Call for using RICO Act for climate skeptics is irresponsible and unconstitutional
© Greg Nash

Recently, a group of scientists led by a professor at George Mason University wrote to President Obama supporting a call from Sen. Sheldon WhitehouseSheldon WhitehouseGore wishes Mikulski a happy birthday at 'Inconvenient Sequel' premiere Live coverage: Trump's FBI nominee questioned by senators Committees vie to be first to question Trump Jr. MORE (D-R.I.) that organizations be investigated under the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act for knowingly deceiving the American public on the threat of climate change. That is a serious and, in fact, an irresponsible charge.

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If this were just a letter from a group of scientists, it might be easy to dismiss it as the voices of individuals who are either uninformed or who benefit from the more than $20 billion spent by the federal government on climate change. What makes the letter troubling is the explicit endorsement of Whitehouse's initiative to use RICO to silence any person or group who challenges the climate orthodoxy. In an opinion piece in The Washington Post, the senator stated that "Fossil fuel companies and their allies are funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution." In fact, it is the climate establishment that has a sophisticated campaign to mislead the public. At the end of his piece, the senator states, "I don't know whether the fossil fuel industry and its allies engaged in the same kind of racketeering activity as the tobacco industry. ... Perhaps it's all smoke and no fire. But there's an awful lot of smoke." The only conclusion that can be drawn from the article is that his goal is to silence dissent.

Attempts at intimidation by the powerful are not new, but they are always corrosive. The not-so-subtle threat of possible prosecution is reminiscent of the tactics used by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.). He ultimately failed, but did a lot of damage in the process, and a vendetta against so-called skeptics will also fail thanks to the protections of the Constitution and demonstrable facts. Senators take an oath of office to uphold and defend the Constitution. In attacking those who question the climate orthodoxy, Whitehouse is not supporting constitutional rights and protections.

The First Amendment protects against government intrusions on personal freedoms, which include freedom of expression and freedom of association. Thomas Jefferson and other Founders believed that preventing constraints on free speech was essential for democracy to prosper. They believed that the marketplace of ideas ensures that truth and good policy come from the competition of different ideas, freely debated. As a result, the government cannot force on us a particular point of view or ideology.

The right to free speech and free expression of views has been strongly protected time and again by the Supreme Court. Justice Louis Brandeis put it eloquently: "Fear of serious injury alone cannot justify oppression of free speech and assembly. Men feared witches and burnt women. It is the function of speech to free men from the bondage of irrational fears." A statement by Justice Hugo Black could have been addressed to those who champion RICO to suppress dissent: "The Framers of the Constitution knew that free speech is the friend of change and revolution. But they also knew that it is always the deadliest enemy of tyranny."

What is the crime that justifies this call to investigate under RICO? It is not that skeptics deny that the globe has warmed since the end of the Little Ice Age or that climate change is real. They don't. It is not that they deny that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that has a warming effect. They don't. And, it is not that they deny that society should seek ways to mitigate the harmful effects of extreme weather events, independent of their causes as well as a healthier environment. They don’t.

No, the crime is challenging the foundations of climate orthodoxy. It starts by rejecting the validity of climate models that consistently overstate the effect of atmospheric carbon dioxide increases on temperature and climate. It extends to challenging the assertion that carbon dioxide is a pollutant (in fact, it is an essential nutrient) and defending the contribution of fossil fuels to economic prosperity and their potential to reduce the abject poverty of more than 1 billion who live in developing countries.

Could it be that the ratcheting-up of strident attacks and threats like using RICO is a sign of panic by those who gain by promoting fears of a climate catastrophe? It would be well to remember H.L. Mencken's observation that "the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless array of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." The vision of a climate change apocalypse caused by the use of fossil fuels is a hobgoblin.

O'Keefe is president of Solutions Consulting.