, as it happens. I find cosmic expansion and evolution to be beautiful and compelling ideas, and I remain a Christian. It was also counter-productive, because as soon as I understood that I had been deceived, I asked what else had been taught wrong. I could write a whole book about what I found, but among them was climate change – something I had been told was a scare story and a distraction.

There’s a name for this: miseducation.

Not poor education, where badly trained staff or a lack of resources leave students with lots of gaps in their knowledge. Miseducation is when things are taught wrong, and when it comes to climate change, it is rife.

In her book Miseducation: How Climate Change is Taught in America, American journalist Katie Worth explains how climate change has been deliberately mis-taught for political ends. Since the US doesn’t have a national curriculum, it is left to individual states to make decisions about what is taught and what is not. Schools and teachers have a lot more discretion than elsewhere. The result is that children could be taught pretty much anything about climate change – or nothing.

Worth quotes polling that suggests a third of American science teachers teach their students that global warming is natural. When children are taught the correct science, they will often find opposing views taught in other subjects at the same school. Or their family or their church will tell them something else. The official line is argued over in conferences and school board meetings .

As with creationism, there is an orthodoxy to protect, power structures that do not want to be challenged. In one of her investigations, Worth showed how fossil fuel interests had intervened in the State Board of Education in Texas, with Shell lawyers and lobbyists participating in the processes to decide what children are taught.

Polls suggest most parents want climate change to be taught in schools, but industry representatives join curriculum discussions and carefully soften the language. A learning objective to “describe how human activities influence climate” gets an extra word and becomes “describe how human activities can influence climate”. And then a second learning objective is added to balance it: “research and describe the role of energy in improving the quality of life in reducing malnutrition and global poverty.”

That’s one specific example of an influence that runs through the education system, through sponsorship, or through free resources that are distributed to underfunded schools that don’t ask questions. Textbook publishers often take moderate positions in order to sell more copies in red states.

Of course, it’s increasingly difficult to deny climate change. This isn’t going to hold. As Worth reports, teenagers are already confused about climate change and don’t know who to believe. There may yet be a widespread sense of betrayal as the truth emerges.

The educational system is very different in the UK, but there are battles here too. Both teachers and students say that climate change is not given enough attention in the national curriculum. The government’s response has been mixed. There were promises made during COP26 to improve climate education. There has also been guidance on ‘impartiality in schools‘ that specifically mentions climate change as something to watch out for, so that students don’t get a one-sided view. Not on the science itself – the government says climate change is happening – but what we do about it. “Where teaching covers the potential solutions for tackling climate change, this may constitute a political issue,” they warn.

So you can teach children that climate change is happening and that emissions from fossil fuels are the leading cause. But if you were to then state the obvious and say we should reduce our use of fossil fuels, that would be political and you’re supposed to offer balance. All rather convenient for the fossil fuel industry.

There can also be questions of emphasis. Scarlett Westbrook famously blew the whistle on a GCSE exam question that asked her to list the benefits of climate change. This helped to raise the profile of climate education, leading to campaigns like Teach the Future – and you should click over and sign their petition.

With (another) new government forming at the moment, and no let-up in the Conservative’s pursuit of a ‘culture wars’ strategy, it’s hard to predict where things are going. Liz Truss’s government certainly doesn’t inspire confidence on the climate front, though new education secretary Kit Malthouse seems to understand the issues better than some members of the cabinet.

Children deserve the facts about climate change. Miseducation is unethical, and it can backfire anyway, as it undermines trust as people discover the truth for themselves. It should be opposed wherever it is found.

8 comments

  1. I fear you may be being as disingenuous as the teachers at your school. You know HOW we tackle climate change is an intensely political one with different views depending on your political perspective. A Free Marketer would favour imposing Carbon Taxes and then letting the market sort it while a Socialist might want deep state direction of society & the economy to decarbonise. How we do it will have deep impacts to how everyone lives their lives. It is a matter of judgement & values as to what choices are made.

    You have your own views and I suspect you think those would be the ‘right’ ones to teach at school to the exclusion of others. If that isn’t the case then how can you take issue with the idea that solutions are political and schools SHOULD be careful to be balanced & apolitical in teaching about them.

    My children have gone through the state system in Wales. Believe me in primary climate change is very seriously emphasised, to a degree that the children feel they are being preached at. Our children go to school to learn to think, not to be pushed into one worldview. Diversity of thought is vital.

    1. No, I’m all for balance (and support carbon tax approaches). The problems come when false ideals about balance prevent things from being taught in the first place.

      Could be different in Wales or even your children’s school, but in the national curriculum children are taught climate science and the carbon cycle, but solutions to climate change are only formally in the curriculum in GCSE Geography.

      That means that children learn that there’s a problem, but don’t get taught that there are solutions. That seems like a recipe for fostering climate anxiety in children.

      It should not be beyond the wit of man to teach children climate solutions earlier in the curriculum. Presumably it’s been left out because of adult hang-ups over politics – but we don’t need to get to the granular detail of policy prescriptions with primary school children. We need to provide an overview of the strategies that lower emissions – renewable energy, stopping deforestation, land restoration, decarbonising industrial processes, etc.

      1. Teaching time in secondary schools, especially years 10 & 11 is a zero sum game (Political issues should only really be taught to older pupils who have better capacity for balanced discussion). There is only so much time in the school day so if you want to teach something more you will have to teach something else less.

        Where would these lessons on climate solutions go? Biology or Chemistry, Combined Science? Make Geography GCSE compulsory? What is cut to make space?

        You are right about climate anxiety but given how much attention is given to it in primary it’s hardly surprising those children who don’t discount it are anxious. Are you asking the schools to solve a problem they created?

        1. It’s not a zero-sum affair at all. If you take a cross-curricular lens, as Teach the Future do, there are opportunities everywhere. You can talk about parts per million of gases in maths. You can read a book with ecological themes in English – even Shakespeare has some stark environmental passages. You can discuss the ethics of intergenerational responsibility in RE or ethics.

          It’s not about crow-barring more climate into the curriculum. It’s about teaching everything in the context of the real world – which includes climate change.

  2. Teaching a balanced outlook on possible solutions is harder in that method. Talking about parts per million in maths or eco themes on Shakespeare absolutely is crow-barring Green issues into every part of education. Checks for balance will be much harder if it’s in every subject. If you make this one thing the absolute centre of the whole education experience how can you then have a balanced debate about how to tackle it?

    It’s a Trojan horse against diversity of views. When has activist driven education ever been balanced or inclusive of views those activist don’t hold?

    1. Sorry, where did you get “make this one thing the absolute centre of the whole education experience”? Absolutely not my view. I’m talking about helping young people to apply their learning to the real world, in which climate change is a growing concern. That’s going to include a conversation here, an essay question there – and in some specific subjects, such as geography, more detailed (and balanced) lessons.

      If you’re serious about your questions, rather than raising them as a way of not having to think about it, go and look at Teach the Future.

      1. I have read the website of Teach the Future who describe themselves as “ a joint campaign to repurpose the education system around the climate emergency and ecological crisis.” That sounds like “make this one thing the absolute centre of the whole education experience” doesn’t it?

        Not sure if you genuinely haven’t understood what they stand for or are just trying to pretend it isn’t what is says it is. It’s a Trojan horse and profoundly anti-liberal. So are you happy to support repurposing the education system?

        Click to access 618b08c7e7af3796c5162dda_20200125%20Teach%20the%20Future%20detail.pdf

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