In the summer of 2012, a group of environmental activists gathered in La Jolla, Calif. to plan out a new campaign strategy against the nation’s energy producers. The two-day conference was led by the Climate Accountability Institute (CAI), based in Snowmass, Colo., and the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) of Cambridge, Mass. Later, the minutes of the La Jolla conference were turned into a 36-page report for environmental groups and environmental donors all over the country to read.
After a string of major defeats – including the collapse of cap-and-trade climate legislation in 2010 – the activists admitted “we currently lack a compelling public narrative about climate change,” according to the report. Two members of the CAI advisory board – environmental lawyer Matt Pawa and UCS staffer Peter Frumhoff – suggested lawsuits could deliver the political outcome they needed.
Their idea was a hit. There was “nearly unanimous agreement on the importance of legal actions, both in wresting potentially useful internal documents from the fossil fuel industry and, more broadly, in maintaining pressure on the industry that could eventually lead to its support for legislative and regulatory responses to global warming,” according to the report.
Through such lawsuits, environmental activists could allege wrongdoing and build “a narrative that creates public outrage.” In other words, environmentalists had found a way to bully their opponents and mislead the public into supporting economically harmful taxes, laws, regulations and subsidies in the name of fighting climate change.
New York AG launches climate investigation, takes fire
Four years later, Pawa, Frumhoff and the other attendees of the La Jolla conference have got the legal action they wanted, care of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D) and a handful of Democratic attorneys general from California, Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands. So far, they have targeted a major energy company and a free-market think tank with demands to turn over all kinds of records tied to their positions on climate policy. They have even won the endorsement of former vice-president-turned-climate activist Al Gore, who headlined a press conference for the attorneys general last month.
But the longer this so-called investigation runs, the bigger the backlash gets. Right out of the gate, Brooklyn Law School professor James Fanto called the probe “completely politically motivated,” and editorial boards from opposite ends of the political spectrum panned the move as anti-free speech.
Bloomberg View called the investigation “preposterous” and a “dangerous arrogation of power.” National Review called it an assault on the First Amendment and a “flat-out campaign aimed at punishing a corporation for having a policy disagreement with Democrats.” The same publication also questioned the decision to target ExxonMobil, which “has long funded climate research that has produced findings in line with the general scientific consensus on the issue” and supports a carbon tax.
More recently, five Republican state attorneys general have rebuked the effort. Their criticism was best summarized by Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry (R): “It is one thing to use the legal system to pursue public policy outcomes; but it is quite another to use prosecutorial weapons to intimidate critics, silence free speech, or chill the robust exchange of ideas.”
University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Harland Reynolds says Schneiderman and the other Democratic attorneys general are “betraying their oaths of office.” Meanwhile, Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle has mocked the group for failing to articulate a factual basis for their actions during their press conference with Gore. “They threw the word ‘fraud’ around a lot,” McArdle wrote. “But the more they talked about it, the more it became clear that what they meant by ‘fraud’ was ‘advocating for policies that the attorneys general disagreed with.’”
Investigation rests on activist-funded ‘news’
To justify this politically motivated action, Schneiderman and his allies have pointed to a series of articles produced by InsideClimate News, a non-profit news outlet, and by a specially funded environmental reporting program at the Columbia Journalism School in New York City. These articles used public documents – which were made available to the public by Exxon – to claim the company had somehow suppressed climate research decades ago. For its part, the company says these news articles completely misrepresented those documents and ignored its long record of research and investments into the climate issue.
But ICN and Columbia’s environmental reporting program are funded by left-wing foundations that oppose the fossil fuel industry, it was later revealed. In fact, at least two of those foundations – the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Foundation – are major donors to the fringe environmental activists who have been lobbying state attorneys general to launch these trumped-up investigations.
The Rockefeller Family Foundation even hosted a secret meeting of anti-Exxon activists at its New York City office in January, where they continued their discussions on how “to establish in public’s mind that Exxon is a corrupt institution,” according to the Wall Street Journal. An e-mail leaked to the Washington Free Beacon showed the guest list included Bill McKibben, founder of the activist group 350.org, and Sharon Eubanks, an attorney and former tobacco-industry prosecutor during the Clinton administration. The apparent organizer of the Rockefeller foundation meeting, long-time environmental campaigner Kenny Bruno, recently quipped on Twitter: “I don’t want to abolish Exxon. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.”
Also on the guest list were two representatives of CAI – the same group that helped organize the 2012 La Jolla conference where the push for legal action against fossil-fuel companies began. Those representatives were CAI board member Carroll Muffet and CAI advisory board member Matt Pawa, the same attorney who played leading role in La Jolla. As luck would have it, CAI has received $57,000 in recent years from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund to help finance the group’s mission to turn the energy sector into the tobacco industry in the eyes of policymakers and the public.
The activist echo chamber vs. the First Amendment
It turns out Pawa, Carroll, McKibben and Eubanks have all played leading roles in driving press coverage of Schneiderman’s crusade and other climate-themed investigations. For example, Pawa and Eubanks warmed up the crowd for U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) – a vocal supporter of such legal action – at a February event on “combatting climate change in the courts” at the National Press Club. Pawa and McKibben even officiated over a “mock trial” charging Exxon with “climate crimes” on the sidelines of the Paris climate talks late last year.
The echo chamber created by the Rockefellers and other left-wing donors is impressive, but they need it for a reason – they have no case. In America, it’s not against the law to have an opinion about climate change, what causes it, and what the government should or shouldn’t do about it. It’s not against the law to tell others about your opinion, either, or to advocate for what you believe.
But before officials like Schneiderman can move in, they need something to point to – a news story, a legal theory, a protest, a research paper. And the echo chamber makes sure those officials have just what they need.
This isn’t a new concept. Last year, I worked with Energy In Depth – a program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America – on a report detailing a similar echo chamber built by far-left groups and donors to ban fracking in New York. We submitted that report to the U.S. House Science, Space and Technology Committee, and testified about the millions of dollars provided to research, media and campaign organizations to support the anti-fracking campaign.
The activists and their donors have come a long way since the La Jolla conference, but even so, their case is desperately weak. The facts are against them and the First Amendment still means something in America. Shouting inside an echo chamber won’t change that.
Simon Lomax is an associate energy policy analyst with the Independence Institute and a consultant who advises pro-business groups. From 2004 to 2012, he was a news reporter covering energy and environmental policy in Washington, D.C. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.