House Science, Space, and Technology Committee vs National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation

[Climate blogger Michael Tobis has written the best summary of the Smith-vs-NOAA brouhaha that I’ve yet seen. Please read it in its entirety, then follow the link and read it again. More important, pass it on — everybody needs to know about this.]


The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, under the leadership of my own representative Lamar Smith, has been harassing Thomas Karl, recent past president of the American Meteorological Society and longtime head of the National Climate Data Center, a federal agency under NOAA, because he expressed himself unimpressed by the “hiatus” in global temperature increase, and because a team he heads published data that supported his conclusion.

Smith’s committee has been demanding defenses of the rather mundane and straightforward measurements and calculations going into NCDC’s global temperature estimate, and in particular, some minute recent corrections to that record.

As I understand it Karl and NCDC have been bending over backwards to be cooperative, and have presented their raw data and algorithms in great detail to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. They stand ready to answer any substantive questions and defend any particular calculation in detail.

The scandal is this: the committee has showed no signs of interest in their honest answer to what might be an honest question, but has pursued the matter to the point of harassment and vile innuendo.

This cannot stand, and by “cannot stand”, I mean they probably will get away unscathed, but they really ought not to.

Alas, as the Benghazi metascandal and the Planned Parenthood metascandal prove, the congressional majority have no scruples and the American press has no spine. Fortunately the executive branch has developed a bit of one. NOAA should not be quick to comply and I am pleased that they did not. I think that is the next best thing.

It’s not because Smith’s committee doesn’t have the authority to investigate NCDC, it’s that they ought to refrain from abusing it.

A court case would be a very good thing if the press played against type and showed up awake for a change. I don’t have a strong answer to lukewarmer blogger “Fabius Maximus’”s point that the committee will win on the legal niceties. Perhaps there isn’t one. But confusing legal power with responsible government woefully misses the point of democracy.

Still, every time another sliver of the public sees the ethical shabbiness of the majority’s actions that would be a good thing. The scientific community is not positively impressed by Smith’s ridiculous antics to the extent they are paying attention. These outrages should be made plain to see.

NOAA is right to resist, and the press is wrong to back burner this grotesque mockery of congressional oversight.

The press will most likely cower indecently rather than tell the truth here, as they have done so much lately. It’s another chapter in the fake scandal horror show, and they’ll dutifully report “both sides”. Smith is being flagrantly and transparently abusive, and it would be good if the rest of society did not turn away.

31 responses to “House Science, Space, and Technology Committee vs National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation

  1. Hmmm. This may be going the way of the McCarthy era. The rabid right end up going too far, and their house of cards collapses.

  2. Reblogged this on Hypergeometric and commented:

    I wonder if this has anything to do with giving Exxon technical cover?

    Hmmm …

    [Response: Be sure to credit, and link to, the actual author (Michael Tobis).]

  3. Kevin O'Neill

    This graph, in its various forms, could be improved by having the actual #s for degrees of warming right next to the legend. Something like:

    ——- With corrections 0.85 degrees of warming
    ——- Without corrections 1.00 degrees of warming

    You really do have to spell it out for some people :)

    • Using every form of self-delusion I have learned on Climate Etc. … Kevin, If that’s true, then Karl is up to something nefarious and it’s got to be no good ’cause it’s just in time for Paris, which obviously would have yawned at 1C. The lower number means it’s more likely they’ll act as Karl is tricking them by giving up his alarmism. He’s krafty that way.

  4. skeptictmac57

    To one degree or another, politicians have always abused their power and the facts, but am I crazy for thinking that the far right has now taken this to a whole new level? Also it seemed to me that in the past, once it had been shown (they were caught) that a politician was lying about an issue that they were using to push an agenda, that that then became a big scandal, and most people backed away from supporting them. But now, they seem to be getting away with any number of lies, slander, harassment, legal abuse, and anti-social views and statements, and their base could not care less, in fact, they are often rewarded for it because the people they represent cannot see past their ideological noses, and apparently prefer a lie to an uncomfortable truth.

  5. So, just trying to see this objectively. Alert me if there are fundamental differences I’m missing. If Exxon was being stingy with FOI requests amd crying witchhunt at being asked to show internal communications, wouldn’t those suspicious of Exxon just consider that further evidence of wrongdoing? How is this different? I don’t expect NOAA did anything underhanded at all with this research. But what makes the two investigations different?

    • The difference is that you have a representative of the funding branch of government trying to intimidate employees of the executive branch to keep them from doing their jobs.

    • A few differences jump out. First, Exxon isn’t required to comply with FOIA requests, only government agencies are. Second, internal documents from Exxon have emerged which do show efforts to conceal and obfuscate the truth about climate science. Third, in your scenario, if Exxon were to release the requested documents the likely requesters would read them and analyze their contents, whereas the committee is only reacting to responses by issuing further questions, in the blind hope that merely asking enough questions loudly enough will look to the uninformed like a serious investigation of wrongdoing.

  6. Judith Curry has written in support of Rep. Smith for Fox. Disgusting!

    Shameful and shameless.

  7. The goal here is not to compel testimony or even to cherrypick emails. The goal is to preserve the impression in the limited minds of Smith’s constituents that the whole enterprise of climate science is corrupt. This is only rationalization left to the hardcore climate denialists.

    • It would be similar to taking the single badly judged action of one individual opposed to an enterprise and painting all the critics of that enterprise with the same brush, maybe.

      • human1ty1st,
        If the painted humanity you refer to are the denialati, I had noting to do with painting them. Indeed, they have been swimming in paint–and from what I can see inhaling the fumes deeply for about 20 years now. I have yet to see a denialist argument that wasn’t at best a misunderstanding of data or of how science works, or at worst an outright lie.

  8. Large government organizations are always subjected to political interference, a good example is that when the White changes hands then its my understanding that often the leadership of these organizations change hands too, a game the Dems and Reps both play.

    The climate change issue is considered by both sides as important, to somewhat caricature the extremes, one side thinks inaction will lead to global catastrophe, the other side thinks action will lead to economic catastrophe.

    Karl is a big boy, he’s not some isolated little scientist, he surely understands his directorship is as much political as scientific, and has his own organizational and political support. Although Tamino wants to paint this as a co-operative NOAA vs a bullying Smith the truth is more likely NOAA wants to give away as little as possible to protect its political space and Smith wants to push interference as far as possible. In the game of politics things get ugly over big issues. On balance its probably good that it should be that way for a healthy democracy.

    Specifically its probably unlikely Smith will find a smoking gun. In that case, to the extent anybody notices the issue, then it’ll just re-enforce the view of Reps as the party of dysfuntional government which seems to be the dominant sentiment at the moment.

    • Ummm. Thomas Karl has served as head of the Climate Center at NOAA since 1998, so he DID NOT “change hands” with the election of President Obama in 2008, or George W. Bush in 2000.( Incidentally, it took me five minutes to look that up; you could have done the same.) Issuing a subpoena for every email is disingenuous at best. This is a witch hunt, pure and simple.

      It would be nice to have Congress actually do SOMETHING to move this country forward, and this isn’t it. Hmm, maybe they could actually take action on Climate Change in a significant way, for instance.

      • Steve, I didnt say Karl was appointed by President Obama, you would see that if you spent 5mins reading what I wrote carefully ;)

        My point was these organizations have always seen political interference. My point was organizations like NOAA, NASA, FDA etc (nominally scientific bodies) often see politically appointed leadership changes, it was an example. You can dislike Smiths’ political interference, and I think its pretty ugly, but it not unique.

        PJKar, you are right, this has often been portrayed as Smith going after a scientist, this article doesnt do that it puts it in correct framework – one arm of government going after another arm of government. But that was largely my point, this is politics going after politics NOT politics going after science.

        [Response: I disagree. It *is* unique. It’s not just political maneuvering, it really is a genuine witch-hunt. It’s way beyond just political interference to demanding all the private communications between scientists, or an attempt to discredit simple scientific results. And your last sentence is absolutely wrong; Smith is attacking science itself, not just political policy.]

      • human1ty1st,

        From the Ars Technica article I linked:

        “Given the persistent requests for internal communications, it’s clear that Rep. Smith is hoping to find some sort of evidence of tampering, though no accusation has been explicitly made.”

        The guy is out to get the science. That’s been his history. Is that so hard to see? Now he’s out to get to NOAA for its defiance. Look at that ridiculous laundry list of demands in his Nov 4th letter (in addition to what he’s already wanted since July).

    • Karl is a big boy, he’s not some isolated little scientist, he surely understands his directorship is as much political as scientific, and has his own organizational and political support.

      This is above Karl’s level now. The subpoena and all the letters have been addressed to Sullivan not Karl. See my post below.

  9. Anybody here know how to contact Paul Krugman? I think he might be interested in presenting this problem, and he’s reliable about climate and denial, and has a wide readership at the NYT. I know he used a Tobis graphic some time ago, and was informed about it by many readers, so he would know who Tobis is.

    • Susan,
      What is it that you want from Krugman? He is an economist. Since it would appear this confrontation has the potential to escalate to a constitutional crisis between the legislative and executive, maybe whats needed is the opinion of a constitutional law scholar. It seems the one in the White House may have already weighed in since his Administrator has defied the subpoena. The Secretary of Commerce’s opinion on this might be worthwhile too.

    • Susan,

      Thank you for posting those two links to Krugman’s articles. Undoubtedly he has interesting things to say on green economics. I was coming from the point of view of the legal and political issues involved with NOAA defying the subponea. So I was thinking of hearing from someone like Jeffery Toobin who used to be on CNN (maybe still is, I don’t get it anymore) or Professor Jonathan Turley of Georgetown University who is a constitutional scholar and who also used to be on CNN as well. They probably know the science issues at the high level and could provide some insights on the legal-political aspects of this confrontation.

      It is amazing to me that this standoff is getting such little attention at least I can’t find much on it. Thom Hartmann on RT (Russia Today) is following it and below is a link to his segment with Mike Mann.

      Mann was on Hartmann’s show again tonight and he is really starting to hit hard at the dinialistas and the Kochs etc and talking some pretty hard truths about what we have to do to have a chance of meeting climate goals, the political obstacles to meeting those goals and Exxon’s diisinformation campaign and its impact on achieving those goals. Great to see and I would hope to see more scientists follow his lead. Hansen was great at this too plus he was in the streets with the protestors getting arrested.

      That was a really interesting link from Hot Whopper on Judith Curry (Sou does some really great work), Now a Fox News Contributor (Yes it is disgusting!). I saw some of that stuff at her site, like that “heard enough behind the scenes ” and she’s sidiing with Smith (from Lars Karlsson’s link). How sick does it get?

  10. Apparently Smith has been in contact with NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan since July trying to secure these documents. The link below is to the ARs Technica website which contains his letters to NOAA up through October 13th, the last one being the one where he states he will subpoena the documents.

    The Administrator allowed partial releases in response to his requests apparently trying to show some compliance but she was only going so far. The link below contains the Nov 4th letter to the Administrator demanding the documents by Nov 6th plus a long list of other bullshit resulting from her unwillingness to comply.

    In it he states:“Your failure to comply with the Committee’s subpoena has delayed the Committee’s investigation and thwarted the Committee’s constitutional obligation to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. Furthermore, your failure to comply with a duly issued subpoena may expose you to civil and/or criminal enforcement mechanisms.”

    So Sullivan forces Smith to take it to the next level. Obama had to have been carefully following these events and that it went this far would seem to suggest (to me anyway) the Obama Administration is looking for or at least ready for a showdown with Smith. A lot of implications here should this make it to the courts.

  11. Is Tobis’ plot of raw/adjusted SST? NOAA FAQ shows very slightly higher warming trend for adjusted land+ocean over raw for the full record (to 2008). There’s also an SST plot at the link, which looks more like Tobis’ chart.

    Thought it was land+ocean at first. No label.

    (Posted the query at Tobis’ blog, too)

    • barry,
      The “Tobis plot” shown at the head of this post shows a plot combining SST data and GHCN data that have both been adjusted (grey line) and for comparison a plot combining raw SST & raw GHCN (blue plot). The NOAA web page you link to provides a chart showing plots of just SST adjusted and raw. Also on that same NOAA web page are a pair of charts in the answer to Q5 which shows the effect of the GHCN adjustments. The top chart plots combined SST & GHCN data that have both been adjusted (so the same as the grey line on the “Tobis plot”). The bottom chart combines adjusted SST with raw GHCN. So the difference between these two charts is the total effect of the GHCN adjustment. It is not a big effect so is not at all noticeable except when the trends are calculated.

    • “The bottom chart combines adjusted SST with raw GHCN.”

      Thanks, Al. I thought it was all raw data.

      MT has updated his post, now referencing Karl et al.

  12. Tamino,

    Sorry about the embedded video,

  13. John Abraham has a thorough comment on this in The Guardian:

    He suggests that Smith isn’t only attacking science, but also attempting to derail the upcoming Paris talks:

    “As the world neared the Copenhagen negotiations, conservative pundits took hacked emails from climate scientists, twisted words, truncated quotes and successfully manufactured a scandal… 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.”

  14. This may be belabouring the obvious, but its easy for newcomers to be misled on this issue, so here’s my own take on it.
    That particular graph (figure B) taken out of context is rather confusing: figure A shows that the “with new corrections” curve is almost exactly the same as it was with the old corrections. The big corrections in the first half of the twentieth century and late nineteenth century were made previously, and they’re the ones that had the effect of showing slower global warming over the century than the raw data would indicate.

    The main bias in the earlier raw data came from initially using canvas buckets to take sea temperatures, changing to metal buckets then in the 1940s measuring water intake in the cooling system for the ships’ engines. Put simply, the tiny new corrections refine earlier corrections for the change from engine intake temperatures to automatic buoys. There have also been changes to the land temperature datasets, adding more weather stations. The dark “with corrections” curve includes all the corrections, the thin “before corrections” line is raw data. Both include land and sea surface temperatures.

    • Thanks for the simplified explanation. I sometimes want that information, given the intemperate nature of the ongoing arguments. Every little factoid might reach past the footlights of denial to someone who might actually, you know, think about it.