Standing Up to Pernicious New Attacks on Federal Climate Scientists

February 7, 2017 | 9:41 am
Photo: Ryan J. Reilly
Peter Frumhoff
Former Director of Science and Policy and Chief Climate Scientist

UPDATE (February 10, 2017): A draft version of a manuscript on NOAA’s ERSSTv5 climate dataset has been leaked while it is undergoing peer-review. As submitted, the paper’s findings are consistent with those in Karl et al (2015) on NOAA’s previous dataset (ERSSTv4) and with independent datasets from other research groups. This is a routine update to incorporate modest improvements. There was no global warming “hiatus.”

The time-tested climate denial strategy of attacking the reputations of prominent climate scientists in order to sow doubt about the evidence and risks of climate change is being trotted out again.

Exhibit A: The Daily Mail, a British tabloid, has published a screed by David Rose alleging serious scientific misconduct by Dr. Tom Karl, a leading climate scientist recently retired from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

A writer with a history of inaccurate reporting on climate science, Rose claims that Karl and coauthors deliberately used misleading global temperature data, side-stepped NOAA scientific integrity policies, and “rushed to publish” a 2015 paper in the prestigious journal Science in order to influence the climate negotiations held that year in Paris. His piece draws in part on a blog post by former NOAA scientist John Bates.

The Science paper is one of several recent studies refuting the notion that the rate of global warming had slowed down, or “paused”, in recent decades, an idea that opponents of climate policies have often used to justify inaction on reducing emissions. Karl and coauthors showed the apparent “pause” in warming was simply an artifact of how earlier studies had over time incorporated data on ocean surface temperatures from different sources (satellites, ships, buoys and so on); when temperature data sources and quality were properly taken into account, no slowdown was detectable.

Repeated and amplified through the climate denial echo-chamber, Rose’s allegations of misconduct have now been taken up by Rep Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the House Science Space and Technology Committee. Smith, who has long used his perch to harass NOAA scientists, issued a press release reiterating these unsubstantiated claims and accusing Karl and colleagues of manipulating data for political purposes.

Along with other recent high profile attacks on prominent climate scientists and science agencies, this may well be part of larger political strategy to intimidate federal scientists, justify cuts in agency budgets, staffing and missions, weaken support for US and international climate policies and, most fundamentally, erode public trust in science and evidence so central to a functioning democracy.

At its core, it is a very old strategy.

As the Irish essayist Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710, “Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it; so that when Men come to be undeceiv’d, it is too late; the Jest is over, and the Tale has had its Effect…”

But today, scientists are fighting back.

Rose’s claims have been quickly and forcefully rebutted:

  • Top experts on temperature record research have called attention to several errors in Rose’s piece and his failure to mention that multiple independent published analyses support and corroborate the corrected temperature data in the NOAA scientists’ findings.
  • To claims that Karl and colleagues violated NOAA guidelines on scientific integrity, Rear Admiral David Titley (Ret.), former chief operating officer at NOAA, points out that “[t]here is both a NOAA internal process on scientific integrity….and the opportunity to submit allegations of wrongdoing to the Department of Commerce Inspector General who if there is reasonable evidence to substantiate the allegation, would undertake an independent investigation.” Yet, no allegations of violations of the NOAA scientific integrity policy were brought to the agency’s scientific integrity office regarding this research.
  • Jeremy Berg, editor of Science, firmly rejects the notion of a “rush to publish”: “The article by Karl et al. underwent handling and review for almost six months [longer than average for this journal]. Any suggestion that the review of this paper was ‘rushed’ is baseless and without merit. Science stands behind its handling of this paper, which underwent particularly rigorous peer review.”

Global land/ocean temperature records from NOAA, NASA, Berkeley Earth, Hadley/UAE, and Cowtan and Way. Old (pre Karl et al 2015) NOAA temperature record is only available through the end of 2014. Source: Hausfather et al (2017) Assessing recent warming using instrumentally homogeneous sea surface temperature records, Science Advances. Figure obtained here.

Attacks on the reputations and research findings of federal climate scientists are a deplorable attempt to distract attention from the overwhelming evidence of climate change and the urgent need to deeply reduce carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels and other sources.

We can’t keep tabloids from publishing misinformation. But we can and must hold elected officials accountable for doing their jobs to protect science and evidence-based decision-making.

As former Congressman and Chair of the House Science Committee Sherry Boehlert (R-NY) puts it: “The current attacks should be received with extreme skepticism, given the enormous body of evidence supporting the conclusion that the climate is changing and poses a danger that needs to be addressed. And public officials have an obligation to follow the scientific consensus…”

Chairman Smith, it’s high time for you to follow suit.