Research Summary

Petro-pedagogy: fossil fuel interests and the obstruction of climate justice in public education

Environmental educational programs influenced by the fossil fuel industry promote a positive view of fossil fuels

Environmental Education Research
2020

The fossil fuel industry is a significant contributor to climate change. Many believe that we must transition to renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power to slow the effects of climate change. However, the fossil fuel industry often uses its considerable economic power to block this from happening. The authors of this paper suggested that the fossil fuel industry aims to portray a positive image of itself to the public. They stated that to disseminate this positive image, the fossil fuel industry promotes fossil fuels as an essential part to everyday life and speciously asserts that its scientific and technological innovations are a sign of environmental progress. The authors noted that because the fossil fuel industry holds immense power in shaping public discourse, education often reflects climate and energy beliefs that align with the interests of the fossil fuel industry. This study focused on discourse in education surrounding climate change and energy beliefs in Saskatchewan, Canada. Many non-profit organizations in Saskatchewan are involved in developing and administering educational resources and content and provide teachers with professional development. The researchers looked how the non-profit organizations used to frame climate change and energy issues, potential solutions to climate change, and the strengths and weaknesses of renewable and fossil fuel energy. They then examined how these methods advance the fossil fuel industry’s interest in appearing positive to the public and how teachers extend these methods to the classroom.

Prior to this study, the researchers reviewed literature to examine discourse around the relationship between public education and the fossil fuel industry in Canada. In their literature review, the researchers found that capitalism-focused policies aimed at education have led to deregulation and defunding in education. This disregulation and defunding caused schools to become vulnerable to offers by outside corporations and organizations for financial support and to design education materials. The researchers determined fossil fuel industries, in particular, have offered their support to public education to disseminate positive information and beliefs regarding fossil fuels. The fossil fuel industry thus idealizes these capitalism-focused policies, or neoliberal policies, because neoliberalism allows for advancing its interests. Additionally, the researchers found that environmental education oftentimes promotes individual action, such as reducing water usage and driving less, as a solution to the climate crisis. Some research has shown that contextualizing climate issues in this way disallows for conversations about the fossil fuel industry’s role in climate change and does not promote conversations about the possibilities of using alternative, clean energy sources.

Saskatchewan, Canada was chosen for this study because it is Canada’s second-largest oil and gas producing province, and many of the study participants teach in rural communities dependent on fossil fuel products. To understand how climate and energy issues are framed in education by teachers and educational material, the researchers interviewed teachers (21), educational workers that do not work directly in classrooms (5), and non-profit organization staff engaged in public education (3). Participants were chosen based on their experience in energy and climate change and/or experience in the collaboration process between non-profit organizations and education to develop curricula. Individuals were recruited using referrals through previous contacts, contacting teachers who appeared in the media, and contacting teachers who had engaged in the non-profit organizations’ educational programs. The researchers also analyzed related resources and lessons created by the non-profit organizations.

The researchers identified four key ways in which the fossil fuel industry interests were upheld by the non-profit organizations in their educational materials and outreach. First, the fossil fuel industry’s perspective on energy and climate issues was deemed necessary to teach and learn about environmental issues in a balanced and unbiased way. Second, fossil fuel products were presented as essential, and in lessons students were encouraged to reflect on how fossil fuels were a part of their everyday lives. Third, the researchers identified instances of “greenwashing” in which fossil fuel companies were presented as supporters of environmental responsibility, despite their contributions to environmental degradation and pollution. Fourth, the non-profit organizations emphasized the importance of environmental action at the individual level, suggesting that it is a sufficient response to tackling climate issues. Overall, the researchers found that the non-profit organizations’ messages promoted the fossil fuel industry’s interest in being presented positively and deflected the burden of environmental change onto individuals.

The researchers identified two ways in which teachers upheld the fossil fuel industry’s interests in the classroom. First, the teachers in this study often mentioned they included the fossil fuel industry’s perspective because they wanted students to consider all viewpoints. A few teachers explained that after attending professional development workshops offered by the non-profit organizations, they had decided to incorporate this perspective. The researchers argued this negates the fact that the fossil fuel industry’s perspective is inherently biased to maintain their economic power and influence. Second, many teachers implied that teaching about an alternative to fossil fuels can be interpreted as a threat to livelihoods in oil-producing communities and that life without fossil fuels is an impossibility. The researchers argued that framing life without fossil fuels as impossible leads to discourse that prohibits discussions about how to achieve environmental change. Additionally, they contended it does not leave room for conversations about how renewable energy can be incorporated into existing livelihoods and can be used to phase out fossil fuels.

One limitation of this study is that it looks at one geographical location, particularly one that is heavily reliant on fossil fuels. The results may differ in another location or in an area that is not economically dependent on the fossil fuel industry. Another limitation is that participants were not selected at random, which lessens the generalizability of these results.

The researchers argue that environmental education should teach about the power, influence, and interests of the fossil fuel industry. They worry that environmental education has been coopted by neoliberalism that has clouded its original goals of transformative change. They suggest that educators should emphasize that sustaining both the environment and the fossil fuel industry as it operates today is not feasible. Educators should stress that life without fossil fuels is possible through using renewable energy. By doing so, environmental education will mobilize students to collective action and to put pressure on political decision-makers to move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

The Bottom Line

Research has shown the fossil fuel industry influences education on climate change and energy reliance in Canada to align positively with their mission. The researchers interviewed teachers, educational workers that do not work directly in classrooms, and non-profit organizations engaged in public education in Saskatchewan, Canada. They examined how the non-profit organizations frame climate change and renewable and fossil fuel energy in their programming and found that positive perceptions of the fossil fuel industry were promoted. Additionally, the researchers found that teachers, in part due to their training, continue this positive discourse of the fossil fuel industry in their teaching. The researchers suggest educators should not emphasize environmental action at the individual level, because it deemphasizes the role of fossil fuels in climate change. Instead, educators should teach about the control and interests of the fossil fuel industry and emphasize that renewable energy can be used to phase out fossil fuels.