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A congressional climate change denier's disingenuous defense

This congressional climate change denier slashed funding for earth research but doesn't want to say so

As chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is one of the most eminent and influential climate change deniers in Congress. He's also mightily irked that we described his press release announcing his committee's vote on NASA's funding last week as "a model of misdirection and deceit."

At least, that's the impression advanced by complaints we've received from Laura Crist, who identifies herself as the communications director for Smith and the committee. In emails and a phone call, Crist asked us to "explain how our release was somehow a 'model of misdirection and deceit.'"

We thought our original post was self-explanatory, but since Rep. Smith's office seems to disagree, we'll try to satisfy their curiosity.

First, some background. Smith's credentials as a climate change denier are unassailable. He dismissed last year's report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which stated that "human interference with the climate system is occurring" and causes negative "impacts on natural and human systems on all continents and across the oceans" as "nothing new" and "more political than scientific."

Regarding a White House report in May 2014 about the urgency of taking steps to address climate change, Smith said it was designed merely "to frighten Americans into believing that any abnormal weather we experience is the direct result of human CO2 emissions. In reality, there is little science to support any connection between climate change and more frequent or extreme storms."

That brings us to last week's vote by Smith's committee on NASA funding for fiscal 2016 and 2017. The measure took direct aim at the agency's spending on Earth science, which includes climate change. It cut NASA's existing Earth science budget by at least 20%, and depending on budget circumstances, by nearly one-third. Compared with President Obama's request for fiscal 2016 the bill would represent a cut of at least 26%.

The bill is here. For a good analysis, see Marcia Smith at SpacePolicyOnline.

In a press statement Thursday announcing the party-line vote approving the measure, Smith didn't explicitly mention its impact on NASA's Earth science spending even once. He described NASA in terms suggesting the agency's sole responsibility is to explore space, which isn't true. He cited praise from several organizations devoted to outer space exploration as though it applied to the entire bill. His only direct mention of the Earth science component was a slam at the Obama administration, which he said had cut funding for human space exploration "while increasing funding for the earth science division by more than 63%."

Pretending that the funding measure was only about space exploration was misdirection. Failing to mention how his measure would affect Earth science was deceitful. 

It's not as though Smith was unaware that the bill's funding for Earth science was a big issue in the scientific and political communities. The American Geophysical Union had written him earlier in the week about its unhappiness with the cuts in Earth science. The committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, had published an op-ed the day before the vote, objecting to the Earth science cuts and tying them to climate change denialism among the GOP majority. Committee Democrats had offered at least two amendments to implement President Obama's Earth science funding request. They were rejected on party line votes. 

Smith went even further. Among the organizations he cited in his press release as praising the measure's funding for "solar system exploration" was the Planetary Society, which is headed by the popular science communicator Bill Nye. 

To the extent Smith was implying that that the Planetary Society supported the funding bill, he was deceitful. In fact, while the society is gratified by increases for space exploration in the NASA authorization, its director of advocacy, Casey Dreier, stated explicitly on its website before last week's vote that it does not support the bill. Its reason: the cuts to Earth science funding.

Laura Crist, Smith's aide, said in an email to us that the society had "reversed support for earth sciences changes," implying that it was originally OK with the cuts, then changed its mind.

This is absolutely untrue. Crist's evidence was a tweet Dreier had sent out earlier, observing "One of the reasons Earth Sci funding is a target: it has grown while every other NASA Science Div has stagnated/cut."

This was in no way a statement of support for the cut, as Dreier confirmed for me Wednesday by email. His tweet, he said, aimed "simply to point out how the growth of Earth science over time has made it a monetary target in addition to the ideological target it has [been] re: climate change. It wasn't representative of any Planetary Society official position." Indeed, he said, "historically, the society has always been a supporter of a strong Earth science program, and Bill Nye's leadership of the Society means that will continue."

Did Rep. Smith mean to be deceptive? It's impossible to say for sure, but that certainly was the effect of his press release. Even the Washington Post was gulled: its report on the committee vote quoted the press release as listing the Planetary Society among groups expressing "support for the bill." This earned the Post a clarifying email from Dreier, prompting a correction.

It's certainly true that Smith's statement isn't the first congressional press release in history to submerge the truth under a shroud of misdirection and deceit, nor even the worst example. That's why we called it a "model" rather than a unique occurrence.

We'll give Smith's staff the benefit of the doubt on this, and assume they're being disingenuous at worst when they profess not to know his press release was nothing like the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But who do they think they're fooling? 

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