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Twenty climatologists urge federal investigation of climate scoffers

23 September 2015
A Democratic senator’s Washington Post op-ed promoted the idea; conservative media observers revile it.

Have climate scoffers earned official treatment under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act? It originated nearly a half century ago to send mobsters to prison.

In a May op-ed in the Washington Post, Democratic senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island asserted, sort of, that climate-consensus-denying business interests have earned scrutiny through a RICO lens. Conservatives quickly opposed him. In September, 20 climatologists—including Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research—resurrected Whitehouse’s idea in a letter to President Obama. The conservative press and kindred blogs are reacting with alarmed contempt, tinged with outrage.

Whitehouse alleged 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.” He noted that “their activities are often compared to those of Big Tobacco denying the health dangers of smoking.” He pointed out that “Big Tobacco’s denial scheme was ultimately found by a federal judge to have amounted to a racketeering enterprise.”

Near the end, Whitehouse highlighted scientists in this climate–tobacco analogy. After charging that the tobacco industry “has funded research that—to its benefit—directly contradicts the vast majority of peer-reviewed climate science,” he added: “One scientist who consistently published papers downplaying the role of carbon emissions in climate change, Willie Soon, reportedly received more than half of his funding from oil and electric utility interests: more than $1.2 million.”

It might be important to report that at the very end, Whitehouse wavered:

To be clear: I don’t know whether the fossil fuel industry and its allies engaged in the same kind of racketeering activity as the tobacco industry. We don’t have enough information to make that conclusion. Perhaps it’s all smoke and no fire. But there’s an awful lot of smoke.

No such punch-pulling lack of resolve colors the 20 climatologists’ three-paragraph letter. The signers—mainly from universities including Columbia, Florida State, George Mason, Maryland, Miami, Washington, Rutgers, and Texas—declare that they “strongly endorse Senator Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation” of “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.”

Back in late spring, conservatives quickly rebutted Whitehouse. A Weekly Standard piece marveled that “a sitting U.S. Senator is suggesting using [sic] RICO laws should be applied to global warming skeptics.” It charged that “such calls for draconian restrictions on speech are becoming alarmingly regular.” It warned that “if more people don’t start speaking out against it, sooner or later we’re actually going to end up in a place where people are being hauled into court for having an opinion that differs from politicians such as Senator Whitehouse.” A Cato Institute blog posting warned against “criminalizing advocacy.” So did a second Weekly Standard piece in mid-June.

In September, with the RICO investigation idea reintroduced by the climatologists’ letter, media rebuttals and recriminations have appeared on the political right. Here are three examples: posted a commentary with this headline: “Climate alarmists to Obama: Use RICO laws to jail skeptics!” The opening paragraph exclaimed that the signers’ “hypocrisy and dishonesty ... almost defies belief.” At the Register, it was “GLOBAL WARMING STOPPED in 1998? NO it didn’t. If you say that, you’re going to PRISON: Climate scientists revise history, call for Vultures’ arrest.” At Power Line, it was “Arrest those climate skeptics!”

The closing of another Breitbart piece shows the general tenor of September’s spreading criticism:

Climate skeptics have been harassed and hounded from their positions as state climatologists, universities and the government. Alarmist groups vigorously try to keep skeptics out of the media, bombarding their outlets with voluminous hate mail if a media personality dare express skepticism. Media outlets have publicly stated that they will not publish the views of climate skeptics. Large PR firms have announced they will not have skeptics or fossil fuel companies as clients. Skeptics have all been all but blackballed from publishing in scientific journals. If we skeptics had store fronts, their glass windows would have been shattered long ago.

There are many other examples of climate alarmists trying to shut up, shut down and shut-out skeptics. They do this for the simple reason that the alarmists can’t beat skeptics in the global warming debate and so, like those of a totalitarian nature always do, desperately turn to their psychopathic intolerance.

Even if the climate alarmists were correct—and there is no indication they are so or are anything other than pathological liars—there are many things worse than a little sea level rise or some extra bad weather. One of those things is totalitarian society. Review your 20th century history if you don’t believe me.

That first quoted paragraph’s shattered-store-window allusion to Kristallnacht in 1938 isn’t the only reference to Nazi oppression. The headline on the piece goes so far as to invoke the Holocaust directly: “Final Solution for climate skeptics.”


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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