Unprecedented: Climate Change Research Controversy on Capitol Hill

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"Unprecedented" is the best word to describe what has happened during the last month on Capitol Hill regarding climate change research. While debate about whether or not the Earth is warming and the role that greenhouse gases may play in such warming has been a constant on Capitol Hill, this issue has taken on an entirely new profile.

On June 23, Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-TX) and Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Ed Whitfield (R-KY) sent unprecedented letters to several parties involved in climate change research. The letters have been very controversial, prompting an angry, and also unprecedented, response from House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). Other letters have been sent protesting the committee's actions. This FYI will excerpt these letters, and provide web links to their full text.

The following are selections from the June 23 Energy and Commerce Committee letter to Michael E. Mann of the University of Virginia; similar letters were sent to Malcolm K. Hughes of the University of Arizona and Raymond S. Bradley of the University of Massachusetts:

"Questions have been raised, according to a February 14, 2005 article in The Wall Street Journal, about the significance of methodological flaws and data errors in your studies of the historical record of temperatures and climate change. We understand that these studies of temperature proxy records (tree rings, ice cores, corals, etc.) formed the basis for a new finding in the 2001 United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report (TAR). This finding – that the increase in 20th century northern hemisphere temperatures is ‘likely to have been the largest of any century during the past 1,000 years' and that the ‘1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year' – has since been referenced widely and has become a prominent feature of the public debate surrounding climate change policy." The letter goes on: "However, in recent peer-reviewed articles in Science, Geophysical Research Letters, and Energy & Environment, researchers question the results of this work." It then states: "The concerns surrounding these studies reflect upon the quality and transparency of federally funded research and of the IPCC review process – two matters of particular interest to the Committee."

The letter then states: "In light of the Committee's jurisdiction over energy policy and certain environmental issues, the Committee must have full and accurate information when considering matters relating to climate change policy. We open this review because this dispute surrounding your studies bears directly on important questions about the federally funded work upon which climate studies rely and the quality and transparency of analyses used to support the IPCC assessment process. With the IPCC currently working to produce a fourth assessment report, addressing questions of quality and transparency in the process and underlying analyses supporting that assessment, both scientific and economic, are of utmost importance if Congress is eventually going to make policy decisions drawing from this work." At this point, the committee's letter asks for answers to eight far-ranging questions, including the private and public sources of Mann's research funding, location of his data, computer codes, his response to critical reviews of his work, including "Did you calculate the R2 statistic for the temperature reconstruction, particularly for the 15th Century proxy record calculations and what were the results?"

Another letter was sent to National Science Foundation Director Arden Bement. A similar demand was made for information on climate change research, including "List all grants and all other funding awards given for research in the area of climate or paleoclimate research, including, but not limited to, the dates of the awards, the identity of the recipients, principal investigators, and whoever is contractually obligated to ensure provisions of the awards are met."

The committee sent a letter requesting similar information to Rajendra K. Pachauri who is the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee has the full text of these letters at:

In response to these letters, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) sent Barton a letter on July 14, selections of which follow:

"I am writing to express my strenuous objections to what I see as the misguided and illegitimate investigation you have launched concerning Dr. Michael Mann, his co-authors and sponsors." After commenting on committee jurisdiction, Boehlert states, "My primary concern about your investigation is that its purpose seems to be to intimidate scientists rather than to learn from them, and to substitute Congressional political review for scientific peer review. This would be pernicious.

"It is certainly appropriate for Congress to try to understand scientific disputes that impinge on public policy. There are many ways for us to do that, including hearings with a balanced set of witnesses, briefings with scientists, and requests for reviews by the National Academy of Sciences or other experts.

"But you have taken a decidedly different approach - one that breaks with precedent and raises the specter of politicians opening investigations against any scientist who reaches a conclusion that makes the political elite uncomfortable.

"Rather than bringing Dr. Mann and his antagonists together in a public forum to explain their differences, you have sent an investigative letter to Dr. Mann and his colleagues that raises charges that the scientific community has put to rest, and ask for detailed scientific explanations that your Committee undoubtedly lacks the expertise to review.

"This is utterly unnecessary given that Dr. Mann's articles have prompted a spirited and appropriate (and often technically complex) debate in the scientific community that has played out in readily available journals. Moreover, the only ‘charge' that has been leveled against Dr. Mann that might prompt Congressional notice - that he was refusing to share data - has been soundly rejected by the National Science Foundation, and those who continue to raise the charge are well aware of that.

"Therefore, one has to conclude that there is no legitimate reason for your investigation. The investigation is not needed to gain access to data. The investigation is not needed to get balanced information on a scientific debate. The investigation is not needed to prompt scientific discussion of an important issue.

"The only conceivable explanation for the investigation is to attempt to intimidate a prominent scientist and to have Congress put its thumbs on the scales of a scientific debate. This is at best foolhardy; when it comes to scientific debates, Congress is ‘all thumbs.'

"The precedent your investigation sets is truly chilling. Are scientists now supposed to look over their shoulders to determine if their conclusions might prompt a Congressional inquiry no matter how legitimate their work? If Congress wants public policy to be informed by scientific research, then it has to allow that research to operate outside the political realm. Your inquiry seeks to erase that line between science and politics.

"There are numerous scientific debates ongoing about climate change. Data and conclusions get challenged all the time. Are we going to launch biased investigations each time a difference appears in the literature?

"I hope you will reconsider the investigation you have launched and allow the scientific community to debate its work as it always has. Seeking scientific truth is too important to be impeded by political expediency. That's a position that Members on all sides of the climate change debate should share."

A House Science Committee website at:
provides the full text of Chairman Boehlert's letter. The site also has links to letters sent to Chairman Barton from the National Academy of Sciences, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and twenty climate scientists.

Also on the web are responses to Chairman Barton from Mann, Hughes and Bradley at http://www.geo.umass.edu/climate/bartonletter.html

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