Congressional Democrats Climate Change Investigation: Witchhunt or McCarthyism?

Progressives launch smear campaign against climate researchers they dislike


Burning Witches

Earlier this week, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member on the House Natural Resources Committee embarked on a public campaign to smear the reputations of climate researchers whose results he evidently dislikes. He launched his despicable campaign by sending letters to the presidents of seven universities demanding that they release information about the funding of the targetted researchers. The not-at-all subtle implication is that they are producing suspect research after having been bought off by evil purveyors of fossil fuels. The real intention is to gin up a "controversy" with the goal of making journalists squeamish about ever quoting them or ther work again in news stories about climate change.

The researchers being "investigated" for heresy are David Legates from the University of Delaware; John Christy from University of Alabama in Huntsville; Judith Curry from Georgia Tech; Richard Lindzen from MIT; Robert Balling from Arizona State University; Roger Pielke from the University of Colorado; and Steven Hayward from Pepperdine University.

For the record, I was against a similar witchhunt launched against former University of Virginia climate scientist Michael Mann by then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (R-Va).

Grijalva claims to be motivated by the New York Times story earlier this week about the industry funding that supported some of the work by Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics researcher Willie Soon. As an advocate of research transparency, I believe that Soon made a mistake if he failed to disclose some of his funding.

Consider Grijalva's letter to the University of Alabama in Huntsville:

Professor John Christy at the Earth System Science Center has testified many times before the U.S. Congress on climate change. His December 2013 testimony to the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology said of the Nobel Prize-winning U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, "We need to put down the IPCC as soon as possible - not to protect the patient who seems to be thriving in its own little cocoon, but for the sake of the rest of us whom it is trying to infect with its disease. Fortunately much of the population seems to be immune, but some governments are highly susceptible to the disease."

I am hopeful that disclosure of a few key pieces of information will establish the impartiality of climate research and policy recommendations published in your institution's name and greatly assist me and my colleagues in making better law.

Nice touch mentioning the Nobel Prize. And researchers are scholars whose views are their own and who do not make policy recommendations in the name of the universities for which they work.

I have long cited the temperature data work of Christy and his colleague Roy Spencer. Every monthly email from Christy and Spencer updating their data includes the following phrase:

Neither Christy nor Spencer receives any research support or funding from oil, coal or industrial companies or organizations, or from any private or special interest groups. All of their climate research funding comes from federal and state grants or contracts.

I have known Christy and Spencer since the early 1990s and have no reason to think that that statement is not correct. 

And consider also Grijalva's letter to the University of Colorado:

Prof. Roger Pielke, Jr., at CU's Center for Science and Technology Policy Research has testified numerous times before the U.S. Congress on climate change and its economic impact. His July 2013 Senate testimony featured the claim often repeated, that it is "incorrect to associate the increasing costs of disasters with the emission of greenhouse gases." John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, has highlighted what he believes were serious misstatements by Prof. Pielke of the scientific consensus on climate change and his (Holdren's) position on the issue.

Pielke's research on weather damage trends is peer-reviewed and widely cited, including in the latest reports from the IPCC.

By the way, Pielke does an excellent job of showing just how off the mark Holdren's assertions about his research were. Obviously the congressman was too busy to bother reading Pielke's response. And being familar with Holdren's career as an activist scientist I believe that his testimony was scientifically dishonest at best.

The folks over at the Breakthrough Institute where Pielke is an unpaid senior fellow have published a strong rebuttal, "Climate of Incivility: Climate McCarthyism is Wrong Whether Democratic or Republican," to the Grijalva's witchhunt:

Grijalva's beef with Pielke is plainly ideological. Pielke is not a climate skeptic. He has long affirmed the view that human emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the planet, and his work on weather extremes has been widely cited by the IPCC. Moreover, he has endorsed a carbon tax and President Obama's carbon pollution regulations.

But because his research finds that there has been no identifiable increase in the cost and human impacts of natural disasters due to human-caused global warming — a finding that the IPCC has endorsed — he has become a target of environmental activists and now, the ranking Democratic member of the House Natural Resources Committee. 

In advance of multiple testimonies before Congressional committees, Pielke has affirmed that he has no financial conflicts of interest. Grijalva has offered no evidence to the contrary. Rather, Grijalva's investigation is part fishing expedition, part innuendo campaign. It won't find nefarious funding of Pielke's research. But it will drag his good name and reputation through the mud — especially in an era where long debunked accusations take on a life of their own in the blogosphere. Long after Pielke's name is cleared, accusations that his research is funded by the fossil fuels industry, and old links to the news stories that ran when Grijalva publicized the letters, will live on in cyberspace. 

Efforts to delegitimize one's political opponents are, of course, nothing new in American politics. But they become especially toxic when they get mixed up with scientific controversies. Pielke's sin after all, is not that he has questioned the consensus that human greenhouse gas emissions are warming the planet, but rather that his research strongly suggests that human-caused warming has not to-date made natural disasters worse — a finding that has proven inconvenient for activists and Democratic politicians, including the President, who regularly claim that human emissions are playing a significant role in the rising toll of natural disasters in hopes that doing so will galvanize public support for climate action.

The Breakthrough article concludes:

McCarthyite attacks on climate scientists were un-American and inappropriate when Republicans practiced them. They are neither less toxic nor more appropriate when initiated by Democrats in the name of saving the planet. The party of liberals and progressives should be the first to be outraged by the use of such tactics.

Absolutely right.

However, progressive "outrage" is no less partisan than that of conservatives. Progressive politicians don't care more about science than do conservatives; distorting science to justify preconceived views and policy preferences is just politics by other means.

The answer to the headline question: Witchhunt or McCarthyism? It's both.