The Republican Climate Science Witch Hunt

(Photo: AP/Charles Dharapak)

House Science Committee Chairman Representative Lamar Smith of Texas in 2012

Climate change deniers have friends on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Lamar Smith, the House Science Committee chair who has been at the forefront of efforts to incinerate federal global warming research, is determined to provide a public platform for climate skeptics to share their widely discredited views and to step up attacks on federal research work overseen by groups like Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board. Meanwhile, President Trump has moved to cut back federal support for climate research and undo much of President Obama’s climate legacy, including the Clean Power Plan to phase out fossil fuel power plants and increase renewable energy production.

But the Texas Republican and his allies may pose the bigger threat. The congressman moved to raise the profile of climate change deniers by inviting prominent skeptics to a Wednesday “Making scientific debate great again” hearing. A witness on the panel, Georgia Institute of Technology professor Judith Curry, claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had engaged in “sausage-making and even bullying” to build the overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes of climate change. She also pointed to “substantial uncertainties” in global warming research.

Testimony from Curry and others “is designed to create the illusion of debate where none exists,” said Michael Mann, a Penn State atmospheric science professor and the Democratic committee members’ lone witness.  

Smith is also moving to gut new climate science research. The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, co-sponsored by Smith and currently pending in the House, would hamstring the agency’s peer-review process. Established by Congress in 1978, the EPA Science Advisory Board is an independent body of about 50 scientists who review agency research and advise EPA policymakers. The advisory board’s recognized expertise and independence has been important for an agency that has been the focus of conservative attacks, and recently played a key role in the EPA’s landmark finding that fracking can affect the safety of drinking water.

Smith’s bill purports to enhance the agency’s public accountability and transparency. Yet the proposal would prohibit scientists from discussing their own unpublished research while serving on the advisory board, and would ban scientists from seeking EPA grants for three years after stepping down from the board. The bill would invite what Smith calls more “balanced perspectives” by making it easier for experts with corporate ties to fossil fuels to serve on the board.

Other agencies also rely on science advisory boards to vet research and advise policymakers, but the EPA’s board has been at the center of political controversy since Smith took over the science committee in 2013. Smith has introduced the advisory board reform measure three times since 2014, but the proposal may get traction under Trump. “It’s incredibly concerning,” says Andrew A. Rosenberg, who directs the Science and Democracy Center at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Smith has also sponsored a second bill, the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, or HONEST Act, which would ban the agency from enforcing regulations based on data collected from long-range studies or data that is not readily available, such as information obtained from medical records. The science committee chairman has said he wants to give the public more input on EPA research, to target conflicts of interest, and to put an end to what he calls “secret science” at the agency. “American taxpayers have often had to foot the bill for regulations and rules based on hidden science that has not been available for review by the public,” Smith said in an early March statement. “An open and honest scientific process is long overdue at EPA.”

Tristan Brown, former Deputy Associate Administrator for Congressional Affairs at the EPA, says the bill would allow fossil fuel companies to put a damper on studies that did support the use of traditional fuel sources. “Industry is more than happy to spend ten times the money undermining one study than producing useful studies themselves,” Brown says.

Smith has regularly taken aim at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a Department of Commerce agency that conducts ocean and climate research. A 2015 NOAA study in the journal Science rebutted the controversial theory that there has been a “pause” in global warming. This theory, which asserts that the rate of global warming slowed during the first decade of the 21st century, has been repeatedly refuted by climate scientists. The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, recently launched an investigation of the study, claiming that NOAA had “manipulated global warming data” in order to drum up support for the 2015 Paris climate deal. Climate experts have long since repudiated the Daily Mail story, but Smith repeatedly cites it as evidence that scientists who receive federal funding are “falsifying data to justify a partisan agenda.”  

He has also moved to discredit the scientists involved in the NOAA study. In October 2015, Smith subpoenaed all correspondence and documents related to the study going back at least seven years—a tactic Democratic Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson likened to a “witch hunt” intended to discredit government scientists. “Why that’s legitimate oversight I have no idea,” says Rosenberg.

Within days of the president’s inauguration, Doug Erickson, Trump’s head of communications, announced that political appointees at the agency would review all EPA data and studies before public release. The surprising announcement made good on an “agency action” plan written by Myron Ebell, who headed Trump’s EPA transition team. An energy and environment official at the Koch brothers–funded Competitive Enterprise Institute, a far-right think tank, Ebell pledged to “overhaul” the agency’s science advisory processes. “EPA does not use science to guide regulatory policy as much as it uses regulatory policy to steer the science,” the memo declared.

Just as Ebell and his team prepared to implement their plan late last year, the EPA released a landmark, multi-year study that concluded that fracking could negatively affect drinking water, marking the first time that the EPA linked fracking to water quality, a critical public interest. That conclusion came after the science advisory board issued a public rebuke of an earlier draft of the study that had concluded there was “no evidence that fracking systemically contaminates water.” The agency later issued a final report that aligned with the data researchers had actually presented in the study—which reflected the long-standing scientific consensus on fracking’s potential dangers.

“That’s what the [science advisory] board does: They weren’t involved in the drafting of the report and so they were able to come at it objectively,” says Michael Kelly, Clean Water Action’s national communications director.

Smith and Ebell have long depended on the largesse of the same major players in the fossil-fuel industry. During the 2014 election cycle, ExxonMobil and Koch Industries each contributed $10,000 to Smith’s campaign, with Exxon contributing another $10,000 to Smith’s political action committee, Longhorn PAC. Exxon contributed another $10,000 toward Smith’s most recent bid for Congress; other energy companies also contributed to his campaign, bringing his 2016 donations from that sector to nearly $100,000. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington watchdog group, the oil and gas sector is by far the largest industry represented among Smith’s campaign donors. Other Republicans on the House Science Committee have also accepted donations from fossil fuel interests.

While Ebell’s financial backers have been less than transparent, the Competitive Enterprise Institute has received more than $2 million from Exxon since 1997, according to Greenpeace’s ExxonSecrets project. And according to an investigation by Conservative Transparency, a Media Matters project, since CEI’s founding in 1984, Koch-funded dark-money groups Donors Trust and Donors Trust Capital have contributed $6.3 million, making them the group’s top funders. “Ebell and Smith are paid by the same people,” Rosenberg says. “These proposals are basically straight from lobbyists’ hands into the administration and Congress.”

Meanwhile, in addition to pending legislation, recent rule changes have given EPA opponents like Smith a freer hand to interfere. Smith has repeatedly used his power as committee chairman to force government climate scientists to testify before the science committee: Since 2013, the committee has issued more than two dozen subpoenas, an unusually high number. (House Republicans expanded this power in January: Now congressional staffers can depose and compel sworn testimony from private citizens, even without lawmakers present.)

Under the newly resurrected Holman Rule, which allows members of Congress to target the salaries of government employees in appropriations bills, House Republicans could slash scientists’ and other federal workers’ pay to $1. The message is clear, says Kelly: Don’t work in controversial areas like climate change. “If you are going to be called [before] Congress, potentially to have your pay cut, this could have a massively chilling effect [on scientists’ work],” he says.

The stakes are high in the climate change fight. Despite budget cuts and political attacks, the EPA, NOAA, and NASA are still among the largest sources of climate data in the United States—and the world. “The EPA relies on objective science, the best that we have, and the rest of the world looks to us for that,” says Brown, the former EPA employee. “That’s the scary part: They’re just going to try to eliminate that objective science.”

This article has been updated. 

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