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Climate unpleasantness intensifies again in politics and the media

2 November 2015
A US government scientific organization defies a congressional committee chairman's subpoena.

A 28 October Jeff Tollefson article in Nature leads media coverage of the latest climate-wars skirmish—but doesn't join in the renewed nastiness. The opening summarizes the news:

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has refused to comply with lawmakers’ attempts to subpoena internal communications relating to a recent climate-change study by its scientists.

The analysis, published in Science in June, analyzed NOAA's temperature records and found that global warming has continued apace in the early twenty-first century. The study contradicts previous findings—often cited by global-warming sceptics—suggesting that warming has slowed since the 1990s.

Representative Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who leads the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, asked NOAA in July for the data used in the study and for any internal communications related to it. NOAA has provided the committee with the publicly available data and has briefed committee staff on the research, but the agency has not turned over the communications.

The June scientific paper presented “an updated global surface temperature analysis” bearing on the much-discussed global warming hiatus. It concluded that “the IPCC’s statement of two years ago—that the global surface temperature ‘has shown a much smaller increasing linear trend over the past 15 years than over the past 30 to 60 years’—is no longer valid.” In a preview of the nastiness that has resumed this fall, climate-consensus scoffers across the media immediately began reacting—usually derisively, and sometimes with outright vituperation.

The paper comes from Thomas R. Karl of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information and eight coauthors. It reports on “newly corrected” data. The closing paragraph points to a figure and sums up:

[T]here is no discernable (statistical or otherwise) decrease in the rate of warming between the second half of the 20th century and the first 15 years of the 21st century. Our new analysis now shows that the trend over the period 1950–1999, a time widely agreed as having significant anthropogenic global warming, is 0.113°C decade−1, which is virtually indistinguishable from the trend over the period 2000–2014 (0.116°C decade−1). Even starting a trend calculation with 1998, the extremely warm El Niño year that is often used as the beginning of the “hiatus,” our global temperature trend (1998–2014) is 0.106°C decade−1—and we know that is an underestimate because of incomplete coverage over the Arctic.

Ars Technica obtained and printed the brief statement that Chairman Smith sent to Nature. It begins with a premise: "It was inconvenient for this administration that climate data has clearly showed no warming for the past two decades." No warming? Two decades? In condemning that claim as "simply false," Ars Technica invokes a posting from the climatologists at the blog RealClimate. It's dated a half-year earlier than the NOAA scientists' June paper.

Here's the rest of Chairman Smith's statement:

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 about why they altered the data to get the results they needed to advance this administration’s extreme climate change agenda. The agency has yet to identify any legal basis for withholding these documents. The Committee intends to use all tools at its disposal to undertake its Constitutionally-mandated oversight responsibilities.

Ars Technica notes that even though Chairman Smith's "office has been provided with the raw and corrected data, as well as the details of the methods and a personal accounting of the rationale behind them, he is still accusing the scientists who published the paper in Science of fudging their results." The information reached Smith from NOAA on 27 October via a four-page, densely informative letter. Ars Technica observes that the chairman's "evidence seems to consist of the fact that he did not like those results."

An article at Vox went much further, starting with a headline that musters for this climate skirmish some bipartisan nastiness from outside technopolitics: "The House science committee is worse than the Benghazi committee." In condemning what Vox called "open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation's leading scientists and scientific institutions," the article drew out its distinctly partisan Benghazi comparison:

The science committee's modus operandi is similar to the Benghazi committee's—sweeping, catchall investigations, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing or clear rationale, searching through private documents for out-of-context bits and pieces to leak to the press, hoping to gain short-term political advantage—but it stands to do more lasting long-term damage. In both cases, the investigations have continued long after all questions have been answered.

The nastiness goes back to June, when, just for one example, an Investor’s Business Daily editorial charged, “NOAA scientists can't find the heat, so they start a fire.” A headline at the Daily Caller echoed that dishonesty accusation: "NOAA fiddles with climate data to erase the 15-year global warming ‘hiatus.'"

Here's the opening paragraph from the Investor’s Business Daily's 28 October editorial headlined "Did federal agency commit climate fraud? Sure looks like it": "Junk Science: Worried about climate fraud, Congress is investigating a federal agency for allegedly manipulating weather data to show recent global warming when there is none. So why is the agency refusing to cooperate?"  The Daily Caller's recent report ends with this yes-or-no reader poll: "Are these scientists hiding internal documents because of lies and exaggerations?"

In reply to all of that, Inside Climate News offers readers those scientists' leaders' own words, quoted from a statement: "Because the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse among scientists, those documents were not provided to the Committee. . . . It is the end product of exchanges between scientists—the detailed publication of scientific work and the data that underpins the authors’ findings—that are [sic] key to understanding the conclusions reached."

Inside Climate News also offers this:

Benjamin Santer, a member of the National Academy of Sciences who has spent his career studying climate change, said there's nothing suspicious about the NOAA paper.

"What Mr. Smith does not seem to understand is that's how science operates," said Santer, who said he was speaking for himself and not on behalf of any organization. "Our understanding of datasets changes over time as researchers identify errors. . . . Mr. Smith may not like those findings, but they're a reality. They're a fact of life."

There was also this from Santer, alluding to a "fishing expedition" charge against Smith: "This is not a fishing expedition—this is a trawling expedition" conducted "to cast doubt on an entire scientific endeavor."

But then, there was also this from the American Thinker: "Aside from the shocking arrogance in defying a subpoena from Congress, it's pretty obvious that the NOAA doesn't want to release the data because it will either show they cooked the books, or, as they've done in the past, misinterpreted the data."


Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.

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