How Big Oil Obstructs Climate Education

Big Oil uses its tremendous wealth to influence students with disinformation campaigns designed to promote fossil fuels, conceal the facts and obstruct climate science.  This includes petro-pedagogy that deceives children in public schools and deprives them of a science-based education. University activists are increasingly citing the oil and gas industry’s targeting of kids in the classroom as another reason to divest from fossil fuels.

Climate education is a problem at many of America’s 100,000 public schools. As reported by Newsweek, an NCSE survey revealed that teachers offer their students very little climate education and when they do, it is often inaccurate (60% of teachers are unaware of the scientific consensus on climate change).

Petro-pedagogy targeting kids

Even more alarming are the lies that are being taught in public schools.  The fossil fuel funded Heartland Institute sent every science teacher in the United States a deceitful book called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming”. As reported by Bloomberg, they also give teachers carefully crafted lesson plans that promote fossil fuels. In Ohio, oil and gas interests provide students with fossil fuel themed word search worksheets. One of the most creative efforts involves a comic book character named Petro Pete that encourages children in Oklahoma to fear life without oil and gas.  This character was created by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB), a state agency funded by oil and gas producers.  In one of their comics, Petro declares “having no petroleum is like a nightmare.” OERB has reportedly spend $40 million over the past two decades creating pro industry curricula, speakers series, after school programs and teacher workshops. 

The Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Educational Program’s petro-pedagogy includes a workbook titled “Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend”. This petro-propaganda campaign was created by Culver Company, a consulting firm for natural gas utilities.  As reviewed in the Hechinger Report, a fossil fuel-funded group by the name of the NEED Project (National Energy Education Development Project) has made thousands of pages of K-12 industry-friendly climate lesson plans available online. 

Such petro-pedagogy is not a new phenomenon.  Muffett explains that industry groups have been targeting classrooms with marketing propaganda for decades.  As reported by The Guardian‘s Jenny Zou, schoolchildren have been subjected to petro-pedagogy since the  1940s.  Zou explained as follows:

“Decades of documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity reveal a tightly woven network of organizations that works in concert with the oil and gas industry to paint a rosy picture of fossil fuels in America’s classrooms. Led by advertising and public-relations strategists, the groups have long plied the tools of their trade on impressionable children and teachers desperate for resources.”

They are targeting young people precisely because they know they are vulnerable to propaganda and disinformation. As explained by Carroll Muffett, the president and chief executive of the Center for International Environmental Law, it’s about using schools to shape kids’ perceptions.  

The fossil fuel industry’s multiple campaigns of disinformation and subversion of science appears to have paid off as they have succeeded in delaying climate action.  A 2018 study by Emily Eaton, associate professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Regina, revealed that petro-pedagogy has obstructed climate justice. As stated in the paper:

“The corporate control of energy production and the reach of fossil capital into civil and political society can be understood as a regime of obstruction that is preventing necessary action on climate change and blocking a just energy transition. In addition to overt forms of economic power and influence, hegemonic power is central to the fossil fuel industry’s regime of obstruction.”  

Big Oil’s pervasive influence 

The influence of the fossil fuel industry is both pervasive and alarming.  Academia including ivy league universities are awash with money from the oil and gas industry. As revealed by the University of Calgary, this funding impacts research. Even the IPCC is alleged to have watered down its statements at the behest of powerful interests including the oil and gas industry.

The fossil fuel industry is aided and abetted by conservative politics and politicians. They control political parties around the world including the Republican party in the U.S. The result is that many right wing politicians are hellbent on crushing climate education

The dirty energy industry has amassed a decades-long track record of buying politicians and political outcomes. Republicans parrot the climate denial of old energy interests and in return, they receive financial support, but so do a few Democrats. The best contemporary example of a Democrat on the take is Senator Joe Manchin. He is holding up President Biden’s $3.5 trillion climate-focused infrastructure bill.

As stated in the most recent IPCC report we know with unequivocal clarity that fossil fuels are the leading cause of climate change and that we must quickly move away from them if we are to keep temperatures from exceeding the upper threshold limit contained in the Paris Agreement (2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial norms). The burning of fossil fuels not only augurs a catastrophic future, it is also killing millions of people each year.

The fossil fuel industry has known that they are the leading cause of global warming for decades. However, they withheld the facts and spawned waves of disinformation designed to undermine science and delay climate action.  First they denied the existence of climate change or questioned its anthropogenic origins, then they tried to shift the focus to personal behavior and now some have been convinced that it is too late to do anything about it

The divestment solution

Divestment is an increasingly popular approach to combating the fossil fuel industry’s influence. Many divestment supporters are citing disinformation as yet another reason why we must break with dirty energy. The case for divestment is persuasive. Even if we focus solely on financial returns the fossil fuel industry is a high-risk low-return investment. The courts, investors, banks and insurers are all making this point and this compelling argument is buoyed by increasing examples of stranded assets

It is fitting that educational institutions are divesting in droves. Next to faith groups, educational institutions are the largest single divestment group. A total of 208 educational institutions have divested their assets from fossil fuels.  According to Go Fossil Free, there are currently 1,336 institutions worth $14.65 trillion dollars that have divested.

Harvard’s divestment journey is one of the best known in the U.S.  Despite support from Harvard’s faculty, many on campus were disappointed when the school’s Responsible Investing Guidelines were released in 2014 and failed to include divestment from fossil fuels. In April 2015 an event titled Harvard Heat Week exerted pressure, but it took years of dithering, before Harvard finally agreed to divest in 2021. Nonetheless, this is a victory for activist organizations like Fossil Fuel Harvard which has been fighting this fight since 2012. 

In Canada, Lakehead University in Thunder Bay Ontario is the most recent school of higher learning to divest from fossil fuels. Unlike Harvard, Lakehead has provided a timeline and is committed to full divestment by 2023. This is the sixth Canadian university to commit to some form of fossil fuel divestment (others include Concordia, Laval, Guelph, and UBC). Students including members of Fossil Free Lakehead (FFL) have been pushing for this move since 2014.

A Fossil Free Lakehead analysis corroborated the observation that oil and gas stocks under-perform.. Activist Shadiya Aidid explained the rationale for the decision saying that it goes beyond returns and even climate change, She cited social impacts and the disinformation efforts of fossil fuel companies as being salient reasons. 

At the end of last year Creighton University, a Jesuit/Catholic University in Omaha, Nebraska, announced that it will fully divest from fossil fuels within the next decade replacing them with investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.  During the divestment campaign, students questioned some board members’ ties to the fossil fuel industry and they decried donations from the Koch Foundation which is a widely known source of climate disinformation.

These divestment efforts have important implications. Richard Miller, a theologian at Creighton who teaches courses on climate change, said the move is “very important, but it’s just the beginning” and added “It’s changing the discussion. It draws a moral line. The real pressure needs to be put on federal leaders.” 

Protecting students from fossil fuel disinformation 

In addition to divestment, other initiatives have been launched to combat disinformation from the fossil fuel industry. There is a growing understanding that we need to curtail fossil fuels to combat the climate crisis. Students want to address the real-world challenges we face.  As reviewed by Emma Graney in a recent Global and Mail article, an increasing number of engineering students realize that the fossil fuel industry is dying and they are seeking learning opportunities that extend beyond oil and gas. There are also a number of techniques that can help us to combat disinformation

Steps are being taken to curtail the destructive influence of dirty energy in Washington. As reported by CNN, lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives have launched an investigation into climate disinformation by the fossil fuel industry. The House Oversight Committee recently widened its inquiry into the oil and gas industry’s role in spreading disinformation. They are calling on top executives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, and Royal Dutch Shell, as well as the lobby groups American Petroleum Institute (API) and the United States Chamber of Commerce, to testify before Congress in October.

There are many ways that people are being misled and the fight over climate education is on the front lines of the disinformation wars. In this context educational institutions have a special role to play as the purveyors of science-based information and research. They should be leading the charge to dispel lies and provide the needed information to make a livable future possible. 

States are looking at mandating the teaching of climate science in schools. House Resolution 574, “Supporting the teaching of climate change in schools,” was introduced by Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from the California district encompassing Oakland and Berkeley. Last year New Jersey became the first state in the country to require climate change education in its public schools.

Science-based climate education is critical and there are many initiatives underway to protect children from disinformation across the U.S. and around the world. In terms of governance arrangements Finland is leading efforts to counter disinformation. In the U.S. the National Science Teaching Association’s website offers sample lessons and guidance for constructing a scientifically sound climate change curriculum. Next Generation Science Standards, which have been adopted by 36 U.S. states, are a bulwark against petro-pedagogy and the maleficent influence of dirty energy disinformation. 

This article is part of the 11th edition of the Green Market Oracle’s annual Green School Series. To see more articles like this click here

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