U.S. Representative Lamar Smith, (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Rep. Smith refers to climate science as a 'religion', in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, 23 April 2015. His editorial is riddled with factual errors.

25 April 2015 (Desdemona Despair) – The Wall Street Journal continues its long tradition of printing editorials that reject the findings of climate science. On Earth Day 2015, we were treated to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, rolling out some old denialist chestnuts, to criticize proposed U.S. policy changes for reducing carbon emissions and adapting to global warming (“The Climate-Change Religion”). It’s a rote exercise that lists the usual talking points. Normally, Des wouldn’t bother to rebut a boilerplate antiscience editorial in The Wall Street Journal, but because this is coming from the chairman of the House Committee on Science, something must be said. 

Canard 1: Climate science is a religion

Rep. Smith writes:

At least the United Nations’ then-top climate scientist, Rajendra Pachauri, acknowledged—however inadvertently—the faith-based nature of climate-change rhetoric when he resigned amid scandal in February. In a farewell letter, he said that “the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.”

When antiscience forces go after a scientific discipline, they frequently accuse it of being a “religion”, meaning that its adherents cling irrationally to facts that aren’t in evidence. These same critics often argue from a religious viewpoint themselves, and people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw rocks, but they persist.

Rep. Smith’s swipe at former IPCC chair, Rajendra Pachauri, is meant to sow suspicion about the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He fails to mention that Pachauri resigned after an accusation of sexual harassment, not because of any institutional corruption.

Canard 2: Climate science is bad science

Rep. Smith concludes: “Instead of letting political ideology or climate “religion” guide government policy, we should focus on good science.”

On this, we’re in complete agreement. But the chairman of the science committee expectorates the same zombie arguments that shamble about in the blogosphere year after year, for example:

Canard 3: No warming in the last N years

“Climate alarmists have failed to explain the lack of global warming over the past 15 years.”

This claim is wrong in a couple of ways, and even though it’s repeatedly pointed out to denialists why it’s wrong, they keep trotting it out. This simple graph by Tamino puts the claim to rest.

Trend in global average surface temperature anomaly, 1970-2014, with maximum and minimum value bands. Graphic: Grant Foster / Rob Honeycutt

Canard 4: The U.N. is cooking the data

Next, Rep. Smith goes after a favorite Republican target: the United Nations.

The U.N. process is designed to generate alarmist results. Many people don’t realize that the most-publicized documents of the U.N. reports are not written by scientists. In fact, the scientists who work on the underlying science are forced to step aside to allow partisan political representatives to develop the “Summary for Policy Makers.” It is scrubbed to minimize any suggestion of scientific uncertainty and is publicized before the actual science is released. The Summary for Policy Makers is designed to give newspapers and headline writers around the world only one side of the debate.

The reality is rather different. If you need evidence that the IPCC is not, in fact, a liberal conspiracy, see “Transparency of the IPCC process”, “IPCC errors: facts and spin” and “The IPCC is not infallible (shock!)”.

Meanwhile, Rep. Smith is busy deploying his committee to gather testimony from contrarians like Judith Curry, while excluding mainstream scientists. Essentially, he commits the same crimes against science that he accuses IPCC of committing.

Canard 5: Even the U.N. says it can’t prove global warming

Rep. Smith goes on to quote an IPCC report:

In its 2012 Special Report on Extreme Events, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says there is “high agreement” among leading experts that long-term trends in weather disasters are not attributable to human-caused climate change.

Setting aside the question of why he would appeal to a document from the very organization he’s trying to convince us is corrupt, it’s hard to know which part of the report he’s referring to. It seems to be this:

Increasing exposure of people and economic assets has been the major cause of long-term increases in economic losses from weather- and climate-related disasters (high confidence). Long-term trends in economic disaster losses adjusted for wealth and population increases have not been attributed to climate change, but a role for climate change has not been excluded (high agreement, medium evidence). (AR4 SPM, p. 7) [italics mine –Des]

If so, Rep. Smith had to squint really hard at that part of the report, somehow missing this statement at the top of the same page:

There is evidence that some extremes have changed as a result of anthropogenic influences, including increases in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. It is likely that anthropogenic influences have led to warming of extreme daily minimum and maximum temperatures at the global scale. There is medium confidence that anthropogenic influences have contributed to intensification of extreme precipitation at the global scale. It is likely that there has been an anthropogenic influence on increasing extreme coastal high water due to an increase in mean sea level. The uncertainties in the historical tropical cyclone records, the incomplete understanding of the physical mechanisms linking tropical cyclone metrics to climate change, and the degree of tropical cyclone variability provide only low confidence for the attribution of any detectable changes in tropical cyclone activity to anthropogenic influences. Attribution of single extreme events to anthropogenic climate change is challenging. (AR4 SPM, p. 7) [italics mine –Des]

Here, we have the IPCC being honest about uncertainties around attribution. But focusing on this misses the central assertion: it’s likely that human carbon emissions are changing the climate.

Rep. Smith might have consulted the more recent AR5 IPCC report, in which new evidence strengthens the case:

There has been a strengthening of the evidence for human influence on temperature extremes since the AR4 and IPCC Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation (SREX) reports. It is very likely that anthropogenic forcing has contributed to the observed changes in the frequency and intensity of daily temperature extremes on the global scale since the mid-20th century. Attribution of changes in temperature extremes to anthropogenic influence is robustly seen in independent analyses using different methods and different data sets. It is likely that human influence has substantially increased the probability of occurrence of heatwaves in some locations. Chapter 10, p. 871.

We might hope that the chairman of the science committee would be keeping up with the latest science, and that he would represent the our scientific understanding of the world fairly. But alas, these hopes are in vain.



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