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Environmentalists have tended to use this line of argument in advancing their agenda. We’re right, you’re wrong, they say. Our beliefs cannot be questioned or challenged. Shut up and do what you’re told. It’s for the planet.

These arguments have proven surprisingly unpersuasive. Many of the better off question how green groups can be exempt from democratic debates. People struggling to recover from the Great Recession find it hard to accept the notion that they must undergo punitive sacrifices simply because green groups want them to suffer.

Even in the sixth year of a Democratic presidency, environmentalism is stuck in the mud and spinning its wheels. As a result, the greens have vented a great deal of rage in the direction of Big Oil and the Koch brothers, accusing them of being master manipulators of public opinion. (They have to be good, after all, since environmentalists spend about ten times as much as their opponents.)

I thought this particular line of argument went as far as it could go. But a particularly fatuous Washington Post op-ed by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D—Rhode Island) pushes the greens in a new and more sordid direction. Could it be, Whitehouse asks, that the funders of free-market groups are criminals who should be sent to jail for racketeering?

Racketeers! You know, mobsters. What could pro-market donors possibly be doing that should send them to prison?

Whitehouse asks us to consider the bad old days of Big Tobacco in the 1990s. There, he says, the tobacco companies managed to “develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science” by setting out to “relentlessly attack your opponents.”

I remember those days. I remember Philip Morris Magazine, which gave fat paychecks to journalists (not me) to unearth stories about smokers being abused. I remember many happy libertarians eagerly taking Philip Morris’s money in the hopes of persuading readers that “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em” would quietly apply to marijuana as well as tobacco.

But the difference between tobacco and climate science is that the link between smoking and cancer is a scientific fact while global warming is a theory where the evidence so far has been weak. For example, the average global temperature has been flat since 1998.

In 1999 the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against the big tobacco companies accusing them of racketeering. In 2006 they won, with District Court judge Gladys Kessler declaring that the major tobacco companies “coordinated significant aspects of their public relations, scientific, legal and marketing activity” in order to “maximize industry profits” by getting people hooked on tobacco.

But it should be noted that even though the tobacco companies were found guilty, no one went to jail for racketeering. In fact, the tobacco companies received no punishment at all for being racketeers. As CNN reported, Judge Kessler, “citing constraints imposed by a February 2005 appeals court ruling that disallowed penalties for past conduct,” said she could impose no additional punishment on the tobacco industry.

So what is Senator Whitehouse’s indictment of the foes of environmentalists? He has two charges.

The first is the 2013 paper by Drexel University sociologist Robert Brulle. As I noted last year, Brulle’s evidence of a titanic conspiracy consisted of counting the entire budget of any organization critical of environmentalism. Since he included the entire budget of the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute, he could substantially inflate the actual amount spent on free-market environmentalists.

His second piece of evidence is an effort by the American Petroleum Institute in 1998 (yes, in the previous millennium) to fight global climate treaties. The memo said, among other things, the oil industry should found, at a two-year cost of $5 million, a “Global Climate Science Data Center” that would be headed by “a dynamic senior executive” (no bores need apply!) and would “be funded at a level that will permit it to succeed.” (Well, let’s hope so!) This center was never created, and there’s no evidence that any of the other planks of this gassy and oily memo were ever implemented.

The memo was leaked to the New York Times. And who leaked it? Well, says Times reporter John H. Cushman Jr.,

documents describing the proposal to undermine the mainstream view (of environmentalism) were given to the New York Times by the National Environmental Trust, whose work in support of the global warming treaty is financed by philanthropic organizations, including the Pew Charitable Trusts, the biggest of the nation’s pro-environment grant makers.

Well, of course it would be Pew, notorious among environmentalists for the extremely tight leash it places on its environmental programs—far tighter than any pro-market funder.

“I don’t whether the fossil fuel industry and its allies engaged in the same kind of racketeering activity as the tobacco industry,” Whitehouse concludes. Well, since you have no evidence, why not go all the way? If you insinuate that the funding “kingpins” should go to jail, why not just send everyone to prison?

If the funders of pro-market types are criminals, what crimes are they committing? Are they urging their grantees to unleash the pipes at waste treatment plants, shouting, “Sock it to me, sock it to me, here comes the sludge?” Are they re-enacting the baroque destructive activities used by environmentalists in Michael Crichton’s novel State of Fear?

No. What pro-market supporters support is the funding of articles, books, speeches, and interviews. In short, the money goes for speech. What Senator Whitehouse and his allies would love to do is criminalize speech. I’ll give the senator some help. The crime you’d like to bring back is sedition. It’s a good old crime. Woodrow Wilson loved it, and I’m sure that Wilson is one of Whitehouse’s heroes.

So what you should do, senator, is get on the floor holding a clutch of paper and announcing that you have the names of 206 or 105 or 42 known climate deniers. If you can’t quite remember how many climate deniers there are, senator, use 57. It worked in The Manchurian Candidate.

You can tell your fellow senators that you have unearthed these evil climate deniers and their petroleum paymasters conducting a massive conspiracy, “a conspiracy of infamy so black that, when it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.”

Of course, senator, the moment you say that you will have morphed into Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Is that what you want?

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