About two dozen environmental lawyers and activists met in La Jolla in 2012 to discuss possible strategies for raising public awareness of global warming and devise ways to mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The advocates had a model to work with: the campaign against the tobacco industry, in which opponents used the internal documents of cigarette companies to reveal that they had covered up the dangers of smoking while continuing to market tobacco as safe.
Four years later, thanks to the efforts that began in La Jolla, at least 17 state attorneys general are in various stages of investigating whether Exxon Mobil lied to investors by publicly denying a link between fossil fuels and global warming even though their own research dating back to the 1970s established the connection. As part of the investigations — and following publication of articles in The Times and on the Inside Climate News website about the company's early research — several states have subpoenaed more internal documents from Exxon Mobil.
But suddenly, there's pushback — and not from the company. Now eight environmental groups — most of them involved in the La Jolla meeting — and attorneys general from two states are facing their own subpoenas from the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology, which, according to its fossil fuel-loving and climate change-denying chair, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), is trying to defend the 1st Amendment rights of Exxon Mobil. Yes, a congressional committee is meddling in investigations by state-level prosecutors on behalf of an industry favored by its chairman — in an effort to protect that industry's "1st Amendment right" to hide information from the public.
That is a ludicrous abuse of Congress' oversight powers. Smith and his committee earlier papered government climate scientists with subpoenas after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a report that questioned the so-called stall in global warming. Climate change deniers had suggested that a slowdown in global surface temperatures proved that warming is natural, not manmade; a NOAA report countered that there had been no such "stall" — just misleading statistics. Smith, his hackles raised, went fishing for evidence that NOAA scientists were colluding to twist the science to push a climate change agenda. NOAA officials and academics rightly condemned Smith's actions as an act of intimidation.
Though Smith overstepped in targeting scientists, at least in that case he could make some claim to jurisdiction, since his committee has oversight for government science programs, including NOAA. But now he is interfering with active state investigations, which are far beyond the committee's purview. The committee says it is targeting the environmental groups as part of its "oversight of this infringement on the 1st Amendment rights of American citizens and their ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution." Apparently, Smith and his fellow Republican committee members are deaf to irony.
The subpoenas are sweeping, seeking from the environmental groups "all documents and communications" with "any officer or employee of the office of a state attorney general," as well as communications among the eight targeted environmental groups. All those who received the subpoenas have refused to comply, setting up — at least in the case of the state prosecutors — a potential constitutional battle of federal jurisdiction versus states' rights, an issue in which the Republicans have historically landed on the side of the states.
The nation has become inured to the partisan bickering, showmanship and intransigence in Washington that have stalled efforts to reach reasonable compromises on wide-ranging and crucial topics such as immigration reform and gun control. But the efforts by Smith and his committee to inject themselves into state investigations of possible violations of state laws are especially egregious. Global warming is underway; climate change is here. Smith should embrace the science and use his committee to forge solutions instead of trying to bludgeon those who are already trying to address it.