President Obama's science adviser, Dr. John Holdren, faced a barrage of questions yesterday from Republican Members of Congress about a series of hacked emails at the University of East Anglia Climate Research Unit that climate change skeptics have seized upon as evidence that the whole concept of climate change is a hoax.
Holdren and Dr. Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, had been called before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming to testify about the Obama administration's position on climate change, but they found much of the hearing consumed by the controversy.
The emails, stolen from the university, includes passages from academics referring to research "tricks," and seeming to support suppressing data and squelching voices of dissent. The director of the Climate Research Unit stepped down on Tuesday, pending the results of an investigation by the university, which said today it was seeking "to determine whether there is any evidence of the manipulation or suppression of data which is at odds with acceptable scientific practice."
"Their contents are shocking," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wisc., the ranking Republican on the committee, referring to the emails.
Quoting a commentator who said "the stink of intellectual corruption is overpowering," Sensenbrenner characterized the UEA data set as "the basis for virtually all peer-reviewed literature" and asserted that "the documents show systematic suppression of dissenting opinion among scientists in the climate change community, intimidation of journal editors and a journal who would deign to publish articles questioning the so called consensus, manipulation of data and models, possible criminal activity to evade legitimate requests for data and the underlying computer codes filed under Freedom of Information Acts, both in the U.S. and in the United Kingdom."
Holdren disputed Sensenbrenner's assertions and downplayed the controversy.
"In this particular case, the data set in question and the way it was interpreted and presented by these particular scientists constitute a very small part of the immense body of data and analysis on which our understanding of the issue of climate change rests," Holdren said. "It is important to understand that these kinds of controversies and even accusations of bias and improper manipulation are not all that uncommon in science, in all branches of science. The strength of science is that these kinds of controversies get sorted out over time as to who is wrong, who is right, and how much it matters by the process of peer review and continued critical scrutiny by the knowledgeable community of scientists."
The comments echoed those made on November 25 by Carol Browner, the assistant to the President for energy and climate, when asked about the email controversy.
"There has been for a very long time a very small group of people who continue to say this isn't a real problem, that we don't need to do anything," Browner said. "On the other hand, we have 2,500 of the world's foremost scientists who are in absolute agreement that this is a real problem and that we need to do something and we need to do something as soon as possible. What am I going to do, side with the couple of naysayers out there, or the 2,500 scientists? I'm sticking with the 2,500 scientists. I mean, these people have been studying this issue for a very, very long time, and agree that the problem is real."
On Monday, asked about the controversy, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs referring to Browner's remarks, asserted that "climate change is happening. I don't think that's anything that is, quite frankly, among most people, in dispute anymore."
Holdren argued Wednesday that the more important issue is that in 2006 the National Academy of Sciences — which "undertook a thorough review of all of the relevant data sets and all of the methods of analysis, not just the data set used by these particular authors or the methods used by these particular authors" – "concluded that the preponderance of available evidence points to the conclusion that the last 50 years have been the warmest half century in at least the last 1,000 years and probably much longer."
Long after the "dust settles" on the University of East Anglia email controversy there will be "a very strong scientific consensus on the key characteristics of the problem," Holdren said. "Those characteristics are that "global climate is changing in highly unusual ways," ways that "match what theory and models tell us would be expected to result from the very changes in the atmosphere that we know have been caused by human activities, above all burning fossil fuels and tropical deforestation," and that "significant impacts on human well being from these changes in climate are already being experienced."
"Anyone who thinks that those e mails are insignificant, that they don't damage the credibility of the entire movement, is naïve," said Rep. John Shadegg, R-Ariz. "These e mails repeatedly have shown that the scientists involved and who authored them, the scientists who are behind global warming or the argument that global warming is caused by manmade factors, the e mails demonstrate that they are afraid to reveal the facts, that they have been unwilling to have their theories tested, that they have been unwilling to provide their data, and they are unwilling to have their theories openly challenged."
At times the hearing grew quite heated. Rep. Jay Inslee, D-Wash., took issue with Sensenbrenner using the term "scientific fascism."
"Is there any evidence of fascism in the NOAA organization, of scientific fascism associated with this?" Inslee asked Holdren.
"I am not even sure exactly what that term would mean," Holdren said. "I am not aware of any cabals, conspiracies, misbehavior in the characterization and use of data in NASA or NOAA."
Sensenbrenner explained what he meant by the term – suggestions that a publication "ought to be boycotted because they weren't doing the politically correct thing" and "intimidation in the scientific community by people who wish to be contrary to what the conventional wisdom is."
Said the Wisconsin Republican: We "are being asked as a Congress to make major changes in American society in energy use and on how much the out of pocket cost is to every person in this country as a result of this debate. And we in Congress better get it right. The scientists may be able to change their story and do more research on it, but, once Congress passes a law, it will be as difficult to repeal the consequences of that law as putting milk back into the cow."
Inslee called it "troublesome" that scientists — "who put the men on the moon, the people who discovered water on the moon, the people who are doing great research figuring out how the oceans are become acidic, some of whom are my constituents — it is disturbing to me that people would come to this chamber and call them fascists."
He said there was "a little emotion in my voice because I have seen in my neighborhood what this phenomenon is doing," referring to the higher rate of acidification in the oceans, especially "the shallow waters off our Pacific coast….Is there anybody in this room who has information to suggest that the oceans are not becoming more acidic? Has anybody got information like that? Anybody? Has anybody got an explanation why the oceans are becoming more acidic, other than the fact that there is massive amounts of carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere? Has anybody got an explanation for that?"
NOAA administrator Lubchenco focused on consensus data: "Global average surface temperature has risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1900 and is projected to rise another 2 to 11.5 degrees by 2100. The current atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is estimated at about 385 parts per million, which is higher than the highest point in the last 800,000 years. Temperatures in the next couple of decades will be primarily determined by past emissions of greenhouse gases, but increases thereafter will be primarily determined by future emissions."
"I understand that those people who have been refusing to accept science for years are enjoying their moment talking about language from some e mails that were taken out of context," Inslee said. "If you could take those e mails and chop them up and put them in a C 130 and sprinkle them over the Arctic and stop the Arctic from melting, that would be a good thing, but that won't happen. If you could take those e mails and chop them up into fairy dust and sprinkle them over the Greenland ice cap and stop the accelerated melting going on there, that would be a good thing, but that won't happen. And if you could take those e mails and chop them up and sprinkle them over the oceans and stop the incredible ocean acidification that is so damaging, that would be a wonderful thing, but that won't happen."