Science Magazine: Climate scientist requesting federal investigation feels heat from House Republicans

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway showed how attempts by the tobacco industry to avoid regulation paralleled attempts by the fossil-fuel industry to do so. The tobacco industry consciously enlisted scientists in an extended campaign to sow doubt about whether smoking caused cancer, while the fossil-fuel industry has done the same to sow doubt about global warming. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Oreskes and Conway’s story is that in many cases, these are the same scientists.

Given this context, it makes sense that some climate scientists would attempt to employ the same legal tactics against the fossil fuel industry as were successfully used against the tobacco industry. Science reports:

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI)… noted that federal prosecutors had used the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)—originally developed to combat organized crime and corrupt unions—to sue the tobacco industry for covering up the health effects of smoking. And he suggested they could do the same to investigate fossil fuel firms that he charged were “funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.”


Last month, 20 climate scientists, led by Shukla, picked up on the idea of using RICO. In a 1 September letter to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and White House science adviser John Holdren, they wrote that “if corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in book and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible.”


Other signers of the RICO letter include climate researchers from George Mason as well as the University of Washington, Seattle; Rutgers University in New Jersey; the University of Maryland, College Park; and Columbia University.

However, the political landscape in the United States these days has made this strategy difficult, and perhaps even dangerous:

Last week, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the science panel of the House of Representatives, announced plans to investigate a nonprofit research group led by climate scientist Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He is the lead signer of a letter to White House officials that urges the use of an antiracketeering law to crack down on energy firms that have funded efforts to raise doubts about climate science.


In a 1 October letter, Smith asked Shukla, who is director of the independent Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) in Rockville, Maryland, to preserve all of the “email, electronic documents, and data” that the institute has created since 2009. Smith’s panel soon may be asking for those documents, the letter suggests.

To be clear, it appears that the chairman of the House of Representatives is proposing not to investigate possible organized attempts by massive corporations to deceive the American public about the science of climate change, but to investigate the group that wants that to happen. Democracy!

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