Rep. Lamar Smith Is Fighting Climate Science. Again.

Well, we have to hand it to Rep. Lamar Smith: The dude is consistent. Since becoming chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, the good congressman from San Antonio has been doing his best to use his new subpoena powers to push his anti-climate science views as far as they will go. 

Right now, he's got National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in his sights. As chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, Smith recently issued a very interesting subpoena to Kathryn Sullivan, the administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Smith asked for a sweeping amount of information from the NOAA, including all documents and communications from NOAA employees about how they work with global temperature data sets, looking at everything from how employees have talked about using satellite data to the monthly press releases on the global temperature that are issued to the public.

So why is Smith suddenly so interested in temperature data sets and NOAA emails? Well, it's because the ardent climate change denier from the 21st Congressional District in Texas is intent on disproving one particular study, "Possible artifacts of data biases in the recent global surface warming hiatus" that was published by Thomas Karl and other colleagues back in June in Science. The study casts doubt on the much vaunted global warming "pause" from 1998 to 2012 that climate deniers like Smith love to bring up when shutting down the notion of climate change. Well, Karl just happens to work at the NOAA as director of the National Centers for Environmental Information.

First, Smith made three written requests demanding information about Karl's study. The NOAA responded in writing and in personal briefs. But that didn't satisfy Smith and the committee so he upped the ante and subpoenaed records from Sullivan. 

The subpoena prompted a biting letter of response from Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat who is a ranking member on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. In her letter, Johnson says Smith has set out on what she describes as a "fishing expedition" to “harass and second guess our nation’s preeminent research scientists,” and that he’s creating a “baseless conflict.”

Johnson pointed out that the subpoena requests information from the NOAA on the data and methodologies used in the study, despite the fact that the information requested is already accessible to the public. She also noted that Smith's demand letters indicated that the scientific study "was of some consequence and could potentially have an effect on policy decisions" despite the fact that "the issue in question is a scientific research study, not a policy decision by a federal agency." She also noted that neither Smith or his team has enough scientific expertise, in her view, to even assess and interpret what they might get from NOAA. 

And she didn't stop there in her letter issued October 23:
"The baseless conflict you have created by issuing the October 13 subpoena is representative of a disturbing pattern in your use of Congressional power since your Chairmanship began. In the past two years and ten months that you have presided as Chairman of the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology you have issued more subpoenas (six) than were issued in the prior 54 year history of the Committee. That prior Committee history is filled with extensive legitimate oversight concerning consequential events — oftentimes quite literally matters of life and death. Yet none of the prior eleven Chairs of our Committee exercised their authority with the degree of partisan brashness as is now the case in our Committee."
Johnson wasn't the only one to get fed up with the subpoena. It was issued on October 13 but the NOAA announced that it won't be complying with the subpoena since the NOAA officials see it as an "overreach." Instead the NOAA officials pointed out that they actually have presented all of this information to the committee and that to comply with the subpoena would be giving up the confidentiality between scientists that helps them do their work, according a letter Coby Dolan, director of NOAA's Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs, sent Smith on Tuesday. Also, much of the information that has been requested is not only publicly available, but is actually currently available online. 

Considering Smith and his staff had trouble grasping some of the things that the NOAA officials presented to them, according to Johnson — she noted in her letter that the "NOAA attempted to explain certain aspects of the methodology about which the Majority was apparently confused" — it's possible the NOAA just decided it was easier to skip complying at all rather than try and go back and explain how the internet works. 
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Dianna Wray is a nationally award-winning journalist. Born and raised in Houston, she writes about everything from NASA to oil to horse races.
Contact: Dianna Wray