The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Congressman demands climate study documents as scientists warn of ‘chilling effect’

The U.S. Capitol Building and Capitol Power Plant, the only coal-burning plant in the nation’s capital. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

A nasty fight between a senior House Republican and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration over a recent climate change study is getting nastier.

The country’s chief society of meteorologists weighed in this week with a letter to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Tex.), warning the prominent congressional skeptic on climate change that his demands for internal communications and documents from NOAA “can be viewed as a form of intimidation” that could thwart federally funded research.

Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, stepped up his pressure on agency Administrator Kathryn Sullivan to divulge its scientists’ internal deliberations, demanding in a letter that she turn over the documents requested in a House subpoena by Friday.

“Your failure to comply with a duly issued subpoena may expose you to civil and/or criminal enforcement mechanisms,” the congressman wrote.

[Congressional skeptic on global warming demands records from U.S. climate scientists]

What has exploded into a very public feud started in October, when Smith issued subpoenas demanding e-mails, correspondence and other records of internal deliberations from NOAA scientists who participated in a study refuting claims that global warming had “paused” or slowed over the last decade.

The study, released in the peer-reviewed journal Science in June, undercut a popular argument used by critics who reject the scientific consensus that man-made pollution is behind global warming.

The subpoenas ordered NOAA to turn over scientific data as well as internal “communications between or among employees” involved in the study. The demand was immediately denounced by the science committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.) as an effort to discredit the study and its authors.

[NOAA says there’s no such thing as the global warming ‘pause.’ Now what?

NOAA officials told the committee the study’s findings were already publicly available and met with the panel’s staff to brief them on the results. But they did not comply with the subpoenas, telling Smith that the internal discussions of their scientists are confidential.

The study, led by Thomas Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information, was considered by many experts as a game-changer in the climate debate.

Smith, a lawyer, has rejected mainstream scientific views about climate change and said the Obama administration undermined the U.S. economy with policies that sought to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And he is not backing down now.

In Wednesday’s letter, he expressed “serious concerns” about the role that NOAA officials, including the agency’s political appointees, may have had “in the decision to adjust the temperature data and widely publicize conclusions based on those adjustments.”

[Federal scientists say there never was any global warming slowdown]

NOAA communications director Ciaran Clayton said Thursday that the agency is “in receipt of the congressman’s letter, and we’re reviewing it.”

Meanwhile, the American Meteorological Society told Smith Wednesday that his subpoena of NOAA correspondence sets a dangerous precedent for interference with independent scientific research.

“Singling out specific research studies, and 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,” wrote Keith L. Seitter, executive director of the Boston-based scientific group.

He said the congressman’s demand for records “imposes a chilling effect on future communication among scientists, and potentially disrupts NOAA’s critical efforts to protect life and property.”

Andrew Rosenberg, a fisheries scientist at NOAA during the Clinton administration who is now with the Washington-based Union of Concerned Scientists, summed up the dispute this way:

“This is mostly about climate change. But it is also about a congressman attacking answers he doesn’t like. I sincerely hope that federal scientists don’t have to lawyer up because they’re doing their jobs.”