Lamar Smith, Committee on Science, Space and Technology, seems to think science is a scam.
Early this year, House Republicans decided
to give some of its committee chairpersons the same kind of unilateral subpoena power once wielded by Rep. Darrell Issa of the House Oversight Committee on Government Reform. In practice that means these committee chairs can issue subpoenas without consulting with the top Democrats on their panels, which had long been the previous practice. This opens the door to ridiculous fishing expeditions.
One chairperson with this new power is Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who heads the Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Smith is one of the more than half of House Republicans who reject climate science. David Roberts at Vox points out in a scathing assessment that the committee is engaged in "open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation's leading scientists and scientific institutions":
The science committee's modus operandi is similar to the Benghazi committee's—sweeping, catchall investigations, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing or clear rationale, searching through private documents for out-of-context bits and pieces to leak to the press, hoping to gain short-term political advantage—but it stands to do more lasting long-term damage.
In both cases, the investigations have continued long after all questions have been answered. (There were half a dozen probes into Benghazi before this one.) In both cases, the chair has drifted from inquiry to inquisition. But with Benghazi, the only threat is to the reputation of Hillary Clinton, who has the resources to defend herself. With the science committee, it is working scientists being intimidated, who often do not have the resources to defend themselves, and the threat is to the integrity of the scientific process in the US. It won't take much for scientists to get the message that research into politically contested topics is more hassle than it's worth.
One of Smith's targets, as Katherine Bagley at InsideClimate News has reported
, is Jagadish Shukla, a climate scientist at George Mason University in Virginia, where he is chief of the Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES). He is the lead signatory
of a letter signed by 20 scientists calling for the Obama administration to see if fossil fuel companies can be prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) for defrauding the public about climate change. The letter was sparked by revelations in a six-part investigation
by InsideClimate News. The committee has let
Shukla know it will soon be looking into purported misuse of federal funds by IGES for partisan purposes.
That's not all, as you can read below.
Smith's agenda isn't the least bit murky. He admits he has only read summaries of the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the product of 800 climate scientists. But he nevertheless says the scientists got it wrong.
One of his claims, repeated endlessly in the denier-sphere, is that we've had a pause in global warming over the past 18 years, something he says scientists can't explain. In fact, scientists have for some time now been explaining that seeming hiatus: Global warming from greenhouse gas emissions is reflected in rising ocean temperatures and melting glaciers and ice caps. Moreover, a study published in Science in June—"Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus"—directly challenges the whole idea of a pause:
Here, we present an updated global surface temperature analysis that reveals that global trends are higher than those reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, especially in recent decades, and that the central estimate for the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century. These results do not support the notion of a “slowdown” in the increase of global surface temperature.
The lead author of that study is Thomas Karl, who heads the National Centers for Environmental Information at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Smith has turned his fire on Karl, seeking details of how NOAA interprets its climate data.
As noted in a fierce four-page letter by the ranking Democrat on the science committee—Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson—NOAA has responded to Smith's requests for information with written responses and face-to-face briefings. But NOAA refused to submit its internal communications. Scott K. Johnson at ArsTechnica writes:
NOAA contends that drafts and deliberative discussions among scientists are confidential and that the publication of data and methods are sufficient. The agency is far from alone in that regard, and the thorny issue of protecting the process of scientific inquiry from quote-mining expeditions has come up before.
So, in an Oct. 13 subpoena
, Smith demanded access to “all documents and communications” pertaining to NOAA's climate measurements. As Roberts and many others have pointed out, all this material except internal communications is already publicly available
on a website on a thing called the internet. Mike Halperin, program manager for the Center for Science & Democracy, wrote
“All documents and communications” would presumably include emails, preliminary drafts, peer review comments, notes, audio recordings, and a treasure trove of other material. This would mean thousands upon thousands of records for employees to identify and go through and analyze for no clearly stated purpose.
NOAA was given two weeks to comply.
Rep. Johnson's letter to Smith makes clear what's really going on:
However, obtaining all of the data and methods used in this study seemingly was not enough for the majority. You also demanded internal communications by NOAA scientists regarding their scientific research. NOAA, rightfully, has been reluctant to waste their time and resources, not to mention break confidence with their superb research scientists by responding to this demand […]
I cannot help but note that your requests in this case echo the tactics of notable climate change skeptics, who frequently submit similar FOIA requests of climate scientists in both the federal government and in state universities. One of the most publicized occasions of harassment occurred when then-Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli and the American Tradition Institute (ATI) sought email communications of former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann.
Halperin gets it exactly right.
And now, the House Science Committee is on a witch hunt at worst and wasting resources at best. It used to be tobacco and chemical companies that harassed scientists. Increasingly, Congress is picking up the tobacco industry playbook. Who wouldn’t get demoralized? Who wouldn’t feel intimidated?
What Smith and the rest of the deniers in the House caucus of climate-change charlatans really want is for scientists to keep their mouths shut. Fortunately, despite the smears and budget attacks and stubborn scientific illiteracy they face, more scientists are following the lead of Michael Mann and James Hansen and refusing to keep quiet about the greatest planet-wide crisis since modern humans came into being.