ACRU

Criminalizing Climate Change Dissent? A New Abuse of Power

American Flag

This column by ACRU Policy Board member Hans von Spakovsky and Nicolas Loris was published October 28, 2016 by The Sacramento Bee.

What issues matter the most to you this election?

If you’re like most Americans, climate change either isn’t on the list or it comes in last. And that means Leonardo DiCaprio is unhappy with you.

The actor, who produced the soon-to-premiere documentary “Before the Flood” on National Geographic, recently lamented that moderators at the presidential debates didn’t ask questions about global warming.

Of course, we’re really not supposed to talk about climate change anymore —- because “the science is settled.” Even Gina McCarthy, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, said, “I don’t check out flat Earth society, and I’m not talking to climate deniers…. Sorry, I know I’m supposed to be for everybody, but my patience has worn thin over eight years.”

McCarthy’s sentiment isn’t just talk. A coalition of state attorneys general is walking the walk —- and it’s quite alarming to proponents of free speech.

Last March, a coalition of state attorneys general, AGs United for Clean Power, announced it would be investigating any company that challenges the theory of man-induced, catastrophic climate change.

After the announcement, U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker moved to subpoena ExxonMobil (as well as the Competitive Enterprise Institute) for all of its research, correspondence and communication regarding climate change, including with third parties such as think tanks, foundations and universities, as well as individual researchers, scientists and writers.

This is a flagrant abuse of authority. It also sets a dangerous precedent —- one with serious economic implications that will undermine scientific and public policy debates and chill speech protected by the First Amendment.

The First Amendment protects not just ExxonMobil but also CEI and numerous other organizations and individuals from being forced to disclose their internal communications, internal work product, research, writings, and other communications on a public policy issue as controversial as climate change. The AGs seem to be engaged in a massive fishing expedition.

The idea that the science of climate change is settled is contrary to the very spirit of scientific inquiry. No consensus exists that man-made emissions are the primary driver of global warming or, more importantly, that catastrophic global warming is occurring, is accelerating, or is dangerous.

Climatologists differ on the various causes of climate change, the rate at which the earth’s climate is changing, the effect of man-made emissions on the climate, the most accurate climate data and temperature sets to use, and the accuracy of climate models projecting decades and centuries into the future.

The “science is settled” argument has also spawned a “keep it in the ground” movement regulatory assault that has serious economic implications. Most of America’s (and the world’s) energy needs are met by relatively abundant and affordable natural resources that emit carbon dioxide when used. Implementing restrictions and regulations that raise the cost of coal, natural gas and oil will not only drive energy bills higher but doing so will also increase the costs for all of the other goods and services requiring energy to manufacture and transport.

These global-warming regulations will disproportionately impact low-income Americans, who spend a larger percentage of their budget on energy expenditures. Worse, climatologists and even the EPA admit the regulations will have minimal, if any, impact on global temperatures.

Government prosecutors argue the First Amendment does not protect the supposedly fraudulent conduct of those who “deny” that catastrophic climate change is occurring and that man is the chief culprit for this problem. They point to the successful tobacco litigation that obtained large settlements from tobacco companies for lying about the health effects of cigarettes.

There is a fatal flaw in this false analogy: It fails to distinguish between proven facts and unproven theory. When the tobacco lawsuits were filed, they were backed by decades of tests, observations, research and medical experience showing that without question, tobacco contains carcinogens that cause cancer, and that nicotine is a highly addictive drug. Proponents of climate change litigation have no such conclusive data upon which to rely.

Moreover, the speech at issue is not commercial speech about the suitability or safety of a particular product, such as cigarettes, but speech about matters of public policy and scientific debate. The two are incomparable.

All Americans, no matter what side of the climate debate they’re on, should deplore this attempt to criminalize scientific dissent. It’s an abuse of power, plain and simple.