WASHINGTON (BP) — Climate change is the focus of dueling calls for investigation in Washington.
The controversy began Sept. 1, when a consortium of 20 climate scientists urged the Obama administration in a letter to investigate researchers who don’t support man-made climate change theories.
In response, Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, suggested this month that he may investigate a nonprofit science organization whose president was the lead signatory of the letter urging President Obama to use the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to investigate “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.”
Congress enacted the RICO Act in 1970 to fight organized crime syndicates. Those found guilty of racketeering — criminal activity designed to benefit an organization — may face prison sentences of up to 20 years and seizure of financial assets. The Justice Department used the RICO Act in 1999 to successfully prosecute major tobacco companies.
The Sept. 1 letter stated, “If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds” alleged in books and journal articles by scientists who believe in human-induced climate change, “it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible.”
The letter supported a proposal by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., to initiate a RICO investigation of fossil fuel corporations and their supporters. Whitehouse compared fossil fuel companies to those who promoted the tobacco industry and deceived the American public about the dangers of smoking.
“The parallels between what the tobacco industry did and what the fossil fuel industry is doing now are striking,” Whitehouse wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in May.
The last paragraph of Whitehouse’s op-ed, however, qualified his accusations.
“To be clear,” Whitehouse wrote, “I don’t know whether the fossil fuel industry and its allies engaged in the same kind of racketeering activity as the tobacco industry. We don’t have enough information to make that conclusion. Perhaps it’s all smoke and no fire. But there’s an awful lot of smoke.”
In their letter, the 20 scientists said investigation of researchers with whom they disagree could help the world “get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done.”
Smith, R.-Texas, wrote an Oct. 1 letter to Jagadish Shukla, a climate scientist whose name appears first on the Sept. 1 letter, suggesting the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) — an organization directed by Shukla — may have behaved improperly by playing a role calling for investigation of climate change skeptics.
The Sept. 1 letter was posted on the IGES website and later removed, according to Smith’s letter, which was posted online.
“IGES appears to be almost fully funded by taxpayer money,” Smith wrote, “while simultaneously participating in partisan political activity by requesting a RICO investigation of companies and organizations that disagree with the Obama administration on climate change. In fact, IGES has reportedly received $63 million from taxpayers since 2001, comprising over 98 percent of its total revenue during that time.”
Smith directed IGES to preserve “all e-mail, electronic documents, and data created since January 1, 2009, that can be reasonably anticipated to be subject to a request for production by the Committee.”
Calvin Beisner, founder of The Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, said the call to investigate climate change skeptics represents a “direct attack on the rights to freedom of speech and the press guaranteed by the First Amendment” and is “horrifically bad for science.”
Vigorous debate is essential to the health of science, said Beisner, who has testified before Congress on the ethics and economics of climate policy. History includes many instances in which “overwhelming scientific consensus” was proved wrong. He pointed to 1 Thessalonians 5:21, where the Apostle Paul urged Christians to “test all things,” as a good model for scientific assessment as well as spiritual analysis.
“That’s really the key to science, and it includes testing ideas for which people claim scientific consensus,” Beisner said. “That testing can’t happen without freedom to debate.”
Judith Curry, a Georgia Institute of Technology climatologist, believes actions like the scientists’ letter and Whitehouse’s proposal are intended to make pariahs out of scientists who are doing their job: critically evaluate evidence, publish their work in the scientific literature and work with policy makers to assess the impacts and unintended consequences of policy options.
Curry wrote in a Fox News op-ed that she was investigated by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D.-Ariz., after she told Congress at a hearing that the “magnitude and impacts of expected warming could be less than generally believed.” Neither Curry nor six other climate scientists investigated by Grijalva for challenging human-induced climate change theories were “found to have engaged in wrongdoing of any sort, yet there have been significant career consequences for some,” she wrote.
In a democracy, political opponents or scientists with a different view should not be prosecuted, Curry wrote.
The demand to investigate those who disagree on scientific theories and public policy “represents a new low in the politicization of science,” Curry wrote.