Conservative media are defending the “right” of fossil fuel companies to knowingly deceive the public about climate change, after a group of climate scientists and members of Congress called for an investigation of such companies under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). Contrary to claims by conservative media that these advocates are seeking to “shut down free speech,” RICO would only apply to those who purposefully misled the public about climate change, with some Congressmen pointing to recent reports that ExxonMobil funded climate science denial for decades after discovering that fossil fuels drive climate change.
Scientists, Members Of Congress Urge DOJ To Investigate Whether Fossil Fuel Companies Knowingly Deceived Public On Climate Change
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, 20 Climate Scientists, House Members Call For Investigation Of Fossil Fuel Companies Under RICO Act. In a May Washington Post op-ed, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) raised the possibility of the Department of Justice (DOJ) investigating whether fossil fuel companies and their allies violated the RICO statute by knowingly misleading the public about climate change. DOJ previously filed a civil RICO lawsuit against big tobacco companies, and a federal judge ruled that the companies had violated RICO by lying about the health risks associated with smoking. Whitehouse wrote:
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.
Their activities are often compared to those of Big Tobacco denying the health dangers of smoking. Big Tobacco's denial scheme was ultimately found by a federal judge to have amounted to a racketeering enterprise.
The tobacco industry was proved to have conducted research that showed the direct opposite of what the industry stated publicly -- namely, that tobacco use had serious health effects. Civil discovery would reveal whether and to what extent the fossil fuel industry has crossed this same line. [The Washington Post, 5/29/15]
In September, a group of 20 climate scientists sent a letter to President Obama, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren calling for a RICO investigation of “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.” On October 14, members of the House Oversight And Government Reform Committee sent their own letter to Lynch asking DOJ to “investigate ExxonMobil for organizing a sustained deception campaign disputing climate science and failing to disclose truthful information to investors and the public.” [Letter to President Obama, Attorney General Lynch, and OSTP Director Holdren, 9/19/15 via ScienceBlogs; House Oversight and Government Reform Committee letter, 10/14/15, via The New Republic]
Conservative Media Assail Invocation Of RICO, Wrongly Claim Advocates Want To Prosecute Those Who Disagree With Their Views
Fox News' O'Reilly, Varney Claim Academics Want To “Shut Down Free Speech” And Threaten People Who “Don't Agree” With Them. On the October 15 edition of Fox News' The O'Reilly Factor, Bill O'Reilly and Fox contributor Stuart Varney discussed the “villains” of the week, which they named as “the academics” calling for an investigation under the RICO statute. O'Reilly claimed that the professors are “threatening other people who don't agree with them,” and Varney said the scientists are using RICO to “intimidate” climate “skeptics,” concluding: “It's an attempt to shut down free speech. You disagree with me, I'll take to you court, I'll ruin you.”
WSJ Editorial Board: RICO Call “Intended To Shut Down Debate.” The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrote that the scientists “want the feds to use a law created to prosecute the mafia against lawful businesses and scientists,” adding that "[t]he RICO threat is intended to shut down debate." [The Wall Street Journal, 10/9/15]
William O'Keefe Op-Ed in The Hill: Goal Is “To Silence Any Person Or Group Who Challenges The Climate Orthodoxy.” William O'Keefe, CEO of the George C. Marshall Institute (which has received funding from ExxonMobil and foundations tied to the oil billionaire Koch brothers) wrote an op-ed published in The Hill on October 14, deriding the scientists' letter as endorsing “Whitehouse's initiative to use RICO to silence any person or group who challenges the climate orthodoxy.” [The Hill, 10/14/15; Media Matters, 3/8/15]
Cato Institute Op-Ed In Newsweek: Effort Is “Significant Step Toward Criminalizing Policy Differences” And Would “Punish Opponents In Public Debate.” In an op-ed published in Newsweek, the Cato Institute's Walter Olson called the RICO effort “a significant step toward criminalizing policy differences and using litigation and government enforcement to punish opponents in public debate.” He asserted that “controversial speech need not be true to be protected” and defended the right to use “half-truths, selectively marshaled data, [and] scientific studies that spring from agendas,” arguing that these tactics are merely “common currency of everyday debate in Washington.” (Newsweek failed to disclose that the Cato Institute, which has frequently espoused climate denial itself, has received funding from ExxonMobil and the oil billionaire Koch brothers). [Newsweek, 10/1/15; Media Matters, 10/2/15]
Judith Curry FoxNews.com Op-Ed: Advocates' “Demand” For “Legal Persecution” Of Researchers Whose Science “They Disagree With” Is A “New Low In The Politicization Of Science.” FoxNews.com published an op-ed on September 28 written by Judith Curry, a frequent critic of established climate science. Curry wrote:
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.
Breitbart News: Scientists' Letter Asks President To Use RICO Laws “To Crush Dissent By Climate Skeptics.” Breitbart News writer James Delingpole declared: “Twenty alarmist climate scientists -- including UN IPCC lead author Kevin 'Travesty' Trenberth -- have written a letter to President Obama urging him to use RICO laws to crush dissent by climate skeptics.” [Breitbart News, 9/19/15]
The Blaze: Scientists Want Obama To Use RICO “Against The Infidels Of The Green Church.” An op-ed in The Blaze said, "[A] group of some 20 scientists ask President Obama to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization Act (the law designed to fight the mafia) against the infidels of the Green Church." The Blaze added: “Unfortunately for them (and fortunately of humanity) their scam is coming to an end. Climate change believers are using their last gasps of energy before they end up in the same place as alchemy, astrology and homeopathy.” [The Blaze, 10/6/15]
RICO May Only Be Used To Convict Companies That Knowingly Deceive The Public
RICO Holds Accountable Those Who “Knowingly And Intentionally Engage In A Scheme To Defraud...For Purposes Of Financial Gain.” As Sen. Whitehouse, climate scientists, and House Members argued, the comparison of the proven racketeering of the tobacco industry to the alleged conspiracy of fossil fuel companies to deceive the public about climate change is striking. The 2006 federal court opinion that held these tobacco companies accountable explained what it takes to intentionally betray the public trust in violation of RICO:
Put more colloquially, and less legalistically, over the course of more than 50 years, Defendants lied, misrepresented, and deceived the American public, including smokers and the young people they avidly sought as “replacement smokers,” about the devastating health effects of smoking and environmental tobacco smoke, they suppressed research, they destroyed documents, they manipulated the use of nicotine so as to increase and perpetuate addiction, they distorted the truth about low tar and light cigarettes so as to discourage smokers from quitting, and they abused the legal system in order to achieve their goal -- to make money with little, if any, regard for individual illness and suffering, soaring health costs, or the integrity of the legal system.
Each Defendant agreed to commit a substantive RICO offense with the knowledge that other members of the Enterprise were also conspiring to commit racketeering activity. All Defendants coordinated significant aspects of their public relations, scientific, legal, and marketing activity in furtherance of the shared objective -- to use mail and wire transmissions to maximize industry profits by preserving and expanding the market for cigarettes through a scheme to deceive the public...The Government has proven that the Enterprise knowingly and intentionally engaged in a scheme to defraud smokers and potential smokers, for purposes of financial gain, by making false and fraudulent statements, representations, and promises. Defendants participated in the Enterprise's overarching scheme to defraud smokers and potential smokers in order to maximize their profits by preserving and enhancing the market for cigarettes, to avoid costly liability judgments, to derail attempts to make smoking socially unacceptable, and to sustain the cigarette industry. [US v. Phillip Morris, 8/17/06]
Report: After Confirming Fossil Fuels' Role In Climate Change, Exxon Funded Climate Denial Organizations. An eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News revealed that ExxonMobil's own research had confirmed by 1982 that fossil fuel emissions were responsible for climate change, but that the company subsequently funded efforts to “amplify doubt about the state of climate science.” From part one of the investigation:
Exxon's research laid the groundwork for a 1982 corporate primer on carbon dioxide and climate change prepared by its environmental affairs office. Marked “not to be distributed externally,” it contained information that “has been given wide circulation to Exxon management.” In it, the company recognized, despite the many lingering unknowns, that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel combustion.”
With alarm bells suddenly ringing, Exxon started financing efforts to amplify doubt about the state of climate science.
Exxon helped to found and lead the Global Climate Coalition, an alliance of some of the world's largest companies seeking to halt government efforts to curb fossil fuel emissions. Exxon used the American Petroleum Institute, right-wing think tanks, campaign contributions and its own lobbying to push a narrative that climate science was too uncertain to necessitate cuts in fossil fuel emissions.
As the international community moved in 1997 to take a first step in curbing emissions with the Kyoto Protocol, Exxon's chairman and CEO Lee Raymond argued to stop it.
“Let's agree there's a lot we really don't know about how climate will change in the 21st century and beyond,” Raymond said in his speech before the World Petroleum Congress in Beijing in October 1997. [InsideClimate News, 9/22/15; 9/21/15]
The Los Angeles Times subsequently released their own investigation in coordination with Columbia University's Energy & Environmental Reporting Project, which found that Exxon had “quietly incorporat[ed] climate change projections into the company's planning” while simultaneously telling shareholders that “the science of global warming...was too murky to warrant action.” [Los Angeles Times, 10/9/15]