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Commentary By William O'Keefe

Stifling Free Speech on Climate Change

Massachusetts and the Virgin Islands recently joined New York in its investigation into whether ExxonMobil misled the public and its investors about climate change. This brings the total number of State Attorneys General to have initiated similar investigations to 20. Additionally, the Attorney General of the United States also announced that she had referred this matter to the FBI.

While the named target is ExxonMobil, it has been made clear that the investigatory net is going to be thrown over other oil companies and, by implication, the so-called skeptics who have been involved in the climate debate.

The targeted companies can and will defend the actions they have taken on the issue of climate change. Some may be tempted to consider the equivalent of some sort of plea bargain that would involve greenmail payments and promises to behave more responsibly in the future. That would be a serious mistake and would weaken First Amendment protections.

The crux of the allegation is whether these organizations and others who may have been associated with them knowingly engaged in deception. To be guilty, the weight of evidence would have to show that: climate change was a serious risk, that the risk was significantly increased by ExxonMobil’s actions, and that ExxonMobil failed to support programs and policies which reduce CO2 emissions.

None of the articles written about these allegations have provided evidence that any company has denied that climate change is real or that human activities have an influence on climate. The New York Times last November published an article, “A Range of Opinions on Climate Change at ExxonMobil,” that makes these two facts clear.

The Attorney General’s claim is based on the belief—or, more accurately, assumption—that our future climate will have catastrophic effects on our way of life and economic wellbeing unless CO2 emissions are significantly reduced. While this belief reflects the views of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), its leadership, and some scientists, the asserted certainty of catastrophic climate change is based on judgments, not validated science.

Earlier this year, University of Alabama Huntsville professor John Christy, one of the developers of the satellite global temperature measurement system, provided congressional testimony that made it absolutely clear that statements made about climate change by its advocates lack the extent of uncertainty that still accompanies the issue. His analysis showed that the models relied on by the IPCC “on average warm the global atmosphere at a rate 2.5 times that of the real world.” That extent of variability is not trivial.

Sir Karl Popper, who is regarded as the world’s preeminent science philosopher, developed the concept of falsifiability as a criterion for testing theories. Based on this principle, as Christy demonstrated, the theory that increases in CO2 emissions will cause dangerous temperature increases has been proven false by the projections of models based on it. The reason for behind this failure is that the extent of uncertainty about the climate system remains too great for any model to accurately reflect reality.

In 2001, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) stated in a report, ”Because there is considerable uncertainty in current understanding of how the climate system varies naturally and reacts to emissions of greenhouse gases and aerosols, current estimates of the magnitude of future warming should be regarded as tentative and subject to future adjustments (either upward or downward).”

The NAS statement combined with the Christy testimony demonstrates that the “considerable uncertainty” has not been significantly reduced. Hence, it is not credible to claim that any organizational or individual assessment of climate change is intentionally misleading. What it does suggest is that allegations by some members of Congress and State Attorneys General are political tactics to intimidate and silence dissent. Actions that erode the bedrock protections of the First Amendment are a clear and present danger, something that climate change is not


William O'Keefe is the President of Solutions Consulting. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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