April 22, 2016 | Commentary on Climate Change, Legal Issues

Prosecuting Climate Change ‘Deniers’ is an Abuse of Power

They call themselves “AGs United for Clean Power.” A more accurate name would be “AGs United to Silence Dissent.”

I’m referring to a coalition of 17 attorneys general representing 15 states as well as the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands. They announced at a press conference on March 29 that they will be targeting any companies that challenge the “accepted” wisdom of catastrophic climate change.

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This push by government officials to investigate and prosecute climate change “deniers” is not only an abuse of their authority — it’s a fundamental violation of the First Amendment. And it should terrify scientists, researchers, engineers and anyone else who engages in the vigorous debate over scientific issues that is the hallmark of an advanced technological society.

Attorneys general participating in this scurrilous persecution, such as New York’s Eric Schneiderman, claim the First Amendment doesn’t apply to scientific debate and dissent on climate change because apparently Mr. Schneiderman knows the “truth”: “Climate change is real.” In his view, the targets of their investigation are committing “fraud” and are therefore not protected by the First Amendment. The arrogance is truly appalling — and dangerous.

Unfortunately, that attitude seems to be shared by other high-ranking law-enforcement officials. Take U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. In answer to a question from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, at a recent Senate hearing in which the senator was urging such prosecutions, Ms. Lynch told Mr. Whitehouse that she had been discussing this internally at the Justice Department. She has even referred it to the FBI to see if it meets the criteria for investigation. The fact that she did not immediately rebuff Mr. Whitehouse and tell him that government prosecutors have no business involving themselves in policing scientific debates is shocking.

Calling man-caused climate change an unproven scientific theory is giving it too much credit. A scientific theory is an explanation for a phenomena or an occurrence in the natural world that has been substantiated and repeatedly confirmed through experimentation and observation. The claim that the global climate is slowly warming has not been proved — and neither has the claim that man is causing it even if it is happening.

Scientific theories are never 100 percent correct; they are usually just the best explanation we have at the moment. That means we have to be open to ideas contrary to those theories. It’s skepticism versus dogmatism.

The point is that these prosecutors, who have no expertise in science, are trying to treat one set of scientific views as absolute, infallible and above critique. This has happened before — such as in Spain in 1478, when the Spanish Inquisition began systematically silencing any citizen who held religious, scientific or moral views that conflicted with the “truth” as seen by inquisitors. The AGs United for Clean Power are treating global warming theory the same way — like a religion whose blasphemers must be investigated and prosecuted.

The first victims of this new Inquisition include ExxonMobil and the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), a Washington think tank. The attorney general of the Virgin Islands is targeting the gas and oil giant for supposedly defrauding consumers by lying about climate change. He is claiming violations of the Virgin Islands version of the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO — a law designed to prosecute organized crime and major drug cartels.

CEI has already been hit with a subpoena. The Virgin Islands AG is seeking all of CEI’s research, studies, commentaries, writings and op-eds on climate change. He even wants any letters to the editor CEI wrote, which are the very hallmark of how Americans express their First Amendment-protected opinions.

Two other state attorneys general, however, expressed their opposition to this unwarranted government prosecution. Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma and Luther Strange of Alabama pointed out that “reasonable minds can disagree about the science behind global warming and disagree they do. This scientific debate is healthy and should be encouraged. It should not be silenced with threats of criminal prosecution by those who believe that their position is the only correct one and that all dissenting voices must therefore be intimidated and coerced into silence.”

That is what the AGs United for Clean Power is doing: engaging in intimidation, coercion and abuse of the law-enforcement powers entrusted to them by the public.

- Hans von Spakovsky is a senior legal fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Hans A. von Spakovsky Manager, Election Law Reform Initiative and Senior Legal Fellow
Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies

Originally Appeared in the Washington Times