In October 2022, student activists at Harvard, MIT, and Brown pulled out the stops to challenge Big Oil, demanding during an Exxon recruitment event that the administrations divest from fossil fuels. “We showed up, we started to chant, and we did not allow them to give their presentation,” said Phoebe Barr, an organizer of the disruption.
Barr is an activist working with Fossil Fuel Divest Harvard—one of many college organizations pushing back against unsustainable corporations’ deep influence on education. Apart from on-the-ground organizing, the group works to promote fossil-free careers and expose academic projects funded by Big Oil. For Barr, their ultimate goal is “to ban the fossil fuel industry from funding any kind of research project that could be related to climate science.”
As these actions gain traction, college organizers are hoping high school students will follow suit. “Young people for many years now have been eroding the social license these industries have. There is an opportunity for high schoolers to really set the standard of what it looks like to take on bold and powerful solutions to the climate crisis and change our school institutions,” said Audrey Lin, a youth organizer with the Sunrise Movement. Compared to college campuses, where Big Oil and fossil fuel companies have an outsize presence, high schools frequently see the more subtle influence of technology, defense, and finance—sectors still deeply complicit in climate change.
In March, I attended the Texas State Science and Engineering Fair, an academic science competition for middle and high school students. Even though it was advertised as a STEM fair, I quickly realized that the focus was on the corporations that sponsored it. Booths were set up for ExxonMobil, LockheedMartin, and Space X, with representatives passing out drawstring bags, water bottles, pencils, and toys. In reality, it was a recruitment fair. “What do you want to do?” the spokespeople would ask, inviting kids to consider a future career with Big Oil and other polluting industries.
“The first tech competition I participated in was sponsored by Raytheon,” said Anaya Raiker, a 15-year-old from Boston, Mass. According to Raiker, polluters and their corporate allies have an influence on many of her extracurricular activities—from field trips to after-school programs. Though often overlooked, the defense industry is one of the largest polluters, and the United States military alone has produced more than 1.2 billion metric tons of greenhouse gasses since 2001. Another defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, which failed to meet the majority of Paris Agreement goals for environmental protection, has launched youth outreach programs and high school internships designed to attract students before college. “We realize that as the need for technology continues to grow, so will the need for engineers! That’s why we like to start early,” wrote the company on its website in 2018. “Our high school interns in Fort Worth, Texas, are an integral part of the team.”
For Big Oil, high schools offer an opportunity to seek out and train potential workers earlier in their development. JPMorgan, which pledged to spend $75 million to prepare “thousands of young people” for “the future of work” and create “seamless connections from high school to post-secondary to career” is also the largest contributor to fossil fuel financing, providing more than $316 billion to the industry from 2016 to 2020. “America is less and less seeing education as necessary for a functioning democracy and more and more seeing education as a means to short-term corporate profit,” said Dr. Kenneth Saltman, a professor in the Department of Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois Chicago.
This influence is not limited to after-school activities. “There’s Big Oil companies, like BP and Amico, creating science curriculum,” said Saltman. In Texas, for example, the Shell Oil Company pushed back against a proposed requirement that students learn about anthropogenic climate change. “In the end, the board voted to require that eighth grade science students ‘describe the carbon cycle’ instead,” wrote Katie Worth in Scientific American.
In Oklahoma, the Energy Resources Board, funded by oil and natural gas producers, spent around $40 million in the past 20 years on K-12 education, according to the Hechinger Report. “Every barrel the people of Oklahoma Oil & Natural Gas produces helps pay for our schools. And now, during these extraordinary circumstances, we are working with educators across the state to make sure our students, teachers and parents have the tools they need,” writes the agency. “Our children deserve the best. That’s why the people of Oklahoma Oil and Natural Gas are offering free educational tools and resources for students.” BP also markets its own curriculum and educational services, targeting children as young as 4 years old.
In 2022, 11 states introduced legislation to support climate change education in K-12 schools, according to the Campaign for Climate Literacy. But that alone won’t stop the influence of Big Oil and other polluters. As the movement takes form, high schoolers are keeping one thing at the forefront of their minds: money. “Most actions against unsustainable corporations are intended to hit them in their wallets, these being things like taxes and boycotts,” said Sebastian Lemberger, a high school organizer in Massachusetts. “Doing anything to stop them from making money, be it trying to get their school to go all renewable or simply trying to spread the word about the corporations so that fewer people buy from them.”
In 2015, the George School in Pennsylvania became the first private high school to divest its $150 million endowment from fossil fuel investments after students took action. “I didn’t know that my school invested in the fossil fuel industry until I reached out to the sustainability coordinator at my school, where I found out that students a year prior to me created a 13-page report detailing corporate investments on our campus, $3 million of which went to the fossil fuel industry,” said Graham Galusha, a student at a private school in Los Angeles. Galusha and his peers created a petition to its board of trustees, outlining requests for the school to halt these investments, garnering support from a third of the student body. Now, the movement awaits a response from the administration. “They expressed interest in the idea and wanted to further discuss divesting, but have been slow to take action.”
Raiker, the teenage activist from Massachusetts, believes that students are not oblivious to corporate climate crimes, as young people overwhelmingly believe in climate change and attribute it to human activity. Nevertheless, cutting through the greenwashing and corporate pandering poses a challenge. “We have influence and can still recognize the influence that these companies have on our campuses and work against it.” For high school organizers, Barr emphasizes strength in unity and solidarity. “Know your numbers, know the facts about these companies, and know that more people are on your side than are against you.”