House Science Chairman Continues to Chart His Own Lonely Path on Climate Change

March 16, 2016 | 6:08 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

In a hearing today House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith questioned NOAA Administrator Kathryn Sullivan on the agency’s climate change research. He made three claims that deserve additional scrutiny: that satellite data is “the most objective”; that a recent climate study was “prematurely published”; and that a recent Nature analysis proves that NOAA’s study was wrong.

Is satellite data more objective than surface temperature data? Well, not really. All data has to be corrected for biases. Ars Technica did a good job of explaining the differences, and their political context:

Although satellite records can obviously only go back a few decades, they are the go-to source for climate contrarians, because they show a slower warming trend in recent years than our surface records do.

Senator Ted Cruz brought it up several times during his recent Senate committee hearing. “According to the satellite data, there has been no significant global warming for the past 18 years,” he noted. Congressman Lamar Smith has referred to the satellite data as “the gold standard” while making similar claims.

Ars asked Carl Mears, who works on the Remote Sensing Systems (RSS) satellite dataset Senator Cruz was pointing to, how he feels about those statements. “Well, I guess I’m annoyed because I feel that they’re misusing the data,” he said. “They’re picking a specific time period that generates the conclusions that they would like be true. If you look at a longer time period, you get a very different conclusion.”

As far as gold standards go, these satellite measurements also have their own quirks and biases that have to be studied and adjusted for. Being on a satellite does not make a thing magic.

OK. So was the recent NOAA climate study that found no recent slowdown in the rate of global warming “rushed to publication”? That claim doesn’t hold any water, either. The journal Science, which published the paper in question, told NPR that the review process was actually slower than usual. “The process actually took longer than it usually does,” he said, “because we subjected the paper to even more scrutiny than we subject most papers to.”

Climate scientists outside the agency held that the study itself supported what other scientists had found from other climate datasets. “To claim that there has been a rush to judgment is actually the polar opposite of what has occurred,” said Peter Thorne. “In many ways, (the study) is playing catch up” with current science.

Sure. But doesn’t a recent Nature Climate commentary show the NOAA study had problems? In the recent commentary, several prominent climate scientists had a different take on the data used in the Karl study. But “Karl et al was an honest study,” tweeted one of the authors. “Our recent Nature Climate commentary simply provides a different interpretation.” Newsflash: scientists are debating other scientists in the scientific literature. As it should be.

Remember that Lamar Smith began his “investigation” by alleging that NOAA scientists had “altered data,” joining the ranks of conspiracy theorists around the world before abandoning that line of reasoning. He then suggested that the journal Science, which published the NOAA paper, has its own hidden agenda and “wanted to rush it out before the Paris [climate] summit.”

In using his committee chairmanship to continue to suggest impropriety in the face of all evidence, he is further isolating himself and his committee from the mainstream scientific community, which has repeatedly expressed “grave concern” about his actions.