Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) is hostile to open debate over climate science and policy. Sadly, he’s far from being the only one. Many progressive Democrats, and their lapdogs in the mainstream media, have long been calling for a climate inquisition: prosecution, fines, imprisonment, and reeducation camps for economists, scientists, and political analysts whose research has led them to question whether humans are causing a climate catastrophe or that big government must impose harsh restrictions on the public in order to prevent it.
Whitehouse first broached the possibility of suppressing the speech of and possibly prosecuting climate dissenters as far back as 2015 in a Washington Post article. His home state’s largest paper, the Providence Journal, called the senator to the carpet for this threat, writing:
A civil proceeding by the government, as well as a criminal one, is a form of prosecution. While we strongly believe humans are contributing to climate change, it is our position that disagreements about policy issues and scientific theories should not be turned into grounds for investigations by government officials into supposed fraud, because that undermines the First Amendment and has a chilling effect on free speech. We believe, with the founders who listed this essential freedom first in the Bill of Rights, that open discussion and disagreements are healthy, allowing people to learn, grow and embrace or reject new ideas, as well as to safely challenge the misconduct of government officials and other forms of injustice.
Whitehouse Ignores Constitutional Oath and History
Whitehouse should be especially sensitive to concerns that his actions as a senator would endanger free speech and open debate: when he became a senator, he swore an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States, which includes the First Amendment ensuring, among other things, the rights of free speech and association and the right to dispute government policies. In addition, the state Whitehouse represents was founded by dissenters—people fleeing neighboring states (colonies at the time) where their religious and political views were being suppressed through the force of law.
In his quest for the title of Grand Climate Inquisitor, Whitehouse is evidently willing to ignore history and the nation’s charter. As my friend and colleague Paul Driessen has noted, Whitehouse recently said if Democrats win Georgia’s two contested U.S. Senate seats, allowing them to take over leadership of the Senate, it “would enable him and his colleagues to launch investigations, haul climate realists before committees (for star-chamber show trials), and even employ grand juries and criminal prosecutions—to intimidate, silence and punish climate crisis nonbelievers.”
As I mentioned earlier, Whitehouse is by no means alone in his authoritarian quest to squelch debate over the causes and consequences of climate change and possible policy responses to it. Obama administration Attorney General Loretta Lynch testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2016 that the Department of Justice had discussed pursuing legal action against companies, research institutes, and scientists who debate whether humans are causing catastrophic climate change.
‘Chilling Effect on Scientists’
Before that, Robert Kennedy Jr. called for trying climate realists as war criminals, a proposal TV personality Bill Nye said was worth considering. Nye said, “As a taxpayer and voter, the introduction of this extreme doubt about climate change is affecting my quality of life as a public citizen. … So I can see where people are very concerned about this, and they’re pursuing criminal investigations as well as engaging in discussions like this. … That there is a chilling effect on scientists who are in extreme doubt about climate change, I think that is good.”
Nye long ago became nothing more than a closeminded political hack, a man who gives science a bad name despite being a self-proclaimed “science guy.”
Media talking heads all too often decry the First Amendment’s acknowledgment of an inherent freedom of speech, while cloaking themselves in its protections of press freedom when it comes to expressing their own opinions or protecting sources. Social networking platforms such as Facebook, Google, and YouTube often censor speech or positions, including the view that humans may not be causing dangerous climate change, that their founders or advertisers don’t like, despite claiming under law they are neutral platforms for the free exchange of ideas. This is troubling and should lead people to question the value of continuing to listen to or use such media outlets or social media platforms. Even worse, though, is when people in political authority, people with guns and prisons backing them up, call for suppressing scientific or political speech. That should spark outrage in Americans of all political and social persuasions.
For more than 200 years, the First Amendment has protected the right of individuals and groups to speak freely on issues of public importance, including global climate change, even if politically connected renewable power interests, influential environmentalist funders, members of Congress, and even the president of the United States disagree with them.
Truth is an Absolute Defense
In addition, cases brought against climate skeptics should be quickly thrown out of court, because the truth is an absolute defense against claims of fraud. It is impossible for Whitehouse and his fellow politically powerful bullies to show skeptical scientists and researchers are lying when they say the human impact on climate is unclear and evidence of harm is lacking, because the matter is still part of an ongoing, lively debate.
The German climate science site No Tricks Zone has documented thousands of peer-reviewed academic articles published since 2014 disputing claims made by climate change alarmists. These papers show nature plays a significant role in climate change, increasing amounts of carbon dioxide are improving plant growth, and, contrary to climate model projections, weather extremes are not getting worse because of climate change. These articles make clear, individually and collectively, the debate over the causes and consequences of climate change is not closed.
A 2016 survey of members of the American Meteorological Society (AMS) found 67 percent of its members believe humans are responsible for more than half of climate change. This survey was conducted after Whitehouse first began to push for climate prosecutions and while Lynch was dreaming up plans for Justice Department action against those expressing skepticism about the extent and effects of human-caused climate change. Are we to believe the 33 percent of AMS members who disagree humans are primarily responsible for climate change are committing fraud?
How Science Progresses
For centuries, educated people believed illnesses were caused by an imbalance of “humors” (fluids) in the body, the world was flat, and the Earth was the center of the universe. Those people were wrong; they were not frauds.
Everyone who currently disputes humans are causing dangerous climate change could be completely wrong and may be shown to be so as more evidence comes in. Similarly, those who believe fossil fuel use is causing a climate apocalypse could be wrong. But being wrong on a scientific matter does not constitute fraud. Debate is the scientific method in action.
By raising the specter of prosecution, Whitehouse and his ilk are trying, as Nye approvingly recognized, forcibly to silence those who disagree with them on climate matters. This vile effort undermines free speech and open enquiry, the very underpinnings of successful democracies and the scientific method.
When government can dictate which questions are open or closed—in either the political sphere or the scientific realm—the gulags cannot be far behind.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D.(firstname.lastname@example.org)is the managing editor of Environment & Climate News.