Climate Studies Cannot Be Free From Oversight

Climate Studies Cannot Be Free From Oversight

Tuesday, August 2, 2005
by H. Sterling Burnett


Scientific progress depends on the free flow of ideas and data, which let researchers independently confirm, refute or improve the findings of a specific course of inquiry. And policymakers often rely on scientific research, much of which is funded by federal and state governments, in making policy decisions. Thus, transparency of scientific data and methods is critical as faulty research can result in bad policy.

None of that is controversial, which is why it's puzzling that House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton's request for data from three noted climate scientists has produced howls of protest from much of the scientific establishment and their friends in the mainstream media.     

Controversial studies by the scientists, heavily funded by federal taxes, are being used by eco-activists to prod Congress into taking a more aggressive stance to combat global warming - a stance that could end up costing U.S. taxpayers and consumers tens billions of dollars annually.

So one wonders what Barton, an 11-term Texas Republican, is doing wrong when he seeks to exercise congressional oversight by having independent experts examine the scientists' data to ensure their validity.

Barton asked the scientists, led by the University of Virginia's Michael Mann, to share the data and the methodologies they used to come to their conclusion that the 20th century was the warmest of the last two millenniums. In addition, he wanted to know the sources of the funding for their research.

Still Not Settled

When Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., chaired Barton's committee, he unearthed scandals and saved taxpayers billions by hauling scientists before the panel, demanding their research papers, putting them under oath and grilling them until their shirts were wet with sweat. Few in the media complained, and Dingell was praised in editorials for conducting effective oversight about the use of federal money.

When a Republican congressman from Texas acts in the same manner and with the same intentions, he is accused by the media of conducting a witch hunt. This despite the fact that the issue of whether human carbon dioxide emissions cause any significant amount of greenhouse gasses is still the object of an intense debate among scientists.

Although Mann's research has come under serious criticism, it continues to be promoted by the U.N. and such global warming enthusiasts as the Pew Center on Climate Change as a prime reason for imposing draconian curbs on U.S. energy use.

The Pew Center, headed by former Clinton White House official Eileen Claussen, and its allies in the environmental community are spending upward of $300 million a year promoting the idea that global warming is the major cause of whatever bad weather happens to be on the horizon. Since the legislation they are pushing would impair the U.S. economy - and working Americans - costing tens of billions of dollars each year, Barton is doing a public service by trying to determine if their claims rest on a foundation of sound science.

Doing His Job

Mann's research appears to fall far short of that standard. To popularize his theory, he produced a chart that shows nearly 1,000 years of relatively stable temperatures followed by an abrupt upturn in temperatures in the latter part of the 20th century. The graphic resembles a hockey stick on its side, with more than 900 years of statistics running along the shaft and the recent shorter period running the length of the blade.

The hockey-stick interpretation was given great currency until peer-reviewed journals published critiques by six teams of researchers that showed Mann and his colleagues "stacked the deck" by omitting key data and misinterpreting other data.

In response to this deluge of criticism, Mann's team initially offered a stubborn defense of its work, but later issued a partial "correction" - conceding it had underestimated temperature variations by more than one-third since 1400. Yet the team steadfastly maintained this major error did not affect the basic conclusions of its research.

At the same time, Mann's team adamantly refused other, more skeptical scientists the right to review its raw data or the methodology it used to arrive at its findings. Without that information, it is impossible to determine if Mann's research is valid.

Far from being a witch hunt, Barton's request for full disclosure promotes scientific integrity. Research that is funded by taxpayers and used to promote legislation that affects their prosperity should always be reviewed for its validity by their elected representatives. In fact, billions of taxpayer dollars go down the drain every month because Congress fails to conduct vigilant oversight.

Barton, like Dingell before him, is doing exactly what he should be doing for America's taxpayers, who, after all, will have to pick up the tab for bad public policy. He deserves bouquets from the press, not brickbats.
Burnett is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis (