The heavy influence of Big Oil in U.S. teaching materials and a lack of support for educating students about climate change has left many American children ignorant about the climate crisis and its solutions. But some teachers and youth are fighting back against the lies and condescension.
“Having no petroleum is like a nightmare!” That’s the lesson from Petro Pete, a cute, hard hat-wearing mascot who appears with his puppy sidekick in school materials in Oklahoma, explains Bloomberg Green. Pete’s friends in the classroom include oil and gas-themed word searches, and a workbook called “Natural Gas: Your Invisible Friend” that shows kids how to do their own fracking with Jell-O.
And all of these fossil-friendly school materials are backed with big money. “Industry groups recognized the value of classrooms for marketing and propaganda decades ago,” said Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). “It’s where you shape someone’s understanding of your product and of your company and of your issues. In a school context, you’re shaping their understanding of the world.”
And while a 2019 NPR/Ipsos poll found that more than 80% of parents want their children to learn about climate change, “the forces trying to suppress” such teaching “remain relentless,” Bloomberg writes.
Fighting back hard against the industry spin are organizations like the 40,000-member-strong National Science Teaching Association (NSTA), which “offers sample lessons and guidance for constructing scientifically sound climate change curriculum to try to rebut the fossil fuel interests.”
NSTA president Elizabeth Allan told Bloomberg that reaching kids young is the key to raising an adult who understands “that climate science is real and that there are real consequences for the future.”
Also critical, said Utah science teacher Ben Abbott: avoiding “the temptation to do a data blast.” While it is easy to declare “I know stuff,” he said, that strategy will backfire, especially when talking to those whose world view is threatened.
“If you’re persuading or connecting, you have to start toward that place of cultivating compassion. The goal is for students to leave with a feeling of urgency and empowerment,” he said.
Fostering that sense of empowerment is critical. Bloomberg cites a 2019 Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll finding that 57% of U.S. teens feel “afraid” about climate change, and 43% feel helpless.
To combat such feelings, Abbott said, he regularly reminds his students that “because climate change is man-made,” we can “unmake” it, too.
“I frame it as, ‘Humans are in charge’,” he added.
Bloomberg notes that Big Oil’s school propaganda campaign is not the only factor limiting climate education. “At least 10 states, including Texas, offer teachers little to no guidance on the topic of climate change”—a reality that makes it “not uncommon for science teachers themselves to be confused about the facts.” A 2016 survey of teachers published in the journal Science found that “nearly one in three” instructors taught their students that global warming is not anthropogenic.
But the educational system could be on the brink of change. Last June, New Jersey became the first state in the U.S. to make climate change education mandatory in all its public schools.
Also fighting back: the nation’s youth. Boston high school science teacher Timothy Gay has noticed a distinct shift in mindset among his students. Now, he told Bloomberg, they want to know the truth, and they are determined to take meaningful and informed action.
Fifteen years ago, “it was all doom and gloom,” Gay said. “But there’s been a shift in the student psyche. They want to solve the problem. It’s a big issue on the planet, we have the science, but now they want to figure out local solutions.”