Teacher talking to students about recycling, seen from above in a classroom.

Fossil Fuel Companies Continue to Shape How Schools Nationwide Talk About Climate Change

The numbers are staggering. Seventy-five percent of youth participants in an international survey responded that they find the future frightening because of the state of the planet. 83 percent surveyed said they believe not enough is being done to address the planet’s problems. These numbers speak to the reality that today’s youth are facing: The climate crisis is here and they will inherit the very real fight for a livable future. 

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For obvious reasons, a generation of climate-conscious youth is a terrifying prospect to the fuel fossil industry. They’re doing all they can to push back against the growing awareness of the need for climate action. Even as some states are mandating that climate change must be taught in schools, others are allowing the fossil fuel industry to hijack the curriculum. 

Oklahoma currently presents a clear and troubling picture of the lengths the oil and gas industry will go to in order to wheedle their way into schools. Thousands of dollars in donations for school supplies are dangled in front of school districts. Then once they’re in the door, the fossil fuel industry has their anti-climate action materials at the ready.

According to reporting from the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Oklahomapublished in The Guardianschools in Oklahoma have received thousands of free copies of an oil and gas industry-produced picture book called Petro Pete’s Big Bad Dream. This piece of propaganda attempts to tap into children’s fear that their homes, their belongings, and their lives will disappear if we transition off of fossil fuels. Poor Petro Pete loses his clothes, his bike, everything he owns in a nightmare world without petroleum. What Pete learns and shares with his pal, Sammy Shale, is that a happy life is one full of burning gas and oil. Petro Pete is a creation of the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. There are three other books in the series, each extolling the virtues of burning fossil fuels.

Grants, contests, free materials, and trainings: these kinds of manipulative resources can prove attractive to some as U.S. schools remain underfunded. Oklahoma sits toward the bottom of the list of funding per student nationwide. Perhaps the fossil fuel industry is looking at that list to see where they might be able to tempt starved educators. 

Knowing they aren’t able to reach all youth in schools, the fossil fuel industry is searching out other ways to connect and propagandize. One place that the fossil fuel industry has tried to rebrand via online gaming. The Fortnite yellow banana Peely character is evidence of Shell’s desperation to rebrand itself and appeal to youth. 

As shocking as this sounds, the fossil fuel industry marketing directly to kids is not new. In 1985, Disney used its characters to shill for Exxon. In cartoon form, Mickey and Goofy made a merry ply for more investment in American oil. This was just a few years before the catastrophic Exxon Valdez spill.

Will the fossil fuel industry’s attempt to co-opt public education be successful? Only time will tell but with international youth climate leaders like Greta Thunberg and Vanessa Nakate, students have credible voices to listen to, with visions for the future they can trust. Though the fossil fuel industry may keep pushing the dangerous, outmoded status quo, youth groups like Extinction Rebellion and Gen Z for Change will continue pushing back. 

(featured image: FG Trade Latin/Getty Images)


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