by Judith Curry
My op-ed in Fox News: Is government tinkering with global warming data?
A copy of the text that I originally submitted is appended in full below:
The politics surrounding global temperature data
The hottest topic in climate research is the observation that global average surface temperature, as well as satellite observations of temperatures in the atmosphere, has shown little or no warming during the 21st century. Now the political climate is heating up over the same issue: is 21st century global warming proceeding more slowly than previously predicted, or not?
The early 21st century slowdown in global warming, often referred to as the warming ‘hiatus’ or ‘pause,’ was unexpected — the 2007 assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected a rate of warming of 0.2oC per decade in the early part of the 21st century. Scientists are producing some fascinating research on natural climate variability on decadal time scales as they search for an explanation for this unexpected slowdown in warming.
Last summer, a team of government scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), led by Thomas Karl, published a paper in Science titled “Possible Artifacts Of Data Biases In The Recent Global Surface Warming Hiatus.” The press release from NOAA included this statement from Karl: “Adding in the last two years of global surface temperature data and other improvements in the quality of the observed record provide evidence that contradict the notion of a hiatus in recent global warming trends.” Media headlines touted the conclusion that science now shows that the recent hiatus in warming never existed.
Scientists on both sides of the climate debate have been critical of Karl’s paper and the adjustments made to temperature in the new data set, particularly the ocean data analysis. Patrick Michaels, Richard Lindzen and Chip Knappenberger criticized the analysis, stating that adjusting the reliable ocean surface buoy data upwards to match the much less reliable data from engine intake channels in ships introduces an artificial upward trend in the data because the buoy network has become increasingly dense in the last two decades. A recent paper by Nieves and collaborators use NOAA’s other ocean surface temperature data set (OISST) – determined from global satellite observations and the global ocean surface buoy network – and found that the global average ocean surface temperature has been rising since 2003 at a rate of 0.01oC per decade, which is almost an order of magnitude smaller than the rate of increase reported in Karl’s paper. IPCC lead author Gerald Meehl stated: “In this case such claims of ‘no hiatus’ are artifacts of questionable interpretation of decadal timescale variability and externally forced response – not problems with the data.”
Clearly, scientists have much work to do to better understand the problems with historical ocean temperature data, adjust the biases among different types of measurements, and understand the differences among different data sets.
The hiatus is not only telling us something about the importance of natural climatic variations but also about the politicization of climate science. The surface temperature data set plays a central role in the political debate over climate change. In his State of the Union address (Jan 20, 2015), President Obama stated: “2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record.” This statement followed a joint press release (Jan 16, 2015) from NASA’s Gavin Schmidt and NOAA’s Thomas Karl that touted 2014 as the warmest year on record. This press release was widely criticized for failing to point out that 2014 was in a statistical tie with several other recent years. NOAA’s press release in June for Karl’s paper on the hiatus was issued just before EPA was getting ready to issue its Clean Power Plan. And the politics are heating up with the approach of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris in December.
Last month, the House Science Committee, chaired by Lamar Smith (R-Texas), subpoenaed NOAA for data and communications relating to Karl’s article. However, NOAA is refusing to give Rep. Smith the documents, citing confidentiality concerns and the integrity of the scientific process. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex) called the request “a serious misuse of Congressional oversight powers.”
So, is the subpoena harassment or appropriate constitutional oversight? There are two legitimate concerns that the subpoena is responding to. The first is a data quality issue, which needs to be resolved owing to the central role that this data set is playing in U.S. climate policy. The second issue is arguably more worrisome and difficult to uncover, related to a potential alliance between NOAA scientists and Obama administration officials that is biasing and spinning climate science to support a political agenda. Rep. Smith stated: “The American people have every right to be suspicious when NOAA alters data to get the politically correct results they want and then refuses to reveal how those decisions were made.” An editorial at Investors Business Daily put it this way: “Taxpayers pay for this research, which is being used to justify massive new federal spending and regulation. They deserve to know what NOAA and other federal agencies are doing — and whether they’re being honest or serving an unspoken extreme political agenda.”
The House Committee’s investigation may provide insight into the following questions. To what extent did internal discussions occur regarding some of the more questionable choices made in adjusting the ocean temperature data? Was any concern raised about the discrepancies of the new ocean temperature data set and NOAA’s other ocean temperature data set (OISST) that shows no warming since 2003? Were any Obama administration officials communicating with NOAA about these statements prior to issuing these press releases? Was the release of the land and ocean temperature data sets, which were documented in papers previously published, delayed to follow Karl’s June press release?
Earlier this year, Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) initiated in investigation into possible industry funding of scientists (including myself) that had recently provided Congressional testimony for the Republicans. While potentially undisclosed industrial funding of research is a legitimate concern, climate science research funding from government is many orders of magnitude larger than industrial funding of climate research. If the House Science Committee can work to minimize the political influence on government-funded research, it will have done both science and the policies that depend on science a big favor.
An article today in Science provides the latest news on conflict between NOAA and the House Science Committee: House science panel demands more NOAA documents on Science paper.
American Meteorological Society
The American Meteorological Society has sent a letter to Rep. Smith, arstechnica has an article Meteorologists defend NOAA; Congressman repeats allegations of fraud. The full text of the AMS letter is [here]:
Dear Chairman Smith:
The American Meteorological Society (AMS) has a long history of supporting free and open access to the data and methodologies used to conduct scientific research. Indeed, reporting on research results fully and transparently through the peer-reviewed literature and providing the capability for other scientists to replicate that research to either confirm or refute those findings is a fundamental foundation of the scientific process. The AMS is concerned, however, with your recent subpoena of NOAA seeking a wide range of internal documents and correspondence related to a specific set of climate research results that have been published in the peer-reviewed literature. Singling out specific research studies, and implicitly questioning the integrity of the researchers conducting those studies, can be viewed as a form of intimidation that could deter scientists from freely carrying out research on important national challenges. As expressed in the AMS Statement on Freedom of Scientific Expression:
The ability of scientists to present their findings to the scientific community, policy makers, the media, and the public without censorship, intimidation, or political interference is imperative.
NOAA has stated, unambiguously, that all data and methodologies used for this research are freely available. The demand for internal communications associated with their research places a burden on NOAA scientists, imposes a chilling effect on future communication among scientists, and potentially disrupts NOAA’s critical efforts to protect life and property. NOAA and other Federal agencies employ world-class scientists who seek knowledge and understanding with commitment and dedication. The advancement of science depends on investigators having the freedom to carry out research objectively and without the fear of threats or intimidation whether or not their results are expedient or popular.
The challenge arises most sharply when the science reported in high-quality journals is directly applicable to current and ongoing social, economic, and political issues. Quoting again from the same AMS Statement:
These principles matter most — and at the same time are most vulnerable to violation — precisely when science has its greatest bearing on society. Earth sciences and their applications have growing implications for public health and safety, economic development, protection of the environment and ecosystems, and national security. Thus, scientists, policy makers, and their supporting institutions share a special responsibility at this time for guarding and promoting the freedom of responsible scientific expression.
We encourage you and the Committee to help promote scientific advancement and to welcome the self-correcting nature of the peer-review process within the international scientific community. That is best accomplished by applauding the open access to data and methodologies that NOAA consistently achieves and supporting the vetting of NOAA research through the peer-reviewed literature.
Dr. Keith L. Seitter AMS Executive Director
Rep. Lamar Smith’s response
Rep. Smith’s response to the Administrator of NOAA, Kathryn Sullivan [link]:
Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) today sent a letter to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Kathryn Sullivan responding to the agency’s unjustified refusal to provide the Committee with documents related to the agency’s decision to alter historical climate data. After three letters requesting these documents, Chairman Smith issued a subpoena on October 13th to obtain communications related to NOAA’s decision.
“To date, you have neither produced all documents responsive to the subpoena, nor invoked a valid legal privilege to justify withholding them,” Chairman Smith wrote. “Your failure to comply with the Committee’s subpoena has delayed the Committee’s investigation and thwarted the Committee’s constitutional obligation to conduct oversight of the Executive Branch. Furthermore, your failure to comply with a duly issued subpoena may expose you to civil and/or criminal enforcement mechanisms.”
Although NOAA failed to provide the Committee with any justification for withholding documents, a NOAA spokeswoman was quoted in the media saying that the agency’s “internal communications are confidential and not related to what Smith is trying to find out.” As such, NOAA reportedly does not intend to provide the Committee with communications.
In his letter, Smith wrote: “Contrary to NOAA’s public comments, it is not the position of NOAA to determine what is, or is not, responsive to the Committee’s investigation or whether certain communications are confidential.
“NOAA has failed to fully explain the conditions surrounding its process and procedures for adjusting upward temperature readings that eliminated the ‘pause’ in global warming. Deficiencies in NOAA’s response to the Committee’s request raises serious concerns about what role officials at NOAA, including political appointees, had in the decision to adjust the temperature data and widely publicize conclusions based on those adjustments.”
The letter demands NOAA provide all of the documents covered under the subpoena by Friday November 6 and also requests that NOAA make several employees available for transcribed interviews with the Committee.
Keith Seitter of the AMS has written a good letter, but it misses the mark. About a third of the AMS membership is NOAA employees, and the AMS rightly stands up for freedom of scientific inquiry and public communication by scientists. However, the issue is not the rank and file government researchers, but rather the actions of the higher echelons of NOAA/NCEI management (notably Tom Karl). And further, it is quite a stretch to argue that this argument with a climate data center potentially disrupts NOAA’s critical efforts to protect life and property.
Researchers employed in government labs have different responsibilities to the federal government than do researchers employed at universities, so there isn’t really any symmetry here with the Grijalva 7 request (related to trying to smoke out fossil fuel funding of university scientists testifying for the Republicans). Grijalva’s request was a politically motivated fishing expedition.
Smith’s request has a very different context: concern about the quality of a specific data set of great policy relevance that was touted by NOAA in a big press release; and concern that Karl in particular has been playing politics with NOAA data.
I’ve heard enough behind the scenes (including discussions with NOAA employees) that I am siding with Rep. Smith on this one.
The politicization of climate science has gotten extreme. I don’t know where to start in trying to ameliorate this situation, but Congressional oversight and investigation into what is going on in government labs does not seem inappropriate under these circumstances.
It’s a sad state of affairs that climate science has come to this.