Why is NOAA withholding climate documents from Congress?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is refusing to answer a subpoena from a congressional committee. Some scientists say that the motive behind the subpoena is a congressman's unhappiness with the conclusion of a study on climate change.

Jason Wachter, St. Cloud Times/AP
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The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has refused to answer an Oct. 13 subpoena from  by Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Rep. Smith, a prominent climate change denier, demanded that internal communications surrounding a recent climate change study by NOAA scientists be turned over to his committee for examination. 

Thomas Karl, the director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, published the paper in question in a June issue of the peer-reviewed journal Science. By explaining relevant data trends, Karl and his colleagues dispute “the notion of a ‘slowdown’ in the increase of global surface temperature” and argue climate change is as prevalent as ever.

Smith, who regularly tries to disprove climate change, insists the NOAA scientists manipulated data to get the “results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda.”

The agency says it has given the committee all data and information available to the public, as well as explanatory briefings on the research. And the agency says their obligations to the committee end there.

“Because the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse among scientists, those documents were not provided to the Committee,” the agency told Nature. “It is a long-standing practice in the scientific community to protect the confidentiality of deliberative scientific discussions.”

But Smith says this is unacceptable. "Congress cannot do its job when agencies openly defy Congress and refuse to turn over information," Smith told InsideClimate News. "This action has broad national and policy implications." NOAA has "yet to identify any legal basis" for withholding its internal communication, which Smith says undermines the committee's "Constitutionally-mandated oversight responsibilities."

Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, a former NOAA employee and current head of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells The Christian Science Monitor that Smith has no premise for his demands.

“He just wants the correspondence to see if he can discredit a study whose results he doesn’t like,” Dr. Rosenberg explains. “It’s not appropriate to try and intimidate the scientists involved by demanding their correspondence.”

Rosenberg says Smith already has all the data from the study that was published in a reputable and prestigious peer-reviewed journal. Smith, he says, simply wants to take scientists’ comments out of context.

If Smith has no evidence of wrongdoing, as Rosenberg, the NOAA, and some other scientists suggest, then how were the subpoenas issued? 

“The committee chairman can now issue a subpoena without consulting with the committee’s minority party members,” Rosenberg explains. Beginning with former Oversight Chairman Darrell Issa (R) of California, House Republicans have given unilateral subpoena power to a number of GOP chairmen, allowing them to avoid Democratic criticism.

“This change will inevitably [lead] to widespread abuses of power as Republicans infect the other committees with the poisonous process that Issa has so abused during his chairmanship,” said a spokesman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D) of California.

Because of this new unilateral power of chairmen, subpoenas are now a widely used “intimidation tactic,” says Rosenberg.

Although she did not get a voice in the subpoena process, the House committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas tells Smith in a letter that fellow Democrats on the committee “won’t be complicit in the illegitimate harassment of our Nation’s research scientists.”

Smith’s efforts “appear to be furthering a fishing expedition, rather than engaging in focused oversight with a legitimate goal in mind,” says Rep. Johnson. “Conducting ‘oversight’ in this fashion weakens the authority of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, brings disrepute to our institution, and tarnishes the legacy of the leaders who came before us.” 

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