‘NOAAgate’ — probing a cover-up, or a ‘weapon of mass distraction’?

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 11/24/2015 07:54 AM EST

In the past month, congressional Republicans have subpoenaed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to gain access to the private documents and emails of scientists involved in a landmark climate change study to look for evidence of alleged wrongdoing.

In the past month, congressional Republicans have subpoenaed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to gain access to the private documents and emails of scientists involved in a landmark climate change study to look for evidence of alleged wrongdoing.

The attempts, by Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, timed before COP-21 talks in Paris next month to negotiate a new global climate change agreement, have prompted some comparisons to Climategate. During that November 2009 scandal, the private emails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in England were hacked and released, and their words were cherry-picked to suggest a global warming conspiracy.

Lamar Smith
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). | Photo courtesy of the U.S. House of Representatives.

"This entire fiasco reminds me of another hype-driven, fact-lacking conspiracy: the so-called ‘Climategate,’" wrote Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the committee in a letter to Smith.


Climategate preceded the climate summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009 and dominated media coverage for at least a year. The scientists at its center had to participate in five independent investigations, which all cleared them of wrongdoing. The biggest impact of Climategate was on conservatives, who became more distrustful of scientists and global warming than they were previously, some studies show.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if the objective is the same here," said Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences at Princeton University. "It seems to me the sweeping nature of [Smith’s] request means that the primary objective is to harass the scientists, waste their time and try to scare other scientists in the government from ever getting involved in the climate change issue."

Bloggers who doubt human-caused global warming have christened Lamar’s attempts "NOAAgate." So far, NOAAgate has not developed into as much of a distraction as Climategate because the emails have not been released, Oppenheimer said.

Moreover, the public, media and scientists are more savvy now than they were six years ago of the tactics employed by climate change doubters, observers said.

NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan again declined to provide emails in a letter to Smith on Friday.

"I have not and will not allow anyone to manipulate the science or coerce the scientists who work for me," she wrote.

For the next act: contempt?

Smith could now hold Sullivan and other NOAA officials in contempt (ClimateWire, Nov. 19). Republicans have held federal officials in contempt for failing to comply with subpoenas, including former Attorney General Eric Holder and Lois Lerner, former chief at IRS.

At the heart of NOAAgate is a study that dismantles the theory, championed by climate change doubters, that global warming has "paused" in the past 15 years. Thomas Karl, a climate scientist at NOAA who pioneered global temperature measurements, and his colleagues used two updated ocean temperature data sets and one updated land temperature data set to find that the rate of warming seen recently matched that seen in the 20th century (ClimateWire, June 5).

Tom Karl
Thomas Karl, director of the National Climatic Data Center. | Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The controversy stems from these data sets. Smith, climate change doubters and Judith Curry, a climatologist at Georgia Institute of Technology who leans toward the doubter group, believe the study was published before all data sets became publicly available.

The rush, Smith believes, indicates that NOAA was politically motivated to publish before the release of the Clean Power Plan and COP-21.

"Because the Karl study was apparently prematurely rushed to publication, the timing of its release raises concerns that it was expedited to fit the Administration’s aggressive climate agenda," he wrote in a letter to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker.

Curry said that the only similarity between NOAAgate and Climategate is that "people want to see the data and understand the details that went into creating the data."

Smith’s and Curry’s concerns about data are misplaced, scientists stressed. The ocean temperature data set the NOAA scientists had became available in early 2015. The land data set was updated in November, but NOAA’s study is based on a version published in 2013. Overall, all data are now publicly available, and all, including the latest version of land temperatures, confirm the study’s findings that global warming has not paused.

"This is hardly a piece of rushed work," said Philip Jones, research director at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, who was one of the scientists burned by Climategate.

Playing before a more prepared public

Smith’s inquiry seeks to mar the bigger picture, scientists said. There are five independent global temperature series, and all show global warming is progressing robustly and 2015 will be the hottest on record, Jones said.

"There doesn’t appear to be any disagreement in the science about global averages of surface temperatures," he said, calling the controversy "contrived."

Thomas Peterson, president of the World Meteorological Organization’s Commission for Climatology and a co-author of the NOAA study, said that the only concerns raised were about the technical process of updating the land data set, which creates additional work for the scientists. He stressed that these concerns did not alter the science or the end product.

Phil Jones
Professor Philip Jones, head of a climate research team at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. | Photo courtesy of the University of East Anglia.

Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom who studies climate communication, thinks Smith’s actions would be popular only among "tea party supporters."

"The audience is so fragmented and polarized at the moment," he said. "All these shenanigans are aimed at a segment of the public."

Meanwhile, the blistering responses of Johnson, the minority leader, to Smith’s subpoenas, which she has termed a "witch hunt," are aimed at liberals, Lewandowsky said. Democrats were more hesitant to come to the scientists’ defense during Climategate.

"Everyone was, because it was a shocking event, no one was prepared for it, and so it was much easier at the time for people to make use of Climategate against scientists," he said.

The world is now at a different place. Canada and Australia have recently elected governments that support climate policy, and the United States has agreed to cut emissions by 26 to 28 percent below 2012 levels by 2030. China has agreed to peak its emissions.

"In the lead up to Paris, the pledges from all the governments have set a tone toward moving forward and actually solving the problem that was absent before Copenhagen," Lewandowsky said.

The public and the media are more attuned to the political motivations, said Michael Halpern, program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Such attempts are now most disruptive to the scientists involved, he said. For instance, Karl extended his trip to Washington, D.C., and cleared his calendar Thursday to meet with Smith’s staff and explain the study. But staff members declined to meet him.

"Every attack still is a weapon of mass distraction," Halpern said. "It significantly disrupts the lives of the scientists who are targeted. It sends a message to other scientists that their lives might be disrupted next."