Science a la Joe Camel
- Science a la Joe Camel
By Laurie David
Sunday, November 26, 2006; B01
At hundreds of screenings this year of "An Inconvenient Truth," the
first thing many viewers said after the lights came up was that every
student in every school in the United States needed to see this movie.
The producers of former vice president Al Gore's film about global
warming, myself included, certainly agreed. So the company that made
the documentary decided to offer 50,000 free DVDs to the National
Science Teachers Association (NSTA) for educators to use in their
classrooms. It seemed like a no-brainer.
The teachers had a different idea: Thanks but no thanks, they said.
In their e-mail rejection, they expressed concern that other "special
interests" might ask to distribute materials, too; they said they
didn't want to offer "political" endorsement of the film; and they
saw "little, if any, benefit to NSTA or its members" in accepting the
Gore, however, is not running for office, and the film's theatrical
run is long since over. As for classroom benefits, the movie has been
enthusiastically endorsed by leading climate scientists worldwide,
and is required viewing for all students in Norway and Sweden.
Still, maybe the NSTA just being extra cautious. But there was one
more curious argument in the e-mail: Accepting the DVDs, they wrote,
would place "unnecessary risk upon the [NSTA] capital campaign,
especially certain targeted supporters." One of those supporters, it
turns out, is the Exxon Mobil Corp.
That's the same Exxon Mobil that for more than a decade has done
everything possible to muddle public understanding of global warming
and stifle any serious effort to solve it. It has run ads in leading
newspapers (including this one) questioning the role of manmade
emissions in global warming, and financed the work of a small band of
scientific skeptics who have tried to challenge the consensus that
heat-trapping pollution is drastically altering our atmosphere. The
company spends millions to support groups such as the Competitive
Enterprise Institute that aggressively pressure lawmakers to oppose
It's bad enough when a company tries to sell junk science to a bunch
of grown-ups. But, like a tobacco company using cartoons to peddle
cigarettes, Exxon Mobil is going after our kids, too.
And it has been doing so for longer than you may think. NSTA says it
has received $6 million from the company since 1996, mostly for the
association's "Building a Presence for Science" program, an
electronic networking initiative intended to "bring standards-based
teaching and learning" into schools, according to the NSTA Web site.
Exxon Mobil has a representative on the group's corporate advisory
board. And in 2003, NSTA gave the company an award for its commitment
to science education.
So much for special interests and implicit endorsements.
In the past year alone, according to its Web site, Exxon Mobil's
foundation gave $42 million to key organizations that influence the
way children learn about science, from kindergarten until they
graduate from high school.
And Exxon Mobil isn't the only one getting in on the action. Through
textbooks, classroom posters and teacher seminars, the oil industry,
the coal industry and other corporate interests are exploiting
shortfalls in education funding by using a small slice of their
record profits to buy themselves a classroom soapbox.
NSTA's list of corporate donors also includes Shell Oil and the
American Petroleum Institute (API), which funds NSTA's Web site on
the science of energy. There, students can find a section
called "Running on Oil" and read a page that touts the industry's
environmental track record -- citing improvements mostly attributable
to laws that the companies fought tooth and nail, by the way -- but
makes only vague references to spills or pollution. NSTA has
distributed a video produced by API called "You Can't Be Cool Without
Fuel," a shameless pitch for oil dependence.
The education organization also hosts an annual convention -- which
is described on Exxon Mobil's Web site as featuring "more than 450
companies and organizations displaying the most current textbooks,
lab equipment, computer hardware and software, and teaching
enhancements." The company "regularly displays" its "many . . .
education materials" at the exhibition. John Borowski, a science
teacher at North Salem High School in Salem, Ore., was dismayed by
NSTA's partnerships with industrial polluters when he attended the
association's annual convention this year and witnessed hundreds of
teachers and school administrators walk away with armloads of free
corporate lesson plans.
Along with propaganda challenging global warming from Exxon Mobil,
the curricular offerings included lessons on forestry provided by
Weyerhaeuser and International Paper, Borowski says, and the benefits
of genetic engineering courtesy of biotech giant Monsanto.
"The materials from the American Petroleum Institute and the other
corporate interests are the worst form of a lie: omission," Borowski
says. "The oil and coal guys won't address global warming, and the
timber industry papers over clear-cuts."
An API memo leaked to the media as long ago as 1998 succinctly
explains why the association is angling to infiltrate the
classroom: "Informing teachers/students about uncertainties in
climate science will begin to erect barriers against further efforts
to impose Kyoto-like measures in the future."
So, how is any of this different from showing Gore's movie in the
classroom? The answer is that neither Gore nor Participant
Productions, which made the movie, stands to profit a nickel from
giving away DVDs, and we aren't facing millions of dollars in lost
business from limits on global-warming pollution and a shift to
cleaner, renewable energy.
It's hard to say whether NSTA is a bad guy here or just a sorry
victim of tight education budgets. And we don't pretend that a two-
hour movie is a substitute for a rigorous science curriculum.
Students should expect, and parents should demand, that educators
present an honest and unbiased look at the true state of knowledge
about the challenges of the day.
As for Exxon Mobil -- which just began a fuzzy advertising campaign
that trumpets clean energy and low emissions -- this story shows that
slapping green stripes on a corporate tiger doesn't change the beast
within. The company is still playing the same cynical game it has for
While NSTA and Exxon Mobil ponder the moral lesson they're teaching
with all this, there are 50,000 DVDs sitting in a Los Angeles
warehouse, waiting to be distributed. In the meantime, Mom and Dad
may want to keep a sharp eye on their kids' science homework.
Laurie David, a producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," is a Natural
Resources Defense Council trustee and founder of