SLAPPing them down

The acronym SLAPP is short for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. It refers to a lawsuit initiated by a company or a person with substantial financial resources suing an individual or an organisation for a large amount of money for doing or saying something they disagree with and don’t like. The entity filing the law suit doesn’t have to win the case or even necessarily to go to court. The cost of mounting a defense to any kind lawsuit can be huge—even before you get to court. For the target of the SLAPP–often an individual lacking substantial financial resources, a community group, or an environmental NGO, the potential cost of fighting back against the legal action is prohibitive. In many instances, the only realistic option is to back down, retract what you said, and keep quiet. Which of course is the objective of the SLAPP.   

The Cosmos case

The most famous of these legal cases concerns a paper published in Cosmos: A Journal of Emerging Issues in the summer of 1992. Entitled ”What to do about Greenhouse warming: Look before you leap”, it was authored by three people: S. Fred Singer, Roger Revelle, and Chauncey Starr.  Singer was the lead author.  The article argued that scientists didn’t know enough about global warming to justify any action at that time.  It concluded by stating:

Drastic, precipitous and, especially unilateral—steps to delay the putative greenhouse impacts can cost jobs and prosperity and increase the human costs of global poverty, without being effective. Stringent controls enacted now would be economically devastating particularly for developing countries for whom reduced energy consumption would mean slower rates of economic growth without being able to delay greatly the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.[1] 

The paper emphasised and exaggerated the costs of taking action, downplayed the degree of warming projected for the 21st century, and echoed the familiar refrain of the need for caution and more research. 

The problem was that the second author, Roger Revelle, a highly respected and influential American scientist, did not agree with this conclusion. Revelle had insisted for years that global warming was real and that action needed to be taken to address the issue. But at the time the article was written, he was over 80 years old and in poor health. Many of his colleagues were shocked by the article, which had been written mostly by Singer, and argued forcefully that Revelle’s viewpoint had not been accurately reflected in the text and certainly not in the conclusion. In the words of one of his young colleagues, Justin Lancaster, Revelle had been “hoodwinked”. [2]  Lancaster also stated publicly that what Singer had done was unethical.

Singer sued for libel.  Lancaster, just out of grad school, did not have the means to fight the lawsuit and was forced to retract his statements.  In an article published in 2006, he said:

Over ten years ago, I was forced by a SLAPP suit to retract my statements exposing the Cosmos myth…Likely to prevail at trial because my statements were true, I regretted deeply that I could not then afford to continue. 

In fact, in the same article he stated that he was rescinding and repudiating his 1994 retraction and making available the evidence that supported his statements.[3]

But by then of course it was too late. The 1992 Cosmos article authored by Singer with Revelle’s name attached had been widely circulated as evidence that Revelle had changed his mind about the danger of global warming. This was important because Al Gore had been a student of Revelle’s at Harvard and  had publicly acknowledged his admiration for Revelle’s work and commitment. In the climate denial community mindset, Revelle’s supposed change of mind showed that Al Gore’s advocacy for action on climate change was without foundation and should be rejected. 

The racketeer card

More recently, fossil fuel and logging companies have come up with a new twist on the SLAPP concept. They have invoked the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO: US legislation aimed at mobsters and organized crime, to go after environmental organisations protesting against oil and gas pipelines and industries like logging that frequently have substantial environmental impacts. In 2016, a company called Resolute Forest Products, one of Canada’s largest logging and paper companies, filed a lawsuit against Greenpeace under the RICO act, claiming that Greenpeace’s real objective was simply to raise money, and that its advocacy work in protecting the environment was a sham. Resolute claimed that Greenpeace’s emails and correspondence asking the public for financial support constituted  wire fraud. [4]

The Resolute lawsuit was unprecedented. But a few months later, one of the companies involved in developing the Dakota Access Pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, filed its own RICO lawsuit against Greenpeace and two smaller environmental groups: Banktrack and Earth First. The complaint alleged that Greenpeace and the other advocacy groups were operating an illegal enterprise to further their own interests while damaging the company.  The lawsuit further alleged that Greenpeace was supporting eco-terrorism, a violation of the Patriot Act, and drug trafficking.[v]    

SLAPP lawsuits are becoming more frequent. In May 2017, several energy companies filed lawsuits against their critics.  Murray Energy Corporation., an Ohio based coal company, filed a libel claim against The New York Times after it published an editorial critical of the company, and  the following month, Murray filed a lawsuit against comedian John Oliver, HBO, and Time Warner. In August, Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation., which has been accused of polluting water wells in Dimock, Pennsylvania, sued one of the town’s residents for $5 million, alleging that his claim that the pollution of his water well was due to fracking had ‘harmed’ the company.[6]  

The suits against Greenpeace, because of their use of anti-racketeering law, are potentially much more damaging and costly. They are clearly intended to force Greenpeace, and other environmental organisations opposing the expansion of fossil fuel industries, to back down and to desist from environmental activism.       

Legislation as weapon

In the US, state legislation is increasingly being used as a weapon against individuals and NGOs opposed to oil and gas infrastructure developments, particularly new pipelines, that will lead to greater emissions of greenhouse gases.

Dozens of bills and executive orders have been introduced in at 31 states since January 2017 that aim to restrict protests that have intensified as environmentalists focus on blocking fossil fuel projects– especially pipelines. In many cases, the bills expand the definition of rioting and terrorism, and even increase penalties for blocking traffic.

In early 2017, an Oklahoma state lawmaker introduced a bill to stiffen penalties for interfering with pipelines and other infrastructure. The bill imposes harsh punishments: up to 10 years in prison, $100,000 in fines, and up to $1 million in penalties for any organisation found to be a ‘conspirator’ in violating the law. This means that if someone protesting a pipeline is found guilty of violating the law, an organisation he is a member of, even if it didn’t organize the protest, can be charged with conspiracy and face a million dollar fine. [7]  

Soon after Oklahoma’s critical infrastructure bill passed, the conservative organisation American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), one of the entities supported by ExxonMobil to argue against global warming, used it to write model legislation for other states. In at least six more states, lawmakers introduced similar bills that impose steep penalties for trespassing on or tampering with pipeline property and other infrastructure. [8]

These conflicts between fossil fuel companies that continue to enlarge their operations, and people increasingly worried about the impacts of climate change on their families and communities, are certain to intensify.   


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For more information check out these sources:

[1] OSS Foundation. S. Fred Singer. Accessed at: //ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths/s.-fred-singer
[2] OSS Foundation. The Cosmos Myth. Accessed at: //ossfoundation.us/projects/environment/global-warming/myths/revelle-gore-singer-lindzen. More information about the lawsuit against Justin Lancaster can be found in the excellent book by James Hoggan:  Climate cover-up: The crusade to deny global warming.  Greystone Books, 2009.
[3] Ibid
[4] Inside Climate News. Industry lawsuits try to paint environmental activism as illegal racket.  Accessed at //insideclimatenews.org/news/04102017/greenpeace-rico-racketeering-lawsuit-environmental-activism-resolute-dakota-access-
[5] Ibid
[6] Ecowatch. Fracking giant sues Dimock resident for $5M for speaking to media about water contamination. Accessed at: //www.ecowatch.com/fracking-dimock-2474053132.html
[7] Inside Climate News. How energy companies and allies are turning the law against protesters. Accessed at: //insideclimatenews.org/news/22082018/pipeline-protest-laws-felony-free-speech-arrests-first-amendment-oklahoma-iowa-louisiana
[8] Ibid.