Why is Lamar Smith waging war on a NOAA global warming study?

Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas wants access to seven years of NOAA's internal communications to investigate if the agency conspired with the Obama administration on a climate change study.

Drew Angerer/AP/file
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington in 2010.

Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who chairs the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has subpoenaed seven years of all internal communications related to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) climate research.

The research resulted in the June publication of a paper in the peer-reviewed journal Science that refutes earlier, controversial findings that global temperature rise slowed between 1998 and 2012.

In a second letter in a week asking for support from Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, Rep. Smith wrote that whistleblowers informed his committee that the study “was rushed to publication despite the concerns and objections of a number of NOAA scientists,” which for him raised questions about the agency's “scientific integrity process.”

Smith tells The Christian Science Monitor in an e-mail that his biggest concern is that, “It appears NOAA altered data to get politically correct results and now refuses to reveal how those decisions were made.” His office was asked, but did not provide specific information on how the data were altered.

NOAA says its recent study corrected for differences unaccounted for in the IPCC report in measuring temperature from ships versus from buoys. It also incorporated 2013 and 2014 data, and new data from land-based monitors in the Arctic to conclude that the rate of global warming in the last 15 years has been as fast or faster than that seen during the second half of the 20th century.

This contradicted a contested 2013 study by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning panel of global scientists, International Panel on Climate Change. It found the rise of global temperatures seemed to slow between 1998 and 2012 in comparison to the period between 1951 and 2012.

The panel didn’t dispute that the globe is warming and that humans are responsible. In fact, it virtually unanimously agrees. But its findings provided fresh fodder to climate skeptics who seized on the results to support arguments that warming, if happening at all, is not happening because of human actions.

Smith, called a climate denier by critics for his opposition to air pollution rules and his criticism of the National Science Foundation’s peer-review process, has accused NOAA of conspiring with the Obama administration, pointing out in his letter to Secretary Pritzker that the study was released two months before the release of the Clean Power Plan, which sets emissions standards for power plants, and six months before President Obama travels to Paris (this month) to reach a global climate agreement.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a ranking Texas Democrat on the House science committee, calls Smith’s subpoena a “fishing expedition,” pointing out in an October 13 letter to Smith that there’s no basis for this subpoena, as he has made no allegations of “scientific misconduct, abuse of discretion or fraud.”

“What is surprising, and unfortunate, is that the Committee on Science, Space and Technology appears to be adopting the discrediting tactics of fossil fuel industry-funded climate change-denier groups,” she wrote.

“By issuing this subpoena, you have instigated a constitutional conflict with an inquiry that seems more designed to harass climate scientists than to further any legitimate legislative purpose,” she continued.

“This is a serious misuse of Congressional oversight powers” she wrote.

Smith disagrees. "The Committee needs to understand the full context of NOAA’s decision-making process," he told the Monitor.

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