The Assault on Climate Science

State College, Pa. — 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.” But he added, ominously, that “this prioritization does not alleviate NOAA’s obligation to respond fully to the Committee’s subpoena.

This is not Mr. Smith’s first attempt to stifle science when it conflicts with his ideology. During his tenure as the committee’s chairman, he has attempted to slash funding for earth sciences research by the National Science Foundation. He has threatened to replace the foundation’s vaunted scientific peer-review process with a system where congressmen like him help choose which scientific grants are funded.

And he recently started a congressional investigation into the finances of an environmental institute headed by a climate scientist who was a lead signatory of a letter suggesting that if fossil fuel companies knowingly misrepresented what they knew about climate change, they should be held accountable in the same way the tobacco industry was for hiding its knowledge about the health impacts of tobacco.

Unfortunately, this sort of harassment of climate scientists is nothing new, and Mr. Smith is not its only practitioner. In 2005, Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican who was chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sought all of my personal emails and notes because I had published a study with colleagues showing how the planet’s temperature had shot up after 1900.

Not only did Democrats object. So did Republicans.

Sherwood Boehlert, then a Republican congressman from New York and the chairman of the very committee that Mr. Smith now runs, expressed his “strenuous objections” to Mr. Barton’s “misguided and illegitimate investigation.” Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, also weighed in against what he saw as “a kind of intimidation which threatens the relationship between science and public policy” that “must not be tolerated.

We’ve certainly regressed since then. Mr. Smith’s efforts at intimidation have met with no resistance from his fellow Republicans.

While there is no doubt climate change is real and caused by humans, there is absolutely a debate to be had about the details of climate policy, and there are prominent Republicans participating constructively in that discourse. Let’s hear more from these sensible voices. And let’s end the McCarthy-like assault on science led by the Lamar Smiths of the world. Our nation is better than that.

Michael E. Mann directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.

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