Climate Change

Published on September 23rd, 2015 | by Jeremy Bloom


Scientists Urge RICO Investigation Of Corporate Climate Deniers

September 23rd, 2015 by  

Originally published on Red, Green, and Blue.

Climate-change denial has been compared to Big Tobacco’s 50-year-campaign to deny the dangers of cigarettes.

  • Climate change build a better worldBoth attempted to muddy the waters of the public discussion by claiming there is still “scientific debate” on an issue where the science is known and settled.
  • Both took funding from big industries (Big Tobacco, Big Oil) with a huge financial interest in muddying those waters.
  • Both paid scientists to gin up research favorable to their point of view.
  • Some of the same PR players have been involved in both campaigns and have used the same tactics.

Now, there may be one more parallel. It’s not widely known, but what ended the Big Tobacco campaign was actual prosecution under the RICO racketeering statute. As Senator Sheldon Whitehouse wrote earlier this year,

The Big Tobacco playbook looked something like this: (1) pay scientists to produce studies defending your product; (2) develop an intricate web of PR experts and front groups to spread doubt about the real science; (3) relentlessly attack your opponents.

Thankfully, the government had a playbook, too: the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. In 1999, the Justice Department filed a civil RICO lawsuit against the major tobacco companies and their associated industry groups, alleging that the companies “engaged in and executed — and continue to engage in and execute — a massive 50-year scheme to defraud the public, including consumers of cigarettes, in violation of RICO.”

Now, a group of scientists are picking up on Whitehouse’s idea and are urging the Justice Department to break out the big guns again, against climate denial:

A RICO investigation (1999 to 2006) played an important role in stopping the tobacco industry from continuing to deceive the American people about the dangers of smoking. 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.

Here’s the complete text of the letter:

September 1, 2015

As you know, an overwhelming majority of climate scientists are convinced about the potentially serious adverse effects of human-induced climate change on human health, agriculture, and biodiversity. We applaud your efforts to regulate emissions and the other steps you are taking. Nonetheless, as climate scientists we are exceedingly concerned that America’s response to climate change – indeed, the world’s response to climate change – is insufficient. The risks posed by climate change, including increasing extreme weather events, rising sea levels, and increasing ocean acidity – and potential strategies for addressing them – are detailed in the Third National Climate Assessment (2014), Climate Change Impacts in the United States. The stability of the Earth’s climate over the past ten thousand years contributed to the growth of agriculture and therefore, a thriving human civilization. We are now at high risk of seriously destabilizing the Earth’s climate and irreparably harming people around the world, especially the world’s poorest people.

We appreciate that you are making aggressive and imaginative use of the limited tools available to you in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. One additional tool – recently proposed by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse – is a RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) investigation of corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change. The actions of these organizations have been extensively documented in peer- reviewed academic research (Brulle, 2013) and in recent books including: Doubt is their Product (Michaels, 2008), Climate Cover-Up (Hoggan & Littlemore, 2009), Merchants of Doubt (Oreskes & Conway, 2010), The Climate War (Pooley, 2010), and in The Climate Deception Dossiers (Union of Concerned Scientists, 2015). We strongly endorse Senator Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation.

The methods of these organizations are quite similar to those used earlier by the tobacco industry. A RICO investigation (1999 to 2006) played an important role in stopping the tobacco industry from continuing to deceive the American people about the dangers of smoking. 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.


Jagadish Shukla, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Maibach, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Dirmeyer, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Barry Klinger, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Paul Schopf, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
David Straus, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA
Edward Sarachik, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Michael Wallace, University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Alan Robock, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ
Eugenia Kalnay, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
William Lau, University of Maryland, College Park, MD
Kevin Trenberth, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, CO
T.N. Krishnamurti, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Vasu Misra, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL
Ben Kirtman, University of Miami, Miami, FL
Robert Dickinson, University of Texas, Austin, TX
Michela Biasutti, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Mark Cane, Columbia University, New York, NY
Lisa Goddard, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York, NY
Alan Betts, Atmospheric Research, Pittsford, VT

Reprinted with permission.

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About the Author

Jeremy Bloom is the Editor of RedGreenAndBlue.

  • Hall Dennis

    There is no such thing as settled science especially man-made global warming or climate-change science. Anyone of these 20 so called scientist who claim this is a settled science are not real scientist. Einstein’s theories are still being tested today. Any of the so called 20 scientist suing oil and tobacco companies are afraid of losing each of their million dollar gravy “global warming” train.

  • Epicurus

    The fraud that the tobacco companies perpetrated resulted in millions of deaths. The fraud that Exxon perpetrated threatens the very habitability of the planet.

    These are crimes against humanity if ever there was one. There should be criminal penalties, severe criminal penalties.

  • David Twitchell

    Can we prosecute everyone who claims vaccines are bad, too? Ooh, and let’s prosecute anyone who suggests “gluten sensitivity” exists, as well. This is fun. What else can we make a felony? RICO is possibly the most distorted and dangerous law ever passed. Innocent people are put in jail every day in this country. Please stop encouraging prosecutors to abuse their authority even more than they already have (which is a lot).

    • Epicurus

      “Innocent people are put in jail every day”

      Under RICO? A link please.

    • Epicurus

      So you equate groundless speculation, as anti-vax is, with anthropogenic climate change which is supported by a mountain of data. To you, both are just a matter of opinion.

  • Frank

    This RICO is a good idea. It will put a light on the corruption of both sides. Sadly though most people will not comprehend that this is just a political power struggle and nothing to do with the environment. There is a shooting war coming and it is going to be bloody.

  • Richard Poore

    Using RICO against climate deniers is a really bad idea. If one stretches RICO enough, it can cover far too many activities. Since RICO is partially a political tool, it would not be difficult to see RICO applied to either side of the climate debate, depending upon who is in power in Washington, and which facet of the debate is being examined.

    There is enough money in the renewable energy field that there is a level of animosity towards both solar and wind in some areas. There has been some discussion on fringe areas that both forms of power are detrimental to the wildlife and that the death toll among birds in particular is being drastically under reported. Some among the environmental movement see a conspiracy…

    RICO can bite anyone, we do NOT need to see renewable energy tied up with any of this garbage.

    • Richard Foster

      The bird myth has been exposed already. Only with poorly sited turbines is this an issue. Do a full and proper impact assessment and it’s not an issue.

      Bird deaths from asphyxiation from co2 released from FF plants is an order of magnitude higher.

      Any investigation will only expose the hipocracy of the arguments poisited by the FF lobby

      • Richard Poore

        Yes bird kills are being grossly overstated, the wind turbine aspect was especially over blown.

        The solar bird kills are also being overblown as well, but contain an element of truth. Solar furnaces do kill a few birds, and unfortunately if the numbers ever under any circumstances spike up at any location…there will be those who cry cover up and conspiracy. Some segments of the environmental movement consider a couple dead birds a major event. The graphic of birds igniting in mid air can look ugly.

        There WILL be times and occasions where things do not work out correctly.

        If RICO is used as a political weapon for one side of the arguement, it will most certainly be used by the other as well.

        And using RICO to control political discussion, no matter what flavor of tripe is involved, weakens our basic principles.

    • ooskaloosa

      Looks like we found some of the PR players right here. Who’s funding you, Dick?

    • Epicurus

      “Since RICO is partially a political tool”

      Any criminal law can be a political tool in the hands of unscrupulous prosecutors.

      We are talking about punishing people for committing fraud. What’s political about fraud?

  • Dag Johansen

    People should file such cases. Will they get anywhere? Who knows? But there is a colorable argument and at the minimum, it will get publicity out there about the duplicitous behavior of fossil fuel companies. For example, those recent articles about how Exxon knew about climate change in 70’s is quite damning. They knew the long-term dangers of their product but didn’t publicize it . . . and instead started funding climate denier organizations like Heartland Institute and their band of propagandists and retired quacks.

  • JamesWimberley

    RICO is a fun statute for prosecutors. For instance, “the rules of procedure in a RICO prosecution allow the government to freeze the defendant’s assets before the case even goes to trial” (link). CEOs will prefer a RICO prosecution to being lynched by an angry mob, but not by much.

    • eveee

      Can we do both? Please, please. please.

  • vensonata

    It can’t happen soon enough. These corporations don’t listen to anything except a threat to their money. Why does VW come to mind just now?
    By the way I suggest that instead of an 18 billion dollar fine for VW, that they be obliged to produce and equivalent number of EVs in order to compensate for the damage.

    • JamesWimberley

      On another blog, a commenter came up with an improvement on this: VW be required to issue $10,000 vouchers to its cheated customers, redeemable for purchase of an ev from any manufacturer.

      • eveee

        VW will just offer their bad EV designs and jack up the price to make the difference, thus making a profit on the deal.

      • GCO

        Not everyone currently driving a VW diesel might want an EV, so such a scheme shouldn’t be the only compensation option.

        Such cleaner-vehicles incentive may happen indirectly though: if CARB gets some money from whatever settlement will surely be negotiated, this could (and I’d say, should) go into extending programs like the CVRP (clean vehicle rebate project; link) which currently sends 2500$ checks for EV purchases but routinely runs out of funds.

        • JamesWimberley

          Make the vouchers transferable and cumulable, so if you didn’t want to cash yours you could sell it to somebody else for a small discount.

      • Dragon

        That’s a better idea. I don’t want to give VW my money in the form of an EV purchase. That’s like rewarding them for all their diesel pollution.

      • ToddFlach

        VW is rolling out plug-in hybrid drivetrains as well. I would include this as an option to the 10KUSD voucher for trading in the diesel for an EV.

      • Ooo, love that.

      • Epicurus

        Is that enough to compensate for the harm caused by VW’s fraud?

    • Dag Johansen

      Yeah, even without any such punishment, this dieselgate will be a boost to EVs in a variety of ways:
      1) A slice of environmentalist types were buying diesels feeling that they are more environmental because of higher MPG. That was an illusion. Worse, a deception. Diesel pollute more than gas cars despite the MPG improvement. The thought of buying a diesel being environmental should be dead now. That slice of environmentalists should now be looking at EVs.

      2) The automakers need to improve their fleet efficiency to meet USA and EU regulations. And they now realize that they won’t be able to do that with diesels as some *cough*VW*cough* had planned. They’ll have to push harder into EVs to meet the various regulations.

      Europe needs to change their tax laws . . . they’ve distorted their fuel market by charging lower taxes on diesel fuel. If anything, they should charge HIGHER taxes on diesel because it generally pollutes more. But I guess it is lobbying from truckers and farmers that keep diesel prices down . . . and thus created this distorted market which fostered more diesel car adoption.

      • Ross

        Apparently it is petrolgate now as well.

      • JamesWimberley

        The inevitable house-cleaning inside VW will put the ev guys in the driving seat, assuming the company survives. It’s the only way they can recover their reputation.

        • Bob_Wallace

          That would be a great outcome.

          Hopefully they won’t get a visionless CEO who goes into a ‘cut all expenses’ frenzy and devalues EV development.

    • eveee

      Looks like the government is making it clear how corporate crime is handled.
      When the banks do it, we give them money.
      When GM does it, we pardon all guilty parities of criminal charges.
      When Silicon Valley does it, we pass new legislation preventing them from back dating stock options.

      • Epicurus

        It’s obvious who really runs this country, isn’t it?

        Democracy in America is an illusion.

        • Bob_Wallace

          No, we have a democracy. Elections are decided by the votes of those who turn out to vote. (With one exception I can think of.)

          The problem is that people don’t bother to inform themselves and many don’t bother to vote.

          • Epicurus

            Yes, if you call voting in gerrymandered, winner-take-all single member congressional districts, two senators per state regardless of population, and election of the president by the Electoral College democracy.

          • Bob_Wallace

            If enough people are unhappy with those things they can show up at the ballot box and change them.

            That’s how a democracy works.

          • Epicurus

            I don’t think you understand the nature and effect of having gerrymandered single member districts. They are created to diminish the representation of all but the dominant party and to keep the dominant party in power. To change the number of senators per state would require a constitutional amendment which is an almost impossible process.

          • Bob_Wallace

            I fully understand the gerrymandering problem.

            California voters eliminated that problem at the ballot box.

            I fully understand the disproportionate distribution of Senate seats. I have mixed feelings about changing that. If made proportional the Senate simply become House II.

            We’ve amended our Constitution 27 times. Yes, it isn’t easy, but that’s probably a good thing. Democracies can become “lynch mobs” unless some constraints are built into the system.

          • Epicurus

            Absent the state allowing ballot initiatives by citizen petition, I know of no way to “show up at the ballot box” and change any of the above, even gerrymandering. Do you? California is one of only 24 states that allow ballot initiatives.

          • Bob_Wallace

            Vote for candidates in the primary that share you view. If necessary, let the candidates know what issues are very important to you and get others to do the same.

    • NRG4All

      Naomi Klein’s book, “This Changes Everything” and David Ray Griffon’s book, “Unprecedented” both reveal the extent of the chicanery that the fossil fuel industry has gone to and bought many of our politicians. The analogy of the tobacco industry is spot on.

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