News cameras and long lines of people waiting to enter a packed hearing room are not the stuff of normal business carried out by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space, and Technology (House SST), which has a relatively sleepy (but nevertheless important) list of topics under its jurisdiction. Its primary function – reauthorizing (not appropriating) funding and providing general oversight for a host of scientific research and technology development programs across a dozen or so federal agencies – generally attracts the interest of journalists writing for highly specialized newsletters, not major broadcasters. But tomorrow’s 10:00 a.m. hearing in 2318 Rayburn House Office Building promises to further elevate the Committee’s profile, and that of its Chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX). Smith has managed to receive more ink in the press than just about any of his predecessors in this role, primarily over his controversial attitudes toward science and technology in general, and climate change in particular. Tomorrow, he is hoping to lay the groundwork for filing a slew of “contempt of Congress” charges that are bogus at best and dangerous at worst.
A scheduled press event just outside the U.S. Capitol is also sure to draw greater public attention to this debacle. California Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat representing California’s 33rd district and an advocate of investigations into ExxonMobil and other oil companies for their role in climate denial, will speak, as will Sharon Eubanks, a former Department of Justice attorney who was integrally involved in the federal action against Big Tobacco (many of the ploys the tobacco industry used to deny and dismiss connections between smoking and lung cancer are now being used by Big Oil to downplay the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on our climate system). May Boeve, director of 350.org, the climate activist organization founded by Bill McKibben, will also make a statement.
Here is the issue in a nutshell. Since he took over as House SST Chair in January 2013, Rep. Smith has attacked not just climate science but scientists themselves. For example, he has gone after the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for their climate science work. Now he is going after environmental organizations and even U.S. states! Some (but not all) of the Science Committee members are upset that state attorneys general (AGs) are investigating the Exxon Mobil Corporation for alleged misrepresentations regarding climate change impacts amounting to fraud. In response, Chairman Smith has escalated, and is now using new legal powers to subpoena groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and 350.org, as well as the offices of two state attorneys general in a crusade that is getting heavy pushback, not just from his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and the targets themselves, but from experts in constitutional law. For example, today UCS sent two letters to Chairman Smith asking him to “cease [his] investigation of private civil society organizations that are working to hold ExxonMobil accountable for misrepresenting the work of the company’s own climate change scientists” – one signed by 32,783 citizens, the other signed by 2,143 scientists. “Your actions risk disrupting the ability of private citizens and organizations to blow the whistle on the politicization of science,” the letters read (we could not agree more: the very roots of CSPW stem from the actions of one whistleblower, Rick Piltz, having the courage to shine a bright light on the politicization of climate science in the Bush-Cheney White House).
Another lengthy, well-researched letter signed by fourteen constitutional law scholars, civil liberties advocates, and First Amendment litigators also went out today to Chairman Smith expressing “grave concerns about the lawfulness” of the July subpoenas and urging him to withdraw them, claiming they “violate the separation of powers, exceed the committee’s delegated authority, abridge the First Amendment, and undermine fundamental principles of federalism.” These legal experts go on to charge Chairman Smith with issuing “misguided demands for information” the committee “has no legitimate right to inspect.” Precisely. Yesterday, a Boston Globe editorial echoed this notion by asserting that “Smith isn’t empowered to have any say in who or what attorneys general choose to look into on behalf of constituents” and that “[a]llowing him to do so would set a dangerous precedent.” Dangerous, indeed. Remember Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee?
We share the concern that if Rep. Smith’s and the House SST Committee’s “witch hunt” is allowed to continue, and the subpoenas issued are deemed to carry the full force of the law behind them, a “chilling effect” on scientists – and all those who work to protect the integrity of science from political or corporate interference – will settle in. The two UCS-organized letters issued today get it right: “Further, while you claim an interest in guarding against ‘a chilling effect’ on scientists, you are inappropriately interfering in investigations that will determine whether ExxonMobil created such a chilling effect by suppressing its own scientists’ findings.”
All of this hoopla has arisen from revelations last year that the Exxon Corporation (now ExxonMobil) in the 1970s was heavily engaged in scientific research to better understand the role of atmospheric carbon dioxide emissions (from fossil fuel combustion) in contributing to global warming and concomitant changes in our climate system with negative impacts for human populations. Dubbed the #ExxonKnew campaign, the issue has received wide attention in the news and social media (for example, see this recent in-depth coverage by Bloomberg BusinessWeek).
Testifying at the hearing will be four law professors: Jonathan Turley of George Washington University Law School; Ronald D. Rotunda of Chapman University Dale E. Fowler School of Law; Professor Charles Tiefer, Professor of Law, University of Baltimore and Former Acting General Counsel at the U.S. House of Representatives; and Elizabeth Price Foley of Florida International University College of Law. Each witness should be asked by one or more House SST Committee members to respond to each of the arguments made in the letter from the fourteen legal scholars (noted above), point by point, preferably with legal citations to back up their assertions and interpretations of the law.
To us, this issue is clear-cut: Rep. Lamar Smith, who has found a way to dismiss climate science as legitimate, is carrying water for the Exxon Mobil Corporation and for the cause it has backed for a generation: the blatant denial of mainstream climate science in order to avoid regulation of carbon dioxide emissions. And we wonder, is Rep. Smith really the right person to be chairing the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology? The House Science Committee’s resources would better be spent promoting science and its quest for objectivity than endorsing the dangerous, self-serving climate science denial machine.
CSPW Senior Climate Policy Analyst Anne Polansky has 30 years of experience in public policies relating to energy and the environment, with a strong focus on climate change and renewable energy.