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Law

On Climate Change, Who Will Censure the Censors?

If you dislike Trump's witch hunt at the Department of Energy, defend climate-change deniers as well.

The Department of Energy has balked at a request from the Trump transition team to provide the names of all department employees or contractors who attended UN global climate talks in the last five years.

"We are going to respect the professional and scientific integrity and independence of our employees at our labs and across our department," spokesman Eben Burnham-Snyder told Reuters. "We will be forthcoming with all publicly available information with the transition team. We will not be providing any individual names to the transition team."

I don’t know how long they can keep the names from Trump’s team legally. I do know that they should not comply with this request unless some law requires it. This request reeks of witch-hunting people because they might have views on climate change that our president-elect, or someone on his staff, dislike. That is no way to run an organization, or a nation.

That said, watching the reaction to this from the left, I couldn’t help thinking of a famous public service advertisement from my youth, in which a father waves drug paraphernalia at his son and demands “Who taught you how to do this stuff?”

“You, all right?” screams the son. “I learned it by watching you!”

Eight months ago, state attorneys general were issuing subpoenas to the Competitive Enterprise Institute aimed at forcing the organization to cough up all communications about climate change, based on novel and changeable legal theories that boiled down to “We don’t like what you said about climate change.” How many of the people who were horrified by Trump’s actions were equally horrified by this chilling move by government authorities to abrogate the free speech rights of private actors? How many were worried about what the precedents thus set might do to the spirit of free and open inquiry?

Ah, I will be told, but ExxonMobil was the ultimate target of those subpoenas, and ExxonMobil is a corporation. And climate change is an existential threat that could destroy life as we know it in the 21st century. Are those attorneys general just supposed to let a corporation run around denying this catastrophic risk in order to line their own pockets?

Well, yes they are. Because it’s too dangerous not to.

The differences between those subpoenas and the Trump transition's witch hunt only blur their ultimate sameness. Each case will yield some unique fact that the proponents of government censorship can use to distinguish it from the attacks on our own side. That’s why we establish a very broad and neutral principle that you don’t go after anyone for what they believe, whether those ideas are right or wrong, whether they are held by a government employee or a corporation, and whether those who hold them are in power or out of it.

But when it comes to climate change, as with many other highly charged debates in our country, people are increasingly fond of issuing themselves special licenses to abandon those norms. Sure, in general they are in favor of free speech and open inquiry. But this issue, they say, is too important to allow the people who disagree with them to propagate their appalling misinformation.

This is, of course, exactly backward. Ideas that are unimportant, or that no one disagrees with, do not require protection from government interference.

I may believe that somewhere out there, circling a distant star, there is a planet entirely composed of marshmallow, and no one is going to try to shut me up about it unless I refuse to yield the floor at a dinner party. I may advocate long and hard against legal matricide, but since virtually the entire country agrees with me, I am in no danger that the government censors will come knocking. It is the unpopular, the unpleasant, and the dangerously controversial ideas that come under fire from government officials, and those are the ideas around which we must build stout fortifications. It is those fortifications that will protect our own ideas when the other side brings out its howitzers.

By all means, stand with the Department of Energy as it protects civil servants whose work displeases the incoming administration. And when the time once again comes when government tries to silence deniers of climate change, stand with those deniers as well. It's a matter of principle, not just politics.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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