The debate over prosecuting climate change “fraud” has landed squarely in the lap of Hillary Clinton, who must now decide whether the Democratic Party platform will include a resolution urging the Justice Department to pursue climate dissent.
So far it doesn’t look good for climate skeptics. The 15-member Democratic Platform Drafting Committee approved Friday a statement calling for a Justice Department investigation into “alleged corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies who have reportedly misled shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change.”
The proposal won the unanimous support of panelists chosen by both Mrs. Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernard Sanders, but whether the language makes it onto the Democratic Party platform ultimately rests with the Clinton campaign.
As the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Mrs. Clinton has broad discretion over the final contents of the document, which goes to the full platform committee for approval July 8-9 in Orlando, Florida.
The recommendation threatens to drag into the presidential campaign a debate that until now had been waged largely by members of Congress and states’ attorneys general. A Democrat-led coalition of 17 attorneys general, known as AGs United for Clean Power, announced in March that it would pursue fossil fuel companies and others challenging the catastrophic climate consensus for possible fraud.
Sam Kazman, general counsel for the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute, said the effort to inject party politics into what has already been described as an ideologically motivated effort to chill scientific debate comes as a “dangerous mix.”
“Whenever you have claims of fraud being tossed around in a policy debate, what’s going on is not consumer protection but an attempt at censorship, wholesale censorship,” Mr. Kazman said. “I think they [Democrats] have their eyes on appealing to certain constituencies. It’s not all that far a jump to call for the shutting down of the debate in order to get votes during the election.”
The proposal also presents a quandary for Mrs. Clinton. On the one hand, adding the proposal to the platform would help shore up her standing with progressives, who have made no secret of their preference for Mr. Sanders and their doubts about her commitment to left-wing causes.
On the other hand, allowing the language to move forward would send a signal that Mrs. Clinton can be pushed around by the left on an issue with serious First Amendment implications. The Clinton camp has already folded on the death penalty issue, allowing the drafting committee to forward a proposal calling for the abolishing of capital punishment even though Mrs. Clinton has said it should be allowed for “heinous crimes.”
Republican strategist Michael McKenna said he doubted any free speech concerns stemming from the specter of prosecuting climate skeptics would deter the former secretary of state in her quest for the White House.
“Sec. Clinton is definitely careless enough to favor government censorship if it means a few extra votes,” Mr. McKenna said.
Progressive Democrats may also see the proposal to investigate skepticism as something of a compromise on their part. While approving the Justice Department proposal, the platform panel voted down recommendations by Sanders-appointed member Bill McKibben, who heads the climate activism group 350.org, for a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing and a carbon tax.
Prominent climate doomsayer Michael Mann, who heads the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, told the committee at a June 17 hearing that “the stakes could not be greater in this next election.”
“It is my hope that the Democratic platform will contain an affirmative statement recognizing the dire threat that [climate change] poses to us, our country and our entire planet, and a statement about [the] importance of putting a price signal in the market — a price on carbon,” Mr. Mann said. “It is my hope the platform will acknowledge the progress that has been made by the Obama administration and promise to build on that legacy by defending the Clean Power Plan against attacks by congressional Republicans, and ensuring that other EPA policies to reduce carbon emissions are kept in place.”
Mr. Mann, who did not mention the effort to prosecute skeptics, has found himself on both sides of the free speech issue. In 2012 he filed a defamation lawsuit against columnist Mark Steyn, National Review and the free market Competitive Enterprise Institute over criticism of his “hockey stick” graph, while two years earlier, he was himself investigated for his climate research and advocacy as a professor at the University of Virginia by then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli.
The court ultimately ruled in Mr. Mann’s favor in what was hailed as a victory for academic freedom.
Republicans have come out firmly against the campaign by AGs United for Clean Power. Thirteen Republican attorneys general fired off a letter June 15 urging the Democrats to consider the free speech implications as well as the possibility that the same fraud argument could be used against climate alarmists.
Six of the 15 members of the drafting committee were chosen by Mrs. Clinton, but five were selected by Mr. Sanders and four by Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, giving the panel what the left-wing Nation magazine described as a “progressive majority.”
In addition to the proposal urging a Justice Department probe against climate skeptics, the committee also adopted “a joint proposal from Sanders and Clinton representatives to commit to making America run entirely on clean energy by mid-century, and supporting the ambitious goals put forward by President Obama and the Paris climate agreement,” according to the Democratic National Committee.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the Maryland Democrat who headed the panel, said this year’s drafting committee reflected an “unprecedented decision to expand the drafting process of our National Party platform.”
“The draft platform we have produced in an open and transparent manner reflects our priorities as Democrats and demonstrates our vision for this nation,” Mr. Cummings said in a statement.
At least three attorneys general — those in Massachusetts, New York and the Virgin Islands — have issued subpoenas to ExxonMobil as part of their fraud probe. A subpoena issued to Exxon by Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude E. Walker demands the company’s communications on climate change with more than 100 academics, universities and think tanks, while a Massachusetts subpoena calls for documents with a dozen free market nonprofits.
Named in both subpoenas was the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which beat back an effort by Mr. Walker to subpoena its records. Although Mr. Walker withdrew the subpoena in April, the think tank has filed a motion with the court for sanctions, which goes Tuesday before the D.C. Superior Court.
If Mrs. Clinton allows the proposal to remain in the platform, Mr. McKenna warned that the Democrats “are at risk of becoming the party of expensive, undependable energy and, with this, are now at risk of becoming the party that asks you to trust the government to decide what you can say, what you can hear and to whom you should listen.”
“If that isn’t a working definition of elitism, I have no clue what might be,” Mr. McKenna said.