Kids are living with climate catastrophe. That doesn’t mean they believe in it.

How do you explain global warming to students who’ve been raised with doubt?

Ana Latese for the Washington Post
Ana Latese for the Washington Post

CHICO, CALIF. — Something had been pestering 12-year-old Nakowa, and as he and his friends settled into their seventh-grade science class, he finally said it aloud: “This global warming stuff? My parents said it’s not true.”

His science teacher, Marc Kessler, had been expecting this. “So, you’re getting mixed messages,” he said. “That must be a little challenging.” For years, Kessler had been teaching middle school science in the low-income, predominantly White and deeply red community of Paradise, Calif. Every year, he taught a unit on climate change. Every year, students told him they’d heard it was a hoax.

Nakowa recited the arguments he’d heard at home: If the Earth is warming, why had it snowed so much that winter? And without carbon dioxide we’d be dead, so what was wrong with a little more? On the other hand, Mr. Kessler’s lessons on climate change seemed convincing, too.

As I observed this exchange, it struck me that Nakowa was completely unaware that he and his classmates were themselves climate refugees.

Scientists generally avoid blaming any individual disaster on climate change, but the 2018 Camp Fire, which killed 85 people and incinerated 90 percent of the buildings in Paradise, including Nakowa’s and his classmates’ homes, was covered with its fingerprints, they say. World leaders gathered at this year’s U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland, are focused on planet-scale climatic changes — the increase in global temperatures, the inches of sea level rise — but the changes that matter most in a place like Paradise are hyperlocal. In the Sierra foothills of Northern California, for example, the spring and fall rainy seasons have shortened; when the Camp Fire ignited, Paradise had received 0.88 inches of rain in six months, just 12 percent of historic averages. Meanwhile, the region’s summers have warmed: Paradise’s five hottest summers had all occurred in the previous five years, relentlessly sucking moisture from the town’s clay soil and ponderosa pine cover.

Four months after the fire was extinguished, Mr. Kessler invited me to sit in on his class as he taught his annual unit on climate change. The middle school had been moved to a shuttered big-box hardware store in nearby Chico. Teachers set up their classrooms in the aisles — Kessler’s occupied Aisles 9 and 10, where customers once found ceiling fans and light fixtures. The lunch lady served food from a former checkout counter. The kids played freeze-tag in the garden center. One display still offered a full rainbow of paint swatches. The teachers tried to make the kids feel okay in their new surroundings, but there was no denying how surreal and apocalyptic a place it was to learn fractions, medieval history — and climate science.

By the time Nakowa raised his question, Kessler had devoted about a week to the climate science unit. They had begun by reviewing the ingredients of the atmosphere and which of them trap heat on Earth. He gave the students NASA data measuring those ingredients over time and asked them to analyze which ones had changed. They went online and looked at historic temperatures in Paradise and other cities around the world, tallying how many had trended upward or downward, or stayed roughly flat, over the last several decades. As the unit progressed, students began reaching some conclusions about cause and effect. Some had mentioned those conclusions to their parents.

“I don’t know who to believe,” Nakowa said, and then confessed, eyeing Kessler, “My parents also told me not to argue with the teacher.”

“It’s totally okay in my class to bring up differing views,” Kessler said. “If scientists didn’t argue, we wouldn’t get to the truth.”

Getting to the truth about climate change has proved difficult for many American children. In reporting for my book “Miseducation,” I visited schools in more than a dozen communities. I found many points of friction: Teachers who disagree over whether to teach the subject. Students who want to learn about it but are not taught. Others who are taught about climate change but reject what they learn. District officials who struggle with teachers who refuse to teach it, or with those who insist on teaching it. Parents who rage that their children are taught it, or that they are not.

Since America has no national curriculum, these tensions also tend to play out in statehouses. Legislators insert adult politics into the domain of schoolchildren by tweaking their states’ academic standards. As a result, an education in modern climate science is required in some parts of this country and nonexistent in others.

Outside Oklahoma City, a ponytailed girl named Claire told me that when her grandfather found out she was learning about climate change in class, he said, “You tell your teacher that your grandpa thinks it’s a hoax!” Her friend Carter chimed in: “My parents don’t believe in it, either.”

At a high school a few hours north, I spoke with five teens whose families had immigrated from the Marshall Islands, a nation famously endangered by sea level rise. Four of the five said I was the first adult they’d ever heard say the words “climate change” on school grounds. “It’s kind of disappointing. Because, like, a real thing is happening,” said 17-year-old Eve.

In Arkansas, I met an environmental-science teacher who tells his students it’s too soon to say whether pollutants are warming the Earth — it could be sun cycles, coronal mass ejections or magnetic force fields. I asked if he accepts the data showing that carbon dioxide levels have risen. They probably have, he said, but “what kind of impact does that have on global climate? I don’t have a clue.”

A science teacher at my own alma mater, Chico Junior High School, said that one year, she realized students were leaving her class, where they were learning climate science, and walking into history class, where the teacher was showing them YouTube videos that claimed global warming was natural. She confronted the history teacher. “They’re 11,” she remembered telling him. “We need to be really mindful of when one adult they trust says one thing and another adult they trust says, ‘Don’t worry about it.’” His response: “Well, I just want them to know both sides.”

Of course, there are not two sides for them to know. Despite what the Arkansan teacher tells his students, scientists have been unable to find a shred of evidence that sun cycles, coronal mass ejections or magnetic force fields have played any role in the abrupt increase in global temperatures since industrialization. Meanwhile, the evidence for human-caused climate change has grown as strong as the evidence linking cigarettes and cancer.

Young people accept this science at higher rates than their parents and grandparents do, and polls show they are much more worried about it than older generations are. Youth activists — including, famously, Greta Thunberg — have become the moral and organizing force behind recent protests for climate action. Nonetheless, fully a quarter of American kids surveyed in 2020 rejected the idea that global warming was some kind of emergency, more than in any other country surveyed in Western Europe or North America. And a 2016 survey led by Eric Plutzer of Pennsylvania State University found that one-third of American science educators teach students that “many scientists believe” global warming is natural, when in fact, a recent count found the number of climate scientists who believe that to be exactly zero.

Climate confusion and denialism didn’t appear in schools by accident. Classrooms have emerged as a battleground in the American political war over climate change because what kids learn about it now will directly impact the speed and ambition of action taken for decades to come. That in turn will decide the quantity of fossil fuels extracted from the Earth. If a significant portion of young people grow up to doubt the reality of the climate crisis, as their elders do, little is likely to change. The inertia of the status quo is so high that even a modest dose of doubt inoculates against action. This doubt could reign in American politics another three years or another 30. That difference is a matter of trillions of dollars for the fossil fuel industry and of accelerating chaos for the planet.

This means that educators trying to purvey accurate information about the climate crisis to their students often run up against a deeply entrenched culture of climate denial in their own communities, one that plays out in teachers’ lounges, school board meetings and parent-teacher conferences, especially in the nation’s reddest states and in the reddest parts of its blue states. The situation probably deteriorated when, a few years ago, a conservative think tank sent climate-denial classroom materials to hundreds of thousands of science teachers across the country.

Virtually no matter where they live, today’s children will bear witness to human-caused climate catastrophes. As bad as California’s fires are today, worse await. By one estimate, if emissions aren’t sharply curtailed, extreme wildfires will strike 50 percent more often and burn 77 percent more land in the state by 2100. Today’s children will watch as catastrophes, displacements and extinctions tick up with metronomic regularity, transforming their lives regardless of what they once learned in class.

Teaching kids about the climate crisis has taken on new significance for Kessler since the Camp Fire. The day it ignited, he piled a group of terrified eighth-grade boys into his car and tried to keep them calm as they idled in a traffic jam of evacuees, flying embers converting the dry grass alongside the road into flames.

“The boys were incredibly quiet, and I just tried to talk the whole time,” he told me. “Like: ‘Wow, look at the colors in the sky. That’s amazing, isn’t it? That’s so cool. Oh, look at all those taillights. Yep, we just gotta get down this hill and then we’ll get there and we’ll be fine.’” A couple of miles behind them, people were burning alive in their cars.

When Nakowa raised his question in the repurposed hardware store a few months later, Kessler hushed the class. “Could I have everybody not talk for just a second?” he asked. His students complied, but that did little to quell the clamor. Math class was still unfolding boisterously in Aisles 6 and 7 while students learned history in Aisles 12 and 13.

To help his students hear him, Kessler wore a microphone around his neck. Now he lifted it and spoke carefully. “Sometimes you will learn things that conflict with what you’re hearing somewhere else,” he said. “My job is to provide you with the best scientific data that’s out there, and then we interpret and predict. This isn’t me telling you what you should believe, it’s just discovery. That’s what science is.”

That response did not put Nakowa’s mind at ease. Three days later, as the climate change unit was wrapping up, Kessler gave the students a writing prompt: How has climate change affected your life so far? And what effects do you think climate change will have on your life in the next 50 years?

The boy whose every possession had burned in the most destructive wildfire in California history wrote that climate change hadn’t affected his life thus far. He went on, “I don’t know if it will do anything to my life in fifty years because I don’t know if I believe it yet.”