Modify your diet, drive an electric vehicle, travel less: Students across the country are being taught that these actions have a large impact on the prevention of climate change. While individual actions are undoubtedly contributing to the climate crisis, it would be incorrect to assume that they hold the greatest responsibility. Students and the general public alike must be taught, not only about the personal changes they can make, but also about how large corporations are responsible for the real damage being done to the climate.
Since 1988, 71% of global greenhouse gas emissions have been produced by just 100 fossil fuel companies. In data released in 2019, it was revealed that 20 fossil fuel companies make up one-third of all emissions. Corporations clearly play a major role in the climate problem. The fossil fuels burned by such companies release dangerous amounts of carbon dioxide into the air, trapping heat in the atmosphere and causing climatic warming.
As the temperatures rise, it seems clear that fossil fuel companies are both the ones who need to be held responsible and should have their offenses known by the general public. Even more disturbing, a 2015 investigation revealed that Exxon, the second-largest investor-owned producer of greenhouse gasses, had known about the damages resulting from climate change for decades. Despite this knowledge, they actively took steps to block measures that would cut emissions. Exxon knew about the irreversible damage they were doing and lied about the consequences to the general public, denying any evidence provided.
The United States doesn’t have a national requirement for climate science to be taught in K-12 education, meaning each state decides what is, or is not, taught about climate change in schools. According to a 2016 report from the National Center for Science Education, more than a quarter of science teachers give equal time to perspectives that doubt the scientific consensus surrounding climate change to those that support it, even though there is an overwhelmingly agreed-upon consensus among climate scientists.
Similarly, 34% of teachers do not believe that recent global warming is primarily a result of human activity. Unsurprisingly, this leads to a wide spectrum of comprehension levels surrounding climate change in the United States. This lack of a countrywide standard of understanding produces a population that lacks the tools to properly understand and combat climate change.
Fossil fuel companies have taken advantage of the lack of a national standard for climate education by inserting their narrative wherever possible. These companies have worked extensively to ensure that they control the narrative around climate change — even in schools. They have even produced free education models widely available to educators that frame climate change as consumer-caused. These education models don’t deny climate change, but instead focus on ways in which students can change their daily habits to reduce emissions. By providing free tools to teachers, fossil fuel companies are able to provide carefully calculated misinformation to students at a young age.
One clear example of public manipulation by fossil fuel companies is the concept of the carbon footprint — a common aspect of high school environmental science curriculum. At first glance, the concept of the “carbon footprint” seems like a good way to calculate and visualize the carbon emissions one produces. However, it was actually a term that British Petroleum (BP) promoted and popularized nearly two decades ago. The carbon footprint was just one aspect of a massive PR campaign that infiltrated education attempting to redirect focus on individual actions contributing to climate change. Nobody can argue that reducing an individual’s carbon footprint is a bad thing, which BP understood and took advantage of.
The majority of climate education cannot be reliant on urging personal changes, but rather on holding the largest greenhouse gas emitters responsible and forcing such corporations to change.
In a nation where 25% of the population is unsure of or does not believe in climate change, the lack of comprehensive climate education isn’t too surprising. However, as the climate continues to warm it is increasingly concerning, damaging and deadly.
In order to hold fossil fuel companies accountable for their actions relating to climate change, the narrative that consumers are solely to blame must be publicly rejected in education. Sure, eating less meat or driving an electric vehicle can have positive effects on the environment, but without action from fossil fuel companies, their impact won’t be enough.
Claire Schad is an Opinion Staff Writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.