Twice I have written about the growing attempt to silence debate about climate change. Both times I’ve been bombarded with comments from readers with a different opinion, some of them in a very bad mood about it. One wonders if they appreciate the irony of their right to dissent – a right that some of them would apparently deny those who disagree with them.
Irony aside, this discussion is not about climate change, not really. In fact, many of us are less than certain about the science of climate change. Clearly the Earth’s climate does change, and it seems clear that mankind has some ability to impact that change. It is also true that there are historical swings in the climate ranging from ice ages to very hot periods. The Grand Valley was once under water, and tropical rain forests existed in some of today’s deserts. Does that mean we should ignore all evidence that man’s activities may be causing serious damage to Earth’s life system? On the contrary, it suggests that we ought to be even more careful, and study the evidence more thoroughly.
That isn’t good enough for some political activists. Al Gore and other global warming alarmists do not want people to study the issue; they find it intolerable for one simple reason. The policies they advocate do not enjoy widespread public support, even among voters who share the concern about climate change. It is simply not clear to many Americans with three central questions. Is the globe warming, is man causing it, and is it harmful?
The answer to the first question is yes, so the other two questions are the focus of the debate – a debate one side does not want to have. That’s why sixteen state attorneys general announced, at a March 29 press conference with Gore, that they planned criminal charges against “climate deniers,” starting with Exxon-Mobil. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, asked whether the Justice Department might also prosecute climate skeptics, confirmed that she had asked the FBI to investigate that possibility. My column explaining that many climate skeptics feel threatened, drew fire from letter-to-the-editor writers and blog commenters who called it an exaggeration. They claim such prosecution will only be directed at Exxon-Mobil.
Yet this month the first round of subpoenas in the first such prosecution was issued – not just to the oil company, but to at least one non-profit think tank whose scholars have studied the issue for years. That subpoena, issued to the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), demanded copies of all documents related to its research on the issue going back 20 years – not just communications from Exxon, but also lists of its members and donors. Citizens who contribute to such groups might be forgiven for worrying that they may be next. And if they worry enough to stop donating altogether, well that may accomplish at least part of the goal, too.
Does a subpoena that broad seem like overkill to anyone else? Even the IRS can only demand records going back 7 years. It must be extraordinarily difficult to find, sort, and produce 20 years of records in an organization that has moved several times and changed leadership at least twice in the intervening years. Anything relevant to the Exxon investigation would be outdated anyway, since Exxon discontinued contributions to such non-profits over a decade ago. So what does an attorney general, pledged to using “use all the tools at our disposal,” hope to accomplish by targeting non-profits and their donors? Just one thing – to silence debate, stop research, and end discussion on what they call “the most consequential issue of our time.”
These attorneys general are being called rogues by some, heroes by others. On the climate issue itself, they may turn out to be right. But here’s why this is not really about climate change. There are lots of issues where reasonable people disagree, and the freedom to do so is America’s founding principle. That includes the freedom to publish articles, conduct studies, raise money, associate with like-minded people, and give money to the causes of your choice.
Whether government policy is based on science or not, do we really want to go further down the road toward federal-enforced thought conformity? Do we want big brother’s thought police dictating not only what we say, but what we think?
Many policy debates do involve disputes about science – endangered species, forest management, genetically modified foods, abortion, and many others. Does that mean no debate is permitted, that we must simply adopt whatever policies are recommended by scientists? Ban soda pop, abolish automobiles, eliminate video games, and cancel Duck Dynasty? Would we similarly prohibit involvement in health care issues by anyone who is not a doctor? Or allow only lawyers to express opinions on crime and justice issues, and only economists on budget and tax matters?
Or do Americans have spirited debates, and make policy by a vote of the people?
A version of this column original appeared in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel April 29, 2016