Scientists and top officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have agreed to start interviews akin to depositions this week with House investigators, who are demanding to know their internal deliberations on a groundbreaking climate change study.
But the interviews may not be enough to placate the chairman of the House science committee, a global warming skeptic who last week stepped up the pressure on the Commerce Department to comply with his subpoena for e-mails that NOAA has refused to turn over.
Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) wants thousands of e-mails among scientists and NOAA’s staff of political appointees that he thinks will show that the researchers had something to hide when they refuted claims that global warming had “paused” or slowed over the past decade.
On Friday, Smith appealed to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker to force NOAA to comply with his subpoena, telling her that its top officials have “obstructed” the committee’s oversight role.
“More than once, NOAA officials have attempted to shape and direct the Committee’s oversight,” Smith wrote. “Instead of assisting the committee with its Constitutionally-obligated oversight responsibilities, NOAA has refused to voluntarily and under subpoena provide information crucial to the Committee’s ongoing oversight. ” Commerce is NOAA’s parent agency.
“It is the end product of exchanges between scientists — the detailed understanding of scientific work and the data that underpins the authors’ findings — they are key to understanding the conclusions reached,” his letter continued.
The longtime skeptic of climate change touched off a furor in the climate world in October when he accused NOAA of altering the data in its study to “get the results they needed” to advance President Obama’s climate change policies. Smith 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.
He issued subpoenas from NOAA demanding e-mails, correspondence and other records of internal deliberations from the scientists who participated in the study and other officials at the top of the agency.
Meanwhile, the American Meteorological Society and other scientific groups went public with their concerns, telling Smith that his subpoena set a dangerous precedent for interference with independent scientific research.
Released in the peer-reviewed journal Science in June, the research was considered a bombshell in the scientific world. It undercut a popular argument used by critics who reject the scientific consensus that man-made pollution is behind global warming.
NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan sent her staff to Capitol Hill twice to discuss the study’s methodology, providing the committee with data, links and other documents. But when Smith requested several years of e-mails, the flow of information stopped. Sullivan told the chairman that internal discussions among scientists were not for public consumption.
“We are just trying to fully understand the full context of the decision-making process,” a Republican committee aide said of the demand for correspondence.
Then the chairman tried a different tack: Bring the agency’s chief scientist, chief of staff, communications director and author of the climate study to the committee’s offices for transcribed interviews that would not be conducted in public. He threatened Sullivan with “civil and/or criminal enforcement mechanisms” if she did not comply.
“We are negotiating with the committee,” said Ciaran Clayton, NOAA’s communications director, who is one of the witnesses to be interviewed. The staffs are discussing terms of the interviews, which are like depositions under oath in a legal case.
Thomas Karl, the study’s main author, is likely to be interviewed this week, aides familiar with the negotiations said.
The interviews will be done by Republican and Democratic committee staff members. NOAA has requested that the transcripts be made public. But a committee aide said that is unlikely.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (Tex.), the science panel’s ranking Democrat, has called Smith’s investigation a “waste of time.”
Smith has another card to play if he doesn’t get what he wants. He could hold Sullivan in contempt of Congress and ask the full House to vote on it.