I’m a former employee of the Competitive Enterprise Institute who disagrees with the organization’s take on the subject of climate change. I’m nonetheless outraged that CEI now faces a subpoena for records related to its internal discussions about our changing climate. The attack on CEI launched by U.S. Virgin Islands Attorney General Claude Earl Walker, and supported by former Vice President Al Gore and the group Attorneys General United for Clean Power, is an attack on both free speech and public participation in the policy process.

Walter Olson of the Cato Institute puts it better than I could:

If the forces behind this show-us-your-papers subpoena succeed in punishing (or simply inflicting prolonged legal harassment on) groups conducting supposedly wrongful advocacy, there’s every reason to think they will come after other advocacy groups later. Like yours.

And while I think that climate change is both human-caused to a significant extent and likely to be a problem, I would warn my environmentalist friends about the dangerous precedent the attack on CEI sets. For example, there’s scientific consensus that genetically modified organisms are safe and likely to be a net environmental positive. Nonetheless, environmental organizations like Greenpeace have objected to commercialized genetic engineering and sought a variety of laws to label or otherwise limit the use of GMOs.

If a pro-Monsanto government official decided to go after Greenpeace or our friends at the Environmental Working Group (which R Street works with a lot on agricultural issues) in the same way AG Walker has launched this witch hunt against CEI, we all would be outraged, and fully justified in that outrage.

The basis of the attorneys general’s campaign is that energy companies like ExxonMobil have engaged in conspiracies with think tanks and other policy organizations to spread disinformation about climate change. Think of the “conspiracies” that could be alleged against environmental-advocacy groups who have fought to impose new regulations, stop environmentally harmful projects or raise public awareness about environmental hazards.

Indeed, that’s the major purpose of the environmental movement, which at its best seeks to concentrate the social costs of pollution on those who impose them on society. But there are dozens of corporations and government entities that stand to lose profits or tax revenues as a result of these “conspiracies” and who would jump at an opportunity to attack advocacy groups. In addition to forcing them to expend precious dollars fending off frivolous lawsuits, demanding that environmental groups hand over personal records and emails could discourage many grassroots activists from getting involved in the first place.

And while the sorts of things that Exxon and others said about the changing climate in the 1980s and 1990s no longer match the modern scientific consensus, environmental groups should bear in mind that at least some of the claims and predictions they now make will, in the future, almost certainly also be shown to be wrong. For example, a preponderance of the evidence suggests that hurricanes will become more frequent in a warmer world. But very few scientists who have studied the question are willing to assign anything like certainty to this prediction. If future experience shows that hurricanes haven’t become more frequent, will government officials pull the “show us your papers” attack on environmental groups for such “wrongful advocacy”? It seems plausible.

Scientific data can tell us a lot about the world but it can’t determine what policy ought to be. No matter how much they disagree with CEI’s positions on climate change, environmentalists should be scared — very scared — about campaigns by public officials to intimidate private organizations into silence.