An Attack on Climate Science

By Mann, Michael E | International New York Times, December 9, 2015 | Go to article overview

An Attack on Climate Science


Mann, Michael E, International New York Times


A Republican congressman undermines science by targeting government climate researchers.

With world leaders gathered in Paris to address climate change, most of the planet seems to have awakened to the reality that the Earth is warming and that we're responsible.

But not Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who is chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He has long disputed the overwhelming scientific evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels are changing the climate. Now he is using his committee chairmanship to go after the government's own climate scientists, whose latest study is an inconvenience to his views.

In October, Mr. Smith issued a subpoena to Kathryn D. Sullivan, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, demanding all internal notes, emails and correspondence concerning a study its scientists published in the journal Science. The study found that the "rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as or faster than what was seen during the latter half of the 20th century."

This conclusion disputed the claim, seized upon by climate- change deniers like Mr. Smith, that there has been a slowdown in the rate of global warming in recent years. In fact, 2014 was the warmest year on record, and this year is likely to end up even warmer.

Fortunately, NOAA did not acquiesce to Mr. Smith's outrageous demands. The agency pointed out that it had provided Mr. Smith's committee with the scientific briefings, data and studies behind the Science article, as well as two thorough briefings by NOAA scientists. But Mr. Smith was not satisfied. He repeated his demand for all subpoenaed documents and warned of "civil and/or criminal enforcement mechanisms" if the agency did not comply.

Certainly, as the chairman of a congressional committee, Mr. Smith is entitled to all of the data behind the study so he can fulfill his oversight role in determining, as he put it in one letter to the agency, "the quality of the analysis and decision- making."

At the same time, as NOAA noted, the confidentiality of communications between scientists is "essential to frank discourse." For that reason, the agency rejected his demand.

As the American Meteorological Society pointed out in a letter to Mr. Smith, "implicitly questioning the integrity of the researchers conducting those studies can be viewed as a form of intimidation that could deter scientists from freely carrying out research on important national challenges."

Eight leading scientific organizations echoed that concern late last month. Since then, Mr. Smith has agreed to prioritize his demands, seeking first to obtain communications from all of NOAA's "political, policy and nonscientific staff. …

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