The fossil fuel industry has not just bought US senators and members of congress; it’s even buying school board and state board of education members. And, in some states, they’re demanding books or course instruction materials that explicitly lie — or at least confuse students — about the connection between fossil fuels and our climate emergency.
You can thank Clarence Thomas, the most corrupt Supreme Court justice in American history, for this one. After years of wining-and-dining from billionaires who would really, really like to be able to buy their very own politicians, in 2010 Thomas was the tie-breaking vote to legalize political bribery in the Citizens United decision, as I lay out in detail in The Hidden History of the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of America.
A 2019 NPR/Ipsos poll found that four out of five Americans — and two out of three Republicans — believe our schoolchildren should be taught accurate scientific information about the known and well-documented relationship between climate change and fossil fuels. Yet, the fossil fuel industry has inserted itself deeply into the schoolbook selection process, to the detriment of our children and their future.
Texas is the epicenter right now, although other Red states are following their lead. Texas is one of the nation’s largest purchasers of schoolbooks, so their influence on which books are used elsewhere in the nation is huge.
The last time Texas re-evaluated their public school textbooks was 2009, and, like now, the battleground was around science. Specifically what’s called the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS): the core standards for what must be in textbooks and thus taught in Texas classrooms.
The battle back in 2009 was over evolution. The Texas State Board of Education was chaired by a dentist and avowed “young earth creationist” (people who believe the universe was created by their god around 6,000 years ago) named Don McLeroy. When the topic of evolution came up, he declared in a public meeting, “Somebody’s got to stand up to experts!”
When a reporter asked him how he responded to the overwhelming evidence that the Earth is warming because of fossil fuels, McLeroy’s response was, “[C]onservatives like me think the evidence is a bunch of hooey.”
Fast-forward ten years to the 2019 textbook debate and McLeroy had moved on, but many members of the board appear to still hold his position that climate change, like evolution, is “hooey.”
People affiliated with a front group for the fossil fuel industry weighed in heavily at several critical junctures in the process, arguing that instead of teaching the connection between fossil fuels and climate change, teachers should tell students that all forms of energy have both costs and benefits, including renewables, and that climate change has been historically caused by natural variations in the earth’s atmosphere.
While all technically true, the main (and desired) effect of emphasizing these positions while removing the scientific consensus is to cause children to think that there’s no urgency about lowering (or ending) the use of fossil fuels. Let the profits continue to roll!
The board largely adopted their recommendations, and now Texas is looking at which textbooks will meet their criteria. As noted by the Editorial Board of The Washington Post in a scathing takedown of the process last month:
“Will Hickman, a Republican [Texas school] board member who works as a senior legal counsel for the oil giant Shell, asked whether Texas textbooks should also discuss the benefits from burning fossil fuels, given that modern life is still powered by hydrocarbons such as oil and gas. Patricia Hardy, another board member, said at a board meeting that students should learn that fossil fuels and naturally occurring climatic changes can both lead to increasing temperatures, which would downplay conclusive research showing fossil fuel use is rapidly warming the planet.”
In Florida, presidential wannabee Ron DeSantis didn’t even wait for a cumbersome process like Texas goes through every ten years.
He simply ordered his education people to authorize videos and other content to be used to teach science in that state’s schools. As the Post editorial noted, “Florida approved for use material from the conservative Prager University Foundation, which includes climate change denial videos.”
In North Carolina, Republicans tried this spring to replace Earth Sciences — which would expose students to the concept of climate change — with Computer Science as one of the three science classes required to graduate.
As Republican State Superintendent of Public Instruction Catherine Truitt told the state’s House K-12 Education Committee last February:
“Of all the things that keep me up at night, eliminating earth science isn’t necessarily one of them if it means we could replace it with computer science.”
In May of this year, climate change survived an effort to remove it altogether from Utah’s public schools by an 8 to 7 single vote margin. Few doubt the fossil fuel industry won’t be back next year to remedy that.
None of this could have happened if it weren’t for the sad reality that it’s almost impossible to find an elected Republican at the state or federal level who is willing to admit that the science linking our deadly weather to burning fossil fuels is real. Rejecting climate science is the price of admission to today’s GOP: fossil fuel billionaires have built much of the political infrastructure and provide many of the campaign contributions, state and federal, that sustain the party in election after election.
Political bribery was a felony crime in the United States virtually from the beginning of our republic. The first strengthening of those anti-bribery laws came in 1867, when Congress outlawed politicians from taking money from Navy Yard workers.
Those laws were strengthened repeatedly at both the federal and state levels over the past 156 years, including dozens of prohibitions at the state level on corporations bribing politicians.
Teddy Roosevelt’s 1907 Tillman Act, for example, made it a federal crime for any corporation to give any money or other support to any candidate for federal office:
“It is unlawful for any … corporation organized by authority of any law of Congress, to make a contribution or expenditure in connection with any election to any political office, or in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any political office, or for any corporation whatever, or any labor organization, to make a contribution or expenditure in connection with any election at which presidential and vice presidential electors or a Senator or Representative in, or a Delegate or Resident Commissioner to, Congress are to be voted for, or in connection with any primary election or political convention or caucus held to select candidates for any of the foregoing offices, or for any candidate, political committee, or other person knowingly to accept or receive any contribution prohibited by this section, or any officer or any director of any corporation … to consent to any contribution or expenditure by the corporation … prohibited by this section.” [emphasis mine]
Numerous state laws echoed the Tillman Act and other anti-bribery and anti-corruption laws. For example, Wisconsin’s law was quite explicit:
“No corporation doing business in this state shall pay or contribute, or offer consent or agree to pay or contribute, directly or indirectly, any money, property, free service of its officers or employees or thing of value to any political party, organization, committee or individual for any political purpose whatsoever, or for the purpose of influencing legislation of any kind, or to promote or defeat the candidacy of any person for nomination, appointment or election to any political office.
“Any officer, employee, agent or attorney or other representative of any corporation, acting for and in behalf of such corporation, who shall violate this act, shall be punished upon conviction … by imprisonment in the state prison for a period of not less than one nor more than five years … and if a domestic corporation it may be dissolved … and if a foreign or non-resident corporation its right to do business in this state may be declared forfeited.” [emphasis mine]
Five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court, however, struck down that and over a hundred other state and federal anti-bribery laws in their corrupt 2010 Citizens United decision. As mentioned, Clarence Thomas was the deciding vote (with John Roberts’ concurrence).
Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the main dissent, pointing out how corrupt the decision itself was:
“The Court’s ruling threatens to undermine the integrity of elected institutions across the Nation. The path it has taken to reach its outcome will, I fear, do damage to this institution. … These concerns are heightened when judges overrule settled doctrine upon which the legislature has relied.
“The Court operates with a sledge hammer rather than a scalpel when it strikes down one of Congress’ most significant efforts to regulate the role that corporations and unions play in electoral politics. It compounds the offense by implicitly striking down a great many state laws as well.”
He added that the decision defining corporations as “persons” with rights under the First Amendment and money as protected “free speech” is bizarre in the extreme and predicted the exact corruption that we’re seeing today, including foreign governments and overseas oligarchs setting up US companies to buy off American legislators:
“If taken seriously, our colleagues’ assumption that the identity of a speaker has no relevance to the Government’s ability to regulate political speech would lead to some remarkable conclusions. Such an assumption would have accorded the propaganda broadcasts to our troops by ‘Tokyo Rose’ during World War II the same protection as speech by Allied commanders.
“More pertinently, it would appear to afford the same protection to multinational corporations controlled by foreigners as to individual Americans: To do otherwise, after all, could ‘enhance the relative voice’ of some (i.e. humans) over others ( i.e. nonhumans). Under the majority’s view, I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.”
Nonetheless, that breathtaking decision striking down over 150 years of anti-bribery laws and prohibitions on corporate electioneering, with both Roberts’ and Thomas’ full endorsement, stands and is now US law.
In the wake of that decision, state courts were forced to strike down similar anti-bribery laws in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Connecticut, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Montana, North Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.
As a result, today Democrats in the “corporate problem solver’s” caucus and the entire Republican caucus in both the US House and Senate along with virtually every Republican in every state house and senate in America are on the take from the highest corporate or billionaire bidders.
That’s a huge backstop for state board of education members, many of whom themselves were elected with money from fossil fuel corporations or fossil fuel billionaires.
If it weren’t for the ability to bribe politicians and school board members with impunity, we’d have honest science textbooks in Red states; instead, their children are being criminally dumbed down and misinformed.
Stripping out the damage Thomas and Roberts did to our republic with this decision won’t be easy or quick. When Democrats passed out of the House the For The People Act in 2022 that would have placed slight limits on dark money in politics, every single Republican in both the House and Senate voted against it.
It failed to become law because Kirsten Sinema and Joe Manchin — both deeply corrupted Senators — refused to vote to break a Republican filibuster. The money they received to incentivize their votes was made possible by — you guessed it — Citizens United.
Democrats are committed to trying again, and to taking even larger steps to reverse this corrupt SCOTUS ruling. But to get there they’ll need a much larger majority in the Senate, to hold the White House, and to regain control of the House of Representatives.
The upcoming 2024 election will be the most expensive in world history because of five corrupt Republicans on the Supreme Court. And it will almost certainly be our last chance to rescue America and American democracy from the corruption of big money.
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