The Climate Change Legal Gambit Is Backfiring

No sensible person doubts the planet is warming. The big unanswered questions are why, by how much, and what can we reasonably do about it. What is the impact of human activity? What is the effect of future temperature increases? And what policies should we enact to mitigate them? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the global body that assesses research on this subject, admits that the answers are far from certain.

As a result of that uncertainty — and the massive stakes involved in curtailing energy use — the policy debate has been intense, and the U.S. and other nations have proceeded with admirable caution.

This deliberate pace has frustrated advocates of more extreme measures. Driven by ideology and the chance of profiting from their “green” investments, their strategy at first was to use the media to shame those who disagreed with them. Now, they have turned to the legal system to punish and intimidate their enemies.

“The climate crowd,” Holman Jenkins wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “has turned to persecuting critics as a substitute for meaningful climate action because, as President Obama has acutely observed, voters won’t support their efforts to jack up energy prices.”  

Persecuting critics by trying to suppress their ideas is not just a sign of desperation, it is in direct opposition to freedom of speech, a right so important it was listed first in the Bill of Rights. Fortunately, this strategy is backfiring.

The attorney general of the Virgin Islands, Claude Walker dropped his territory’s wide-ranging subpoena, which targeted Exxon Mobil, along with 88 think tanks and organizations and more than 50 scientists and academics. Walker, incredibly enough, was aiming to bring racketeering charges against Exxon for deceiving the government and consumers with statements about climate change.

It did not take Walker long to back down in the face of Exxon’s own legal filings — after an uproar over threats to free speech and revelations that a group of extreme environmentalists had themselves secretly conspired to launch a legal campaign.

Meanwhile, Eric Schneiderman, Walker’s counterpart in New York, issued his own subpoenas, apparently with thoughts of charging Exxon with securities fraud under the Martin Act, a law enacted in 1921 that gives officials broad powers. If Schneiderman is wise, he will avoid further embarrassment and follow Walker’s lead in standing down.  

In the wake of these legal actions, the rhetoric surrounding global warming has become enflamed. In a hyperbolic op-ed in the Washington Post, the dean of Yale Law School, Robert Post, wrote: “Global warming is perhaps the single most significant threat facing the future of humanity on this planet. It is likely to wreak havoc on the economy, including, most especially, on the stocks of companies that sell hydrocarbon energy products. If large oil companies have deliberately misinformed investors about their knowledge of global warming, they may have committed serious commercial fraud.”

This is nonsense. And because of this damaging rhetoric, jobs within Pennsylvania and the wider coal, gas and electricity industries are being threatened. All the while, the IPCC has held 43 sessions and issued countless reports since its foundation in 1988. It has publicized and analyzed nearly all known information about climate change. Partisans like Dean Post and President Obama have also made strong cases. The result? Current knowledge of climate change is baked into the value of every energy stock. Energy companies could not misinform investors even if they wanted to. 

And, in fact, they have been transparent and honest. Exxon scientists began researching climate change as early as the 1970s and were completely open about what they found in 53 papers published in scientific journals and other publications between 1983 and 2014. Exxon’s scientists participated in the IPCC since the group’s inception and were involved in the National Academy of Sciences review of the third U.S. National Climate Assessment Report.

If you really believe that global warming is the greatest threat facing humanity (eclipsing nuclear war, bio-terrorism, epidemics, etc.), then you should encourage discussion about the science and the policy of climate change. The attorney generals that Post cheers on are doing the opposite. They and their supporters — including investors in alternatives to fossil fuels — are out to silence debate because they know how weak their position is.  

The good news is that the gambit of the enviro conspirators is backfiring badly. Which is just as you would hope and expect in a nation that puts a premium on serious research, rational debate and free speech.

Rep. Tom Marino is a Republican representing Pennsylvania’s 10th District.

Morning Consult