How Fossil Fuels Pollute STEM Education

Teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg has a message for policy makers: “Listen to the scientists.”

As an engineer, I was glad to hear that. But I also believe it’s also vital for scientists to be vigilant about whom they listen to.

For years, corporations funded junk science trying to undermine the climate consensus. Now, virtually all scientists agree that fossil fuels are heating the planet, so corporations are taking a new tack: peddling false solutions.

The fossil fuel industry has polluted not just our water, air, and soil, but our education system as well — especially the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields. By 2015, for the first time in history, the private sector was investing moremoney in scientific research than the federal government.

This is not a coincidence. It’s a strategy.

According to the Center for International Environmental Law, fossil fuel corporations have been collaborating with prestigious academic institutions to push research away from the root causes of climate change (like fossil fuel use) and towards fake solutions like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS).

CCS is a form of geoengineering that can sound ecologically friendly. It aims at developing technology that would “capture” excess carbon from the atmosphere, or from fossil fuel plants, and store it in the ground.

CCS has a big caveat: It means fossil fuel plants stay open instead of closing. And even worse, the captured carbon can then be used in dangerous drilling methods like fracking. According to researchers, CCS could increase the production of oil in the U.S. alone by an additional 923 million barrels by 2040.

In other words, CCS means more carbon emissions and more ecological destruction.

Fossil fuel companies love to fund CCS projects. Exxon Mobil alone has invested $1.25 billion in STEM programs since 2000. The company says it has collaborated with 80 universities around the world, pushing false solutions like CCS into the minds of young scientists and engineers.

Other polluting industries love the technology, too.

The New York Times reports that Lynda and Steward Resnick, the billionaire owners of the company that owns Fiji water, donated $750 million to the California Institute of Technology to further “environmental study, much of it focused on technological solutions to combat climate change” — like CCS.

The bottled water industry, of course, is a massive consumer of petrochemicals like plastic.

These initiatives seek to delude young scientists that climate change can be solved by technology alone, rather than addressing root causes — like an economic system that rewards greed and pollution.

Don’t get me wrong. We do need to find ways to capture excess carbon in the atmosphere. Personally, I support using an ancient technology developed many millennia ago: trees.

According to The International Union for Conservation of Nature, restoring 350 million hectares of forest by 2030 would “sequester up to 1.7 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide.” If done respectfully toward indigenous communities that rely on forests, this would also benefit millions of people who rely on the biodiversity of these ecosystems.

How else can young scientists and engineers address climate change? By becoming politically active and advocating for real solutions like the Green New Deal.

New technology isn’t enough to save the planet.What’s really required is a mass movement demanding climate action rooted in equity, community, and urgency.

It’s time to stop the fossil fuel industry from polluting our planet — and our engineering schools.