The fossil fuel industry's public school takeover

Big Oil is pouring millions of dollars into creating pro-fossil fuel classroom content for children across the country.

Hello, and welcome to Day 2 of HEATED’s week-long series on climate education in public schools.

We kicked off Day 1 by shining a light on the positive impacts of comprehensive climate education. We cited research showing that classrooms can be essential breeding grounds for climate-conscious citizens. Not only do climate-educated students have lower individual carbon footprints; their behavior pressures others to behave more sustainably, too. This is important, because the planet’s livability depends on peer pressure to build public enthusiasm for decarbonization.

But as a whole, American classrooms are not currently creating climate-conscious citizens. Indeed, many are doing the exact opposite.

Students are taught about climate. Just not very well.

There are approximately 13,500 school districts in America, containing more than 100,000 public schools. The federal government does not require any of these schools to teach climate change.

Every state has different standards for what kids should learn about—and each school district is individually responsible for implementing those standards. That means that how climate is taught—if climate is taught—varies widely from district to district, and often even classroom to classroom.

Most kids do appear to be learning about climate change. According to a 2016 survey by the National Center for Science Education, 70 percent of middle school teachers and 87 percent of high school teachers spend at least an hour on global warming each year. Only about 3 to 4 percent of students receive no teaching of human-caused climate change.

Still, even though kids in America are learning about climate change, their lessons are limited and often contain misinformation, according to the NCSE survey. Newsweek summarized some the more concerning results:

Although most students will hear something about climate change in a science class, the average teacher devotes only one to two hours to the topic per year. Nearly one-third of teachers emphasize that recent global warming is likely due to natural causes—and tell their students that many scientists say the same thing. The researchers speculate that some teachers may wish to teach "both sides" out of respect for the individual values and opinions their students bring to the classroom.

Half of the surveyed teachers have allowed the students to discuss the supposed "controversy" over climate change without guiding students to the scientifically supported conclusion. Three of five surveyed teachers admit to being unaware of, or actively misinformed about, the near total consensus among scientists that climate change is man-made.

That last sentence is bolded because it’s especially critical to understanding why most public school students don’t receive a comprehensive climate education. Teachers, notoriously overworked and underpaid, are often individually responsible for deciding whether and how climate change gets taught. They don’t have the resources to educate themselves on the nuances of the climate crisis, much less develop lesson plans around it.

The fossil fuel industry, however, has plenty of resources. And it’s using those resources to provide teachers across the country with pro-fossil fuel lesson plans.

“The school systems of the country are so fragmented and under-resourced that they have no choice but to turn to people like the oil industry who offer them free stuff,” Charles Anderson, a professor of science education at Michigan State University, told the Associated Press last year.

These lesson plans aren’t focused on educating kids on the dangers of human-caused climate change, or the importance of stopping it. They’re focused on promoting the false idea that fossil fuels are essential to human prosperity—and that taking them away will cause everything students love to die.

In Oklahoma, students are told "Having no petroleum is like a nightmare!"

Before her retirement in 2016, Tara Barker was a public school science teacher in Oklahoma for 33 years. Throughout her tenure, she taught her kids about fossil fuels using Petro Pete—a little boy who looks like an old man dressed as an oil worker.

Petro Pete is part of an education series on fossil fuels proliferated by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, a state agency funded by oil and gas producers. According to The Guardian, the OERB “has spent upwards of $40 million over the past two decades on providing education with a pro-industry bent, including hundreds of pages of curriculums, a speaker series and an after-school program—all at no cost to educators of children from kindergarten to high school.”

Barker said the industry’s lesson plans and workshops were helpful to her. “I loved getting the materials,” she said. But the outcome of the lessons always left her feeling like something was missing. “I just felt like they didn’t finish the story,” she said. “They didn’t tell the whole thing.”

The missing things, it turns out, were climate change and renewable energy. Neither is mentioned in “Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream.”

In this widely taught story, Pete drifts off to sleep and wakes up unable to find anything he normally depends on. He has no clothes; no toothbrush; no comb. His schoolbus never comes, so he walks to school, and when he gets there the clock has a sad face on it. During lunch, Pete wants strawberry ice cream, but there is none. Later, he goes out to play soccer, but there are no soccer balls. “Pete is disappointed,” it says.

Eventually, Pete’s science teacher—the appropriately named Ms. Rigwell—explains that all the things Pete was missing were either made by oil or made possible by oil. “Having no petroleum is like a nightmare,” Pete concludes. 

Barker said saw Petro Pete have an impact on students. “It makes the kids feel like, ‘Oh wow, we really need this,’” she said. “It scares them that we’re going to run out.” She said she wanted to make sure she was teaching about the possibilities of renewable energy, too—but the oil industry didn’t provide free material on that. She had to develop that curriculum herself, on her own time.

Today, that alternative curriculum is called the Oklahoma Renewable Energy Education Program. “We call it the other side of the story; the compliment to it,” Barker said. Barker’s group is trying to hold workshops for teachers across the state just like the oil and gas industry does, and have the curriculum accepted in all of Oklahoma’s school districts. But she’s struggling with funding. “We don’t have a grant right now, so we’re using leftover materials and we’re working on what we have.”

The oil and gas industry, of course, does not have this problem. And its bid to influence public education extends far beyond Oklahoma.

Creating pro-fossil fuel kids across the country

There are many more state-specific examples of fossil fuel industry and interest groups funding educational material. The Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Educational Program, for example, is an industry-funded effort to provide workshops and educational material for Ohio teachers. These materials include a worksheet on the environmental benefits of crude oil and gas, a crude oil word find, and an activity placemat for kids.

Culver Company, a consulting firm for energy and natural gas utilities, provides educational material for schools, including a workbook from kids Grade 3-6. In Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend, “youngsters explore where gas comes from, how it’s used, and why it’s important to be careful around natural gas,” the description says.

Then there’s the National Energy Education Development Project, or NEED Project, which is sponsored by more than 100 corporate partners, including nearly every major U.S.-based oil and gas company and oil industry interest group. The NEED Project “publishes thousands of pages of K-12 energy lessons online,” according to the non-profit education news publication the Hechinger Report. Those lessons include one where students learn “how to frack a frozen layer cake using chocolate syrup and a syringe-like turkey injector.” Another guide tells the story of Sue Ann, “a sticky pool of oil waiting to be freed.”

These educational materials are not all misleading in their own right. Many actually contain scientifically robust information about how fossil fuel extraction and power generation work. But when these materials aren’t paired with robust climate change education, they paint a false picture in students’ minds about the benefits of fossil fuel use.

If industry groups were only creating energy-specific lesson plans that upsell the benefits of their product to the next generation, perhaps that could be justified. But that is not the extent of their activity.

Indeed, the oil industry is also creating and promoting a climate science curriculum for public school children which downplays the crisis their products are directly worsening every day.

A nationwide climate science curriculum, sponsored by Big Oil

Climate denial groups have long tried to push their agenda on the public school system. For example, as Outside Magazine notes, “In 2017, the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank funded in part by fossil-fuel interests, sent every science teacher in the United States a misleading book called Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming.”

This type of outright denial, however, wouldn’t be allowed to be taught in at least 36 states. That’s because those states have adopted the Next Generation Science Standards, which require schools to “introduce global climate change as a core idea in middle school,” and include in that core idea that “human activities affect global warming.”

But the NGSS is not a deterrent for oil companies. Indeed, through the NEED Project, oil companies like BP, Shell, and ConocoPhillips are funding the creation of industry-friendly climate lesson plans.

These lessons include accurate information about climate change, in that they admit the phenomenon is human-caused and that there are detrimental impacts. But they’re also heavily laden with industry-friendly talking points, including that fossil fuels are necessary for human prosperity; that “the climate has always changed;” and that humans will simply adapt to the outcome.

Take a look, for example, at the NEED Project’s “Introduction to Climate Change.” It begins by saying that the climate “has been in a constant state of change.” It cites the earth’s orbit and the sun before mentioning greenhouse gases. It says “natural and manmade” forces govern the climate. These are classic red herring rhetorical devices commonly used by Republican politicians to downplay and question human-caused climate change.

Take a look, also, at the NEED Project’s section on the “effects of climate change.” It begins, not by talking about ocean acidification or extreme weather, but by extolling the benefits of fossil fuels. It then says scientists “are studying” the effects and what they “may be,” implying falsely that scientists aren’t already confident about it.

The NEED Project’s section on solving climate change is perhaps most alarming. It insists that “societies around the world have adapted to changes in their environment,” giving false hope to students that society will simply adapt to the effects of the climate crisis.

It also says “Many scientists believe that climate change can be mitigated through advances in technology and individual lifestyle modifications,” which is untrue. The vast majority of climate scientists believe climate change can only be mitigated by ramping down the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

Of course, this is not mentioned.

Still, material like this may be better than most currently available. According to the Associated Press, less than 3 percent of all publicly available climate educational resources for teachers contain 100 percent up-to-date, factual information about climate change.

“There’s a lot of information that’s out there that is broken, old, misleading, not scientifically sound, not sound technically,” Frank Niepold, a climate education coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the AP.

And it’s been like this for literally decades.

Is it any wonder the current generation doesn’t have the political will to address the climate crisis?

Later this week, HEATED will delve into some of the history of the fossil fuel industry’s school influence campaigns, exploring the rationale behind those campaigns and the results.

Then, paid subscribers will get to have a discussion about it. They’ll be able to vent about their frustrations, share what they’re seeing in their kids’ school districts, and talk about what they’d like to see a good climate curriculum look like.

The majority of this week’s series is free, thanks to the paid subscribers who make this work possible. The more of those we have, the more cool free series we can do. If you’d like to be part of this awesome community that supports independent climate journalism, sign up today.

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