On March 29, the Attorneys General of nineteen states announced their intent to conduct concerted state regulatory action against the fossil fuel industry, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and unknown, unnamed others described as climate change deniers. The announcement represents an alarming escalation of the Martin Act investigation against Exxon Mobil begun last fall by New York, and a similar investigation by California – both right on cue with the next presidential election season. This time, seven AGs gathered behind an “AGs United for Clean Power” banner, along with their “rock star” celebrity spokesman, Al Gore, to level charges of fraud, deceit and racketeering about “what energy companies knew about climate change and when did they know it.” Gore went so far as to attribute recent natural disasters such as Hurricane Sandy and a storm in the Philippines -- and even the movement of the Zika virus and its impact on human reproduction – to climate change. Not to generate hysteria, or anything.

Pitching themselves as David vs. the energy industry’s Goliath, these state AGs acknowledged that they were departing from their usual practice of quiet investigation followed by regulatory action based on the results. Nearly every speaker expressly cited the state AG’s successful victory over the tobacco industry as a template for this action. One AG called upon other countries, states, communities and individuals to join in this effort. Why the public announcement before the facts come in? Why the global call to arms by this minority of state AGs?

An alert observer will recognize that this press conference follows right on the heels of drastic fiscal crises in many states.  The state AG’s wildly successful settlement with the tobacco industry in the 1990s –which incidentally also deployed foreign countries, dissenting states, cities, towns and health insurers to amass industry-busting claims– shifted a quarter of a trillion dollars to the states and their attorneys, leading to fiscal and governmental bloat that, to borrow a term from the climate activists, is unsustainable. New targets need to be identified and demonized so that this state regulatory confiscation from private industry can continue.

It is therefore encouraging to see that the majority of the fifty states -- twenty-nine in all – followed the next day with a press release that they would not be joining in the effort. Those state AGs recognize the dangers to the core values of respect for the rule of law and free speech posed by this coalition.  They recognize that good science embraces disagreement and the chilling effect on research when the government decides what is “truth” and what is “fraud” in what is in fact an ongoing scientific debate.  

The most effective way to silence debate is to launch an inquisition of those who disseminate opposing views, exposing them to investigation and charges of fraud and racketeering. All American citizens, whatever their views on the merits, should be deeply concerned about the actions undertaken by the nineteen states joining forces not only to duplicate the tobacco heist but to suppress free speech and the fearless discussion of an area of vitally important scientific inquiry. A robust examination of the forces that have combined to organize this inquisition is in order.

Some thoughtful background on this alarming regulatory inquisition include Robert Samuelson’s opinion piece in the Washington Post, C. Boyden Gray’s prescient thoughts about tectonic shifts in public opinion in Forbes, and David B. Rivkin Jr. and Andrew Grossman’s long-term view in the Wall Street Journal. Read what the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial board has to say.