Back in 1977, ExxonMobil's senior scientist told the company's management committee that humans are probably causing the planet to warm through all our burning of fossil fuels. Months later, Exxon launched a massive program to further examine the link, research that included spending over $1 million on a tanker that could measure how quickly oceans were absorbing carbon dioxide.
You probably figured out how this story ends. A few years later, after warnings about climate change prompted politicians to start talking about maybe doing something about it, the Irving-based oil giant suddenly axed its research program and then spent a few decades pretending that man-made global warming isn't real.
Exxon's early research into global warming was uncovered several months ago by the scrappy environmental news website InsideClimateNews. In the aftermath of their report, House Democrats and others have called for the Department of Justice to launch a federal investigation into Exxon.
Texas Congressman Lamar Smith has a different idea. Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, is hard at work trying to subpoena a group of government scientists who published a study last year yet again suggesting that the planet is warming because of humanity's use of fossil fuels, just like those Exxon scientists said decades ago.
Lately, some Republicans have claimed that global warming is slowing down, but the scientists in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration published research in the journal Science contradicting that claim, with findings of their own showing that nope, sorry, global warming really isn't slowing down. Smith is not happy with the NOAA's work.
Smith, a man who believes that "throughout history, marriage between a man and a woman has been the cement that has held civilizations together," is an interesting choice to chair the science committee. Since 2010, Smith has enjoyed hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign donations from industries like oil and gas and companies getting sued for exposing people to asbestos. He has claimed that global warming is a religion and once wrote in a newspaper that “climate alarmists have failed to explain the lack of global warming over the past 15 years." And now that the NOAA has in fact explained the "lack of global warming," with a study saying there isn't a lack, Smith is pressing the NOAA's scientists for answers about how they came to a conclusion that dares fly in the face of what Smith, who is not a scientist, believes.
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On November 4, Smith used his authority as a committee chairman to demand that the NOAA scientists send him a stack of documents related to their research — including all communications the scientists made to each other. "Your failure to comply ... may expose you to civil and/or criminal enforcement mechanisms," his letter warned. Smith's reason for the subpoena is vague. In another letter Smith wrote on November 19, this time to the U.S. Department of Commerce, he claimed that a whistle-blower told him the study was "prematurely rushed to publication ... [raising] concerns that it was expedited to fit the Administration's aggressive climate agenda."
Smith's subpoena and accusations were swiftly criticized by Dallas' own Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is also on the science committee. "In six separate, and increasingly aggressive letters, the only thing you accused NOAA of doing is engaging in climate science," Johnson fired off to Smith in a letter of her own.
So far, the NOAA has agreed to show Smith's science committee documents from the research but is refusing to turn over its scientists' communications. “Because the confidentiality of these communications among scientists is essential to frank discourse among scientists, those documents were not provided to the committee,” the agency told Nature last month. “It is a longstanding practice in the scientific community to protect the confidentiality of deliberative scientific discussions.”
Why can't the scientists just give Smith all their emails and other communications? Last week, representatives from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, American Geophysical Union, the Geological Society of America and other organizations with a clearly liberal rock-studying agenda wrote to Smith that it is dangerous to ask for the communications between scientists who make politically controversial findings. "We are concerned that establishing a practice of inquests directed at federal scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect," the groups write, "on the willingness of government scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions."