Climate witch hunts

April 9, 2018
Loss by ExxonMobil of a challenge to climate witch hunts in New York and Massachusetts should focus attention on merits of the investigation. If gullible news media stay true to form, though, they’ll mistake a judge’s ruling for science.

Loss by ExxonMobil of a challenge to climate witch hunts in New York and Massachusetts should focus attention on merits of the investigation. If gullible news media stay true to form, though, they’ll mistake a judge’s ruling for science.

US District Judge Valerie Caproni of Manhattan denied ExxonMobil’s attempt to block investigations by the states’ attorneys-general on the basis of motive. The oil company said Eric Schneiderman of New York an Maura Healey of Massachusetts have acted politically since 2015 by investigating it for fraud. The AGs say they suspect ExxonMobil of misleading the public and investors about climate change and the probable effects on its business, asserting the company knew more about the subject than it disclosed. In its court challenge, ExxonMobil said political motivation was evident in meetings the AGs had with environmental groups and a press-conference declaration by Schneiderman that opponents of former President Barack Obama’s environmental agenda were “morally vacant.”

Preemptive syllogism

Somehow, Caproni didn’t see politics in any of that and scolded ExxonMobil for “running roughshod over the adage that the best defense is a good offense.” Yet the same can be said about all of climate politics.

Since it began in the late 1980s, the political response to global warming has been driven by a preemptive syllogism: Globally averaged temperature has mostly increased since about 1850. Over the same period, growth in combustion of fossil fuels has increased the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, a trace gas known to augment warming. Therefore, fossil fuels should be regulated out of the energy mix.

The conclusion implies suspension of market economics, fuel choice subject to politics, rising energy costs, and compromised freedom. It is, because of climatological complexity, scientifically doubtful. Yet it defines a political movement. Even worse, extremists driving the political agenda have succeeded in characterizing questions about their logical foundation as unrighteous and unworthy of attention. Schneiderman provides a glittering example with his moralizing about anyone challenging Obama’s fealty to climate activism.

How might ExxonMobil—and oil-company defendants in a San Francisco lawsuit alleging offenses similar to those Schneiderman and Healey want to probe—have avoided legal hazard? There seems to be only one option that would have satisfied the liberal attorneys-general and plaintiffs in California v. Chevron. The companies should have accepted speculative, worst-case scenarios about global warming, planned to withdraw from the oil and gas business, and warned shareholders accordingly or become guilty of fraud. The expectation is ludicrous, of course. Yet it’s now a central thrust of the all-or-nothing politics of climate.

Motivating the attorneys-general probe is the suspicion that ExxonMobil knew something about climate change that it should have disclosed but did not. But what, exactly? ExxonMobil and other oil companies examining climate change must have grappled with diffuse views about the subject. Scientists everywhere differ about the human contribution to observed warming, the chances that warming will become calamitous, and the ability of policy responses to meaningfully influence temperature. That was the case when oil companies began examining climate change. It remains the case now. Assertions to the contrary, so frequently made and obligingly reported, are demonstrably false.

Retrospective jeopardy

Indeed, because worst-case climate projections probably overstate the threat, extreme and costly response might not be necessary. Saying this does not, as activists insist, reflect denial of warming or of the need for precaution. It does imply the need to seek answers to vital questions able to steer responses clear of inaction, at one extreme, and energy martial law, at the other. But to Schneiderman, Healey, and plaintiffs in the California case, merely expressing questions that might undermine radicalism subjects an individual or company to retrospective jeopardy. Their premise is intellectually dishonest and democratically repugnant.

What’s more, their dalliance with authoritarianism weakens a climate agenda already discrediting itself with exaggeration, dogmatism, and intolerance. Eventually, economics will force the political discussion to accommodate compromise—if undemocratic ventures of fanaticism don’t kill the movement first.