Commentary

CEI Subpoenaed on Climate Change: Dissent Transforming from Uniquely American Virtue to Crime

Kent Lassman
By Kent Lassman | April 14, 2016 | 4:17 PM EDT

New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman speaks during a news conference, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Feisty, aggressive, unwavering, and sometimes unconventional—all terms I heard prior to joining CEI last week as president. The descriptions were spot-on. But before the first conversations ended, CEI had a new opportunity to showcase why it is the leading organization making the uncompromising case for individual and economic freedom.

Last week, an intimidation campaign led by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and former Vice President Al Gore reached CEI’s doors. We received a subpoena from U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Walker demanding CEI, a nonprofit and private organization, turn over a massive amount of documents on climate change policy work from 1997-2007, nearly 20 years ago. Needless to say, we will fight the subpoena.

It is not and cannot become a crime to disagree with a government official. Somewhere along the line, dissent from orthodoxy has transformed from a uniquely American virtue to a crime. This subpoena is a blatant attack on CEI’s First Amendment rights of free speech and association. It threatens the rights of anyone who holds opinions different from those with the power of the federal or state governments behind them.

What other issues are next on the taboo list? If the attorneys general succeed, we can be assured this list will vary from election to election—something for all people of good conscience to dread.

The audacity of this legal action is profound. George Orwell’s dystopian novel “Nineteen Eighty-Four” described “crimethink” as entertaining thoughts unacceptable to the government. Decades ago, the U.S. Supreme Court anticipated this horrific hypothetical when Justice Robert Jackson wrote:

“If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

Yet, here we are.

Some of our critics view the subpoena as nothing more than a taste of CEI’s own medicine. After all, they argue, hasn’t CEI harassed scientists and professors for private emails and data?

Unequivocally, the answer is NO.

Like countless journalists, policy groups, and private citizens, CEI relies on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and other public records laws to encourage government accountability and transparency. There should be no controversy when private individuals seek information about the use of taxpayer funds by government employees. It is rhetorically convenient and intellectually lazy to overlook the fundamental differences between a subpoena from an attorney general, operating in concert with his peers from 17 states, and a private organization’s legitimate use of FOIA requests.

Let’s be perfectly clear. The subpoena is based on an implied allegation of criminal wrongdoing; a FOIA request is not. CEI makes FOIA requests as a check on government overreach and misconduct.

With this subpoena, Walker has abused his authority by punishing private activity protected by the U.S. Constitution. And, unlike government institutions and employees, we do not accept grants from the government. CEI’s FOIA requests, on the other hand, involve only government employees, request records only related to government work (not private information), and are not based on any charges of unlawful activity. These requests are an effort to gather public information about what our government is doing with taxpayer money.

At this time, we believe CEI is the only nonprofit targeted by this coalition of state attorneys general dedicated to abolishing open discourse about climate change policy. A reasonable person might ask, “What does CEI say about climate change that makes these people so nervous?”

There is no debate about whether the Earth’s climate is warming. This has long been the CEI’s position and it is one I share. Further, human activities very likely contribute to that warming. There is, however, serious scientific debate about the magnitude and rate of climate change, the potential effects caused by warming, and the appropriate policy choices to address these issues.

While global warming could pose challenges, we do not believe it is a planetary emergency. We are deeply concerned that national and global campaigns to tax, regulate, and ban fossil fuels are an expensive exercise in futility. Our policy work rests on the scientifically supported view that affordable, plentiful, and reliable fossil fuels make the world safer and the environment more livable. Further, we hold the humanitarian view that affordable energy should be accessible to those who most need it, especially in developing economies.

Consider some facts:  

  • The Earth’s surface temperature has increased by approximately 1 degree Celsius since 1900.  
  • Greenhouse gas emissions—primarily carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal, oil, and natural gas—have likely contributed to global warming, but by how much is not yet known.
  • The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report finds little scientific support that severe weather events, such as hurricanes, floods, and droughts, are increasing in frequency or intensity.

The biggest problem with proposals to address alleged, rapid warming is that there is no realistic implementation plan. Taken out of the context of international meetings and put to the practical tests of real-world economics, they do not work. Coal, oil, and natural gas supply 80 percent of the world's energy. Finding substantial emissions reductions from these three fuels using available technologies, such as wind and solar power, is a very expensive dead end

As we have seen for hundreds of years, modern societies develop the technologies and resources to address environmental challenges, whatever the cause. Unlike some of our climate-alarmist friends, at CEI we think the record of human ingenuity is pretty strong. Innovation and adaptation can surmount the largest challenges when individuals are provided circumstances to promote human flourishing.

Unfortunately, some who disagree with our ideas would prefer we succumb to heavy-handed intimidation. They have forgotten that the protections of the U.S. Constitution provide essential instruction on the role and scope of government—including the abusive use of state authority to limit speech and association.

Do not worry. As long as we have a voice, we will not succumb; we shall surmount.

Kent Lassman is president and CEO of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he oversees strategy for the free market organization, including management of a team of policy, communications, and fundraising staff.