Lamar Smith, climate scientist witch hunter

Apparently eager to ride the coattails of Vin Diesel’s new movie, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) seems intent on taking up the mantle of Witch Hunter by harassing the scientists at NOAA. These scientists published a study that joined a growing body of research debunking the supposed “pause” in warming, a trope regularly trotted out by deniers looking to argue against climate action.

In his capacity as Chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Smith has demanded a number of documents from NOAA and threatened them with prosecution if they don’t comply. He’s asking for the data and methods related to the study itself, which doesn’t sound too unreasonable at first. But when you learn that this information is already public, it seems odd that he would want to waste his and the scientists’ time demanding information that anyone with an internet connection can freely access.

Another odd factor is that NOAA scientists already took time out of their busy schedules of doing actual science to personally explain the study to Smith. But all this wasn’t enough for him, so he is also demanding all the scientists’ study-related email correspondence. Smith is spending all this time, energy, and taxpayer money to chase these scientists around because he is a conspiracy theorist, and has publicly espoused the belief that scientists are deliberately manipulating the temperature record to manufacture the climate crisis. This unusual position might be related to the massive quantities of oil and gas industry funding that he receives—in 2014; Smith got more money from fossil fuels than he did from any other industry.

For those that have been entrenched in the climate issue for some years, this will sound familiar. In fact, it’s almost identical to a situation faced by Dr. Michael Mann, in which a politician in a position of power took issue with science that disproved a pet climate denial myth. As a result, this politician, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, retaliated by going on what the Washington Post editorial board described as a “Climate Change Witch Hunt.

So let’s hope that, like in Dr. Mann’s case, the politician abusing his power isn’t humored with compliance. Because if the emails are released, we might have to live through another fake scandal. In fact, in a column in the Wall Street Journal, Holman Jenkins Jr. more or less admits that this is the denial industry’s strategy in his latest piece, in which he “just asks the question” if this is “The Next Climate Scandal?

As the world neared the Copenhagen negotiations, conservative pundits took hacked emails from climate scientists, twisted words, truncated quotes and successfully manufactured a scandal. In the months afterwards, there were no less than nine investigations, and each and every one showed that the scientists did nothing wrong. Now, as we approach the major climate talks taking place in Paris at the end of this month, the same people are turning to this page out of the denier playbook.

Regardless, some damage has already been done, as mainstream media ran with Smith’s story before looking into the validity of his requests. Unfortunately, in this case, unlike Mann’s, there is less legal justification for NOAA to withhold the emails, since Smith is invoking congressional oversight authority. Smith has made this point with yet another letter to NOAA, demanding not just the emails but a variety of other documentation. While he is technically able to so, his fellow Committee member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), wrote him a scathing letterchastising him for the witch hunt.

Johnson stands up for the scientists by pointing out a number of important issues. For one, she makes the point that Smith and his staffers lack the scientific expertise to actually analyze the data he’s requesting, and that turning over the data to a non-congressional outsider isn’t part of his right of congressional oversight.

She also points out that this wouldn’t be the first time Smith has done something like this, as he’s handed public health data to a researcher with ties to Big Tobacco in the past. In fact, Johnson points out that this “is representative of a disturbing pattern. Smith has issued more subpoenas in his two years and ten months than the committee has for its entire 54 year history.” Even with his high quantity of investigations, however, Smith has yet to find success, as Johnson “cannot think of a single significant oversight discovery” made by Smith.

As Johnson implies, this is a political stunt that has nothing to do with the actual quality of the science. After all, the scientists have explained the study to Smith, and the general issue of temperature record corrections has been explained numerous times, at length. For example, we have already covered this study twice here, looking at the research itself as well as the conspiratorial reactions it provoked.

The American Meteorological Society has also come to NOAA’s defense, with a letter to Smith that states,

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Posted by John Abraham on Wednesday, 11 November, 2015

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