House Committee Chairman and NOAA Administrator Spar on Climate Change Study

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Publication date: 
12 May 2016

At a budget hearing for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the chairman of the House Science Committee grilled the agency’s head with aggressive questions about a 2015 scientific paper the agency led which concluded that the slowdown in global warming observed since 1998 has been overstated.

At a hearing on the fiscal year 2017 budget request for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Administrator Kathy Sullivan fielded a series of pointed, and at times short, questions from chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), about the integrity and transparency of the science conducted by the weather, water, and climate science agency.

Smith pressed Sullivan on the ongoing subpoena he ordered last October for NOAA to turn over all correspondence and other information connected to a climate change study, known as the “Karl study” after its lead author Tom Karl, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Prediction. The study, which was published last June in the journal Science, calls into question the observed slowdown in global warming since 1998 and has proven controversial both on Capitol Hill and in the scientific community.

Over the years, Smith has repeatedly stated he believes the published results of many academic climate change studies are based on faulty science and are politically motivated to influence public and policymaker opinion on climate change. He sees the NOAA study as a potential smoking gun that demonstrates his belief.

In his opening statement to a Feb. 2 House Science Committee hearing, Smith skewered NOAA’s handling of the study, saying,

NOAA employees altered historical climate data to get politically correct results in an attempt to disprove the eighteen year lack of global temperature increases. NOAA conveniently issues its news release that promotes this report just as the administration announced its [Clean Power Plan] regulations. NOAA has refused to explain its findings and provide documents to this Committee and the American people. The people have a right to see the data, evaluate it, and know the motivations behind this study.

Ranking member of the committee Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) engaged in softer questioning, giving Sullivan an opportunity to clarify the guidelines and processes NOAA has in place for scientific integrity and independence.

NOAA has slowly complied with House Science Committee subpoena

House Science Committee's NOAA SubpoenaNOAA submitted its first tranche of documents under Smith’s subpoena in mid-December. Following receipt, Smith said he was “encouraged,” promising to engage in a thorough document review. However, he also warned he would request additional documents, and he has since delivered on that promise. On Feb. 22, he wrote to Sullivan that he was “disappointed with the slow pace and limited scope of the agency’s productions,” accusing NOAA of stalling and missing subsequent document delivery dates.

The day before the March 16 hearing, Smith wrote again to Sullivan to follow up on his subpoena, insisting once again that NOAA comply with the broadened search and production of correspondence connected to the Karl study:

We remain concerned that…NOAA is failing to capture the entire universe of responsive documents. … NOAA is not permitted to self-limit the scope of this Committee’s investigation, but instead must be in a position to certify compliance with the duly issued congressional subpoena dated October 13, 2015.

The American Meteorological Society, an AIP member society, responded with a second letter to Chairman Smith on the subpoenas, saying that broadening the scope of the committee’s investigation to include all scientists within NOAA’s National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service “significantly increases the ‘chilling effect’ on science we warned of in our [first] letter.

Smith insists he has whistleblower information that “appears to show that the study was rushed to publication despite the concerns and objections of a number of NOAA employees.” However, these allegations have not yet been aired publicly. Sullivan stands firmly by both the Karl study and her agency’s commitment to scientific integrity and independence.

Transcript of Administrator Sullivan’s exchanges on climate study

The complete transcript of Sullivan’s exchanges with Smith and Johnson on the Karl study are below. Given the breadth of issues covered and the number of quick back-and-forth between the Administrator and Smith, FYI has opted to share the entire exchange with you. You can also jump to minute 36:20 of the hearing webcast to watch the recording of the exchanges.

SMITH: You’re familiar with NOAA’s study, sometimes called the Karl study, that found that…or allegedly found that there had been an increase in global warming over the last 18 years. That study was refuted by some well-respected scientists in an article that appeared in the publication Nature. I assume you’ve read the Nature article?

SULLIVAN: I’m familiar with that paper.

SMITH: Do you still stand by the Karl study’s conclusions, or do you now recognize that those conclusions might have been weak and agree with the Nature scientists?

SULLIVAN: I welcome the debate in the scientific literature that the full publication of the data and information in the Karl paper has enabled. That is precisely what the scientific process is designed to do.

SMITH: Right, but both can’t be correct. Do you feel that the NOAA study is still correct, or do you think the Nature article is correct?

SULLIVAN: If I recall correctly from the Nature paper, the authors of that study themselves say that the Karl study is a valuable scientific contribution…

SMITH: That wasn’t my question. My question goes to the 18-year halt in global warming. The NOAA study said that there had been an increase in warming during that period. The Nature article said there had not been. With which do you agree?

SULLIVAN: If I recall the original IPCC report from years ago that first used the word ‘hiatus,’ that study also said that that did not contradict the fact that the linear trend of temperature continued…

SMITH: Again, I’m not talking about the linear trend. I’m talking about the 18 years. Do you agree that there was global warming, or do you not agree that there was global warming?

SULLIVAN: Mr. Chairman, I don’t study the kinks and bumps in temperature curves at that level of detail.

SMITH: The 18 years is important, because a lot of studies said there was no increase in global warming. You were one of the few that said there was. Again, I’ll ask you the same question. Do you agree with the NOAA Karl study or do you agree with the Nature scientists?

SULLIVAN: I stand by the quality and integrity of the scientific analysis that was published for all to challenge, confirm, or verify in the Karl study. I’ll be interested to follow the scientific debate as it goes forward.

SMITH: Okay, so you still say that the Karl study was accurate, and you disagree with the Nature scientists?

SULLIVAN: I stand by the integrity and quality of the Karl study.

SMITH: I wasn’t asking you about the integrity and quality. I assume that by that though that you meant their conclusions as well?

SULLIVAN: I believe they did a valid job of analyzing new datasets. They proffered an analysis…

SMITH: Then that does answer my question. If you consider their conclusions to be valid you agree with them. You disagree with the Nature scientists. If you want to be in the minority, that’s fine. I just wanted to see what you felt on the record. My next question is this. To my knowledge, NOAA has not fully complied with our subpoena dated Feb. 22. We did get some production two days ago, but it was not the full, comprehensive production that we requested. Do you intend to comply with our subpoena?

SULLIVAN: Mr. Chairman, my staff continues to work on the details of these matters with your staff on an almost daily basis, and I assure you we will continue to move forward on the path that they have agreed to make sure we satisfy your needs.

SMITH: And so you do intend to comply in a timely manner?

SULLIVAN: We fully respect the committee’s oversight responsibilities and have been working diligently since your very first letter to do precisely that.

SMITH: And so is it fair for me to say that you do intend to comply with the subpoena?

SULLIVAN: We intend to continue working with your team to fulfill the request you have expressed.

JOHNSON: As you know, the majority has been investigating the peer review climate research paper published by NOAA scientists in Science magazine last year, and I understand the paper adds to the scientific body of work examining the concept of a slowdown of the hiatus in the rate of global warming over the last 15 years or so. The majority has alleged that the publication of the research paper was in some way rushed and that NOAA did not adhere to the Data Quality Act or the agency’s scientific integrity process. … I’d like to also note that a separate scientific paper including scientists Michael Mann published last month found that this hiatus was real but was temporarily masked by natural factors. Dr. Mann, in a story about the paper, stated the temporary slowdown in no way implies that human-caused warming has ceased or slowed down. I point this out to show that it is part of the scientific process. Different scientists examine different parts of similar issues and rarely come to identical conclusions. This does not mean that scientists or others were involved in some grand conspiracy or for political reasons, as the majority believes. With that in mind, can you please explain the agency’s scientific integrity process, and can you please respond to the allegations you have heard just now?

SULLIVAN: Thank you. NOAA has a very strong and rigorous scientific integrity process that is very widely admired, called by many a gold standard. We uphold it very strongly, very firmly - myself, my chief scientist, our research council - and it insists upon integrity and independence of science throughout the agency. It includes clear protections to prevent political interference and, in this matter, Congresswoman, let me assure you, there has been no political interference. I had nothing to do with the timing of the report, so I can’t speak in detail to that. The final timing of the appearance of any publication is of course at the discretion of the publication itself. I do know in this instance the journal Science is one of the most highly respected journals globally, renowned for a very rigorous peer review process. And recognizing the interest in this matter, in fact scrubbed this paper with extra diligence. But at the end, when a paper comes up is dependent on the journal.


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