On March 29 Vermont's outgoing attorney general William Sorrell and two of his lawyers travelled to Manhattan to serve as useful props in a news conference orchestrated by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and global climate warrior Al Gore.
There Schneiderman announced a coordinated campaign by 20 AGs to find some legally believable way to prosecute the world's biggest oil company, ExxonMobil. Two quite different, but both credible, headlines resulted. The news arm of the liberal Center for American Progress blared "State AGs Vow to Tackle Climate Change and Fossil Fuel Industry Fraud." The conservative Washington Times offered "Democratic Attorneys General to Police Climate Change Dissent."
The spur to this publicity extravaganza was the findings of an investigation into ExxonMobil's policies over 30 years by a team of researchers at Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The researchers were funded in part, it turned out, by two Rockefeller foundations, vigorous supporters of climate change politics.
According to NPR (Dec, 15, 2015), the investigators "found that ExxonMobil had been planning for the consequences of a warming climate on oil exploration in the Arctic, even as it cast public doubt on the reliability of climate change science and lobbied against some proposals designed to address those concerns."
What exactly is the crime here? Schneiderman stated "If there are companies ... committing fraud in an effort to maximize their short term profits at the expense of the people we represent, we want to find out about it expose it, and pursue them to the fullest extent of the law."
From reading the two Columbia reports, featured in the Los Angeles Times last Oct. 9 and 15, the case against ExxonMobil comes down to this: Soon after 1977, which was the last of 37 years of global cooling, global temperatures started back up. ExxonMobil naturally wondered how warming in the Arctic, believed to be caused by carbon dioxide emissions, would affect the company's plans to extract oil and gas from the Beaufort Sea.
So the company told its scientists to investigate. They found that yes, there might be something to it, but the primitive climate models of that day weren't good enough to make firm predictions.
But after 1988, when Senator and then Vice President Al Gore made himself the global voice of onrushing climate disaster, political pressure grew for drastic governmental action to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel combustion.
ExxonMobil argued against drastic action based on unreliable models, and according to the left wing press, "funded the deniers of climate change." One left wing group claims the company did so to the tune of $16 million, another claims $30 million. Meanwhile, the Clinton-Gore administration spent untold billions of tax dollars not to define the natural drivers of the planet's climate, but to produce reports designed to make people believe that governments save the planet from certain Heat Death.
Since the El Nino temperature spike of 1998, carbon dioxide emissions have steadily increased, but global temperatures have remained essentially flat. Hmmm, there must be something wrong with Gore's theory. (With the 2015 reappearance of El Nino, northern hemisphere temperature increases have resumed.)
With their vaunted 1990s climate projections now looking ridiculous, the climate change advocates have headed off into this demonization of ExxonMobil, without a shred of evidence that the company committed "fraud," namely, "a deceitful practice or willful device, resorted to with intent to deprive another of his right, or in some manner to do him injury."
But what is the practice? The device? The right? The injury? It's easy for politically ambitious AGs to shout "fraud," but it's a lot harder to make a credible legal case for it.
Even fair minded people who believe in the approaching terrors of climate change ought to view the Schneiderman-Gore-Sorrell assault on Exxon Mobil for declining to endorse Gore's views of "climate change" as a contemptible political stunt.
Defending against political lawsuits in twenty states would be very costly for ExxonMobil, even if no case ever went to court. Gore drew the parallel with the tobacco litigation of 1998, where ringleader AG William Sorrell coordinated a 46-state campaign that successfully extorted $206 billion from the tobacco industry, after the AGs disgracefully persuaded their legislatures to strip that industry of its legal defenses.
Watch for the threat of similar suits against the fossil fuel industry "for fraudulently opposing Al Gore's version of science," followed by a multibillion dollar AG-led settlement negotiation. Sorrell surely wants to make Vermont a plaintiff before leaving office at the end of this year.
The obvious solution to Sorrell's expansive concept of the AG's office is for the voters to elect AGs who competently perform the state's legal duties, and refuse to sign on to political lawsuits contrived to advance partisan causes. Above all, the legislature should make the AG a governor's appointee with consent of the Senate, instead of an ambitious, independently-elected crusader eager to make the office into his or her own public interest law firm.
John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute (www.ethanallen.org).