After The Wall Street Journal editorial board wrongly accused Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) of trying to "silence climate dissidents," the Journal published a response from Whitehouse. But it ran the piece alongside two letters to the editor that echoed the Journal's false framing of calls by Whitehouse and others to investigate evidence that ExxonMobil and other oil companies intentionally misled their shareholders and the public on climate change.
Reports by InsideClimate News and the Los Angeles Times show that Exxon's own scientists confirmed by the early 1980s that fossil fuel pollution was fueling climate change, yet Exxon funded organizations that spread doubt about the causes of climate change for decades afterwards. Based on this evidence, Whitehouse called for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate whether Exxon and other fossil fuel companies violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO).
The Journal badly misrepresented Whitehouse's call for a federal investigation of Exxon in a March 15 editorial, falsely alleging that the federal government could “slap the cuffs on people who don't believe in U.N. climate models” and “throw people in jail for scientific skepticism.” Whitehouse objected to the Journal's false editorial on Twitter, explaining: “Simply denying climate change isn't what could violate federal law. ... The questions I posed to the Attorney General were to learn whether the Department of Justice is doing its due diligence to investigate whether fossil fuel specials interests are leading a coordinated, fraudulent effort to deceive the American people.”
On March 21, the Journal published a letter to the editor from Whitehouse, in which he noted that the Journal was “trying to saddle me with an argument I am not making” :
My belief is that there are sufficient similarities between the tobacco industry's fraudulent denial of its products' health effects and the fossil fuel industry's denial of its products' climate and oceans effects, that a proper inquiry should be made about pursuing a civil action like the one the Justice Department brought and won against tobacco. ... Trying to saddle me with an argument I am not making is no way to convince anyone that the argument I am making is wrong.
But the newspaper published Whitehouse's response alongside two other letters that echoed the Journal's false claim that Whitehouse wants the federal government to prosecute people just because they disagree with him on climate change.
The first letter wrongly alleged that “people who don't believe mankind causes climate change could be prosecuted,” and compared the calls to investigate Exxon to prosecuting people who do not believe in God and burning atheists at the stake:
If people who don't believe mankind causes climate change could be prosecuted (and fined and jailed?), does that mean people who don't believe in God could be prosecuted (and perhaps burned at the stake)? Conversely, if atheists take over our government, could believers be prosecuted (and fined and shunned)?
The second letter claimed that “RICO prosecutions aren't necessary” because Whitehouse is already instilling a “climate of fear” against those who “read the climate data differently from the prevailing administration position.”
But despite what the Journal and others would have you believe, a federal investigation would not target people -- scientists or otherwise -- who challenge the climate change consensus. It would investigate whether oil company officials chose to contradict the findings of their own scientists in order to protect their profits.