Money vs. Conscience

by Liz Borkowski

If you haven’t read Laurie David’s op-ed, “Science a la Joe Camel,” in yesterday’s Washington Post, I recommend clicking over to it. David was a producer of Al Gore’s climate change documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” and reports that the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) turned down 50,000 free DVDs of that movie, which the movie company offered for classroom viewing.

Why would an organization of science teachers turn down a movie that brings science to a mainstream audience and tackles what’s arguably the most important environmental issue of the day? Because, David explains, NSTA is funded by ExxonMobil.

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.

David goes on to explain that NSTA has received $6 million from ExxonMobil since 1996, and the company has a representative on the group’s corporate advisory board; Shell Oil and the American Petroleum Institute are also NSTA donors. The latter 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.

David leaves room for the possibility that NSTA is “just a sorry victim of tight education budgets,” but I don’t think that an organization whose raison d’etre is science education should take money from ExxonMobil, a company that has poured millions of dollars into a smear campaign against the growing scientific consensus that Earth’s climate is being affected by human activities, primarily the increase in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. In short, NSTA is pro-science, and ExxonMobil is anti-science.

For further reading, Chris Mooney’s 2005 Mother Jones article on organizations funded by ExxonMobil gives insight into how the company operates its campaign. Naomi Oreskes’s 2004 Science article on the scientific consensus behind climate change is also an excellent place to go if you need a reminder about this particular angle. As for NSTA resources on this topic, I’m now inclined to regard them suspiciously.

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP).