Two retired UW professors are among scientists who urged the White House to open racketeering investigations of “corporations and other organizations” over deceptive campaigns denying scientific findings about global warming. Their letter has unleashed a flood of criticism.
Two retired University of Washington professors were among a group of 20 scientists that recently urged the Obama administration to launch federal racketeering investigations of “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change.”
John M. Wallace and Edward Sarachik, professors emeriti of the UW’s department of atmospheric sciences, signed a letter dated Sept. 1 that asked the administration to use the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) to investigate such firms’ funding efforts to deny established science about global warming.
The letter, signed by leading climate scientists from eight major American universities and two research centers, was addressed to President Obama, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and White House science czar John P. Holdren.
It has since angered some climate-change skeptics and right-leaning politicians, fueling a flood of critical Web postings and a congressional probe into the letter’s primary signatory, Jagadish Shukla, a climate scientist at George Mason University in Virginia.
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The letter, which credits the RICO idea to U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., likened fossil-fuel companies’ publicity methods to those once employed by Big Tobacco and noted the federal government successfully used civil provisions of the racketeering law to stop tobacco firms from using deceptive marketing about smoking’s dangers.
“If corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in books and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible so that America and the world can get on with the critically important business of finding effective ways to restabilize the Earth’s climate, before even more lasting damage is done,” the letter states.
On Friday, Wallace told The Seattle Times the correspondence has “stirred a hornet’s nest” of skeptics, many of whom have taken to the Internet to “totally misrepresent the purpose of our letter.”
“They’re using the word ‘prosecute,’ but we’re not trying to prosecute anyone,” Wallace said. “What this is about is transparency. If executives of fossil-fuel companies are funding publicity efforts to support the notion that greenhouse warming isn’t happening, then let’s at least have the public know that.”
In 2006, a federal court ruling upheld the U.S. government’s victory in a 1999 lawsuit against tobacco firms that contended the companies had violated civil RICO provisions by concealing information and lying for decades about the health risks of smoking.
The scientists’ letter has drawn attention at a time when Exxon Mobil is coming under fire for allegedly suppressing concerns raised by its own scientists for decades that fossil-fuel emissions cause climate change, while the company publicly disputed such science.
On Friday, several media outlets reported the state of New York is now investigating whether Exxon Mobil misled the public and investors about climate-change risks. An Exxon Mobil spokesman also confirmed to The Washington Post that New York’s attorney general had issued a subpoena to the company, the newspaper reported.
The timing of the scientists’ letter amid Exxon Mobil’s scrutiny is “just coincidental,” Wallace said.
Critics have blasted the letter as a tone-deaf crusade by alarmists meant to stifle public debate on unsettled science, with some branding the group as “The RICO 20.”
Last month, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, launched an investigation into the dealings of Shukla, the George Mason professor who organized the letter. The congressional probe seeks to determine whether Shukla, who separately runs a nonprofit that has received millions in federal funding for climate-change research, misused taxpayer money.
Although the scientists’ letter to the White House largely has avoided the mainstream press, Wallace said various critical blog postings about it have incited a torrent of emails, calls and letters to him and Sarachik.
“Someone sent a letter scolding the (UW) administration for having faculty members that would do something like this,” Wallace said. “We had a note back from somebody in the president’s office saying we’re not going to answer it.”
A UW spokesman said Friday the university has taken no position on the matter.
“Academic freedom allows faculty members to express their views and opinions as they choose,” UW spokesman Victor Balta said.
Records show Christopher C. Horner, an outspoken climate-change critic and senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute — a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., that reportedly has received donations from some oil and coal firms — also has requested Wallace and Sarachik’s university emails related to the climate-change letter. The formal records request seeks any of the professors’ emails that contain the words “prosecute” or “prosecution.”
“They’re looking for a conspiracy here that supports the notion that we want to prosecute divergent views on the science,” Wallace said.
Horner did not return a phone message left for him Friday.
So far, the letter has received a response only from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Wallace said.
“It said, ‘We’re sympathetic, but this is outside of our jurisdiction,’ ” Wallace said.
The U.S. Attorney General’s Office did not respond Friday to a request for comment on the letter.