By Beaumont Enterprise
Corporations like Exxon Mobil should not be punished in state or federal courts for their positions in the debates over climate change years ago — even if they were wrong by current standards. The growing effort by some environmentalists to do that would criminalize a policy difference and have a chilling effect on the robust exchange of ideas that our country needs.
Attorneys generals in several states have sued or considered joining lawsuits against oil companies, charging that they knew their products were contributing to global warming. Oil companies are being compared to cigarette manufacturers, who famously denied the health risks of smoking for years.
But this issue isn’t the same. As recently as 10 years ago the impact of carbon emissions on the global climate was still being debated. Today, that debate is basically settled, and the rise of global temperatures has been measured for some time. Yet some researchers still suggest that other factors like solar cycles might also be affecting the earth’s climate.
It’s a complex issue — even if carbon emissions lie at the heart of it. Issues like that need more discussion, not less, and certainly not a single “approved” version. Free people benefit from having as much information as possible to formulate their own opinions.
Back in the 1990s or the first decade of this century, when this debate was heating up, it would have been surprising for any oil company to agree that it was the villain for climate change. That period also saw considerable progress in reducing the air and water pollution from oil refineries worldwide, something that had already been done in U.S. facilities. It still seemed plausible that better technology could overcome any negative effects from drilling for oil, refining it or using it.
It’s also worth noting that Exxon Mobil, along with some other energy companies, now supports a national carbon tax as well as the Paris climate treaty that President Trump withdrew from. That shows that their position on environmental issues has changed, which should be the goal of any group making a political argument.
This doesn’t mean that businesses have the same free speech rights as individuals. The courts have correctly held that they don’t, or can’t make false claims about their products. If any business knowingly harmed its customers or anyone else, it should certainly be held accountable.
Yet those arguments don’t apply retroactively to climate change. Instead of rehashing the past, let’s all move forward. Environmentalists or business groups should be able to advocate for their side of an issue, and elected officials can use that process to develop any new laws. The debate should play out in the court of public opinion, not a court of law.