Lamar Smith blasts NOAA climate study, accuses agency of hype

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 03/17/2016 08:32 AM EDT

The chairman of the House Science Committee yesterday accused the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of misrepresenting research to push through the Obama administration’s climate change policies.

The chairman of the House Science Committee yesterday accused the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of misrepresenting research to push through the Obama administration’s climate change policies.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) asked NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan to immediately comply with his subpoena requesting emails of scientists and internal staff involved in a 2014 study rebutting a charge that global warming stopped in the early 2000s. The two faced off during a congressional hearing on the agency’s proposed 2017 budget.

Smith, a climate doubter, has repeatedly questioned the necessity and validity of NOAA’s climate research and temperature observations in the past year. The Obama administration has requested $190 million for climate research and only $100 million for weather forecasting, he said.


"Instead of hyping a climate change agenda, NOAA should focus its efforts on producing sound science and improving methods of data collection," he said. "Unfortunately, climate alarmism often takes priority at NOAA."

Particularly at issue is that the NOAA study rebutted a favored talking point of people who reject mainstream climate science. The claim of a "pause" was based on the observation that although the planet warmed between 2000 and 2014, the temperature rise was not as steep as scientists expected.

The warming rate has since picked up, and 2014 and 2015 set records.

Last year, NOAA fixed some biases in its global temperature data set. And its scientists found that the rate of warming had not slowed in the early 2000s compared with the previous half-century (Climatewire, June 5, 2015).

Authored by Thomas Karl, the director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information and a pioneer in the field of temperature measurements, the paper was considered a significant blow to climate change doubters.

But a group of mainstream scientists countered that top-line finding in a Nature Climate Change commentary last month. They said the rate of warming between 2000 and 2010 had, indeed, slowed provided that scientists compare the recent years with the previous 15-year stretch rather than the previous half-century stretch (Climatewire, Feb. 25).

Both comparisons are valid, scientists stressed, and provide answers to different questions. Karl and his colleagues probed whether the global warming trend has stopped in the long run and found that it has not. The Nature scientists, in contrast, probed whether the global warming trend is fluctuating from decade to decade, driven by natural variability in the climate system, and found that it is.

Smith: Timing of study suspicious

The nuance was lost on Smith. At the hearing, the congressman suggested that only one of the two studies could be accurate.

"Both can’t be correct," he told Sullivan. "Do you feel like that the NOAA study is still correct, or do you think the Nature article is correct?"

Sullivan said that she stands by "the quality and integrity of the scientific analysis that was published for all to challenge, confirm or verify" in the NOAA study.

Michael Mann, a climatologist at Pennsylvania State University and a co-author of the Nature study, said that Smith is misrepresenting the study and using it to claim that global warming has paused.

"Our study does not support the notion of a "pause" in global warming, only a temporary slowdown, which was due to natural factors, and has now ended," he said.

Smith subpoenaed NOAA last year to hand over internal emails discussing the study. He called NOAA’s compliance laggard and said a batch of emails the agency handed over two days ago is insufficient. Smith said he is suspicious of the timing of the study.

"It was published just before the administration was about to propose its final Clean Power Plan regulations at the U.N. Paris Climate Change conference," he said.

Sullivan said that her staff would continue working with Smith’s staff to comply with the subpoena.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the top Democrat on the panel, said Smith’s queries suggest a "grand conspiracy to falsify data" and are without merit.

"I hope my friends and colleagues at the other side of the aisle can move past this effort to create science controversy where it does not exist and instead focus on finding solutions to addressing the threat of climate change," she said.