Prepping the kids

In March 2017, a letter in the form of a memorandum was sent out to thousands of science teachers across America. It came from the Center for Transforming Education, a group affiliated with the Heartland Institute—the conservative organisation which ExxonMobil helped set up in the 1980s. Since that time,  ExxonMobil has mostly cut its links to the Heartland Institute—because it has become so outspoken, extreme, and vociferous in promoting climate change denial than even ExxonMobil has backed off.  [1]

The letter sent out to the schools included a new glossy book published by the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change (the NIPCC—the name of course easily confused with the widely-respected group of international climate scientists : the IPCC).  The book is called Why Scientists Disagree about Global Warming: The NIPCC Report on Scientific Consensus.

Question time

The memo opens with a question for science teachers: “How do you teach global warming?”

The memo then asks teachers to “consider the possibility that the science in fact is not “settled”.  And continues by saying :“If that’s the case , then students would be better served by letting them know a vibrant debate is taking place among scientists on how big the human impact on climate is, and whether or not we should be worried about it.” 

This was in  2017—when all the major national and international scientific institutions including the IPCC and the National Academies of Science in the US and Canada—representing the consensus view of literally thousands of climate scientists around the world, had concluded that global warming and climate change was underway, getting worse, and was caused by man-made anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases. There was no ‘vibrant debate’–only the echo chamber resonating with the crackpot notions and conspiracy theories of the climate change denial sub-culture.

The book distributed to teachers by the NIPCC opens with these words: “Probably the most widely repeated claim in the debate over global warming is that “97% of scientists agree” that climate change is man-made and dangerous. This claim is not only false but its presence in the debate is an insult to science.

So the goal of the book is clear: to set out the climate change denial pseudo-scientific message wrapped up in a beautifully presented publication.  The authors are Dr. Craig Idso, Dr. Robert M Carter, and Dr. S. Fred Singer—the same Fred Singer who sued Justin Lancaster for libel in 1993 .  The book comes with a video: a 10 minute DVD produced by The Idea Channel.

Quick to respond, the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) a professional organisation representing 55,000 teachers in the US, sent a letter to its members calling on them to resist what they called an “unprecedented attack.”   The National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that works to ensure the integrity of science education and combat ideological interference, launched a fundraiser to counter the misinformation. The NCSE had previously fought for the accurate teaching of evolution and helped to develop the 2013 national science standards that made the teaching of global warming part of the public school curriculum.[2]

But the Heartland Institute is very well funded by the oil and gas, and the petrochemical industries, and science teachers in rural areas often struggle to find teaching materials for classes on science. It’s quite possible that many teachers use the propaganda materials even if they weren’t completely convinced of their veracity. The fact that children are looking at a nicely packaged book and companion video reinforces the impression that there are two sides to the issue, each of equal weight, and strengthens the view in children’s minds that climate science is confusing, uncertain, and ‘unsettled’.

Petro Pete and Sammy Shale

In 2016, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB) published Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream. This is a story for kindergarten children in which a ‘Bob the Builder’ type of cartoon character wakes up one morning to find that everything around him made of plastic and rubber has mysteriously disappeared. His toothbrush, hardhat (he’s an engineer), and the tires on his bike have all gone missing. The story follows Petro Pete as he walks to his school—the Petroville Elementary school, where his teacher Mrs Rigwell, extolls the wonderful benefits of the petroleum industry to Petro Pete and his friend Sammy Shale. Petro Pete gets the message and declares : “having no petroleum is a nightmare.”   

It’s not too sophisticated—but it doesn’t need to be. The kids love it.  Schools and libraries across Oklahoma have received more than 9,000 complementary copies of “Petro Pete’s bad dream” since it was published in 2016.

This children’s story is just the latest in an illustrated series produced by the OERB, an agency funded by the Oklahoma’s petroleum industry, which has reportedly spent more than $40 million over the last couple of decades on K-12 education with a strong pro-industry bias. It’s all free for the schools.[3]

A similar program in Ohio shows teachers how to “frack” Twinkies using straws to pump for cream and proposes materials for the curriculum in a charter school that explains the benefits of fracking. A national program whose sponsors reportedly include BP and Shell, claim it’s too soon to tell if the earth is warming up, but “a little warming might be a good thing.” [4]

It’s not just happening in Oklahoma. Lawmakers created the OERB in 1993 as a state agency funded by a voluntary tax on local oil and gas producers to publicise the industry. Kansas, Illinois, and Ohio soon followed suit with similar legislation.

For example, the Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program (OOGEEP) is a nonprofit education program funded by the state’s oil and gas industries. Its mandate includes :

  1. The promotion of a positive public awareness of the local oil and gas industry, and its vital energy and economic benefits to Ohio
  2. The development and implementation of educational materials and workshops in schools and public outreach programs
  3. To provide a factual and timely response to the public on questions, situations or concerns affecting the Ohio oil and gas industry.[5]

OOGEEP’s teaching materials don’t say much about global warming or climate change. They focus more on the how petroleum products are an essential part of modern life, the benefits they have brought to Ohio, and how hydraulic fracturing is absolutely safe.  The damaging environmental impacts of oil exploration, fracking, pipelines, and petroleum refining are never mentioned.

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For more information see the following resources:

[1] Inside Climate News. How big oil lost control of its climate misinformation machine. Accessed at //insideclimatenews.org/news/22122017/big-oil-heartland-climate-science-misinformation-campaign-koch-api-trump-infographic.
[2] Inside Climate News. Educators decry conservative group’s climate propaganda sent to schoolteachers.
[3] Public Integrity. Oil’s pipeline to America’s schools: Inside the fossil-fuel industry’s not-so-subtle push into K-12 education.  Available at : //apps.publicintegrity.org/oil-education/ . The classroom sketch header is from this report. Also see Oil’s pipeline to America’s schools at: //stateimpact.npr.org/oklahoma/2017/06/15/oils-pipeline-to-americas-schools/
[4] Ibid
[5] See: //www.oogeep.org/about-page/about/