Catching Heat from Big Brother: Education and Climate in MAGAland

Image by Priti Gulati Cox.

In recent years, almost half of US state legislatures have passed laws that directly undermine local communities’ efforts to curb climate change. More prominent in the headlines, though, have been bills targeting public education and violating a host of constitutional rights, many of them now signed into law. These “culture war” laws don’t directly address climate. But unless they are struck down, they could permanently limit society’s ability to deal with the climate emergency.

In June, 16 young, environmentally conscious plaintiffs asked a Montana judge to strike down a law of the first type, one that bars state agencies from taking greenhouse-gas emissions into account when considering whether to issue permits for fossil fuel–related projects. They alleged that because their quality of life was being degraded by climate change, the law in question violates a sentence in Article IX of the state constitution: “The state and each person shall maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.”

Unfortunately, surging attempts to MAGAfy red-state education systems could lead future cohorts of young people to become less eager than the Montana 16 to challenge the fossil-fuel juggernaut. Anya Kamenetz recently reported for Grist on an especially egregious effort now underway: a campaign to completely purge the subject of climate change from public school curricula. The story focused on a May 3 school board hearing in New Jersey at which activists raised a ruckus over a board policy (of a kind adopted in various forms by 20 states) to encourage teaching of climate in public schools. The arguments they put forward were very much in the vein of those against, for example, teaching the truth about US racial history: climate education, the activists argued, constitutes “indoctrination,” is too “divisive,” and scares children.

Among the objectors were groups with histories of opposition to abortion, interracial marriage, and the teaching of critical race theory (though it is not even taught in public schools). Now those groups had climate in their crosshairs as well. The effort to purge climate education from the classroom isn’t likely to succeed in New Jersey, but it continues to come under threat in red states. For instance, legislation proposed or passed in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Texas, and South Dakota requires that “both sides” of the assertion that humans cause climate change must be taught (though there is no valid “other side”).

These stories highlight two complications in the struggle to finally push national climate policy across the starting line. First, red-state governments across the country are hitting us with a hailstorm of laws and regulations to boost fossil fuels and suppress climate action. Second, right-wing politicians and lobbying groups are pushing for legislation that will tighten state governments’ control over education, the media, local governments, and other institutions. The word “climate” may not show up in these latter measures, but they can nonetheless erode US society’s ability to deal with ecological breakdown in the decades ahead.

Crushing Local Climate Action

In his 2021 book Laboratories of Autocracy, David Pepper catalogued a decade of red-state attacks on a wide array of constitutional rights. Additional heavy-handed repression by state legislatures has been reported in the past two years, with an increasing share aimed at climate and energy issues. In two intersecting bands of territory reaching from Idaho to Florida and from Texas to Ohio, states under full GOP control are denying state contracts to companies that show insufficient fealty to the oil, gas, and coal industries, overruling local regulation of fossil fuels, criminalizing protest against fossil fuels, violating land rights to build pipelines, limiting pollution enforcement, and denying environmental justice to marginalized communities.

Prominent among legislative measures that undermine climate action are so-called preemption bills, which prohibit certain actions by local governments. Until recently, such measures were narrowly targeted. For example, laws now on the books in 24 states nullify city ordinances that ban hookups for gas furnaces, stoves, and water heaters in new home construction. But now two states have escalated the preemption game with sweeping new laws that could tie city and county governments’ hands on just about any issue. One of the states (predictably, given its anti-democratic reputation of late) is Texas, where the state assembly passed and Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that forbids any local regulations that aren’t explicitly authorized in the state’s labor, natural resources, agriculture, or insurance codes. The effect will be to make it much harder for cities to stop companies from discharging pollution into the air, water, or ground, including greenhouse-gas emissions. The bill, drafted in part by the National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB), was by no means a homegrown grassroots initiative.

Florida, too, has presented its business owners the gift of a new preemption law. Under it, a company can file in court to overturn any local ordinance that it considers “unreasonable,” which immediately blocks enforcement while the case is pending. Just about every business owner believes that just about every local ordinance they don’t like is unreasonable, so the flood of suits filed under this law could drown out most local regulation, particularly environmental rules.

Draining Knowledge from Schools and Libraries

As of this spring, more than half of US state legislatures were weighing restrictive education laws. There’s been ample discussion about state laws and rules that seek to purge from K–12 education anything that would not have been taught in the 1950s. For example, we’ve seen “Don’t Say Gay” bills, most infamously in Florida, that ban talk about sexuality and gender; prohibit teaching of anything that, according to the Georgia General Assembly, could make a student feel “anguish, guilt, or any form of psychological distress” because of their race or gender; and punish schools that, in the Arizona legislature’s disingenuous opinion, “usurp the fundamental right of parents to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of their children.” And Florida (again) in 2022 banned more than 40 percent of math textbooks that publishers had submitted for approval. Math books? Really? Governor DeSantis explained, surreally, “They took the ‘woke’ out and sent us back normal math books.”

Meanwhile, the American Library Association reports that—as in fascist or totalitarian societies and dystopian fiction—2022 saw the largest number of attempted book bans since they started tracking in 2001. The book-banning frenzy is having destructive consequences for libraries: staff resignations, board meetings collapsing under the weight of book-banners’ rage, deep cuts in funding, and outright closings. For fear of being caught distributing prohibited books, some county governments in Tennessee, Texas, and yes, Florida have taken the drastic step of cutting off online access to their libraries’ entire digital collections.

Many of these laws will deprive students of an effective, well-rounded education, circumscribing what can be taught or even discussed in public schools. The goal is to render future electorates incapable of seeing through rightist propaganda—a kind of thought control meant to impose ideological limits on society as a whole. If MAGA state governments manage to discourage critical thinking and wall off an entire generation (or two) from vast areas of knowledge in history and science, large segments of the US population will be ill equipped to even understand climate change, much less to support action that could prevent ecological meltdown.

Colleges Too Are on the Chopping Block

For Big Brother–style control of public colleges and universities, Florida is the “canary in the coal mine,” as the American Association of University Professors wrote this May in a blistering report. A 2022 law dubbed by DeSantis the “Stop WOKE Act,” which is currently blocked and under appeal in federal court, would, among other things, bar from the college classroom any subject matter that might make students “feel guilt, anguish or other forms of psychological distress because of actions . . . committed in the past by other members of the same race, color, national origin or sex.” Note the similar wording (“feel guilt, anguish . . .”) in this law affecting colleges and the aforementioned Georgia law for K–12 schools, which passed around the same time.

And consider another sprawling bill to overhaul higher education that the Florida legislature passed and DeSantis signed into law. Fabiola Cineas writes on Vox that under the law, which took effect July 1,

general education courses cannot be based on “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political, and economic inequities.” Relatedly, the law requires schools to provide students with an “economic security report,” to inform them of which degrees correspond with the highest and lowest annual earnings.

 “Ultimately,” notes Cineas, “the lawmakers want the state’s public colleges and universities to develop goals to ‘promote the state’s economic development’ by attracting tech firms and venture capital to the state.”

Florida’s campaign to focus higher education on moneymaking at the expense of actual education is increasingly echoed in the broader MAGA world. Some are outright claiming that too many people are getting too much education. The 29-year-old right-wing extremist and popular talk-show host Charlie Kirk has written a book called The College Scam. In it, he urges high school graduates to go to a trade school or enlist in the military rather than go to college. And on air, he has said, “Sending your child to four-year college is a big risk. You’re going to play Russian roulette with their values.” Now, Kirk need no longer worry about kids who attend college in some states, where they’ll be shielded from having to learn about the real world or develop critical thinking skills.

Replacing Journalism with Propaganda, Education with Indoctrination

The threat extends well beyond education. Attacks on press freedom will further restrict the public’s awareness and knowledge. And the stepped-up suppression of other First Amendment rights—especially the right to political dissent and protest—will have a chilling effect on climate action. The better informed a society is, and the better its grounding in critical thinking, the more likely it is to take the threat posed by fossil fuels seriously and act accordingly. Conversely, the substitution of propaganda for journalism, and indoctrination for education, in MAGA-ruled states will blow a hole in any national effort to curb the heating of the Earth.

It’s important to add that the ability of states to override local control can play a crucial positive role when used to foster democracy and justice. States must, for instance, block local governments from practicing racial discrimination or violating state restrictions on weapons. One of the most important uses of state preemption has been to override local zoning laws that discriminate. Preemptive zoning laws could also be highly effective for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, by quashing local zoning regulations that permit only single-family housing across large areas. Such zoning rules are largely responsible for suburban sprawl, long work commutes, infrastructure building booms, and construction of fully detached houses with bloated square footage—all of which vastly increase the average household’s carbon footprint. To promote climate protection and enhance quality of life and social justice, legislatures in Oregon, Washington State, California, Connecticut, Virginia, Maryland, Nebraska, and Utah have considered or passed laws that bar local governments from mandating solely single-family housing, either broadly or in certainly areas.

Such sensible state governance, while heartening to see, is clearly not a panacea, when not only Texas and Florida, but almost half of our state legislatures are aiming to establish one-party rightist regimes. On July 4, in one of his periodic essays that address this unnerving prospect, Ron Brownstein gave a historical analysis:

The general trend in American life from the 1950s through the 2010s was to nationalize more rights and to restrict the ability of states to curtail those rights. Now, though, the red states are engaged in the most concerted effort over that long arc to roll back the “rights revolution” and restore a system in which people’s basic civil rights vary much more depending on where they live. . . . The chasm between the civil rights and liberties available in blue and red states has widened to the point where it will be highly explosive for either side to attempt to impose its social regime on the other.

For now, the answer to a central question that Brownstein asks in the essay—“Can the United States continue to function as a single unified entity?”—seems to be “No way.” In those states where information and educational systems are increasingly being used as tools for thought control, more and more people will be going through life ill equipped to understand how much ecological peril humanity faces, or how deep a transformation will be required of us.

Those of us who are living under such regimes, as well as those who are not, must confront and overcome this movement—call it our century’s counterpart to the 1850s Know-Nothing Party—that is hell-bent on stripping away our rights to read, teach, learn, dissent, and acquire the collective knowledge essential to achieving an ecological transformation.

The original version of this article was published by City Lights Books as part of their ‘In Real Time’ series. Stan Cox (@CoxStan) is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond (2020) and The Path to a Livable Future (2021), both from City Lights. See the evolving ‘In Real Time’ visual work at the illustrated archive; listen to the ‘In Real Time’ podcast for the spoken version of this article; and hear a discussion of it on the Anti-Empire Project podcast.

Stan Cox is the author of The Green New Deal and Beyond: Ending the Climate Emergency While We Still Can (City Lights, May, 2020) and one of the editors of Green Social Thought.