Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

Friend of Science

Representative Lamar Smith is leaving Washington and leaving a legacy

After a year of caterwauling over Donald Trump’s election, the climate-change mob finally has something to cheer: the retirement of its top congressional nemesis, Representative Lamar Smith.

Smith, 70, who has represented his San Antonio–area district for the past 30 years, will not seek reelection in 2018. His tenure as chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology ends next year — Republican chairmanships are limited to three terms — and he is eager to be home in Texas with his new grandchildren. “If I would have been able to stay chairman, because it’s too fun and too interesting, I would have stayed,” he admits. “But term limits are a good thing, otherwise I wouldn’t have had a chance to be chairman in the first place.”

Unlike the stereotypical brash Texas politician, Smith is mannerly, slight, and soft-spoken, with little trace of a southern accent. A graduate of Yale and the Southern Methodist University law school, he is a science enthusiast who takes prodigious notes on whatever he reads and is probably one of the hardest-working pols on Capitol Hill.

During President Obama’s second term, Smith’s committee was a bulwark against the administration’s use of questionable, secretive science to advance its climate-change agenda against the will of a Republican Congress. The committee is responsible for a $40 billion annual budget that funds major scientific agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA; the latter two produce most of the government’s research on climate change.

Smith insists that federal research should be made public before it’s leveraged to justify costly regulations. This seemingly logical view offends an insular, hostile scientific establishment that believes it is above scrutiny or congressional oversight, particularly from conservatives. The Union of Concerned Scientists, a liberal nonprofit, blasted Smith after his retirement announcement: “Chairman Smith misused his position to subpoena federal researchers, sow doubt about scientific facts and push bills that would undermine the role of science in policy.”

Smith often clashed with Obama-administration officials, particularly EPA administrator Gina McCarthy, as Obama used the EPA as his climate-change enforcer to impose punitive and, in some cases, unlawful regulations, supposedly to mitigate anthropogenic global warming. (Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would have empowered the EPA to force states to cut carbon dioxide emissions to one-third of 2005 levels by 2030, was halted by the Supreme Court in 2016.)

Smith frequently accused the EPA of relying on dubious science to defend industry-targeted rules, and the agency rebuffed the committee’s numerous requests to make public its data and research methods. “It was frustrating under four years of President Obama,” says Smith. “In the last Congress, I issued 26 subpoenas. I was the first chairman in 21 years to issue a subpoena at all. The first one was for data at the EPA.” Smith is now sponsoring the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act, which would prohibit the EPA from “proposing, finalizing, or disseminating regulations or assessments based upon science that is not transparent or reproducible.”

The new EPA administrator thinks Smith’s approach is the right one. “Chairman Smith has served his constituents and country exceptionally well,” Scott Pruitt tells National Review in an email. “Not only has he held the federal government accountable in its use of sound science as chairman of the House Science committee, he helped pave the way for EPA to reform the way we receive guidance from independent, geographically diverse scientific advisors. His legacy will be cemented with this Agency for years to come.”

That commitment to sound science has made Smith a foe of many environmental activists and scientists, who accuse him of being a climate denier and using his position to undermine science. A 2016 New Yorker profile of Smith claimed that his committee was on an “anti-science rampage” and blasted his “conviction that the scientific community has a liberal agenda and that, if scientific results conflict with right-wing ideas, the scientists must be lying.”

Judith Curry, a scientist who has also been personally and professionally attacked by the climate mob for her criticisms of faulty climate models, and who has testified before Smith’s committee, holds a different view: “In my interactions with [him], he has impressed me as someone who loves science and is genuinely curious. He has been concerned about political influences on the scientific process and potential biases. He has been particularly concerned about apparent overhyping of climate alarm, in the face of scientific uncertainties and disagreement.”

Not only is Smith pushing for the use of transparent science at federal agencies, he is also working to expose scientists who distort research to buttress a political agenda. In 2015, Tom Karl, a top official at NOAA, authored a controversial study saying that the “pause” in the rise of global temperatures between 1998 and 2012 never happened, even though the hiatus had been acknowledged by the world’s leading climate authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The inconvenient fact of this pause threatened the raison d’être of the 2015 Paris climate conference, so Karl conveniently corrected ocean-buoy data to show that “the rate of warming during the first 15 years of the 21st century is at least as great as the last half of the 20th century.” “These results,” he wrote, “do not support the notion of a ‘slowdown’ in the increase of global surface temperature.” The report was published in Science in June 2015, just a few months before the Paris confab. To erase the pause, Karl and his team adjusted the temperatures: “In regards to sea surface temperature, scientists have shown that across the board, data collected from buoys are cooler than ship-based data,” Karl said in a NOAA press release that accompanied his report. “Scientists have developed a method to correct the difference between ship and buoy measurements, and we are using this in our trend analysis.”

Karl’s report was widely praised by activists, but it raised eyebrows among some climate scientists. After the study was released, Smith sent a series of letters to NOAA administrator Kathryn Sullivan, requesting documents related to the study; the agency refused, under the guise of confidentiality. Several scientific agencies, including the American Association for the Advancement of Science, wrote to Smith, claiming that the “practice of inquests directed at federal scientists whose findings may bear on policy in ways that some find unpalatable could well have a chilling effect on the willingness of government scientists to conduct research that intersects with policy-relevant scientific questions.”

But Smith’s suspicions were validated in February 2017, when John Bates, a former climate-data archivist at NOAA, wrote a lengthy post about misconduct related to the Karl report. Bates said that Karl had failed to follow agency protocols, and concluded: “In every aspect of the preparation and release of the datasets, we find Tom Karl’s thumb on the scale pushing for, and often insisting on, decisions that maximize warming and minimize documentation.” Smith’s committee is still receiving and reviewing documents related to Karl’s report.

Smith is the kind of stern taskmaster needed to expose rogue scientists and hold accountable an imperious scientific bureaucracy that had too much unchecked authority under the Obama administration and that still retains some power under the Trump administration, as holdovers remain in key agencies. “One of our achievements was changing the political agenda of the Obama administration on climate change. There was an intentional effort to alter the calculus, and we forced them to be more transparent,” Smith says. “We started to rein in alarmist predictions that were not based on good science and discovered that sometimes they cherry-picked data, or no data existed at all. We’ll follow the science wherever it takes us, but it has to be science, not science fiction.”

Far from being anti-science, Smith is enthusiastic about the potential of science to help us meet our biggest challenges: “I believe in more research and development, more technological solutions. I’ve said all along, as far as issues like transportation and health care [go], we’ve always solved those problems with more research and more innovation. Even Bill Gates is saying that now about climate change, that we need more tech, not more regulations. All I can say is ‘We were there first,’” Smith says with a grin.

Smith plans to stay politically active once he leaves Congress but won’t serve in elective office again: “I have 30 years of friendships here, so I will keep one foot in D.C. and one foot in San Antonio. I expect to be involved with what’s going on here, but at home with the family.” Maybe it’s too early for the climate-change mob to celebrate.

– Julie Kelly is a writer from Orland Park, Ill.

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