Letter from Congressman Attacking Climate Scientists Generates Heated Responses

heartland.org March 3, 2015

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. worked at the National Center for Policy Analysis for 18 years, most… (read full bio)

willie soon

Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and ranking member of the House of Representatives Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, sent a letter to seven university presidents demanding information on funding sources, financial disclosure guidelines, and all draft testimony or exchanges relating to the testimony of certain researchers who have testified before Congress on climate change issues.

Grijalva’s letter asked about the climate research and funding for seven scholars: geographer Robert C. Balling, Jr., Arizona State University; atmospheric scientist John Christy, University of Alabama; climatologist Judith Curry, Georgia Institute of Technology; historian Steven Hayward, Pepperdine University; climatologist David Legates, University of Delaware; atmospheric physicist Richard Lindzen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; and political scientist Roger Pielke Jr., University of Colorado.

The letter, plainly intended to intimidate climate scientists who dare to question the Obama administration’s often-stated view that climate change is man-made and dangerous, generated heated responses from science organizations, individual scientists, and other members of Congress.

“Sends a Chilling Message”

The American Meteorological Society, the national scientific society for the development and dissemination of atmospheric, oceanic, and hydrologic sciences, responded to a letter from U.S. Grijalva with a letter of its own. The letter, signed by Dr. Keith L. Seitter, AMS Executive Director, and dated February 27, is a stinging rebuke of Grijalva’s demands.

“Publicly singling out specific researchers based on perspectives they have expressed and implying a failure to appropriately disclose funding sources — and thereby questioning their scientific integrity — sends a chilling message to all academic researchers,” Seitter wrote. “Further, requesting copies of the researcher’s communications related to external funding opportunities or the preparation of testimony impinges on the free pursuit of ideas that is central to the concept of academic freedom.”

Seitter goes on to say peer-review, not political inquiries into funding sources, “is the appropriate mechanism to assess the validity and quality of scientific research, regardless of the funding sources supporting that research as long as those funding sources and any potential conflicts of interest are fully disclosed. The scientific process that includes testing and validation of concepts and ideas — discarding those that cannot successfully withstand such testing — is chronicled in the peer reviewed scientific literature. We encourage the Committee to rely on the full corpus of peer-reviewed literature on climate science as the most reliable source for knowledge and understanding that can be applied to the policy options before you.”

Attacking Skeptics’ Funding

Grijalva justified his query by citing recent media attacks on researchers skeptical of the theory greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels for energy are causing catastrophic global warming.

The latest media assault began in late February with an article in The New York Times repeating claims made by a long-time Greenpeace staffer, Kert Davies, that Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysicist concealed financial support received by the Smithsonian Institution to support his work. The Times article noted Soon’s work was supported by more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel companies over 11 years.

The information was not new, as Davies had been pushing similar stories as early as 1997. The Times reporter failed to mention the funds went to the Smithsonian and not directly to Dr. Soon, and the Smithsonian kept approximately half the money it raised specifically to ensure that Dr. Soon’s research was appropriate and conducted without undue influence by donors.

The Smithsonian has said it is investigating the matter. Since its staff negotiated and signed every contract for all of the money raised for Dr. Soon’s work, it presumably already has found there is no conflict of interest on Dr. Soon’s part.

The Smithsonian Institution’s charter says all such grant results “must be unclassified, in order not to abridge the institution’s right to publish, without restriction, findings that result from this research project.” The funders neither directed nor had control over the research or the dissemination of its results.

Grijalva’s ‘Lysenkoism, Witch Hunt’

Responding to Grijalva’s letter, climatologist David Legates said, “Grijalva was asked why he targeted the seven of us. His response was that we were the most well-published, most often-cited, and had the most impact on public policy in the United States. Not that our research was likely fraudulent, not that we had taken big sums of money from foreign governments, or that we simply had been publishing bad research. None of these were the reason. It was simply that we are too effective with our research and too persuasive with our arguments. Pure and simple. And since we disagree with him and his views, we must be harassed. Maybe that will stop us.

“Unfortunately, we have entered into a new age of Lysenkoism,” Legates said. “Lysenkoism” refers to an episode in science history where the scientific process was heavily influenced by the Soviet government in order to reach politically acceptable conclusions.

Roger Pielke, Jr., another of the researchers whose funding sources and e-mails Grijalva requested, wrote on his blog that Grijalva should already know he has never received any funding from fossil fuel companies and has no conflict of interest, since he has testified to this before Congress on several occasions. “I know with complete certainty that this investigation is a politically-motivated ‘witch hunt’ designed to intimidate me (and others) and to smear my name,” Pielke wrote.

Pielke goes on, “The incessant attacks and smears are effective, no doubt. I have already shifted all of my academic work away from climate issues. I am simply not initiating any new research or papers on the topic and I have ring-fenced my slowly diminishing blogging on the subject. I can’t imagine the message being sent to younger scientists.”

John Nothdurft, director of government relations for The Heartland Institute, said the probe into Soon and other climate researchers is part of a campaign to divert attention away from the facts about climate change. “Instead of having a real conversation with the American public about the science and economics of climate change, well-financed advocacy groups and politicians with many ‘conflicts of interest’ of their own would rather direct the public’s focus on who funds nonprofit organizations, independent research institutions, scientists, economists, and other experts,” Nothdurft said.

“Apparently it is now a national offense to raise any concerns over certain aspects of the science or economics of policies that purport to deal with human-caused climate change,” Nothdurft said. “This witch hunt has nothing to do with ensuring that science is accurate or reliable. These attacks are leveled by people who refuse to engage in civil debate over important matters of science, economics, and public policy. They should not be allowed to win the day.”

Even alarmists in the global warming debate say Grijalva has gone too far with his demands. Bob Ward, policy and communications director with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in the U.K., a frequent critic of climate skeptics, tweeted, “Politicians should not persecute academics with whom they disagree. No ifs or buts.”

Controversial climate researcher Michael Mann, recently sued by the attorney general of Virginia requesting e-mails concerning Mann’s climate research during his time at the state-supported University of Virginia, called the letters from Grijalva and other Democrats “heavy handed and overly aggressive.”

Activists’ Funding Goes Unquestioned

On her blog, Climate etc., climatologist Judith Curry responded to Grijalva’s letter, arguing if Congress and the press are truly concerned whether funding taints climate research, they should also be asking about funding from large environmental foundations and lobbying groups pushing for government action. Curry asked, “Are we not to be concerned by funding from green advocacy groups and scientists serving on the Boards of green advocacy groups?”

Among the potential conflicts of interest not under scrutiny by the media or congressional Democrats are those of Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, who has written a number of peer-reviewed papers and testified before Congress on multiple occasions. He previously served as chief scientist for, and is still a science advisor to, the multimillion-dollar lobbying group Environmental Defense.

Joe Romm, author of several books on climate change, has also testified on several occasions before Congress concerning global warming. Romm is a senior fellow and chief science advisor at the Center for American Progress, which argues for greater government control over the economy. Neither Romm nor his coauthors filed conflict-of-interest disclosures for their article in Environmental Research Letters, although the journal explicitly requires it, stating, “All authors and co-authors are required to disclose any potential conflict of interest when submitting their article (e.g. employment, consulting fees, research contracts, stock ownership, patent licenses, honoraria, advisory affiliations, etc.). This information should be included in an acknowledgments section at the end of the manuscript (before the references section). All sources of financial support for the project must also be disclosed in the acknowledgments section.”

Grijalva himself has taken $78,854 from environmental lobbying groups, according to the imablawg website (https://www.imablawg.blogspot.com/).

Pielke tweeted, “Once you tug on the thread of undisclosed financial interests in climate science, you’ll find it more a norm than exception.”

H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (hsburnett@heartland.org) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute.


Debunking the Left’s Attack on an Innocent Climate Scientist, https://www.heartland.org/willie-soon

AMS Letter to House Committee on Natural Resources on Challenges to Academic Freedom, February 27, 2015, https://www.heartland.org/policy-documents/ams-letter-house-committee-natural-resources-challenges-academic-freedom