Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma may have called global warming a “hoax,” but those who oppose him, and would like to see the United States enact climate legislation, have also suffered from foot-in-mouth disease.


Last September, Grist columnist David Roberts likened global warming deniers to holocaust deniers when he wrote that they are “bastards” who should face a “Nuremburg”-style tribunal for trying to derail climate science and policy. In January, The Weather Channel’s Heidi Cullen suggested that television weather personalities who denied the existence of man-made global warming should be stripped of their meteorological credentials. And most recently, at the Live Earth concert in New Jersey last month, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of the National Resources Defense Council, accused energy giants ExxonMobil and Southern Company of “treason” and suggested we start treating them as “traitors.”


On each occasion, some supporters rushed to defend Roberts, Cullen, and Kennedy, but many, especially the climate skeptics in the crowd, argued that their statements reeked of attempts to suppress free speech. Each of the squabbles drew ample media coverage, but now, another intriguing episode in the environmental bite-your-tongue saga is getting no press at all, although in the blogosphere Newsbusters carried a good summary of events.


On July 13, the president of the country’s largest trade association for renewable energy companies threatened to “destroy” the career of an analyst at a preeminent free market think tank that opposes global warming legislation. In an e-mail, Michael A. Eckhart, of the American Council on Renewable Energy, or ACORE, called Marlo Lewis, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a “liar” and a “charlatan,” and warned that he would “launch a campaign against [Lewis’s] professional integrity” if Lewis produced “one more editorial against climate change.”


Lewis is often quoted in the media and frequently contributes op-ed pieces to numerous national publications. An adherent to principles of limited government, Lewis has argued that attempts to mitigate man-made climate change-such as stricter carbon emissions standards-will deliver a serious blow to the national economy, and little else. Eckhart’s e-mail to Lewis quickly leaked to National Review’s blog, forcing Eckhart to post an explanation on ACORE’s blog on July 15, two days after he sent it:


I apologize to all in the public who were offended by the e-mail, because it was not intended for public display. You could not be aware of the two-year context of it, nor the choice of words in it - words that were only significant to Dr. Lewis and myself. Now that it is in the public, however, everyone deserves to understand the context.


Eckhart claims that his e-mail was part of a protracted “jousting” between himself and Lewis that had begun two years earlier when the two struck up a conversation in a greenroom before doing a television debate. During the course of that discussion, Eckhart wrote in his explanatory blog post, Lewis admitted that his anti-global warming arguments were merely a “tactic” in a larger battle that Lewis was “waging against big government.”


Lewis denies he said this. But since that meeting, Eckhart wrote, he has had numerous follow-up conversations with Lewis and Fred Smith, the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s president. Eckhart accused them of “hijacking” global warming to support their opinions about limited government, and he intended to stop it.


Last September, when Lewis made headlines with his “Skeptic’s Guide to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth,” Eckhart wrote an e-mail to Smith stating that the institute’s work was delaying American policy on climate change. Eckhart demanded that Smith reverse course “loudly and publicly” within thirty days. If not, he would file two complaints-the first would go to the IRS, urging it to revoke the institute’s non-profit, tax-exempt status on the grounds that it was lobbying for the energy industry; the second would go to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society, asking it to revoke Smith’s membership for “using mathematical skills to do the world harm.”


Eckhart reprinted most this e-mail on ACORE’s blog, in defense of his more recent e-mail to Lewis. Somewhat dubiously, however, he reprinted only the parts where he is chastising Smith and omitted those where he is threatening him. Lewis, who did not find Eckhart’s “apology” to be very apologetic, posted the entire e-mail to Smith on the blog Openmarket.org. Lewis also denied that he ever admitted that he did not believe his own arguments or that they were just “tactics,” and he shames Eckhart’s behavior. “After all,” Lewis wrote on the blog, “if a right-winger carried on this way, the liberal media would say he was trying to stifle debate and suppress speech.”


Lewis has a point.


I admire Eckhart’s dogged pursuit of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has continuously assailed the international scientific consensus that humans are changing the climate to their own detriment. Its “experts,” like Lewis (who has a Ph.D. in government from Harvard), have argued against the Kyoto Protocol in 1997 and repeatedly cast climate science as “junk science” during the Bush administration. Most of the institute’s opinions are rooted in the extremely contestable idea that things like emissions reductions will cripple our economy. The more that can be done to rebut the institute’s ideas the better.


But statistically, Smith and Lewis are well within their right to argue that the threat of climate change, and even warming itself, may not amount to much. It’s not a great argument, but it’s not a crime. The closest Eckhart comes to making that case is his contention that the institute might not deserve its tax-exempt status, but that too is a bit shaky. The organization recently weathered criticism of the funding it received from ExxonMobil, and it claims to have severed that tie. And Eckhart is not alleging that the institute has meddled with any peer-reviewed science reports. Without that, or proof of some other such grievance, threatening to destroy a colleague’s career or have another’s honor society key revoked is unbecoming of the president of such a laudable organization.


Unfortunately, Eckhart’s e-mails have already brought the attack dogs to ACORE’s door.


Last Friday, Senator Inhofe brought up Eckhart’s correspondence before a hearing of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee. Inhofe confronted Stephen Johnson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, with the e-mails. The EPA, like many other government agencies and private companies, is a dues-paying member of ACORE, and Inhofe wanted to know if Johnson thought it “appropriate to be a part of an organization that is headed up by a person who makes this statement.” Johnson said he was unaware of Eckhart’s email, but that he would investigate the matter. After the hearing Inhofe announced that he would be sending letters to the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Energy, and EPA, urging them to “reconsider their membership in ACORE.”


Unfortunately, this information has not drifted out of press releases and the blogosphere. The story may not be front-page news, but it deserves a lot more attention from the mainstream, national press. The Competitive Enterprise Institute and ACORE are influential players in the massive and complex debate over what, if anything, to do about manmade climate change. When their presidents have a quarrel that draws Congressional attention it’s newsworthy. Eckhart wrote a couple incredibly ill advised e-mails and followed up with a feeble explanation/apology that sounded a lot like, “That guy started it! Kick him out of the playground.” But now ACORE-which abides (its president’s e-mails notwithstanding) by the Competitive Enterprise Institute’s own cherished commitment to free enterprise-is being scrutinized by the fiercest climate skeptic in the Senate. If Inhofe succeeds, ACORE’s budget, a staple for renewable fuels development, could suffer. It is time for the media to get in there and scrutinize Eckhart’s actions as well as the unjustified justice of penalizing ACORE for them.

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Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.