President Biden has deputized White House climate-change advisor Gina McCarthy to snuff out reckless talk on global warming. McCarthy, speaking at a virtual event hosted June 9 by Axios, said it is time for social media companies to crack down on climate “disinformation” online.
But however wrong, damaging, and mendacious climate-change alarmists like New York magazine columnist David Wallace-Wells and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may be, they deserve, like anyone else, the freedom to say their piece. Though such figures have certainly misled Americans with their doomsday predictions, their right to expression ought not to be infringed. McCarthy has stepped beyond her mandate by overzealously seeking to keep climate debate within approved guardrails.
I jest, of course. It is not the exaggerations from Ocasio-Cortez or Wallace-Wells that find themselves in the crosshairs of the White House. Biden’s climate attack dog is hounding good-faith challenges to the administration’s policy recommendations and skeptical arguments about the viability of a renewables-only energy policy.
At the Axios event—dubbed “A Conversation on Battling Misinformation”—McCarthy called on tech companies to “really jump in” against allegedly inaccurate claims about the costs and benefits of different approaches to managing climate change. “Now it has moved from denial,” McCarthy said, “but the dark money is still there. The fossil fuel companies are still basically trying their best to make sure that people don’t understand the challenge of climate.” McCarthy then suggested that not only scientific dissent but also debate over what technologies are cost-effective is beyond the bounds of civil discourse. “What the industry is now doing is seeding doubt about the costs associated with [renewables] and whether they work or not,” she said. “We have to get tighter. We have to get better at communicating. And frankly, the tech companies have to stop allowing specific individuals over and over again to spread disinformation.”
This is not the first time Democrats have used their cudgel to pressure social media companies to stifle dissent on climate. In 2020, Senators Elizabeth Warren, Brian Schatz, Tom Carper, and Sheldon Whitehouse penned an open letter to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg calling on the company to toe the Democratic Party line. “If Facebook is truly ‘committed to fighting the spread of false news on Facebook and Instagram,’” the senators wrote, “the company must immediately acknowledge in its fact-checking process that the climate crisis is not a matter of opinion and act to close loopholes that allow climate disinformation to spread on its platform.”
Less than a year later, Zuckerberg’s company seemingly tightened its review process to adhere to the Democrats’ wishes. In May 2021, Facebook applied the dodgy new standard against Manhattan Institute senior fellow Mark Mills’s review of a book by Steven Koonin, former undersecretary in the Department of Energy under President Barack Obama. As Koonin described the incident in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Facebook labeled postings of the Mills review as having “very low scientific credibility” and linked to a critique on the website ClimateFeedback.org, thus discouraging users from engaging with Mills and Koonin’s work—exactly as the Senate Democrats demanded. In these cases, it is easy to blame the companies that acquiesce—perhaps one large rival to Meta in the midst of an ownership change will buck this trend—but the politicians and bureaucrats doing the jawboning deserve ire, too.
The turn this brand of McCarthyism takes is even more concerning. Whereas Warren and her colleagues demanded that the social media companies apply scrutiny to statements of fact, McCarthy is demanding that they tamp down on opinions regarding how we should deal with those facts. To suppress commentary on how we ought to respond to climate change is to obliterate the very purpose of the public square.
And if “seeding doubt about the costs associated with” a transition away from fossil fuels is worthy of suppression, a great many energy and climate commentators may soon find themselves on McCarthy’s target list.
Does climate McCarthyism apply to the International Energy Agency, whose 2021 report warned that the minerals needed for an energy transition are highly concentrated in a small number of countries, “making the system vulnerable to political instability, geopolitical risks and possible export restrictions”? Does it apply to Vaclav Smil, who told the New York Times in April that calls for eliminating fossil fuels lack “any reflection on the scale and the complexity of the problem”? Does it apply to the online-payment company Stripe, which is advancing atmospheric carbon dioxide removal through market means?
Does it apply to my own work, which has questioned the wisdom of taxing emissions at a rate based on computer models that run centuries into the future?
Soft censorship of scientific debate is bad enough. The step Gina McCarthy is taking now would suppress policy debate even where the science is agreed upon. What McCarthy fails to understand is that while science should inform policy, it cannot resolve normative matters on its own. If climate change is indeed the existential threat McCarthy believes it to be, stifling creative thought on the matter is the worst approach a government could take.
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