Last year the New York Times won a Pulitzer for reporting critically on the unsurprising and perfectly legal efforts of private businesses to encourage Republican state Attorneys General to combat federal regulations harmful to their State economies.[1] Compare that to the mainstream media’s silence about the forces behind a much less conventional group of Democratic Attorneys General who have teamed up with former Vice President Al Gore to intimidate their opponents and to suppress any dissent from the orthodoxy of the Obama Administration’s climate change strategy.

Calling themselves “AGs United for Clean Power,” this group has instigated wide-ranging investigations into the private communications of businesses and non-profit organizations, backed up by the threat of criminal prosecution.[2]

As part of this witch-hunt, the Attorney General of the Virgin Islands sent subpoenas to conservative groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute, seeking ten years of private communication (for years 1997 to 2007) related to ExxonMobil and climate change.[3] This follows earlier subpoenas to Exxon covering more than 40 years—all part of a curious effort to prove that the petroleum giant somehow knew and covered up the supposed risks of climate change before they were known to the rest of the scientific community.

This is likely to be a fool’s errand, because Exxon’s knowledge about the state of the science was far from secret. The company published a wide array of mainstream, peer-reviewed climate science articles during the time period in question—a time well before the emergence of any “consensus” on the science of man-made climate change.

More fundamentally, this fishing expedition blatantly violates the First Amendment rights of the targeted organizations with no legitimate law enforcement objective in sight. The subpoenas are in reality part of a broader, systematic attempt by the Left to suppress dissent, by cutting off corporate funding to political advocacy groups they disfavor.

This is amply illustrated by the recent CEI subpoena. The subpoena rests on Exxon’s purported violation of the Criminally Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (CICO), which has a five year statute of limitations.[4] Yet the subpoena improperly seeks to compel CEI to produce a decade’s worth of documents that fall completely outside the statute of limitations. Exxon decided to cut ties with CEI and other dissenting groups in 2007, but this has not stopped the AG from harassing CEI. [5]

These actions will have the intended effect of discouraging not only scientific dissent, but also political dissent, over the costs and benefits of mitigating the risk of climate change.[6] But there are good reasons not to credit unblinkingly all of the accepted wisdom of current climate change policy. Despite a staggering price tag, current national and international climate policy has very little to show for itself in terms of projected carbon emission reductions, much less any actual change to the temperature of the globe.

At base, changing global temperatures may not be the point. When Congressman David McKinley asked U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy whether the cost of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan—$64 billion annually by one measure[7]—is worthwhile “[i]f it doesn’t have an impact on climate change around the world,” her answer was that the rule has “had enormous benefit in showing sort of domestic leadership as well as garnering support around the country for the agreement we reached in Paris.”[8] As strange as it may seem for the head of EPA to admit our nation’s climate change policy is one big PR strategy, that response was consistent with what McCarthy said about the rule when it was first proposed: “This is not about pollution control,” she said in another congressional hearing. “[I]t really is an investment opportunity.”[9]

The Paris agreement that McCarthy referred to will do little more. Even if every nation fulfilled every promise in the treaty between now and 2030, it would reduce the global temperature by less than a tenth of a degree by 2100.[10] If those promises are extended to 2100, the resulting temperature effect will still be only three tenths of a degree.

The projected costs of the Paris agreement—at least $154 billion per year in lost GDP in the United States alone[11]—would be much better spent on research and development, the kind of work that ExxonMobil has been doing for decades without any government mandate.[12] Indeed, it would be interesting to know what portion of the enormous public expenditure on climate change “policy”—direct budget outlays and indirect regulatory costs—has actually funded practical research with the potential to solve the problem at hand. What the public sees, by contrast, is a magnificent PR machine, but few if any answers.

Setting aside the Left’s failure to offer any viable affirmative-climate change strategy of its own, the Democratic-Attorney-General-led witch hunt against Exxon is terribly counterproductive. It discourages companies from the kind of pioneering research that Exxon undertook before climate change was a household term, and it penalizes a company that has been more engaged than most in promoting efficient carbon reduction policies. Since 2007, Exxon has advocated a revenue-neutral carbon tax, which even the Sierra Club’s chief climate counsel agreed was “the best approach to climate policy,” and which would be best implemented at a time of low energy prices.

At bottom, this program of intimidation is not really about climate change. It is about using a hot-button political issue to exert speech control over as wide a swath of the economy as possible. It bears a troubling similarity to recent attempts to monopolize speech and association in other fields, as well as in academia where much of speech suppression started. There was a time when the United States could justifiably criticize China and its ilk for stamping out dissent. These days, centralized government authorities in both countries seem to be converging on a strangely similar method of suppressing freedom of speech and association.










[9] (“And the great thing about this proposal is it really is an investment opportunity. This is not about pollution control. It’s about increased efficiency at our plants . . . . It’s about investments in renewables and clean energy. It’s about investments in people’s ability to lower their electricity bills by getting good, clean, efficient appliances, homes, rental units.”).