Hot Enough for You? Time to Teach Against Fossil Fuels

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Rethinking Schools Blog

Hot Enough for You? Time to Teach Against Fossil Fuels

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve been spared most of the brutal weather experienced in the rest of the country. Throughout the United States, in the month of June alone, 3,200 daytime high temperature records were broken or tied. In Washington, D.C., an 11-day stretch of temperatures above 95 degrees is the longest since records have been kept. The weird and deadly mid-Atlantic storm—the “land hurricane”—took the lives of 23 people and left 4 million without electricity. Colorado has suffered through the worst forest fires in the state’s history. And the fire still burning in southeastern Oregon is the biggest one the state has seen in 150 years.

As climate scientists will tell you, there is no way to link any single weather event to global warming. But as Jeff Masters, director of meteorology at the Weather Underground website, said recently on Democracy Now!, “What we’re seeing now is the future. We’re going to be seeing a lot more weather like this, a lot more impacts like we’re seeing from this series of heat waves, fires, and storms. . . . This is just the beginning.”

And yet, the fossil fuel industry continues to lead the climate change denial parade. On June 27, a day when almost 200 high temperature records were broken, Rex W. Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations, pooh-poohing climate change, saying that the problem was activist organizations that “manufacture fear.” Tillerson said that the problem was an “illiterate public,” which needed to be taught that all environmental risks were “entirely manageable.”

And conservative pundits proudly wave the same flat-earth flag. Arguing with E. J. Dionne on ABC’s This Week, George Will said, “You asked us—how do we explain the heat? One word: summer. . . . We’re having some hot weather. Get over it.”

In our editorial, “Our Climate Crisis Is an Education Crisis,” in the spring 2011 issue of Rethinking Schools, we wrote that the climate crisis is “arguably the most significant threat to life on earth,” and urged educators to respond with the urgency that the crisis deserves. The events of this summer have added an exclamation point to our editorial.

A new article by Bill McKibben in the July/August 2012 issue of Orion Magazine, “A Matter of Degrees: The Arithmetic of a Warming Climate,” holds profound implications for educators. McKibben begins with the reminder that there is a global consensus that if the planet warms more than 2 degrees Celsius, we enter the “guaranteed-catastrophe zone.” (And McKibben acknowledges that even 2 degrees may be too generous of a climate allowance.)

So McKibben does the arithmetic. To remain under the 2-degree threshold, we need to emit no more than 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide over the next 40 years. As he puts it, “It’s like saying if you want to keep your blood alcohol level legal for driving, you can’t drink more than eight beers in the next six hours.” But here is the problem. Analysts have calculated that all the claimed reserves from fossil fuel—coal, oil, and natural gas—companies add up to 2,795 gigatons, five times more than the maximum allowable, even in a scenario that itself is fraught with climate danger.

“Here’s another way of saying it: We need to leave at least 80 percent of that coal and gas and oil underground,” McKibben writes. “The problem is, extracting and burning that coal and oil and gas is already factored into the share prices of the companies involved—the value of that carbon is already counted as part of the economy.” This would be the equivalent of these companies writing off $20 trillion.

For those of us who take climate science seriously, I think that we’re left with an inescapable conclusion: It’s not enough to teach about fossil fuels, we have to teach against fossil fuels. Any curriculum discussion that fails to address the threat posed by fossil fuel consumption to humanity and the future of all life on earth is profoundly irresponsible.

To illustrate the criminal full-speed-ahead approach of the fossil fuel industry, here in the Northwest, coal companies are pushing plans to export between 150 and 170 million tons of coal a year from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana through six different Oregon and Washington ports to Asia.

Put aside for a moment the horrible toll that coal mining takes on the land and water and people in Montana and Wyoming.

Put aside the coal dust pollution that destroys lungs and kills people.

Put aside the violation of Native fishing rights along the Columbia River, where all the coal would travel by train and barge.

Put aside the noise pollution and disruption from as many as 60 mile-long, diesel exhaust-spewing trains a day.

And instead think only about the climate implications of the hundreds of millions of tons of coal that will be burned if these export routes are opened—a yearly figure, by my calculations, of between 240 and 270 million tons of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of 65 coal-fired power plants. (Of course, anti-coal export activists are busy making sure this doesn’t come to pass.)

Educators need to do our part. We have to continue to create—and teach—curriculum that through role play, simulation, experiment, projects, art, story, media, and activism helps students explore the causes and consequences of climate change—and imagine economic arrangements that can stop hurtling us toward the “catastrophe zone.” This work is already under way.

We concluded our climate crisis editorial: “The fight for a climate-relevant education is part of the broader fight for a critical, humane, challenging, and socially responsive curriculum. It’s work that belongs to us all.”

It’s also work that has never been more urgent.

Bill Bigelow

Bill Bigelow taught high school social studies in Portland, Ore. for almost 30 years. He is the curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools and the co-director of the Zinn Education Project. This project offers free materials to teach people’s history and an “If We Knew Our History” article series. Bigelow is author or co-editor of numerous books, including A People’s History for the Classroom and The Line Between Us: Teaching About the Border and Mexican Immigration.

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