Climate study spat escalates as Smith presses for interviews

By Emily Yehle | 11/17/2015 06:54 AM EST

The clash between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) over a global warming study continued this week, with Smith accusing the agency of "publicizing" his demand for the internal emails of agency scientists and officials.

Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, subpoenaed NOAA last month, demanding communications about a landmark study that disputed the global warming "pause." NOAA has provided data and briefings but has refused to hand over what it says are the confidential messages of scientists (E&E Daily, Nov. 5).

Now the agency and the panel are negotiating the next step: interviews with four agency officials.

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NOAA has suggested dates for chief scientist Richard Spinrad and Thomas Karl, the lead author of the study and director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information. But the panel wants to first secure interviews with two other officials: chief of staff Renee Stone and Communications Director Ciaran Clayton.

On Friday, Smith bypassed NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan and appealed to the head of the Commerce Department, which houses NOAA.

The panel, he wrote, has asked not just for communications among scientists but also among NOAA "policy and political staff." The letter casts a wide net, expressing interest in communications on "events and activities leading up to the study and the decisions made by NOAA on how to use its results once it was completed."

"The agency seems to be purposefully avoiding all mention of this aspect of the Committee’s work when responding to the Committee and in its efforts to engage the media," Smith wrote, later adding that "NOAA was able to quickly provide dates for the Committee to interview the two scientists requested, but has to date remained unwilling, without explanation, to provide dates for the other two NOAA officials who are not scientists."

In an email, Clayton said officials "continue working with the Committee to accommodate their request."

The interviews — which could be this week, or even the week of Thanksgiving — are like depositions, with lawmakers asking NOAA officials questions behind closed doors. Committee spokesman Zachary Kurz said the interviews will not be open to the public and that the panel "does not intend to make the transcripts public in their entirety." Both Republican and Democratic staff will have equal time to ask questions, he said.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the top Democrat on the science panel, has accused Smith of holding a "fishing expedition." The American Meteorological Society has also warned Smith that his subpoena could have a "chilling effect on future communication among scientists."

The study at the center of the debate fixed errors in global temperature data and found that a mysterious "pause" in global warming never existed. That does not sit well with those who doubt the science of climate change, who have often pointed to the "hiatus" as proof that global warming is overblown.

The study ran in Science and was well-received by scientists. Its authors corrected raw data for biases, such as ocean buoys whose temperature readings were biased low. The result: a rate of warming over the past 15 years that is comparable with the rates in the 20th century (ClimateWire, June 5).

Smith, a climate change skeptic, has insinuated that NOAA political appointees played a role in the reanalyzed data. In his letter to Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Smith criticized the agency for publicizing Karl’s study and sending out a "widely-circulated press release," as well as a tweet on Twitter.

"This type of public relations effort seems better suited to an advertising campaign than a federal agency’s sober report on the findings of a publicly-funded study," Smith wrote.

The agency routinely releases press releases on the studies of its scientists. Last week, for example, it put out a press release on a study published in Trends in Ecology & Evolution that identified common patterns in marine ecosystems (Greenwire, Nov. 11).

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