Teach the Fossil Fuel Industry — Our Students’ Enemy

By Bill Bigelow

Photo: Joe Brusky

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

A while back, I was invited to lead a workshop on teaching the climate crisis at a teacher education program at a Portland-area college. I chose an activity I wrote called “The Mystery of the Three Scary Numbers” — included in the Rethinking Schools book, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth and at the Zinn Education Project’s Teach Climate Justice site. It’s based on a famous Bill McKibben article in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” The terrifying math that McKibben lays out is simple: In order to keep the climate from warming more than two degrees Celsius over pre-industrial temperatures, the world’s “carbon budget” is 565 gigatons — carbon of all sources that, collectively, the world can emit and have a reasonable hope of staying under two degrees. The terrifying number is how much carbon is stored in the known reserves of fossil fuel companies and countries that act like fossil fuel companies, like Saudi Arabia: 2,795 gigatons — five times the amount of the world’s carbon budget. Yes, I know, there are lots of problems with this formulation. For example, two degrees is a horribly inadequate target, one that will condemn much of the world to climate catastrophe. And the 2,795 number grows every day, as profit-driven fossil fuel companies, and the governments they purchase, drill and dig and scrape the Earth for still more fossil fuels. But the core lesson remains: We cannot burn a substantial portion of known fossil fuel reserves and hope to survive.

In the activity, students receive short clues on strips of paper about different aspects of the three scary numbers — 565 gigatons, 2,795 gigatons, 2 degrees Celsius — and circulate in the classroom, finding people with other clues that connect with theirs. Following the activity, students write on the three numbers, what makes them scary, and the implications: What should we do?

The future teachers had lots of thoughts on this, but one was especially passionate: “We have to convince the fossil fuel companies to keep all these fossil fuels in the ground — it’s crazy to continue to explore for more and more when we already have too much.”

This was a well-meaning comment. But think about this for a moment. The climate crisis puts at risk the future of life on Earth. It is lunacy that humanity and nature should be held hostage by the fossil fuel industry, that we should have to — or even could — plead with them to exercise restraint. These corporations cannot be reasoned with; they cannot be talked into committing suicide as fossil fuel producers. An article in the Aug. 9, 2019 edition of the New York Times (“With Saudi Aramco Set to Disclose Earnings, Could an I.P.O. Be Next?”) underscored what’s at stake for these companies. Aramco, the world’s largest oil producer, had 2018 profits of $111 billion, making it by far the most profitable corporation in the world. Said another way: The more this industry ignores the climate crisis, the richer it gets.

And yet, the threat the fossil fuel industry poses to the future of life on Earth makes almost no appearance in mainstream curriculum. Here in Oregon, where I taught social studies for almost 30 years, the state K–12 social studies standards, approved in May of 2018, include not a single mention of “fossil fuels,” “oil,” “coal,” or “gas” in the standards’ 27 pages.

The Next Generation Science Standards acknowledge that “Human activities, such as the release of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, are major factors in the current rise in Earth’s mean surface temperature (global warming).” But the standards fail to acknowledge the fundamental contradiction between continued fossil fuel use and planetary survival. Instead, a middle school NGSS standard offers this meek (and convoluted) suggestion: “Reducing the level of climate change and reducing human vulnerability to whatever climate changes do occur depend on the understanding of climate science, engineering capabilities, and other kinds of knowledge, such as understanding human behavior and on applying that knowledge wisely in decisions and activities.”

No doubt, teachers can use this standard to teach critically, but this obfuscating language fails to acknowledge the obvious: We are in a climate emergency; our house is burning down and it’s urgent that we stop those people who are pouring fuel on the fire.

We need a curricular conversation about how we can teach about fossil fuels from the earliest grades through teacher education, and in multiple disciplines. At the Zinn Education Project, we feature simulations and role plays that can help students recognize how the fossil fuel industry jeopardizes life everywhere:

These lessons tell the truth about the deadly impact of fossil fuels, so as to engage students in the vital work of exploring alternatives — through organizing and activism. And teaching against fossil fuels is not just for older students. In a forthcoming Rethinking Schools article, Portland, Oregon, 2nd-grade teacher Rachel Hanes describes a Storyline project she taught with her students, in which citizens in their imaginary community of Happy Town receive a letter from the president of the Carson Environmental Oil Co., proposing a pipeline that will come through a part of their town and “bring many new high paying jobs to your area.” Student-citizens joined a town hall meeting to discuss the proposal, wrote persuasive letters to the mayor, and defeated the proposal in a community-wide vote. Rachel followed up by introducing her students to other young activists at Standing Rock and in the Our Children’s Trust lawsuit.

 “Climate justice” education means a lot of things. But one key aspect is that we involve students in probing the social and economic roots of this crisis. The climate crisis is inexplicable without looking at the intersection of fossil fuels and the capitalist system. Students everywhere need to understand the role that the fossil fuel industry plays in jeopardizing their futures — and learn how to resist. Today, these should be basic skills.

A People's Curriculum for the Earth

Bill Bigelow (bill@rethinkingschools.org) is curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine, and co-edited A People’s Curriculum for the Earth: Teaching Climate Change and the Environmental Crisis.

On September 20th, if Our Students Are Not in the Streets, Let’s Bring the Streets to Our Students

By Ursula Wolfe-Rocca

At the end of August a group of student activists presented a letter to the Portland, Oregon, School Board regarding their plans to walk out of school on September 20th, part of a wave of activities in the week-long Global Climate Strike. The letter included an ambitious set of demands — no penalties, academic or extracurricular, for student strikers; the right to organize and promote the strike at school; dissemination of climate justice curriculum for educators to teach in the days leading up to and on September 20th; and more. The letter left me energized and inspired to do my part as a teacher to act in solidarity with my students.

There was only one problem: Those activists who have been showing up to school board meetings, sitting on climate justice committees, and organizing the September 20th walk-out, are not my students.

Although I live in Portland, I do not teach there. I teach in a wealthy suburb south of the city and, in the first two weeks of school, I have heard not a word about September 20th from my 11th-grade U.S. history students. In fact, when we read an article about Greta Thunberg’s activism, only a handful of students celebrated her actions and expressed support for the strike; most of my students were dismissive, even hostile, to the strikers and the climate emergency for which they’re sounding the alarm. Some students questioned the efficacy of the tactic: “It’s not like skipping school actually fixes the problem they’re supposedly so concerned about.” Others questioned the motivation of the strikers: “I think a lot of kids are just looking for an excuse to skip school.” Still other students expressed alarming views on our climate future: “There is really nothing anyone can do to stop climate change at this point. We need to focus on developing new technologies. Technology is the only thing that is going to save us.”

So what does educator solidarity with the student strikers on September 20th look like at a school like mine, with students like these? Or what about for other teachers, who work in schools that will not countenance a walk-out from kids, much less educators?

First, we can recognize a more meaningful solidarity with climate justice activists will not be limited to a single day but extend throughout the year. Indeed, in the second week of school, by sharing their assumptions about climate change and youth activism, my students offered me a roadmap of some teaching I need to do in the year ahead, on climate change, yes, but also on the history of activism and social change, and, in particular, the role of young people. To imagine and enact the kind of change that is necessary to avert further catastrophe, and to build a more fair, equal, and just world moving forward, our students need the tools offered by a rich, multidisciplinary climate syllabus. Our curriculum will need to emphasize the causes and consequences of, and current responses to, climate change while unearthing lessons from times in our past when collective resistance and social movements changed the world in unimaginably significant ways.

Second, at a minimum, on September 20th, we can surface the climate emergency (to which the strike is planned to draw attention) in our classrooms. I will be in the early days of a unit on the Gilded Age; it will be easy to tie in climate change by examining the exponential growth in the burning of fossil fuels that occurred during that era or the unregulated extraction of the earth’s resources by powerful men, celebrated as the quintessential U.S. capitalists. I am confident many teachers can find ways to make a lesson on climate justice “fit” in their existing scope and sequence.

But since few (perhaps none) of my students will walk out on September 20th, I want to make sure class is not business as usual on that day. I have the freedom in my school to abandon the calendar — at least for a day. Almost every year there comes a time when important events overtake my syllabus. Two years ago, after a white supremacist murdered two people on a MAX train in Portland, my students and I spent time processing and writing poetry of sorrow and solidarity to offer to the school communities that had been impacted. At the start of my first year teaching full time, 9/11 occurred, and I suspended my curriculum only days after I had launched it. Just as in these examples, I will share with my students the “why” behind our breach with the status quo. I will explain that since the climate crisis requires, in the words of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society,” and since activists have spent a lot of time and energy organizing this week of action, we are going to take the day to learn a bit about their work. I will invite students to Meet Today’s Climate Justice Activists, by participating in a mixer role play profiling activists from all over the world, many of them young people. Since my students will not be taking to the streets, this lesson will allow me to bring the streets to my students.

Third, we can build in and protect time and space in our curriculum after the strike for understanding and analyzing what happened on September 20th, with a keen eye toward the stories not making front pages and social media feeds. My students deserve a clearer, fuller view of the (mostly unheralded) student strikers — not just Greta Thunberg — to counter some of the misinformation fueling their dismissive judgments. They deserve an opportunity to change their minds.

Fourth, we can reach out to find allies among colleagues, parents, and community members to push forward the climate curriculum and policy of our schools. Four of my colleagues met after school last week to chat; we brainstormed lesson plans for 9/20, talked about where we might build in climate analysis to existing units, and shared what we’d been hearing from students in the first weeks of school. Our informal meeting in my classroom is a far cry from the achievements of the Portland team of parents, students, educators, and activists who succeeded in pressuring the school board to pass a sweeping, first-of-its-kind climate resolution in 2016. But it’s a start.

The September 20th walkout was called by students; but there is a clear ask of adults. The organizers wrote,

“We’re asking adults to step up alongside us. There are many different plans under way in different parts of the world for adults to join together and step up and out of your comfort zone for our climate. Let’s all join together, with your neighbours, co-workers, friends, family and go out on to the streets to make your voices heard and make this a turning point in our history.”

For some of us, this stepping up may take the form of walking out with our students. But for many of us, that may not be practical, either because, as in my case, there seems to be no student movement to join, or because the professional risks are simply too great. But the alternative to walking out need not be silence. Let’s join the students, whether in the streets, or in our classrooms, by using our teacher voices for climate justice.

Ursula Wolfe-Rocca (ursulawolfe@gmail.com) teaches at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon. She is an editor for Rethinking Schools and a teacher organizer for the Zinn Education Project.

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This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

 

Take Sides for the Earth and Teach Climate Justice

A People's Curriculum for the Earth

A People’s Curriculum for the Earth by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart.

TEACHING CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE ENVIRONMENTAL CRISIS

As we celebrate Earth Day, we invite you to join us in taking sides for the Earth by teaching climate justice and becoming part of the #TeachClimateJustice movement with our book,  A People’s Curriculum for the Earth by Bill Bigelow and Tim Swinehart.

The book is an infinitely useful collection of articles, role plays, simulations, stories, poems, and graphics that help breathe life into teaching about the environmental crisis. A People’s Curriculum for the Earth features classroom-friendly readings on climate change, energy, water, food, and pollution—as well as on people who are working to make things better.

For Earth Month, get 15% off your order when you use code EARTH19 at checkout through 5/1/19.

Order your copy today. 


Additional Resources to Teach Climate Justice

Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise movement.

OUR HOUSE IS ON FIRE — TIME TO TEACH CLIMATE JUSTICE
By Bill Bigelow

For too long, the fossil fuel industry has tried to buy teachers’ and students’ silence by saddling us with a curriculum of climate denialism, and spreading climate change doubt that made its way into mainstream textbooks. The gulf between the severity of the climate crisis and the curricular response in schools continues to yawn wide. This is where we come in. Social justice educators need to expose the biased and damaging curriculum and construct an alternative.

Continue Reading. 

 


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ZINN EDUCATION PROJECT’S TEACH CLIMATE JUSTICE CAMPAIGN

This month, the Zinn Education Project is launching the Teach Climate Justice campaign.

How do we teach the climate crisis in a way that also confronts racism, economic inequality, misogyny, militarism, xenophobia, and that imagines the kind of world that we would like to live in?

The Zinn Education Project has compiled classroom-tested lessons, recommended books and films, a sample school board climate justice resolution, and is offering workshops for educators.

Visit the Climate Justice Resources

 


‘WE CAN BE WHATEVER WE HAVE THE COURAGE TO SEE’: A New Video from AOC Envisions a #GreenNewDeal
From Common Dreams staff writer, Eoin Higgins

AOC-Video

Common Dreams shares a colorful new video from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez released by The Intercept that can help us imagine what the Green New Deal will mean for our communities, schools, and classrooms.

 

The video features art from Molly Crabapple, the artist who illustrated our #SchoolsToo magazine issue cover.

Learn more and watch the inspiring video here.