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Political Scene

Congressional Climate: Changing or Chilling?
Linda Rowan

This summer, as energy demands skyrocket in the face of a deadly heat wave, Congress has passed a national energy bill. A flurry of discussions and compromises on aspects of the bill included a level of activity on climate change that has never been seen before in Congress, including a confrontation in the House on specific science results that has brought scientific peer review to the forefront of the debate.

Scientific consensus that human-made carbon dioxide emissions have caused global warming has been growing for many years. Two studies published in 2004, the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change report, as well as a host of other studies, continue to support this view. With Russia signing the Kyoto Protocol in 2004, 123 countries now agree that power generation is causing global warming, and they are reducing their carbon dioxide emissions to combat the problem. While the Bush administration and the majority in Congress continue to reject the Kyoto treaty, both branches of the federal government remain concerned about climate change. The Bush administration has called for more study and started several research initiatives, with congressional support, such as the Climate Change Study Program and the Global Earth Observing System of Systems.

Although the issue of climate change rarely surfaced in the four-year effort to draft comprehensive energy legislation, the Senate did hold floor debates for one week this summer to discuss climate, with consideration of three pieces of legislation related to carbon dioxide reductions. The McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act of 2005 was rejected, as was a similar but slightly weaker reductions proposal offered by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.). An amendment by Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to provide financial incentives for the development of new emission-reducing technology was accepted. In addition to these votes, the Senate adopted a “sense of the Senate” resolution that says its members agree that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming.

By contrast, the House held no hearings, debates or legislation related to reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Instead, the hot and sticky summer months yielded heated controversy over the quality of science, the peer-review process, the dissemination of data and who has jurisdiction to judge these issues. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the chairman of the Committee on Energy and Commerce, and Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.), the chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, sent letters to three climate scientists — Michael Mann, Ray Bradley and Malcolm Hughes. They were co-authors of research papers that showed a large rise in northern hemisphere temperatures in the 20th century, a graphed trend called the hockey stick.

In the letters, the representatives cited errors in the papers based on a Wall Street Journal report and requested the data, source codes, other studies, records of all financial support, and details about all of the scientists’ responses to anyone who requested their data or questioned their results. The letters also cited a paper by Stephen McIntyre and Ross McKitrick in Energy and Environment that reported errors and omissions in studies by Mann et al., published first in 1998 in Nature, and subsequently in other journals, including Science and Geophysical Research Letters.

The representatives’ letters requested a detailed explanation of these alleged errors and how these errors might affect the results. They also requested information about the role of each of the three authors in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Third Assessment Report (TAR) and the identities and roles of other scientists who worked on a specific section of TAR. Similar letters were also sent to Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the research of Mann’s team, and to Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC. The representatives asked NSF and the IPCC to explain how they judged the quality and accuracy of Mann et al.’s work and other studies, and what policies they have regarding the dissemination of data.

The letters, which are posted on the Energy and Commerce Web site, have drawn condemnation from some members of Congress and the scientific community. In a letter to Barton, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Committee on Science, called the investigation illegitimate and indicated the purposes of the letters were to “intimidate scientists” and “substitute Congressional political review for scientific peer review.” Boehlert said: “The precedent your investigation sets is truly chilling.” The National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Association for the Advancement of Science and 20 climate researchers have also written letters to Barton, which are available on the House science committee’s Web site.

The scientific community has and should continue to scrutinize Mann’s team’s studies, as well as others’; science advances by building and improving on the work of previous studies. It does not seem beneficial, however, for Congress to engage in a detailed investigation of a few specific papers, especially through the politicized tone of the Barton and Whitfield letters. Congress can call on the objective expertise of NAS, the Congressional Research Services or the General Accounting Office to investigate the quality and accountability of federally funded research, so that its members can focus on policy-making. Likewise, no policy can be decided on an investigation of a few studies or only the research of the scientific community, when many other stakeholders are involved.

Hopefully the House will follow the Senate’s lead on climate change and engage in public hearings and briefings, floor debates and ultimately political compromises. In the end, any legislation needs to consider all of the science and all of the citizens of the United States and the world, who will be affected by federal policy action or inaction.


Rowan is director of the American Geological Institute’s Government Affairs Program. E-mail: rowan@agiweb.org.

Links to the letters and other relevant materials:

Links to letters on Barton's Web site (http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/letters/letters.htm)
House Science Committee Web site on the climate science dispute
Boehlert's letter to Barton
Waxman's letter to Barton

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