In recent weeks the right-wing attack machine has been up in arms regarding a letter sent by a group of 20 climate scientists to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and White House science adviser John Holdren requesting that the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigate fossil-fuel companies that appear to have lied about the effects of their products on our world's climate. This week, the Wall Street Journal joined the fray, writing that "[a]dvocates of climate regulation are urging the Obama Administration to investigate people who don't share their views... they want the feds to use a law created to prosecute the mafia against lawful businesses and scientists."
As the Wall Street Journal and others have noted, and as the scientists' letter acknowledges, I myself raised the possibility of an investigation along these lines in a Washington Post op-ed earlier this year. The connection prompted the Journal to quote Georgia Tech's Judith Curry - a prominent climate denier - attacking both me and the scientists. "The demand by Senator Whitehouse and the 20 climate scientists for legal persecution of people whose research on science and policy they disagree with represents a new low in the politicization of science," she said.
I'm sure the Wall Street Journal and their cohorts in the right-wing echo chamber are having fun twisting this whole concept around in service to their fossil-fuel friends, but let's take a step back. The genesis of this idea for DOJ to investigate fossil fuel companies lies in the comparison between the actions of the fossil fuel industry and the actions of other industries known to have intentionally misled the public about the nature of their products, including the tobacco and lead paint industries. Entire books have been written about the subject, including "Merchants of Doubt," "Doubt is Their Product," "Deceit and Denial," and "Lead Wars." In the case of the tobacco industry in particular, a federal judge found in 2006 that its efforts amounted to a racketeering enterprise after DOJ filed a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) lawsuit.
Here's how Judge Gladys Kessler of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia described the actions of the industry in her decision: "Defendants coordinated significant aspects of their public relations, scientific, legal, and marketing activity in furtherance of a shared objective -- to . . . maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public."
The bottom line is this: A private company and/or its industry allies should not knowingly lie to the American people about the harms that are caused by its product. No one went to jail in the tobacco case. No one was prosecuted criminally. This was a civil RICO case. All a civil lawsuit does is get people to have to actually tell the truth, under oath, in front of an actual impartial judge or jury, with the ability to cross-examine -- which the Supreme Court has described as "the greatest legal invention ever invented for the discovery of truth."
The Wall Street Journal piece also notes that my previous Washington Post op-ed "cited Willie Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, who has published politically inconvenient research on changes in solar radiation." Not noted by the Journal: Dr. Soon reportedly received more than half of his funding from big fossil fuel interests like Exxon-Mobile and the Charles G. Koch Foundation, to the tune of $1.2 million. Some of Dr. Soon's research contracts gave his industry backers a chance to see what he was doing "for comment and input" before he published it. The New York Times reported that in correspondence with his fossil fuel funders, Dr. Soon referred to the scientific papers he produced as "deliverables." And he apparently failed to note his funding sources -- which constitute a clear conflict of interest -- when publishing his research, prompting his employers at the Smithsonian to conduct an internal review of his conduct.
Of course, none of that seems to matter to the Wall Street Journal. They'd rather believe that Dr. Soon is being attacked for espousing "politically inconvenient" views. Please.
Sadly, Dr. Soon is just a small cog in a massive climate-denial machine, which rivals that of the tobacco industry in size, scope, and complexity. Its purpose is to cast doubt about the reality of climate change in order to forestall a move toward cleaner fuels and allow the Kochs and Exxons of the world to continue reaping profits at our expense. In fact, thanks to an investigative report by Inside Climate News, we now know that Exxon indeed knew about the effect of its carbon pollution as far back as the late 1970s, but ultimately chose to fund a massive misinformation campaign rather than tell the truth. As famed author and Harvard professor Naomi Oreskes wrote this weekend in a piece for the New York Times, "As one of the most profitable companies in the world, Exxon could have acted as a corporate leader, helping to explain to political leaders, to shareholders and institutional investors, and to the public what it knew about climate change... Instead -- like the tobacco industry -- Exxon chose the path of disinformation, denial and delay."
Now, the big question is: Why is the Wall Street Journal so eager to fill their editorial pages with articles defending such mischievous misdirection and attacking those who dare to fight back? Maybe that the tobacco case could in fact be successfully replicated against the climate denial scheme they so shamelessly and one-sidedly tout. And wouldn't that be embarrassing.
Whatever the motivation of the Wall Street Journal and other right-wing publications, it is clearly long past time for the climate denial scheme to come in from the talk shows and the blogosphere and have to face the kind of an audience that a civil RICO investigation could provide. No more spin and deception. It's time to let the facts shine through.