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The attack on climate change scientists continues in Washington

While 150 world leaders continue their efforts outside Paris to hammer out an agreement to address climate change, the concerted attack on scientists by conservatives in Congress has continued apace. We've reported on this campaign in the past, but recent developments warrant an update.

Ground zero for the attack on climate change scientists is the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. It's headed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), one of the most assiduous climate change deniers on Capitol Hill. For several months, Smith has been throwing a conniption fit over a report published by several government climate experts in the June 26 issue of the widely respected journal Science. 

The article prompted Smith to demand emails and other correspondence from the scientists involved in the study, purportedly to ferret out evidence that they manipulated their data to help the Obama Administration make the case for climate change policy. This prompted a coalition of seven leading organizations including the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, the publisher of Science, to push back strongly. In a letter dated Nov. 24, they upbraided Smith for implying scientific misconduct "despite a lack of public evidence" and all but labeled Smith an irresponsible ideologue:

"Scientists should not be subjected to fraud investigations or harassment simply for providing scientific results that some may see as politically controversial," they wrote. "Science cannot thrive when policymakers--regardless of party affiliation--use policy disasgreements as a pretext to attack scientific conclusions." 

(Their reference to party affiliation was a swipe at Rep Raul Grijalva (D-Az.), who earlier this year demanded records from universities about seven scientists who had challenged the scientific consensus on climate change during Congressional hearings.)

The authors of the Science paper, headed by Thomas R. Karl of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, conclusively demolished one of the cherished claims of the denialists: that global warming had experienced a slowdown, or "hiatus," from 1998 through 2012. The denialists used this idea to foment doubt about whether climate change was as consistent as scientists contend or even whether it is happening at all. 

Karl and his colleagues reexamined the 1998-2012 period, applying more comprehensive data from more precise measurements. Their conclusion is that no hiatus exists. In their words:

"There is no discernible (statistical or otherwise) decrease in the rate of warming between the second half of the 20th century and the first 15 years of the 21st century."

Specifically, they found that the warming trend in 1950 to 1999 was 0.113 degrees Celsius per decade; in 2000 to 2014 it was 0.116 C per decade. They devoted special attention to data from 1998, the start of the supposed pause. That was an exceptionally warm year, even within the overall trend, thanks to a strong El Niño effect.

Even when they incorporated 1998 in their calculations, which would tend to show a lower warming trend for the period, they determined that warming had slowed down only to 0.106 C per decade — and they believe that's conservative, because it incorporates only spotty data from the Arctic, where warming trends show up especially strongly.

To Lamar Smith, there could be only one explanation for this finding: scientific fraud.

Before we address how he has relied on this conclusion to harass NOAA and its scientific staff, let's examine what makes him such a devoted challenger of climate science. It's money. 

We've noted before that climate change denialism always has been rooted in economics. The idea is that we can't afford the disruptions to our fossil-fuel-driven society required to reduce atmospheric emissions. It shouldn't be surprising that this notion is promoted by the oil and gas industry, which would suffer most from restrictions on fossil fuel emissions and reductions in consumption that would result from greater reliance on alternative energy sources. 

Guess which is Lamar Smith's biggest contributor among major industries? Yes, oil and gas. Throughout his congressional career, which dates back to 1987, oil and gas interests have funneled more than $630,000 into his campaign coffers, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

As chairman of the House science committee, Smith has taken a hatchet to funding for earth science. Sometimes he and his committee have concealed their real intentions behind an ostensible concern over the "intellectual merit" of government science grants. But their real goal always has been to undermine the objective evaluation of grant applications via government agency peer reviews and substitute political judgments from Capitol Hill.

When that failed, in part due to resistance from the National Science Foundation, Smith resorted simply to cutting agencies' earth science budgets. As we reported in May, committee Republicans were so sneaky about this that they failed to clue in their Democratic colleagues to what they were planning, then described the results deceitfully.

The latest Science article appears really to have put Smith in a dither. He has accused NOAA's scientists of manipulating their data to serve what he calls President Obama's "extreme climate change agenda." In a Thanksgiving Day op-ed in the conservative Washington Times, he called NOAA's work "not good science, [but] science fiction."

Meanwhile, he has subpoenaed data and email correspondence from NOAA and its scientists, supposedly to prove that they tailored their findings  to reach a predetermined conclusion. NOAA Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan, a former astronaut, has turned away his more intrusive demands. As she observed in a Nov. 20 letter, NOAA provided the committee with its raw data and has provided committee staff with extensive briefings, including one by Karl; the offer of a second briefing by Karl was rejected by committee Republicans.

But Sullivan has refused to provide internal emails, despite Smith's threat to her and her boss, Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker, of "compulsory" legal action. "I have not and will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me," she told Smith. 

In recent weeks, Smith has expanded his accusations of a conspiracy to manipulate the data. He has claimed that an unidentified "whistle-blower" has confirmed that NOAA "rushed" the Science article into print to meet an administration deadline. 

As the science committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), told Smith in a Nov. 19 letter, however, the accusation is absurd. The Karl paper was submitted to Science in December 2014 and was based on data that originally had been published in 2013. Science says the review process for the paper was more intensive and took nearly two months longer than usual, in part because Science knew the results would provoke a political reaction. 

There shouldn't be any confusion about what Smith is up to. The scientific process is seldom clean or free from debate; that's how it advances. Smith is trying to use this debate, as it unfolds in professional discussions among researchers, as evidence of deliberate manipulation. His goal isn't to perfect the process, but sow doubt in its results -- entirely because they conflict with his own political interests. 

This week, Smith backed off from his campaign--a tiny bit. He dropped his demand for scientists' emails, but he still wants NOAA's internal documents.

It's perfectly clear whose skin is being protected by congressional climate change deniers: Just as the climate talks were getting underway in France this week, the House voted twice to block President Obama's order for carbon emission limits on new and existing power plants. The argument, as always, is that we can't afford to take such steps, when the truth is we can't afford not to.

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see our Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

2:10 p.m.: This post has been updated with the letter from seven scientific organizations and Rep. Smith's withdrawal of his demand for scientists' emails.

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