clock menu more-arrow no yes

Top Science Committee Dem expresses disgust and dismay at the committee chair's behavior

Lamar Smith explains that NOAA, the UN, Al Gore, it's all connected.
Lamar Smith explains that NOAA, the UN, Al Gore, it's all connected.
(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Since I wrote about the dubious investigations underway by the House Science Committee — scientists being threatened, individual funding grants being second-guessed, subpoenas flying everywhere — things have gotten worse. Republican chair Lamar Smith has escalated his war with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists; he is now openly accusing them of scientific fraud.

Smith's profligacy with subpoenas and threats has not made him a favorite of the ranking member of the committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), though there's little she can do to stop him. Due to recent changes in House rules by Republican leadership, Smith no longer has to consult with Johnson before he issues a subpoena or get her sign-off before launching an investigation. He no longer has to tell her or other Democrats on the committee anything, and apparently isn't.

So Johnson can't do much. But she can express herself. And boy does she! Her dismay and disgust at Smith's behavior have been conveyed in a series of increasingly blunt, incredulous letters (a sample here). The latest such letter, sent on November 19, is downright scathing. It concludes by saying that Johnson and her fellow committee Democrats "will endeavor at every opportunity to counter your efforts to attack the field of climate science and the hardworking scientists who work in the field."

It's worth reviewing some of the preceding highlights.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is composing another letter right now.
(Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Smith has finally revealed what his investigation is about

For those who haven't been following along: This latest contretemps is all about a study, authored by NOAA's Thomas Karl and colleagues, published in the journal Science in June, which shows that the much-balleyhooed global warming "pause" is "just an illusion" — an artifact of outdated data analysis. (Note: Other studies, like this and this, have found the same thing.)

Climate change deniers, who count Smith among their number, were outraged by this. In her letter, Johnson documents the ensuing events:

  1. Starting in July, Smith sent four aggressive letters in a row to NOAA, demanding that the agency turn over all internal emails related to the study. He declined to articulate any rationale for the demand, or to specify any charges of wrongdoing. He was not satisfied by multiple in-person staff briefings from NOAA officials and scientists.
  2. Johnson sent a letter to Smith asking him what exactly he's investigating, and why, and how NOAA's internal emails have anything to do with it.
  3. Smith ignored Johnson and sent a fifth bullying letter to NOAA.
  4. Then Smith sent a bullying letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, demanding that she force NOAA to turn over the emails.
  5. Then, this past week, Smith sent another bullying letter to Pritzker.

Finally, with this, his seventh letter, Smith articulated the reason for his investigation. He says he has "whistleblowers" who contend that "the Karl study was rushed to publication despite the concerns and objections of a number of NOAA scientists."

That's it. Not that the conclusion is false, not that there are flaws in the science, not that there was fraud or collusion with the White House, but simply that the study was "rushed." That's what allegedly justifies the subpoenas and threats.

Smith also says this:

More troubling, it appears that NOAA employees raised concerns about the timing and readiness of the study's release through e-mails, including several communications just before its publication in April, May, and June of 2015.

Allegedly these concerns were raised about the sea surface temperature data in the Karl study. In the spring of 2015. Except ..

sea surface temperatures
Global upper ocean heat content. Looks up-ish.
(NOAA)

Johnson notes that the Karl study "was actually submitted to the journal Science in December of 2014 — four months before your alleged whistleblower communications." What's more, the Karl study didn't include any original analysis of sea surface temperature data. For that, it relied on two previous NOAA studies, which detailed the methods by which temperature data was reanalyzed and updated. Those studies were "submitted to the American Meteorological Society's Journal of Climate in December of 2013 — nearly one and a half years before your alleged whistleblowers raised their concerns."

So Smith has subpoenaed NOAA's internal communications for the past several years ... because a year and a half after the agency updated its temperature data, unnamed employees are alleged by unnamed whistleblowers to have raised unspecified concerns that a subsequent study based on those year-and-a-half-old numbers was "rushed." Sounds super plausible.

"Given these discrepancies," Johnson notes with some understatement, "I hope you will understand my skepticism regarding the new claims you have made in your seventh demand letter."

Smith threatens to sic law enforcement on the first American woman to walk in space

Kathryn Sullivan (NOAA)
Kathryn Sullivan, who unlike Lamar Smith is a scientist and has walked in space.

Here's a fun side note. In Smith's letter to NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan, he demanded that she turn over her staff's internal communications or face "civil and/or criminal enforcement mechanisms."

Johnson notes:

I think it might be informative to take note of whom you are threatening. Dr. Kathryn Sullivan is a PhD geologist, former naval reserve officer, former three-time NASA astronaut, former chief scientist of NOAA, and former member of the National Science Board. As an astronaut, Dr. Sullivan became the first American woman to ever "walk" in space.

This is who Smith says colluded with the White House to falsify scientific data.

Smith is making accusations in the press for which he has never offered evidence

Johnson notes that it has taken Smith four months of investigation to articulate any reason for the investigation to exist. And when he finally put an allegation of wrongdoing on record, it was hedged and mild (there were "concerns" that the study was "rushed"). But when it comes to the popular press, Smith shows no such restraint.

From a November 16 op-ed by Smith on Breitbart News:

NOAA needs to come clean about why they altered the data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda ... When NOAA concocts data to get the politically correct results they want and then refuses to reveal how those decisions were made, that discredits their entire agenda ... It’s always easy to prove climate change when the Obama administration changes the data until they get the results they want.

In a letter to the Washington Post on November 17, Smith repeated: "NOAA employees altered temperature data to get politically correct results."

noaa, basically
NOAA, basically.
(Shutterstock)

Johnson is not impressed:

In one fell swoop, you have accused a host of different individuals of wrongdoing. You have accused NOAA's top research scientists of scientific misconduct. By extension, you have also accused the peer-reviewers at one of our nation's most prestigious academic journals, Science, of participating in this misconduct (or at least being too incompetent to notice what was going on). If that weren't enough, you are intimating a grand conspiracy between NOAA and the White House to doctor climate science to advance administration policy. Presumably this accusation extends to Administrator Sullivan herself. And all of these indictments are conjured out of thin air, without you presenting any factual basis for these sweeping accusations ...

To date, Smith has offered no evidence in support of his sweeping accusation of scientific fraud and collusion.

Smith is after another Climategate

This Washington Post story is somewhat indicative of coverage thus far in "objective" political media, in that it is unwilling to identify the partisan elephant in the room. Instead it treats the dispute as an abstract intellectual debate over the extent of privacy versus public disclosure.

But why this extraordinary attempt to extend subpoena powers? What evidence justifies it?

Political journalists may not say so, but Johnson does: The model for this sort of thing is "Climategate." Remember that? In 2009 and '10, climate deniers combed through a bunch of hacked personal emails among climate scientists at the UK's University of East Anglia, selectively leaking out-of-context bits that could be spun to sound suspicious. The press ate it up, chasing every shiny bauble. Later, multiple independent investigations cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing, but by then the press had moved on.

climategate press conference
More in sadness than in anger, Republicans hold a 2009 press conference on "Climategate and President Obama's trip to Copenhagen."
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

That's the model of success for the climate denial movement. And it's what Smith is trying to replicate. He wants some negative or embarrassing stories in the run-up to the Paris climate talks next month. It's pretty obvious to everyone in DC; it would be cool if political journalists would tell the benighted masses in the rest of the country.

One last time, for the record

NOAA is in no way "refusing to reveal" how its temperature data is determined. All of it — the data, the methodology, the studies — is on the internet. It's just a click away.

Sign up for the newsletter The Weeds

Understand how policy impacts people. Delivered Fridays.