Catastrophic Anthropogenic Censorship (Part I)

April 2018

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. – Voltaire

It is not a question of whether actions by proponents of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming (CAGW) adversely affect the free exercise of discourse about climate change; that seems well-established. The question is whether those actions are having more than just a chilling effect on the free expression of sceptical opinion and contributing to a more general cumulative effect that could be catastrophic to free speech. What is meant by “catastrophic” in this context? Is it just hyperbole or are there trends that justify its use?

Indications of answers to those questions come from a variety of sources. Two are found in an article by Kevin Williamson published in National Review: 1) In 2014, Professor Lawrence Torcello of the Rochester Institute of Technology called for the criminalization of “climate denial”; 2) Adam Weinstein, following on the heels of Torcello, published an article with the straightforward headline: “Arrest climate-change deniers.” He advanced Torcello’s argument but, unlike the latter, who was somewhat nuanced in his suggestions, Weinstein was unequivocal: “Those denialists should face jail. They should face fines. They should face lawsuits from the classes of people whose lives and livelihoods are most threatened by denialist tactics.”

In Australia in 2013, Canada’s David Suzuki, emeritus professor and environmental activist, stated that climate sceptics should be jailed. In 2016, in an article published in Rolling Stone Australia, Suzuki stated that the former Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, should have been “thrown in jail for wilful blindness” to global warming. More recently, although stopping short of recommending a jail term, the specific accusation against Harper is repeated on his website.

About the same time Suzuki was making his statements in Australia, Robert Brulle, a Drexel University professor, published a paper purporting to examine the financial status of the Climate Change Counter-Movement (CCCM) and denigrating it for its support of the fossil-fuel industry. Two years later (2015), drawing on Brulle’s paper, the Democratic Senator for Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, drew a parallel between fossil-fuel companies and the tobacco industry, strongly implying a need to use the RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) Act to prosecute members of what he called “the climate denial network.”

More recently, in 2016 in an op-ed piece in the Providence Journal, Michael Kraft, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, clearly advocated the use of the RICO Act to prosecute climate sceptics, again, much as was done against the tobacco industry in a 2006 judgement. Advocating RICO use against the fossil-fuel industry, however, is not enough for Kraft. He wants to extend it to “think tanks and advocacy groups,” which, in the longer term, could find its way to campus organizations and universities that host speakers sceptical of the certainty of “consensus science.”

The probability of using RICO to prosecute climate sceptics seemed to reach a high point in March 2016 when then Attorney General Loretta Lynch admitted to meetings that discussed bringing charges against climate-change “deniers” for civil offenses, and then forwarded the issue to the FBI for follow-up. At about the same time, proposed California Senate Bill (SB) 1161 (“California Climate Science Truth and Accountability Act of 2016”) would have made “misleading and inaccurate information disseminated by organizations and representatives backed by fossil fuel companies” and related “advertising and publicity” subject to prosecution under California’s unfair competition law. By July, the official platform of the Democratic Party recommended the following: “Democrats also respectfully request the Department of Justice to investigate allegations of corporate fraud on the part of fossil fuel companies accused of misleading shareholders and the public on the scientific reality of climate change.”

How do recommendations by (former) academics, governments and others to pursue legal means to censor scientific opinion relate to events on university campuses?

Few students imagine that they will be subject to threats and intimidations of the kind just described; however, over the last few decades they have acclimatized to various forms of censorship. What started as good intentions to protect the feelings of others, to be inclusive and to support diversity has led to many unsavoury outcomes. Questionable forms of control have emerged that serve neither students nor the broader culture to which they will soon belong, such things as speech codes, safe spaces, micro-aggressions and trigger warnings. Violations of those controls have been used on occasion to justify violent acts (the use of pepper spray; destruction of property; shoving; beatings, etc.) against both fellow students and invited speakers.

In such an environment, self-reliance and critical, independent thinking suffer. Students, except for thoroughly acclimatized supporters of politically correct controlling practices, are increasingly reluctant to express their opinions, fear reprisals from faculty and administration and act in ways to avoid open criticism and shaming by fellow students. How can free speech, the fundamental freedom of a democracy, survive and flourish in that context? The answer is that it cannot and current trends are not only indicative of its demise but catastrophic to its survival.

Findings from a recent Gallup–Knights Foundation Survey on campus free speech (reported in March, 2018) provide evidence of the decline. The results from over 3,000 students indicate: an increase in support for limits on speech (29%, up 8% from 2016); the campus climate prevents some students from expressing their views (61%, up 7% from 2016); political conservatives are less able than their liberal counterparts to share their opinions (69% vs. 92%); shouting down speakers (37%) and violence (10%) are sometimes acceptable.

The controlling practices in many universities in North America, however well intentioned, emerged, sheltered under the umbrella of diversity and inclusion. Results from this survey, compared to those of the previous year, suggest their implementation is correlated with a decline in student support for free speech, a situation analogous to the larger society?

Over the last several decades, an inversion has occurred of traditional values of the host population to an amorphous patchwork based on indictments of tradition that have fragmented the culture. In the U.S., instead of a melting pot, there is growing decomposition and disunity. In Canada the patchwork is held together by controls exercised by human rights tribunals, which prosecute citizens for “hate speech.” Despite an easing of those controls through repeal of Section 13 of the Human Rights Act, consideration is now underway to try to revive it.

What became a radical push for diversity and inclusion has fostered a climate of political intimidation and censorship. Students, especially, are ripe for being shaped toward the acceptance of ever more extreme forms of control. Despite attempts to push back against these trends, even a cursory examination over this decades-long struggle reveals a slope that points in only one direction.

Part II will cite examples of legal actions taken to curtail free speech, further evidence of growing censorship on campus, and how each contributes to a future catastrophic to the survival of free speech.