Jordan McGillis documents for the Washington Examiner a legal controversy surrounding climate change.

Keith Ellison and Karl Racine, attorneys general of Minnesota and the District of Columbia, respectively, filed fraud charges this June against fossil fuel companies and alleged co-conspirators for participating in public discourse on climate change.

Ellison’s accusation is that Exxon Mobil Corp., Koch Industries, and the American Petroleum Institute have perpetrated “a conspiracy to deceive the public about climate change.” Racine’s accusation is that Exxon Mobil, BP, Shell, and Chevron have “systematically and intentionally misled consumers” about fossil fuel products’ climate impact. …

… What is new is the legal theory behind this action. Other climate litigation cases have appealed to the common law tradition of nuisance, albeit with an aggressive conception of damage. Cases such as the lawsuits brought by California cities and counties against Chevron and other companies that produce fossil fuels revolve around the argument that using the industry’s products has caused tangible harm (or the risk thereof) and that the industry should be held liable.

But the nuisance cases have been unsuccessful, so Minnesota and D.C. took a different tack. It is not emissions and their effects that are top of mind for the attorneys general, it is the defendants’ engagement with and investment in scientific inquiry and political dialogue. The goal is to punish the defendants for having discussions that the attorneys general do not like. The goal is to stifle open inquiry into climate science and to channel our interpretation of it. These lawsuits threaten the defendants’ First Amendment right to participate in public debate.

In leveling the accusation of fraud upon the defendants, Ellison deploys a tried and true authoritarian tactic: using ambiguous statutes to portray perceived political enemies as deceitful saboteurs. …

… Ellison and Racine’s attacks on the defendants veer far from the civil pursuit of damages and toward the demonization of heresy.