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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Scientists Stand Up To Congressional Attacks

By Phil Plait

To the surprise of no one, Lamar Smith (R-Texas) is continuing his unfounded attack on science, ratcheting it up even higher than before. This time, he’s trying to tie up the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). The good news? They’re having none of it.

OK, let’s get you caught up first. Smith is the head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, and is also a 100 percent head-in-the-sand climate change denier, as well as a conspiracy theorist. A list of his nonsensical claims would take a long time to catalog, so here are just a couple: He thinks that scientists are manipulating data to make it look like the Earth is warming, and that the global warming pause is actually a thing, despite huge, overwhelming amounts of evidence that it isn’t.

Sadly, as head of the science committee he has the power to manifest his conspiracy ideations. He has used the threat of “Congressional oversight” to harass scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including subpoenaing its administrator, Kathryn Sullivan, a scientist and ex-NASA astronaut. The minority (Democratic) committee ranking member, Eddie Bernice Johnson, protested this move vocally. The NOAA refused Smith’s ridiculous request. Smith then slipped into some sort of alternate reality, demanding information from the NOAA because he thinks he has whistleblowers who claim NOAA scientists rushed a global warming paper into publication. Johnson wrote yet another letter to Smith protesting his actions. Smith responded by overreaching even more, broadening his McCarthy-esque fishing expedition against the NOAA.

And that brings us to now.

Smith’s been ramping up a new(ish) tactic, trying to flush out what he thinks is a cabal of scientists fighting the fossil fuel industry. On May 18, 2016, he sent a letter to the UCS, an obvious attempt to create a chilling effect on their work to help scientists maintain the freedom they need to do their research. Reading the letter, I don’t think George Orwell could have done any better. He’s claiming that the UCS is trying to “deprive companies, non profit organizations, and scientists of their First Amendment rights and ability to fund and conduct scientific research free from intimidation and threats of prosecution.”

That loud noise you may have just heard was my irony gland exploding.

Smith, who has done nothing but intimidate and threaten scientists with prosecution, has the temerity to accuse the UCS of this. Amazing.

In the letter, Smith says the UCS is conspiring with a score of state attorneys general to work “… against those who have questioned the causes, magnitudes, or best ways to address climate change.”

Yeah, in that last part he means climate change deniers. “Best ways to address climate change.” Please.

Smith has gone back to his tactic of demanding all correspondence, wanting everything —“all documents and correspondence”— from the UCS to the offices of the attorneys general, hoping that a broad fishing expedition will turn up something that, one assumes given repeated past history, can be taken out of context to support his denial.

The UCS has responded, and was very clear about their answer: No.

In their letter to Smith, they are adamant that Smith has vastly overreached his legal authority and jurisdiction. It makes my heart sing to see that they too point out the irony of Smith claiming the UCS is trying to suppress the First Amendment rights of fossil fuel companies while he’s attempting to squelch the UCS’s First Amendment rights.

“Chairman Smith’s letter makes no claim that UCS has violated any law or regulation. Instead, Chairman Smith seeks governmental “oversight” over UCS’s exercise of our core First Amendment right to petition the government to take action on the urgent threat of climate change,” said Ken Kimmell, the president of UCS. “Not only is our activity well within our rights, but Chairman Smith’s request oversteps his committee’s jurisdiction.”

“The law is clear—this inquiry goes well beyond the power granted to Congressional committees,” Kimmell said. “This kind of open-ended investigation is an abuse of power, and we are standing up to it to avoid setting a precedent that could have a chilling effect on scientists, or anyone else, exercising their right to speak out about any vital issue.”

As I have said many times, this is an abuse of power on Smith’s part, pure and simple. He will do anything to slow or stop research into climate change and cast aspersions on scientists, no matter how untrue his claims are.

The final irony? We now know for a fact that Exxon has been misleading the public for decades; they knew in the 1970s that their product could harm the Earth’s environment. Maybe someone should clue Smith in on this, if he can hear it over the sound of fossil fuel industry donations pouring into his coffers.

Sadly, Smith is in a Texas district unlikely to elect someone to replace him (though democrat Tom Wakely is running against Smith in Texas District 21 for the November election, and is very clearly on the side of reality when it comes to climate change). The only way I can see Smith releasing his power is if he has to, and that means the Democratic party gaining a majority in the House this November. That seems unlikely to me as well, though not out of the question.

With record temperatures the past seven months; with 2016 almost certainly going to be the hottest year globally on record (beating out 2015 and 2014); with the Great Barrier Reef sustaining massive (perhaps irreversible) damage due to global warming induced coral bleaching; and with Donald Trump bloviating about droughts and picking a global warming denier as his energy advisor, the sooner the deniers like Smith are out of power, the better our planet—the better all of us, every human on Earth—will be.

Hat tip to climatologist Michael Mann.

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