Freedom to Climate Change

1 December 2017
Freedom to Climate Change - Featured image

Debates over climate change science have been silenced, writes Simon Breheny.

From government officials using their positions to academics using the law, there are many ways in which proponents of interventionist policy are attempting to shut down the climate change debate. In resorting to these means of silencing others, they reveal their lack of confidence in their own position and their contempt for open public discourse.

At its highest level, the campaign against climate change free speech is nothing less than an abuse of state power by government officials. In the United States, legal officers and other elected officials have sought to use the authority of their offices to harass and silence private citizens who disagree with their preferred climate change policies.

In November 2015, for example, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman subpoenaed ExxonMobil, seeking documents that might show the company had downplayed the risk that climate change might pose to future profits, and in so doing misled its shareholders.

Leaving aside the question of whether investing in profitable operations can really be said to be contrary to the interests of shareholders, this subpoena (and intention to prosecute) indicates that the state of New York now considers climate change scepticism to be dishonest.

The position of the left is now that it is not possible to disagree with their climate change position in good faith. ExxonMobil’s current position of continuing to invest in fossil fuels must be at odds with its research, and therefore it is knowingly acting against the interests of shareholders.

Put another way, since anthropogenic climate change and its catastrophic consequences are facts, and they are known by ExxonMobil, the company cannot honestly take a position other than that prescribed by the environmental lobby. The state is saying that because it does not believe that ExxonMobil’s current position is honestly held, or could be honestly held, it should not be able to hold it.


This bullying certitude is extended to groups that support the position of resource companies. As evidence for his accusation of bad faith against those companies, Schneiderman extended his criticism to a number of free market think tanks:

[T]hey have made numerous statements, both Exxon officials and in Exxon reports, but also through these organisations they fund… Exxon has said a lot of things that conflict with the statement that they have always been forthcoming about the realities of climate change.

The crime, then, of ExxonMobil’s directors is not just believing the wrong thing, or pretending to, but giving voice to this and similar views.

And this reveals the real reason behind this investigation. It is not that the state has any concern for the wellbeing of shareholders— who, after all, continue to see good returns on their investments. It is that a company the size of ExxonMobil has the power to influence the public debate in a way that conflicts with the state’s ownpriorities. It is an attempt to use the criminal law to limit the scope of the public debate about climate change, and more specifically, climate change policy.

In February 2015, US Senators Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Barbara Boxer of California, and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island sent one hundred letters to ‘fossil fuel companies’ and ‘climate denial organisations’ regarding their funding of science research. The letters demanded information over the last 10 years of all ‘funded research efforts’ and information about the purpose of the funding and details about the recipients.

The message is clear: how private organisations spend their resources, and how they express and develop their ideas, are now matters for the state. Cato Institute president John Allison rightly called this action ‘an obvious attempt to chill research into funding of public policy projects [the senators] don’t like’.

A similar intimidation happened in Australia in 2006 when then-member for Wills, Kelvin Thompson, wrote to a number of companies demanding to know whether they had given money to the Institute of Public Affairs or other bodies who undermine ‘the scientific consensus concerning global warming’. A Member of Parliament has no more right to know this information, much less to make this demand, than any other citizen. And yet the demand, outrageous on its face, came under colour of authority. This is an abuse of office and arguably a misrepresentation of the scope of Thompson’s authority intended to confuse the recipient. His demand extends beyond misinformation to anything that undermines the supposed consensus, which logically includes new evidence refuting it.


It is an extraordinary step for the state to take it upon itself to determine the conclusion of what should be a lively scientific debate with potentially diverse ramifications for public policy in any number of areas. To do so is to foreclose the search for truth and, moreover, to limit the exercise of the fundamental right to freedom of speech. As Hoover Institution scholar Richard A. Epstein wrote about these legal manoeuvers in Newsweek:

The usual way in which to hash these matters out is to have an intelligent debate on the pros and cons of each side. And a debate over these matters should receive the highest level of constitutional protection, given that it would be about finding out the truth, and using that information to guide political action.

But now state officials are actively seeking opportunities to punish anyone who departs from the preferred narrative. Even if these prosecutions never proceed, the state contemplating such action is in and of itself an attempt to disrupt and derail discussion about climate change.

Scientists themselves have also worked to shut dissenting voices out of the debate.

A notorious free speech case involves the Canadian political commentator Mark Steyn and Pennsylvania State University researcher Michael Mann.

Mann became famous in 1998 for inventing the ‘hockey stick’ graph. The graph purports to show the trend of global average temperature over a 1000-year period; it suggests that there was no Medieval Warm Period.

In July 2012, Rand Simberg of the American free market think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute posted on the organisation’s blog an article critical of Mann’s employer for what he considered to be covering up scientific malpractice—which was the dubious statistics that created the hockey-stick. The post deployed some very harsh personal invective in making the otherwise reasonable argument that Mann’s university had not investigated claims of this alleged malpractice thoroughly enough.

A post appearing the same month at National Review Online by author and commentator Mark Steyn quoted Simberg’s most outrageous paragraph, and, while disavowing Simberg’s choice of words, supported its central contention that the investigation of Mann’s wrongdoing was awed. Steyn also labelled Mann’s famous graph ‘fraudulent’.

For reprinting Simberg’s criticism, and simultaneously disavowing the worst aspects of it, National Review and Mark Steyn are now being sued. In August 2012, Mann filed a defamation lawsuit with the District of Columbia Court of Appeals against National Review and Steyn, as well as the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Rand Simberg, for the two posts. In December 2016, after years of legal wrangling, the Washington DC Appeals Court ruled that the case may continue to trial as there was a reasonable likelihood of it succeeding.

The court held that Simberg and Steyn, based on the evidence, ‘in fact entertained serious doubts’ that their claims about Mann were false. This finding was based on the university’s own investigation of allegations of misconduct by Mann that cleared him.

The threat to freedom of speech is obvious. The Mann case has established that ocial scientific bodies can quash dissent by effectively declaring research unimpeachable. But the lesson to take from this is not just that the courts and academia are willing to stretch defamation law to breaking point. Nor is it that well-funded climate scientists are able to tie up opponents in years of litigation at immense cost.

It is the broader point that the tenured academic elite no longer sees any need to debate the merits of climate change science or policy and has therefore decided to shut down the conversation by any means available. Academia, as much as the political class, is driving the push to punish diverse views. This is a radical departure from the traditional standards of open and free inquiry.

Academic reputation is now being used not just as a shield but also as a sword. It is a weapon for fighting off dissent; any suffciently esteemed scientist is now practically beyond questioning.

Freedom of speech is a basic human right. Individual autonomy is meaningless without the right to express how one thinks and feels. It is a right that we all owe to one another based on nothing more or less than our mutual recognition of each other as beings of inherent value.

But freedom of speech is not only valuable in and of itself, it has instrumental value as well. It is only through the contest of ideas that the truth may be apprehended. In science as in politics and all other fields of human endeavour, dissent has the virtue of testing the prevailing arguments, which either fail and fall or survive yet stronger.


Te peremptory shutting down of debate short-circuits this process. It might be thought that scientists would grasp this argument intuitively. After all, their discipline is the lodestar of empiricism, and the truth that it produces depends on the testing and re-testing of evidence and data continuously accumulated.

The issue of climate change is fundamentally one of science, yet if there were any doubt that climate change has moved beyond the dispassionate search for truth through empirical enquiry and into the realm of political activism, it has by this point surely been exhausted.

From state attempts to use the criminal law against company directors to demands for the use of anti-corruption law to criminalise scepticism to invidious defamation actions to chill it, proponents of climate change have undertaken to silence their opponents by any means necessary.

The debate over climate change has taken a sinister turn, away from the pursuit of truth and towards the propagation of dogma. Climate change scientists have encouraged the state to interfere in their work and they have contributed to an assertion of academic privilege that is more befitting of a religious hierarchy than rationalism.

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