NOAA, House Science Committee At Impasse Over Climate Science Documents

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Publication date: 
10 November 2015
Number: 
141

Citing the confidentiality of deliberative scientific discussions, NOAA is refusing repeated requests from the chairman of the House Science Committee for all internal staff communications related to a major climate science study published this summer that called into question the so-called global warming hiatus and suggested the pace of Earth’s warming is now as swift as ever.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) have reached an impasse in a months-long disagreement about the level of access Smith will be permitted to the contents of NOAA staff emails and other communications related to a major climate science study led by Tom Karl, the director of the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. At debate between the parties is the extent of Congress’ powers of oversight into the scientific process at NOAA and the degree to which agency scientists and other staff are privileged to invoke a ‘confidentiality interest’ for internal communications regarding scientific matters of public interest and import.

Karl’s peer-reviewed study, published in Science magazine on June 3, revised historical land surface and sea surface temperature data records to include new datasets and make adjustments that standardize measurements across time and space as well as reduce potential bias. (All global temperature datasets regularly go through such revisions to ensure they are updated with the latest, most-standardized data.) The study also updated the records with data from years 2013 and 2014, the latter of which was warmest year in recorded history. The conclusion of the study was that Earth’s global surface temperatures, contrary to previous findings, have significantly increased since 1998.

This finding challenged the existing scientific narrative, observed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report, that global surface temperatures have experienced a hiatus in warming since 1998. Said Karl in a NOAA press release posted the day after the study was published: “Adding in the last two years of global surface temperature data and other improvements in the quality of the observed record provide evidence that contradict the notion of a hiatus in recent global warming trends. … the rate of warming over the first 15 years of this century has, in fact, been as fast or faster than that seen over the last half of the 20th century.

Smith’s investigation into study began in July and ramped up through the fall

Beginning in July, Smith launched a wide-ranging investigation of the science used in and context surrounding the study, making multiple requests of NOAA for information about the data, methodology, communications and all other documents related to the study. The primary concerns Smith stated are ensuring the quality of the science in the study and discerning whether any political motivations or collusions were behind the study’s results. In a July 14 letter to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan, Smith wrote:

The conclusions brought forth in this new study have lasting impacts and provide the basis for further action through regulations. With such broad implications, it is imperative that the underlying data and the analysis are made publicly available to ensure that the conclusions found and methods used are of the highest quality.

In addition to requesting the data and analysis behind the updated global datasets, Smith asked for “all documents and communications” related to the study from January 2014 through present. On September 10, Smith sent another letter, adding that the data that NOAA had made available to him was not enough and he and his staff wanted to see the raw and corrected datasets and the rationale behind any corrections. He again requested all documents and communications, including correspondence between NOAA staff, related to the study.

When NOAA failed to provide the internal communications requested, Smith followed up with the threat of a subpoena Sept. 25 and finally the subpoena itself Oct. 13.

NOAA responds, cites importance of protecting confidentiality of scientific discussions

NOAA says it has provided Smith with all the scientific data and methodologies requested and is taking the Committee’s oversight responsibilities very seriously.  However, it has thus far defended its choice to withhold any internal communications from public and congressional scrutiny.

In a statement to Nature magazine, NOAA asserted a confidentiality interest with regard to scientific communication, arguing:

Because the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse among scientists, these documents were not provided to the Committee. It is a long-standing practice in the scientific community of protecting the confidentiality of deliberative scientific discussions.

Smith’s Oct. 13 subpoena directly challenged NOAA’s confidentiality argument. It read, “The ‘confidentiality interest’ cited by NOAA is not recognized by the Committee as a legitimate privilege.

Smith questions NOAA’s motivations behind study

In a public statement, also to Nature magazine, Smith went further, implying that politics were motivating the study’s results. Said Smith:

The American people have every right to be suspicious when NOAA alters data to get the politically correct results they want and then refuses to reveal how those decisions were made. NOAA needs to come clean. … The agency has yet to identify any legal basis for withholding these documents.

NOAA’s communications director Ciaran Clayton responded in a statement:

There is no truth to the claim that the study was politically motivated or conducted to advance an agenda. The published findings are the results of scientists simply doing their job...

Clayton added that the study was not undertaken to disprove the warming hiatus nor did it have any other pre-drawn conclusions, adding that it was “led by a renowned climate scientist, was independently peer reviewed, and was vetted by a well regarded scientific journal.

Smith threatens further legal action against NOAA

In another letter dated Nov. 4, Smith scolded NOAA for its failure to provide the requested internal communications, and he threatened to pursue further legal mechanisms against NOAA should it continue to refuse to comply. He also requested that six senior NOAA officials, including Karl, be made available for transcribed interviews. Wrote Smith:

Your failure to comply with the Committee’s subpoena has...thwarted the Committee’s constitutional obligation to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. … It is not the position of NOAA to determine what is, or is not, responsive to the Committee’s investigation or whether certain communications are confidential. … Deficiencies in NOAA’s response to the Committee’s request raises serious concerns about what role officials at NOAA, including political appointees, had in the decision to adjust the temperature data and widely publicize conclusions based on those adjustments.

Smith continued:

Despite what some critics claim, the subpoena is not only about scientists. Political operatives and other NOAA employees likely played a large role in approving NOAA’s decision to adjust data that allegedly refutes the hiatus in warming. … The Committee needs to understand the full context of NOAA’s decision-making process.

In a letter sent to Smith, ranking member of the committee Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), was of a different opinion on the proper scope of congressional oversight in this case. She wrote:

This is not an area of delegated legislative authority by Congress to the Executive (unless you are proposing that Congress should somehow legislatively overrule peer-reviewed scientific findings). … Congress’s oversight powers are broad but not unlimited. Congress must have a rational basis for its demands.

Johnson continued with a warning that Smith’s investigation would have consequences for the health and integrity of the scientific process, quoting a May 2011 Washington Post editorial:

Academics must feel comfortable sharing research, disagreeing with colleagues and proposing conclusions - not all of which will be correct - without fear that those who dislike their findings will conduct invasive fishing expeditions in search of a pretext to discredit them.

American Meteorological Society publicly opposes Smith’s investigation, calls it a threat to scientific openness and freedom

Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society, an AIP Member Society, also delivered a letter to Smith dated Nov. 4. In it Seitter argues that investigations such as the one Smith is undertaking are harmful intrusions into the scientific process:

Singling out specific research studies, and implicitly questioning the integrity of the researchers conducting those studies, can be viewed as a form of intimidation that could deter scientists from freely carrying out research on important national challenges. ... The demand for internal communications associated with their research places a burden on NOAA scientists, imposes a chilling effect on future communication among scientists, and potentially disrupts NOAA’s critical efforts to protect life and property.

Regardless of the resolution between NOAA and the House Science Committee, the U.S. and international science agencies are in agreement that the Earth is continuing to warm mostly as a result of man-made emissions of greenhouses gases. According to the World Meteorological Organization, the fourteen warmest years on record occurred in the last fifteen years. NOAA also indicated at the end of September that 2015 was solidly on track to eclipse 2014 and be the warmest year in recorded history.  All the major global surface temperatures datasets are in agreement that the Earth’s average temperature over the first nine months of 2015 exceeded historic norms by over 1 degree C.