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Lawmaker Claims NOAA Altered Climate Change Data, Issues Rare Subpoena for Internal Research Docs

NOAA pushes back against Rep. Lamar Smith’s assertion it is withholding key information.

A key House chairman and climate change skeptic is extending a months-long clash with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by issuing an unusual subpoena seeking internal scientific research documents that the agency considers confidential.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, first requested documents from NOAA in July, following publication of a peer-reviewed study by Tom Karl, director of the agency’s National Centers for Environmental Information. It concluded that the rate of global warming during the last 15 years has been as fast as, or faster, than that seen during the latter half of the 20th century, according to a NOAA spokesman. That would refute the notion offered by some that global warming has slowed in recent years.

Arguing that other scientific studies contradict that conclusion, Smith followed up with further requests for NOAA documents and with meetings and emails between congressional and agency staff. Their inability to reach an agreement on the completeness of the document record prompted the Oct. 13 subpoena to NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan.

“It was inconvenient for this administration that climate data has clearly showed no warming for the past two decades,” Smith said in a 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.”

Smith also expressed suspicion that NOAA has a political motivation and rejected NOAA’s assertion of a “confidentiality interest” that he said was not recognized by his oversight committee. “Despite what some critics claim, the subpoena is not only about scientists,” he said. “Political operatives and other NOAA employees likely played a large role in approving NOAA’s decision to adjust data that allegedly refutes the hiatus in warming. The subpoena covers communications about that decision. The committee needs to understand the full context of NOAA’s decision-making process.”

His letter demands NOAA and the scientists’ global data sets, methods of analysis, and documents and communications related to sea temperature readings from buoys and ships from 2014-15.

NOAA spokesman Ciaran Clayton in a statement to Government Executive on Wednesday said that the agency had provided Smith’s staff with links to all the scientific data, but had withheld documents stemming from deliberative scientific discussions that took place before the study’s end product was final.

"There is no truth to the claim that the study was politically motivated or conducted to advance an agenda,” Clayton said. “The published findings are the result scientists simply doing their job -- ensuring the best possible representation of historical global temperature trends is available to inform decision makers, including the U.S. Congress.

"We have been transparent and cooperative with the House Science Committee to help them better understand the research and underlying methodologies,” she continued. “We have provided data (all of which is publicly available online), supporting scientific research, and multiple in person briefings.  We stand behind our scientists who conduct their work in an objective manner. …We have provided all of the information the committee needs to understand this issue."

On Oct. 23, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, ranking member on the Science panel, wrote to Smith saying the subpoena “appears to be fishing expedition, rather than engaging in focused oversight with a legitimate goal in mind.” The issue in question is a study, not a federal decision by an agency, she said, hinting that Smith may be intending to forward the inside information to outsiders in climate-change skeptic circles.

Subpoenaing information from the executive branch “for the purposes of providing it to third parties is not a legitimate exercise of Congress’ oversight powers,” Johnson continued, adding that past chairmen have not forced the National Science Foundation to “disclose the innermost details of peer-reviews of extramural research grants, except in extreme instances where fraud was alleged.”

Johnson it “saddens” her to write such a letter about what she characterized as Smith’s bid to generate press releases and “harass the Executive,” without having ever uncovered substantive problems through oversight.

In a Nov. 3 column in The Wall Street Journal, Holman W. Jenkins Jr. applauded Smith’s moves to challenge NOAA’s “sleight of hand” in adjusting global temperature readings and accused NOAA of having “proved itself pliable to the propagandizing urge.”

“Without prejudging the case, gut instinct has always indicated that, if there’s a major global warming scandal to be discovered anywhere, it will be found in the temperature record simply because the records are subject to so much opaque statistical manipulation,” Jenkins wrote. “But even if no scandal is found, it’s past time for politicians and the public to understand the nature of these records and the conditions under which they are manufactured.”

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