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Should Fossil Fuel Companies Get to Teach Kids about Climate Change?

Free online lessons by FortisBC come under fire for strongly promoting natural gas.

Michelle Gamage 24 Mar

Michelle Gamage is a Vancouver-based journalist with an environmental focus who regularly reports on climate for The Tyee. You can find her on Twitter @Michelle_Gamage.

A new initiative is calling on B.C. schools to ban all fossil fuel advertising in their lessons.

The campaign from the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment was sparked when Dr. Lori Adamson, a CAPE member and emergency doctor in Salmon Arm, noticed her seven-year-old son's homework was branded and designed by FortisBC, the province's largest natural gas distributor.

The homework is part of FortisBC's Energy Leaders program, which offers kindergarten to Grade 12 students free, ready-to-use lessons about “energy conservation, energy solutions and safety,” according to the company website. The lessons are available in English and French.

The lessons are heavily biased towards natural gas. CAPE says the lessons exclude the negative impacts that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and methane emissions have on climate change, human health and the environment.

When asked for FortisBC’s response to these criticisms, Sean Beardow, the company’s communications manager, declined to comment.

Students and teachers have called the lessons fossil fuel propaganda.

“FortisBC is portraying natural gas in a very positive light, basically telling kids — very impressionable people — through their teachers that they trust, that natural gas is good and it's helpful,” says Katarina Krivokapić, a Grade 12 student at Point Grey Secondary School in Vancouver.

“I think we should keep corporations out of our classrooms, specifically corporations that have been complicit in the destruction of our environment and the exacerbation of climate change.”

The lessons repeat a line often used by natural gas advocates: natural gas is the “cleanest” burning fossil fuel.

That's true if you measure the carbon dioxide emitted out of a smokestack. But it's also important to consider greenhouse gases, like methane, that are released during fracking and transportation. When those emissions are added up, natural gas is as bad as coal when it comes to warming the planet. This isn't mentioned in the Energy Leaders lessons.

CAPE has previously raised awareness around the negative health impacts that come with living close to fracking sites, and cooking with gas in your home.

“Watching our communities suffer climate-induced impacts like the heat dome, intense wildfires, flooding and landslides, and then seeing our children come home from school with ‘science’ lessons designed by a fossil fuel company is disturbing,” reads the CAPE open letter to B.C. Education Minister Jennifer Whiteside, sent earlier this month.

So why would teachers be turning to lessons produced by FortisBC? Teri Mooring, president of the BC Teachers’ Federation, says there aren't many resources available for time-strapped teachers to use to talk about climate change and climate action. The BCTF endorses some resources through TeachBC, an online website with free downloadable lessons and resources hosted by the BCTF, but more is needed, she says.

“There's quite a bit of tension right now around resources and making sure we're teaching around the climate emergency that we're currently in and making sure the resources in our classrooms don't come from a biased perspective,” Mooring says.

A CAPE press release says around 2,000 B.C. teachers have downloaded these lessons so far. But that doesn’t mean all teachers have taught using these materials, Mooring says.

Teachers could be picking and choosing elements from these lessons, or using them to teach about biased sources, she says.

As for advertising, Mooring says, “there shouldn't be any implicit or explicit advertising in what we use in schools.”

Tara Ehrcke, a Grade 8 to 12 math teacher in the Greater Victoria School District, wants to take that a step further and ban all corporate-sponsored lessons from B.C. classrooms.

FortisBC isn't the only company producing lessons plans, Ehrcke says. They say they’ve also seen Visa produce financial literacy lessons, mining companies create geology lessons and Kotex create lessons about puberty and menstruation.

They say these free lessons should be considered branded advertising or propaganda.

“Corporations don't spend their money without a reason — they do it to get a point across. [FortisBC] wants to say natural gas is clean, natural and benign,” Ehrcke says.

Lessons shouldn't be created by companies that want students to ultimately buy their products, they say. “This is a form of advertising to a very captive audience, it’s quite insidious.”

Krivokapić says she was first introduced to lessons produced by FortisBC in Grade 4, when she was taught if she smells rotten eggs it means there's a gas leak and she should leave the building.

At the time she was too young to think critically about the lessons, she says. She finds it “outrageous” that the lessons are still taught today.

Isabella Miskiewicz, a Grade 12 student in Esquimalt High School in Victoria, is similarly critical.

Miskiewicz says she’s seen the number of natural disasters, the number of people getting sick due to climate change, and the number of teenagers suffering from climate-related anxiety rise over her lifetime.

She says her lessons on climate change were self-taught because there was “not a lot taught in school.” Schools teach media literacy on how to spot biased media or fake news, and how to judge sources, which she says she transferred into her own research on climate change.

In a press release responding to criticism of its Energy Leaders program, FortisBC says feedback from teachers has been “overwhelmingly positive,” and that it's required under the B.C. Utilities Commission Act to provide “efficiency education for students.”

The act says a public utility must include “an education program for students enrolled in schools in the public utility’s service area.”

Out of the 85 Energy Leaders lessons, 30 focus on energy conservation and efficiency, 12 focus on safety and 43 look at different kinds of energy sources, including biomass, coal, geothermal, hydroelectric, natural gas, nuclear, oil, solar and wind, said Beardow in an email.

Beardow did not answer when asked to respond to Ehrcke, Krivokapić and Miskiewicz’s concerns that the Energy Leaders program was feeding children fossil fuel propaganda during a climate emergency.

In the press release the company noted it is “undertaking a thorough third-party review to make sure emerging energy topics that fit within the curriculum are appropriately covered.”

Miskiewicz says lessons on climate change should be rooted in science and facts, and that following climate scientists would be a good place to start.

Mooring agreed, and said the BCTF told government there needs to be more investment in “appropriately sourced resources” for teachers so climate change and climate action can be more explicitly taught in schools.

Because having a fossil fuel company teach children about climate change isn’t working, Krivokapić says.

“It’s essentially wrong to push this narrative in schools, where children should be learning ways to tackle the climate crisis, not have programs that are advertisements for fossil fuels.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Education, Environment

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