Climate Change: No (Political) Consensus

Exxon Capitol

There may be a scientific consensus on the science of climate change, but the political battle over the subject rages on.

Currently, Congressional supporters of the climate change deniers control the committees, and so are in a good position to attack the federal agencies that conduct research into climate change. That is exactly what is happening.

Over in the House of Representatives, Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) has been conducting an inquisition of researchers and administrators at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Smith wants copies of documents and internal communications at NOAA that have to do with a study it released in June, which determined that a so-called “hiatus” in global warming since 1998 has not taken place. The study examines a huge amount of surface temperature data to update global temperature data sets.

Smith claims that NOAA “changed” the data for political convenience.

Global Warming Hiatus and Cherry-Picking Data

For several years now, climate change deniers, cherry picking the unusually warm year of 1998 as their starting point, have claimed that, since temperatures have not continued to rise after that year at the pace of prior years, there is no global warming. Smith claims that satellite data shows there is no global warming. (In any event, Smith is working off of old talking points, as 2014 now ranks as the warmest year on record, and 2015 may top last year’s record.)

Actually, there are three sets of satellite data from different sources. Only one, from a research group at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, has shown a lack of warming. The other two sets do indicate continuous global warming. In any event, the very large surface temperature data sets used in the NOAA study are considered more reliable. The analysis of the surface temperature data has concluded that there has been no global warming “hiatus.” Other studies have come to similar conclusions. Those studies are publicly available, with explanations of their methodology.

It’s Been Done Before

But this is a political inquiry. What Smith wants is to find some NOAA internal communication that can be taken out of context to support the accusation that NOAA scientists manipulated the data to come to a conclusion favorable to the administration.

If this sounds familiar, it is.

Back in 2010, another climate change denier, former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, demanded that the University of Virginia turn over documents and correspondence between climate scientist Michael Mann, who had taught at the University, and other scientists. Cuccinelli claimed he was concerned that Mann made false claims when seeking research funds from the University. He also may have been trying to fire up a tea party base as he prepared to run for Governor.

The university refused to turn over confidential correspondence and spent a half million dollars defending itself. Ultimately, the Virginia Supreme Court ruled against Cuccinelli. The people of Virginia also ruled against him, and he lost his bid to be governor.

I’ll Scratch Your Back….

One might wonder why Congressman Smith seems to be ignoring the consensus of climate scientists on global warming and why he seems so determined to cast doubt on the work of NOAA scientists and climate scientists in general. A partial answer can be found by looking at congressional campaign donations.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Rep. Smith received $94,550 from oil and gas industries in the 2013-2014 campaign cycle—more than from any other industry sector and more than the average of $71,891 given by industries in the sector to Republican members of the House. In 2014, oil and gas money going to members of the House totaled $18,949,000—90 percent of it going to Republican members.

Counterpunch

Representative Smith has a lot of power as Chairman of the House Science Committee—especially since the Committee changed its rules in January regarding the issuance of a subpoena. The Chairman no longer needs consent of the ranking member before issuing a subpoena, so now the Chairman is entirely free to use his subpoena power for purely partisan political purposes.

But Congress does not control all the levers to these sorts of political investigations. On November 5, the New York Times reported that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a subpoena to Exxon Mobil, demanding records and communications having to do with the company’s knowledge of and position on climate change. The focus of the investigation of Exxon Mobile is whether the company’s statements to the public and to investors concerning climate change were consistent with the findings of the company’s own scientists.

A series of investigative articles by the Los Angeles Times and Inside Climate News detailed how, in the 1970s and 1980s, Exxon scientists were on the cutting edge of climate science. In the 1990s, concerned about the implications of a growing acceptance of climate science on its business, Exxon began a major effort to sow doubt about climate science. They took out newspapers ads, lobbied to undercut efforts to reduce carbon emissions, and funded groups that sought to sow doubt about climate science. One coalition they helped to set up, the Global Climate Science Team, produced a memo that explicitly stated in part,

Victory will be achieved when average citizens “understand” (recognize) uncertainties in climate science [and] recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the “conventional wisdom.”

Exxon Mobil says it now recognizes the risks, and has stopped funding groups focused on creating doubt about climate change.

The question for the New York investigation is whether Exxon Mobil disclosed the risks to investors as soon as they understood them. This investigation may take years, turn its focus to other fossil fuel companies, and be joined by the attorneys general of other states.

While Representative Smith toils away in his own efforts to create doubt about climate science, the New York investigation will likely have a much bigger impact on the politics of climate policy.

Source note: There is a very good and thorough discussion of the issues at the core of the House Science Committee subpoena controversy on FactCheck.org.

Photo credits: Thomas Hawk via Flickr; Guerric via Flickr.