Why Conspiracy Theorist Sen Sheldon Whitehouse’s War On Climate ‘Deniers’ Is Doomed To Fail

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 08: Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) speaks at a press conference where members of Congress discussed a joint resolution proposing an amendment to the Constitution of the United States relating to contributions and expenditures intended to affect elections outside the U.S. Capitol September 8, 2014 in Washington, …
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sheldon Whitehouse, the preposterous Democrat senator for Rhode Island, has been preaching to his choir at HuffPo that the only way to deal with those pesky climate change deniers is to pursue them through the courts using RICO laws.

Good luck with that one, Senator.

Let me explain in one word why it’s not going to work.


By which, I mean, of course, that there is no evidence whatsoever of the kind of conspiracy which Senator Whitehouse alleges in a paragraph of paranoid ranting so deranged it makes me fear for the sanity of those citizens of Rhode Island who chose this litigious eco-loon as their elected representative not once but on two occasions.

I’m sure the Wall Street Journal and their cohorts in the right-wing echo chamber are having fun twisting this whole concept around in service to their fossil-fuel friends, but let’s take a step back. The genesis of this idea for DOJ to investigate fossil fuel companies lies in the comparison between the actions of the fossil fuel industry and the actions of other industries known to have intentionally misled the public about the nature of their products, including the tobacco and lead paint industries. Entire books have been written about the subject, including “Merchants of Doubt,” “Doubt is Their Product,” “Deceit and Denial,” and “Lead Wars.” In the case of the tobacco industry in particular, a federal judge found in 2006 that its efforts amounted to a racketeering enterprise after DOJ filed a civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) lawsuit.

Sure you expect this kind of clicheed (“right-wing echo chamber”), knee-jerk anti-Murdoch, conspiracy-theory (“fossil-fuel friends”) drivel from a hard-left, attack-dog blogger at, say, the Center for American Progress.

But from a US Senator? Seriously?

I mean, perhaps, being English I’ve got the wrong of the stick and have grotesquely overestimated the gravity with which Americans view the office of Senator. But isn’t it supposed to be some kind of big deal? Don’t Senators have advisory teams paid to prevent them saying egregiously dumb things? Is there no longer some vague expectation in the US that when senior politicians start agitating for institutions and businesses to face criminal proceedings, and for scientists and businessmen to face possible jail terms, they ought at least to have some semblance of a justification for their peevish demands?

Well, apparently not. Senator Whitehouse’s claim – first outlined in May in the Washington Post – that there is a fossil-fuel-industry-funded conspiracy “to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution” is a joke. It has about as much basis in reality as the alien bodies the US government keeps hidden in Area 51, or the calls that Mossad put in to all the Jewish workers in the Twin Towers telling them not to turn up to work on 9/11, or the studio where they faked the moon landings or the safe where Obama keeps his foreign policy or…you get the idea. There are lots of places on the interweb where you can read this kind of preposterousness. But you really don’t expect them in press releases from or newspaper articles by any US senator, let alone one who, like Sheldon Whitehouse, is a lawyer and former US attorney.

In support of his case, Whitehouse offers up a supposedly sinister 2008 internal memo from the American Petroleum Institute and a quote – taken from a report by Drexel University professor Robert Brulle – to the effect that there has been “a deliberate and organized effort to misdirect the public discussion and distort the public’s understanding of climate.”

And that’s pretty much it.

Well, I’ve read the memo and if this represents any kind of conspiracy then I am Chief Komodo Dragon of the Lizard Headed Master Race. It’s just the API doing what you would hope an institute representing the US petroleum industry would do, namely, pointing out that there are flaws in the Establishment science on global warming and wondering how to get the message across to the public.

As for Robert Brulle – he is but one among many left-leaning, green-tinged and most exceedingly parti-pris academics to have tried promulgating this conspiracy yarn. And if nothing else, you have to admire their determination, their imaginative powers and their chutzpah because here’s perhaps the most extraordinary element in this whole sorry story: their entire theory rests, pretty much, on just one line from one memo produced as a suggestion for a never-used PR campaign by the US coal industry in the early 90s. Seriously, just one line from one memo.

You can read the full story at the Gelbspan Files – the creation of Russell Cook, the self-described “nobody” from Phoenix, Arizona who took it upon himself to investigate the fossil-fuel-industry “conspiracy” claim and has written numerous articles on the subject, the most recent of which is this one.

It all rests on the phrase “reposition global warming as theory rather than fact”, which has been endlessly regurgitated by, among others, Al Gore, Naomi Oreskes, George Monbiot, the Union of Concerned Scientists, James Hoggan and Eric Pooley. They have used it to inform films like An Inconvenient Truth and Merchants of Doubt, scaremongering books like Boiling Point and lots of outraged newspaper articles.

But that’s it. That really is it. That’s where these people’s evidence for a fossil-fuel-funded conspiracy begins and ends.

Which is why there is at least one point on which I wholly agree with Sheldon Whitehouse that it is time this “conspiracy” was brought to the attention of a grand jury in a RICO trial. “It’s time to let the facts speak for themselves,” he says. Indeed it is. And when the case is thrown out for lack of evidence and the people who brought it become a laughing stock, let us all make sure that the name of the man who first dreamed up the kooky idea is never forgotten. Sheldon Whitehouse. May he one day live in infamy!


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.