Democratic Congressman Draws Backlash Over Climate Funding Probe

Rep. Raul Grijalva wants to know if climate skeptics at several universities got industry funding. But is he engaged in a witch hunt?

The smoke stacks at American Electric Power's (AEP) Mountaineer coal power plant in New Haven, West Virginia, October 30, 2009. In cooperation with AEP, the French company Alstom unveiled the world's largest carbon capture facility at a coal plant, so called 'clean coal,' which will store around 100,000 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide a year 2,1 kilometers (7,200 feet) underground.
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
Feb. 25, 2015, 4 p.m.

A House Demo­crat look­ing for ties between cli­mate skep­tics at sev­er­al uni­versit­ies and fossil fuel in­terests is fa­cing al­leg­a­tions that his probe goes too far. And they’re not just com­ing from his polit­ic­al op­pon­ents.

Fol­low­ing rev­el­a­tions that a prom­in­ent cli­mate skep­tic failed to dis­close fund­ing from Ex­xon, South­ern Com­pany, and oth­er fossil fuel in­dustry sources, Rep. Raul Gri­jalva, the top Demo­crat on the Nat­ur­al Re­sources Com­mit­tee, sent let­ters to sev­en schools de­mand­ing in­form­a­tion about — and “com­mu­nic­a­tion re­gard­ing” — spe­cif­ic pro­fess­ors’ fund­ing sources and their pre­par­a­tion of testi­mony be­fore Con­gress and oth­er bod­ies.

Gri­jalva’s ef­fort marks a flip­ping of the script of sorts. In re­cent years, some of the highest-pro­file probes of cli­mate sci­ent­ists have been gen­er­ated by Re­pub­lic­ans and glob­al warm­ing skep­tics, not­ably former Vir­gin­ia At­tor­ney Gen­er­al Ken Cuc­cinelli’s cam­paign against the prom­in­ent re­search­er Mi­chael Mann.

“Politi­cians should not per­se­cute aca­dem­ics with whom they dis­agree. No ifs or buts,” tweeted Bob Ward, policy and com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or with the Grantham Re­search In­sti­tute on Cli­mate Change and the En­vir­on­ment in the U.K.

The Uni­versity of Col­or­ado’s Ro­ger Pielke, Jr., one of the re­cip­i­ents of the let­ters, slammed Gri­jalva’s probe as a ‘witch hunt.’

Gri­jalva’s let­ters cite re­cent re­ports of Wei-Hock “Wil­lie” Soon, a sci­ent­ist af­fil­i­ated with the Har­vard-Smith­so­ni­an Cen­ter for As­tro­phys­ics. Soon dis­putes the sci­entif­ic con­sensus that hu­man activ­it­ies are the main driver of glob­al warm­ing, and doc­u­ments ob­tained by en­vir­on­ment­al­ists showed that Soon re­ferred to his work as “de­liv­er­ables” for fun­ders.

The con­gress­man im­plies that oth­er re­search­ers may have un­dis­closed re­la­tion­ships with fossil fuel com­pan­ies. “If true, these may not be isol­ated in­cid­ents,” Gri­jalva wrote.

Joanne Car­ney of the Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation for the Ad­vance­ment of Sci­ence said she un­der­stands the con­cerns around Soon’s work, and noted her or­gan­iz­a­tion re­quires dis­clos­ure of fund­ing sources and po­ten­tial con­flicts in its journ­als. If the group were to find that a re­search­er has not dis­closed the in­form­a­tion, they would ex­am­ine that au­thor’s oth­er work, Car­ney said.

But she was skep­tic­al of Gri­jalva’s let­ters that probe oth­er re­search­ers. “I think we are ques­tion­ing why they are mak­ing the as­sump­tion that oth­er re­search­ers need to be ques­tioned,” Car­ney said, and later ad­ded: “It is not clear to us why these oth­er sci­ent­ists were be­ing tar­geted.”

Pielke said he has “no fund­ing, de­clared or un­declared, with any fossil fuel com­pany or in­terest” and nev­er has, he wrote in a blog post Wed­nes­day. “Rep­res­ent­at­ive Gri­jalva knows this too, be­cause when I have test­i­fied be­fore the U.S. Con­gress, I have dis­closed my fund­ing and pos­sible con­flicts of in­terest.

“So I know with com­plete cer­tainty that this in­vest­ig­a­tion is a polit­ic­ally-mo­tiv­ated ‘witch hunt’ de­signed to in­tim­id­ate me (and oth­ers) and to smear my name,” Pielke said.

On Twit­ter, Uni­versity of Wash­ing­ton earth sci­ences pro­fess­or Eric Steig, who has battled with Pielke in the past, said that he has his back. “Wel­come to the new Mc­Carthy­ism. Con­gress should not be able to in­vest­ig­ate on a whim. You have my *un­equi­voc­al* sup­port,” Steig said.

Mann, a prom­in­ent Penn State cli­mate sci­ent­ist who has has been sub­ject of Re­pub­lic­an-led probes of his work in past years, had a mixed ver­dict on the let­ters.

“It does come across as sort of heavy handed and overly ag­gress­ive,” Mann told Na­tion­al Journ­al, adding that he is “a little un­com­fort­able” with the de­mands for the pro­fess­ors’ cor­res­pond­ence. But he said there’s noth­ing wrong with seek­ing in­form­a­tion on fund­ing sources. “That is something that no sci­ent­ists should have any qualms” about provid­ing, Mann said.

Mann also said the Gri­jalva let­ters on fund­ing should not be “con­flated” with probes he has faced from GOP Rep. Joe Bar­ton and Cuc­cinelli.

“The dif­fer­ence be­ing that they were de­mand­ing ma­ter­i­als that are pro­tec­ted un­der prin­ciples of aca­dem­ic free­dom — private de­lib­er­a­tions between aca­dem­ics or sci­ent­ists, un­pub­lished manuscripts, raw source code that was writ­ten, stuff that’s in­trins­ic to your work as a sci­ent­ist,” Mann said.

Mann is best known for re­search that pro­duced the “hockey stick” chart, which that re­con­structs glob­al tem­per­at­ure over the past 1,000 years and shows a sharp up­tick in the 20th cen­tury. His con­duct has been cleared in sev­er­al probes.

Gri­jalva’s of­fice in­sists it’s not cross­ing the line, and ar­gued there’s a dif­fer­ence between these let­ters and past GOP-led probes of cli­mate sci­ent­ists.

“We are not ask­ing for drafts of sci­entif­ic re­search. We are not ask­ing for raw data. We are not ask­ing for whole hard drives worth of stuff,” said Adam Sar­vana, Gri­jalva’s spokes­man. “This is about fin­ances and it is about the con­nec­tion between money and testi­mony, be­cause testi­mony is not re­search. Testi­mony is in­ter­pret­ing sci­entif­ic in­form­a­tion for pub­lic con­sump­tion to in­flu­ence policy, and in our view that is not pro­tec­ted en­tirely by aca­dem­ic shield­ing.”

Sar­vana sim­il­arly de­fen­ded the re­quest for com­mu­nic­a­tions with fun­ders, to de­term­ine if there was an “im­pli­cit or ex­pli­cit prom­ise made.”

“The whole Wil­lie Soon story turns on ex­actly the kinds of things that we are ask­ing for,” he said.

The Amer­ic­an As­so­ci­ation of Uni­versity Pro­fess­ors does not have an of­fi­cial po­s­i­tion on the let­ters, but the group re­ferred ques­tions to Mar­tin Kich, an Eng­lish pro­fess­or at Wright State Uni­versity.

Kich said Gri­jalva has every right to ask for the sources and amounts of re­search grants and spe­cif­ic pro­pos­als that have been fun­ded. “But in re­quest­ing the per­son­al cor­res­pond­ence of fac­ulty, he is ask­ing the in­sti­tu­tions to vi­ol­ate the aca­dem­ic free­dom of those fac­ulty mem­bers. AAUP will al­most cer­tainly be op­posed to that,” he said in an email.

Pielke is one of sev­er­al aca­dem­ics who have test­i­fied be­fore Con­gress at the in­vit­a­tion of Re­pub­lic­ans to be tar­geted by one of the let­ters, which were sent to the pres­id­ents of the uni­versit­ies that em­ploy the re­search­ers Gri­jalva’s prob­ing.

Pielke doesn’t dis­pute hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change, but fre­quently says ad­voc­ates have gone too far with claims that it has worsened ex­treme weath­er events like hur­ricanes and severe droughts, or in­creased their fre­quency.

Oth­er pro­fess­ors tar­geted by the let­ters break in vari­ous ways with the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of sci­ent­ists on cli­mate change.

For in­stance, Ju­dith Curry of the Geor­gia In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy has at­tacked the 2013 find­ing by the United Na­tions’ In­ter­gov­ern­ment­al Pan­el on Cli­mate Change that there’s at least a 95 per­cent chance that hu­man in­flu­ences have been the dom­in­ant cause of warm­ing since the mid-20th cen­tury, ar­guing that evid­ence had weakened since the IP­CC’s big 2007 as­sess­ment.

Curry, in a lengthy post on her web­site Wed­nes­day, cri­ti­cized Gri­jalva’s let­ters and poin­ted to state­ments about her fund­ing sources that she at­taches to con­gres­sion­al testi­mony.

“It looks like it is ‘open sea­son’ on any­one who de­vi­ates even slightly from the con­sensus,” she writes, later adding: “I don’t think any­thing good will come of this. I an­ti­cip­ate that Gri­jalva will not find any kind of an un­dis­closed fossil fuel smoking gun from any of the 7 in­di­vidu­als un­der in­vest­ig­a­tion.”

The oth­er pro­fess­ors who are tar­gets of Gri­jalva’s let­ters are:

Dav­id Leg­ates of the Uni­versity of Delaware; John Christy of the Uni­versity of Alabama; Richard Lindzen of the Mas­sachu­setts In­sti­tute of Tech­no­logy; Robert Balling of Ari­zona State Uni­versity; and Steven Hay­ward of Pep­perdine Uni­versity.

Across Cap­it­ol Hill, oth­er Demo­crats are tak­ing a dif­fer­ent tack in launch­ing new probes of the nex­us between fossil fuel in­dus­tries and cli­mate re­search and testi­mony.

Sens. Ed Mar­key, Bar­bara Box­er and Shel­don White­house sent let­ters to roughly 100 fossil fuel com­pan­ies, trade groups, and con­ser­vat­ive or­gan­iz­a­tions — like this one to the Amer­ic­an Pet­ro­leum In­sti­tute — seek­ing in­form­a­tion on cli­mate-re­lated re­search they have sup­por­ted.

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