One reason climate change is a loser at the ballot box — even when millions are spent to promote the issue — is that it's an abstract issue without a single villain. But earlier this year, a group of 16 liberal state attorneys general devised a scheme that they thought could finally create one, and in the process boost their own political fortunes.

They would sue Exxon, the oil company, for failing to disclose its suspicions about and even promoting doubts about global warming decades ago. They had high hopes, but at this point their Holy Climate Inquisition seems to be running into a legal wall, as well it should.

The AGs announced the scheme with some fanfare in a press conference, and began issuing subpoenas on a legal theory that has been rather dodgy and hard to pin down. The rationale (or rather the excuse) for their investigation is a theory that Exxon defrauded investors by not revealing its suspicions that global warming could threaten its profitability. Global warming, the thinking goes, might make it more difficult for the company to drill for oil in the Arctic, and therefore investors had a right to any information the company had about potential Arctic warming effects from the use of its product.

This is, of course, thoroughly disingenuous. It is laughable to assert that these attorneys general give a hoot about Exxon's investors or the ease of Arctic drilling. Rather, this is their pretext for launching a massive global warming scalp-hunt, with which many AGs hope to raise their profiles within the Democratic Party and win the support of radical environmental activists in future gubernatorial primaries. (AG, after all, stands for "aspiring governor.")

As we noted recently, these liberal AGs are clearly abusing their power and assailing citizens' First Amendment rights. Their case is extremely flimsy and will not stand up to constitutional scrutiny. Their actions might even be worthy of legal sanctions, if there are judges out there tough enough to impose them.

Already, the attorney general of the Virgin Islands was forced to withdraw his broad subpoena of documents related to Exxon from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute. The Washington-based group made him back down by suing him for violating the D.C. law against so-called "strategic lawsuits" — that is, the use of civil courts to intimidate defendants from engaging in protected First Amendment activities. Unfortunately, this inquisition is quite large in scale, and has in fact targeted 90 different conservative groups.

Now Exxon is pushing back in court as well, demanding in both state and federal courts that the subpoenas be quashed. They are arguing in both federal and state court that these grandstanding attorneys general are abusing the power of their offices for political gain, and not conducting any legitimate investigation.

In the case of Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healy, Exxon is also arguing in Massachusetts court that the state law she is citing as a pretext for her investigation has a four-year statute of limitations.

Meanwhile, a group of 13 Republican state attorneys general illustrated just how great an abuse of power it is, and how great the potential for mayhem if similar tactics are adopted by all sides and or with respect to other issues.

In a letter to the Democratic AGs conducting this witch hunt, these conservative AGs noted that by the same standard, they could theoretically bring similar cases against businesses that deceive shareholders by exaggerating the threat or the potential effects of global warming.

"If it is possible to minimize the risks of climate change, then the same goes for exaggeration," they wrote. "If minimization is fraud, then exaggeration is fraud... If climate change perceived to be slowing or becoming less of a risk, many 'clean energy' companies may become less valuable and some may be altogether worthless… Does anyone doubt that 'clean energy' companies have funded non-profits who exaggerated the risks of climate change?"

The letter also noted that the climate scalp-hunting AGs had conducted their press conference along with Al Gore, who is vice president of "a venture capital firm that invests in renewable energy companies."

The bottom line, the conservative attorneys general argued, is that using "law enforcement authority to resolve a public policy debate undermines the trust invested in our offices and threatens free speech."

This is a fact, and it's one that Democratic attorneys general should think about before they continue this legal exercise in self-gratification.