Blissfully unaware of how hot the irony burned, Robert Kennedy Jr. yesterday took to a public protest to rail avidly in favor of censorship. The United States government, Kennedy lamented in an interview with Climate Depot, is not permitted by law to “punish” or to imprison those who disagree with him — and this, he proposed, is a problem of existential proportions. Were he to have his way, Kennedy admitted, he would cheer the prosecution of a host of “treasonous” figures — among them a number of unspecified “politicians”; those bêtes noires of the global Left, Kansas’s own Koch Brothers; “the oil industry and the Republican echo chamber”; and, for good measure, anybody else whose estimation of the threat posed by fossil fuels has provoked them into “selling out the public trust.” Those who contend that global warming “does not exist,” Kennedy claimed, are guilty of “a criminal offense — and they ought to be serving time for it.”
Thus did a scion of one of America’s great political dynasties put himself on the same lowly moral, legal, and intellectual plane as the titillation website Gawker.
Kennedy’s insidious aspirations are the inevitable consequence of his conviction that he is in possession of the truth and that all who have the temerity to question him are, in consequence, wreckers. At the best of times, and on the least shaky of epistemological ground, this is a dangerous instinct. In this area in particular, it is downright frightening. Of late, it has become drearily standard to hear the Kennedys of the world pretend that if one acknowledges basic climate mechanics, one is forced to take notoriously unreliable computer models at face value and, further, to acquiesce in whatever political “solutions” are currently en vogue. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whatever “consensus” can be said to exist in the realm of climatology is largely limited to the presumption that industrial activity is bound by the same chemical, biological, and physical rules as is any other human pursuit, and to the acknowledgement that if one changes the makeup of the atmosphere, the atmosphere will change. Quite how it will change, to what extent, and to what degree any such transmutation represents a problem for life on earth, however, remain open questions. At present, there remain serious disagreements as to what has caused the current “pause” in global warming; as to what accounts for the embarrassing failure of so many of the forecasts on which we are expected to rely; as to how much of an effect modulations in the climate are having on extreme weather events; and as to how much we can possibly know about the future anyhow.
Wide open, too, are the political questions of what exactly can and should be done about any genuine changes in climate — and at what cost; of whether some climatological alterations are in fact a reasonable price to pay for the astonishing improvements in life expectancy and material wellbeing that the industrial revolution has yielded; of whether man is better off attempting to leverage his ingenuity and to outrun Gaia as he has outrun Malthus; and of at what cost to our liberty and our safety any amendments to our way of life might come. When the likes of Robert Kennedy reveal themselves to be the nasty little tyrants that we have always suspected them to be, this lattermost question comes screaming back into focus. If this affair has revealed any “treason” at all, the guilty party is not the skeptical population of the United States, but Robert Kennedy and his enablers. To fantasize about jailing one’s opponents is, I’m afraid, a sure sign of mental imbalance, and a gold-leafed invitation to be quietly excluded from polite society. Goodbye, Robert.
It is alarming, perhaps, that the loudest condemnations of Kennedy and his ilk will come not from the scientific community, but from a small clique of classical liberals who remain uncommonly jealous of their rights and who are prepared to fight for them come what may. Where, though, is the outcry from the academy? A state that is sufficiently intrusive to jail anybody who dissents from the “consensus” of the “scientific community” is also sufficiently intrusive to jail those within it. By what mathematical standard might we determine who is to be saved? Worse, perhaps, the suggestion that the nation’s courts exist to arbitrate intellectual disputes serves to plant in the minds of the general public the false and counterproductive notion that it is government force and not the interplay of unfettered reason and objective reality that determines “truth.” Airplanes do not fly because the FAA grants them approval to do so, but because our engineers and physicists have correctly determined what they need to do in order that steel might conquer air. Insofar as it has one at all in this area, the role of the state is to facilitate debate and innovation and, at least as far as the exchange of ideas is concerned, then stay out of the way. That the actions of the government and the judgments of a particular subsection of society sometimes line up is an inevitable and, sometimes, a good thing. Nevertheless, taking advice from a group and punishing that group’s critics are different things altogether, for hypotheses cannot be either proven or disproven by jackboots alone.
In its purest form, the case against Robert Kennedy’s being permitted to subject the Koch brothers to “three hots and a cot at the Hague with all the other war criminals” is a relatively straightforward one: Namely, that the Kochs are not war criminals, and that nor, for that matter, are the politicians, pundits, entertainers, businessmen, and voters who have joined them in skepticism. And yet the importance of keeping Kennedy’s view at the fringes goes much, much deeper, relating as it does to core questions about liberty, scientific inquiry, and the manner in which the two feed and support one another. There are fair arguments to be had about surface temperatures, chlorofluorocarbons, and the troposphere, but not a single one of them can be productively indulged if the price of the game is the destruction of its less popular players.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.