Back in February, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., wrote menacing letters to various universities, wanting all sorts of details about the funding received by professors who are allegedly out of step with the prevailing opinions on climate change, as well as demanding copies of official communications and information on university policies that could be used to bring pressure to bear on these out-of-step scientists. It was obviously but a short step from Grijalva’s letters to dragooning university scientists before a government panel and demanding to know, “Are you now or have you ever been a global warming skeptic?”
Grijalva was eventually shamed enough to drop his inquest, but the episode apparently had no lasting effect on his Capitol Hill colleagues. On May 29, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, one-upped Grijalva by writing a Washington Post op-ed arguing that anti-racketeering RICO laws should be used to prosecute global warming skeptics. In Whitehouse’s view, the fact that RICO laws have in the past been used against tobacco executives offers a precedent for hauling global warming skeptics into court.
This is atrocious for many reasons, starting with the fact that, for decades, virtually no scientist denied a link between smoking and cancer. Yet even among those who believe climate change is a threat, there are wildly divergent opinions about the practical impacts and corresponding policy solutions. Indeed, what made Grijalva’s witch hunt especially alarming is that he targeted scientists such as the University of Colorado’s Roger Pielke Jr., who had written a book calling for a carbon tax to deal with global warming. Being insufficiently supportive of Grijalva’s cause was still enough to merit government intimidation.
The other problem is that racketeering laws have long been stretched to the point of becoming an all-purpose tool for government prosecutors to target people who are far from being racketeers. In 1994, the Supreme Court ruled that RICO statutes could be applied to pro-life activists on the grounds that interstate commerce can be affected even when the organization being targeted doesn’t have economic motives. (Contra Planned Parenthood’s protestations, this ruling at least underscored that abortion is a brisk, if gruesome, business.)
While there’s no shortage of money in energy, Whitehouse’s logic for treating dissent on global warming as a criminal enterprise doesn’t pass the laugh test. He does little more than cite a report saying climate change dissent “span[s] a wide range of activities, including political lobbying, contributions to political candidates, and a large number of communication and media efforts that aim at undermining climate science.” If coordinating lobbying activities and political messaging is a crime, we’re going to have to lock up most of Washington, D.C. Unless, of course, we’re just going to scrap any pretense of political neutrality in the justice system. Top men like Sheldon Whitehouse can make sure we hear from the scientists they approve of and prosecute the ones who dissent from their preferred conclusions.
What may be most disconcerting is that a sitting U.S. senator called for legal sanctions to silence political opposition in one of the largest American newspapers and there was almost no opprobrium in response. If more people don’t start pushing back at politicians with dangerous ideas about political discourse, it’s only a matter of time before they actually succeed in criminalizing dissent.