Canada’s friendliest province — unless you’re the climate
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Claire Kraatz was alarmed to find a fossil fuel industry session on the schedule for a teachers’ conference last week that promoted “a bright future for oil and gas.”
She’s worried teachers are getting a one-sided message about the industry, one that won’t accurately reflect the scientific reality that fossil fuel emissions need to drop dramatically to hold global warming to less extreme levels.
Kraatz grew up in Edmonton and remembers learning French, English and social studies in school — but not much science or Indigenous education.
“It’s only in my adulthood that I have connected the dots between Indigenous rights and climate justice,” Kraatz said.
Kraatz moved to Calgary and was a teacher in the city’s public school board until 2015. She said she experienced some pivotal life moments that opened her eyes to the climate crisis shortly after she left teaching.
“The Fort McMurray fires really kind of woke me up,” Kraatz said.
“I remember just staring at my TV screen, like glued to the TV screen. And watching what was happening unfold in Fort McMurray, with the fires burning all around that town, and people scrambling to get out. And I remember thinking, ‘This is not normal.’”
Kraatz was stunned again when British Columbia experienced back-to-back record-breaking wildfire seasons the following two years.
On one summer road trip through the Rocky Mountains, she recalls feeling disturbed as wildfire ash descended upon her car. It all motivated her to begin reading up on humanity’s influence on Earth’s climate.
As a teacher by training, she believes in the power of education, she said — which is why she’s concerned about an Alberta teachers’ conference that hosted a session in Red Deer, Alta. involving two fossil fuel industry executives.
The annual convention held by the Central Alberta Teachers’ Convention Association, which represents five local Alberta Teachers’ Association groups, hosted a talk focused on the Pathways Alliance, a group of oilsands companies.
Kraatz, who is the volunteer co-lead for the Alberta chapter of For Our Kids, a national network of parents focused on climate action, said she didn’t know the content of the session, only how it was being promoted.
She acknowledged it could lead to meaningful or genuine engagement on the issue of climate change, if the conversation moved beyond industry contributions to climate targets like cutting operational emissions through carbon capture, to include an emphasis on how society needs to transition to renewable energy sources.
“My concern is that they’re maybe hearing all the great things that the Pathways Alliance is doing, but they’re not getting the whole picture of, okay, what does the science say?” Kraatz said.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association, the professional association for teachers and teacher administrators in the province, said in a statement that conventions put on “hundreds of sessions,” and organizers try to present a “wide variety of topics, speakers and viewpoints” teachers can learn from.
The group said teachers can pick and choose which sessions they want to attend, and that it had “trust in the judgement and integrity of our members to look critically at the issues presented in any session.”
Lella Blumer, a national coordinator with For Our Kids, said the group is trying to call out attempts by the oil and gas industry to present the industry as on track to meet emissions reduction targets. Pathways has criticized a federal emissions reduction plan as unrealistic, but has also lobbied against shrinking its members’ oil production.
“Parents are always looking out for their kids and trying to do their best, and the oil and gas industry needs to do its part too, because without an urgent transition away from burning fossil fuels, we’re not hitting the mark,” Blumer wrote in an email.
The Pathways Alliance has pledged to achieve net-zero emissions from their operations by 2050. The alliance wants to build a large carbon-capture and storage network that could, in theory, reduce the carbon pollution from almost two dozen oilsands facilities.
Critics say the oilsands companies are misleading Canadians about the rising trend of industry pollution overall, and the fact that fossil fuel production and use — not just the industry’s operational emissions — must decline if the world has a chance of slowing global warming that is causing climate change.
The teachers’ convention group said its two-day meeting “is an essential component of our professional responsibility for lifelong learning.” Its summary about the Pathways session floated the idea that the oil and gas industry can be a “partner” in reducing carbon pollution.
The summary also promoted the efforts of Canadian Natural Resources Limited, a Pathways member and one of Canada’s largest oil and gas companies, which has lobbied against tougher climate rules.
“There’s a bright future for oil and gas, and students can drive change from within the industry,” the summary stated.
Simon Davies, vice president of technology and innovation at Canadian Natural Resources, was scheduled to be a speaker.
Dagmar Knutson, the chief financial officer for Fusion Production Systems, a Red Deer-based company that manufactures oil and gas equipment, tweeted that she would moderate the discussion.
Knutson is also the founder and executive director of Ten Peaks Innovation Alliance, a nonprofit first registered in 2021 that describes itself as “on a mission to engage, inspire and educate Alberta’s youth” by engaging with schools, students and teachers.
Ten Peaks shares course materials on its website, including material specifically on the “Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero,” a predecessor organization to Pathways Alliance. The course material includes an overview of oilsands production techniques, as well as “support and critiques of Oilsands Pathways to Net Zero initiative”.
Last year, Ten Peaks hosted a student conference in Lacombe, north of Red Deer, the second of such events, according to the Lacombe Express. Knutson told the newspaper it included speakers from oil and gas companies, as well as from academia, nonprofits, “environmental education” and “alternative energy.”
The Narwhal reached Knutson by telephone and asked about the session. Knutson said she would decline to participate in an interview or answer questions. She did not respond to a follow-up request for comment by email.
Davies, Canadian Natural Resources and the Pathways Alliance did not respond to requests for comment.
The Alberta Teachers’ Association said convention organizers had forwarded The Narwhal’s requests for comment to the group.
“Conventions have provided, this year and in years past, numerous sessions that address multiple perspectives on legitimately contentious issues like those related to oil and gas development, climate change and the environment,” the group’s statement said.
“We have trust in the judgement and integrity of our members to look critically at the issues presented in any session, allowing them to make intelligent and informed decisions on the content and presenters. As educators, they understand the important role critical thinking plays in the approach to any topic, both in and out of the classroom.”
But being able to navigate discussions around the future of fossil fuels and the climate crisis requires specific information that some teachers might not have at their fingertips, argued Leah Temper, the director of the Fossil Fuel Ads Make Us Sick campaign at the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment.
One example, she said, was how the Pathways decarbonization plan doesn’t measure up to several key recommendations of a United Nations-backed expert panel on net-zero pledges.
For one, the panel found that corporate net-zero pledges must include targets to end the use of fossil fuels, a goal that scientists, through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, have concluded is necessary to limit global warming.
Pathways’ objective, however, is to become the “global supplier of choice” for oil and its members have released plans to increase their oil production.
“Generally, it’s very difficult to see past the greenwash if you don’t come into such a presentation equipped with very specialized knowledge,” Temper said. “The intention here is to bring forward the idea that fossil fuels are part of the climate solution, and the science says that’s wrong.”
Jennifer Chesnut is an environmental educator and Ontario teacher who is writing a report for the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment on greenwashing in schools.
She said the oil and gas industry has been moving in to occupy a void left by provincial education ministries that are cutting funding for school boards. Climate and environmental education in particular, Chesnut said, are not being funded adequately across provinces.
In some cases, she said, the objective is to familiarize youth with fossil fuel industry branding and associate the companies with an ethos of environmentalism.
“Some of these organizations do really great stuff on connecting young people with nature and habitats and restoration but then … when you look deeper into their report, it shows they are funded by [industry],” Chesnut said.
“I’ve only been able to find a handful of solid programming that’s not industry funded, and that provides this perspective that we’re in a climate emergency, and we need critical skills, and we need a [fossil fuel] transition.”
Chesnut gave as an example Earth Rangers, a charity based in the Toronto area that says it “transforms children’s concerns about the environment into positive action” and is focused on empowering kids through activities, “from organizing shoreline clean-ups, to creating backyard animal habitats, to reducing food waste and energy consumption at home.” The group offers “mini-lessons,” podcasts and other material for teachers.
The Earth Rangers 2021 annual report shows it takes funding from nearly a dozen oil and gas companies — including two members of Pathways: Imperial Oil and ConocoPhillips — in addition to funding from the federal and Ontario governments, major banks and dozens of other entities.
One of the group’s web pages on the topic of World Environment Day features the logos of Enbridge and Fortis Alberta, among other sponsors.
That page discusses climate change and how fossil fuels create emissions that trap heat, but then pivots to discussing personal efforts to reduce carbon footprints like “unplugging electronic devices and appliances when they are not in use.”
In an interview, Earth Rangers president Tovah Barocas denied the group engages in greenwashing. She said they host hundreds of articles on environmental topics, and while some include information on all aspects of climate change, some won’t — “but there’s usually a reason for that, because the resource is about, or the article is about, a specific thing.”
Barocas said only “around five per cent” of the group’s funding comes from oil and gas, and the majority was used to produce the group’s school assembly program, which is offered free to about 800 elementary schools per year.
“We do have oil and gas partnerships that allow us to bring that assembly to communities where they operate, but they have no influence over the content of the presentation — they don’t even see the presentation before it’s delivered in their communities. So it’s something we’re comfortable with,” Barocas said.
Barocas also pointed to Project 2050, which she said provides resources on climate change that kids can access through the Earth Rangers app, and which the group is adapting for educators, as well as The Big Melt, a podcast about global warming.
“A lot of our content is developed in order to be appropriate for that [elementary] age group, and what they’re intellectually able to understand,” Barocas said.
“Earth Rangers has developed materials that we feel are at the reading level, in line with curriculum for those age groups. So our materials tend to be kind of short, and on a very specific topic.”
Chesnut said the causes and solutions to the climate crisis need to be centered in education for students to properly understand.
“What happens with all of this education is, at the end of the day, young people are not clearly understanding that we need an urgent transition,” Chesnut said.
“This idea of having mixed energy [sources] for as long as we want does not work according to what we’re seeing on the planet.”
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