A Wisconsin professor recently penned an op-ed for the Providence Journal titled “Climate Change Deniers Deserve Punishment,” suggesting that some opinions are too harmful to public health and safety to merit constitutional protection.
In the piece, Michael E. Kraft, professor of political science and public affairs and of environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, wrote:
Scientific findings and associated uncertainties should be scrutinized carefully and debated vigorously within the scientific community and among the public.
However, denying the best scientific evidence we have is neither smart nor safe. It could lead to greater societal harm than if we had taken sensible action when reliable knowledge was first available.
Kraft compared those who “rejected established climate science” and the effects of burning fossil fuels to tobacco companies who “long denied any causal relation between smoking and disease even when their own studies showed the opposite to be true.”
Continuing with this analogy, Kraft explained that tobacco companies were denied First Amendment protection after the Justice Department won a civil lawsuit against them in 1999, which charged that they violated the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. The suit accused the companies of “[engaging] in a conspiracy to launch a public relations campaign challenging scientific evidence that demonstrated the health risks of smoking at the same time that their own research confirmed smoking's danger.”
Kraft’s comparison was meant to indicate that just as the tobacco companies lost their right to free speech after launching a “massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public,” so too should the climate change deniers lose their free speech rights.
The professor noted that some members of Congress have asked the Justice Department to pursue similar RICO charges against major fossil fuel companies for “knowingly deceiving the public — and investors — about the dangers of climate change when their own studies showed the reality of the threat.” He added that Attorney General Loretta Lynch has referred the issue to the FBI for study.
Last month, several state attorneys convened in New York and pledged to "aggressively" investigate whether fossil fuel companies could be charged for denying the risks of climate change. Kraft said that some state attorneys general already have begun such investigations under consumer and investor protection laws.
But why stop there, Kraft wondered?
Some ask whether such inquiries should be limited to fossil fuel companies. What about extending the liability, they say, to certain think tanks and advocacy groups?
Some such groups have been heavily funded by the fossil fuel industry and have misrepresented climate change risks to the public. That might be a tougher sell, given rights to free speech, but it could be given consideration.
Kraft argued that though progress has been made in the effort to expose climate change, the response of the Obama administration and other countries have been “modest,” and “more effective initiatives” will be required to win the fight.
The professor concluded by asking the public to advocate for “tougher policies,” asserting that “those who intentionally misled the public about climate change should be held accountable.”
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