Local View: Big Oil must stop funding climate deception

By Nicole Rom
October 20th, 2020

The need for sound, science-based, interdisciplinary climate-change education and training of teachers couldn’t be more important than it is today. Today’s students will inherit the impacts of climate change, and we have a responsibility to prepare them to adapt, mitigate, and innovate in the face of change. We also know students can play important roles as climate communicators to their parents and families.

A big obstacle to climate-change education in the U.S. has been the disinformation campaign waged for decades by the fossil-fuel industry. Big Oil has known since the 1960s that burning fossil fuels caused climate change — and the superstorms, fires, hurricanes, flooding, and climbing temperatures that have come with it. Rather than adjust their course and take the lead on transitioning to an equitable, clean-energy economy, these corporations have lied to the American people and instead engaged in a multibillion-dollar, decades-long disinformation campaign to delay climate action, much of which has targeted teachers and today’s classrooms.

In June, thanks to the leadership of Attorney General Keith Ellison, the state of Minnesota filed a consumer-protection lawsuit against ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute for deceiving the public about climate change. Since then, Delaware and Connecticut have filed their own statewide lawsuits against oil companies for lying about climate change, joining more than 20 communities nationwide and demonstrating broader momentum to hold them accountable for their actions.

For too long, these industries have profited while escaping accountability for the impacts their businesses have on Minnesotans and on society as a whole.

They spread disinformation and fund climate denialism in the classroom to protect their profits while the people of Minnesota pay the price. Thousands of educators nationwide have received information from the Koch-funded Heartland Institute, spanning several decades. The Heartland Institute is a Chicago-based free-market think tank that has been at the forefront of denying the scientific evidence for human-induced climate change. The institute has received at least $600,000 from ExxonMobil since 1998, though it no longer discloses its funding sources.

As the Associated Press reported in May 2019, there has been a steady increase in online climate-change curriculum funded by fossil-fuel companies promoting junk science. In 2017, Heartland began mailing more than 200,000 science educators a booklet called “Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming,” causing concern amongst the education community over its potential negative influence on millions of students.

The 2016 Mixed Messages report published by the National Center for Science Education indicated that many teachers are unaware of the 97% consensus among climate scientists that anthropogenic climate change is happening, demonstrating the very real and devastating impact this misinformation campaign has had on our nation’s schools.

Students need to receive credible, interactive, science-based lessons on the biggest threat to a resilient and equitable future: climate change.

The misinformation campaign targeting educators has other devastating ripple effects. When school administrators perceive a disagreement on climate change, it can cause them to think about climate change as a political or cultural issue and therefore can make them hesitant to allow teachers to incorporate it into their lesson plans, especially in science subjects. We know some teachers are worried about pushback, particularly from parents but also from their own administration, which can contribute to teachers not teaching about climate change.

These indirect negative pressures are equal deterrents to the successful integration of climate-change education in classrooms and are often more difficult to define and address because we don’t see them in the same way we see a mailed leaflet from the Heartland Institute.

We know that the next 10 years are pivotal for taking bold climate action, that misinformation continues to abound, and that teachers play critical roles in providing students science-based learning opportunities and the skills to discern credible information.

Future generations will face a worsening climate crisis long after these corporations cash in and walk away. Enough is enough. These companies should immediately stop funding climate deception. They should bear their fair share of responsibility for the damage caused by their products. They should pay for the costs of climate change.

Among other remedies, Minnesota’s lawsuit asks the court to make Exxon, Koch, and API fund a campaign to provide accurate, science-based public education about the climate crisis, needed now more than ever.

Minnesotans can be proud to see their state stand up for the truth and demand accountability for years of lies and manipulation.

Nicole Rom is executive director of Minneapolis-based Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy (climategen.org). She wrote this for the News Tribune.

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