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[GreenYes] NSTA takes a "pass" on science

*Science a la Joe Camel*

By Laurie David

Washington Post
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 free DVDs.

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
emission limits.

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

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 years.

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@no.address <mailto:laurie@no.address>/

/Laurie David, a producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," is a Natural
Resources Defense Council trustee and founder of

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