By Warren Cornwall
5 October 2015
(ScienceInsider) – A scientist who helped organize a call for a federal investigation of the fossil fuel industry—for allegedly orchestrating a cover-up of climate change dangers—has himself become the target of a congressional probe.
Last week, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), the chairman of the science panel of the House of Representatives, announced plans to investigate a nonprofit research group led by climate scientist Jagadish Shukla of George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He is the lead signer of a letter to White House officials that urges the use of an antiracketeering law to crack down on energy firms that have funded efforts to raise doubts about climate science.
In a 1 October letter, Smith asked Shukla, who is director of the independent Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES) in Rockville, Maryland, to preserve all of the “email, electronic documents, and data” that the institute has created since 2009. Smith’s panel soon may be asking for those documents, the letter suggests.
The flap has its origins in calls from some climate advocates for the federal government to investigate industry-funded groups that have challenged climate science. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI) discussed the idea this past May in an opinion piece for The Washington Post. He noted that federal prosecutors had used the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO)—originally developed to combat organized crime and corrupt unions—to sue the tobacco industry for covering up the health effects of smoking. And he suggested they could do the same to investigate fossil fuel firms that he charged were “funding a massive and sophisticated campaign to mislead the American people about the environmental harm caused by carbon pollution.”
Last month, 20 climate scientists, led by Shukla, picked up on the idea of using RICO. In a 1 September letter to President Barack Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and White House science adviser John Holdren, they wrote that “if corporations in the fossil fuel industry and their supporters are guilty of the misdeeds that have been documented in book and journal articles, it is imperative that these misdeeds be stopped as soon as possible.”
Other signers of the RICO letter include climate researchers from George Mason as well as the University of Washington, Seattle; Rutgers University in New Jersey; the University of Maryland, College Park; and Columbia University.
Shukla, a professor at George Mason, is an expert in the seasonal variability of climate, as well as how land surfaces influence climate. He helped found IGES, which has housed research projects funded with grants from the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and NASA, according to the group’s website. […]
Shukla could not be reached for an interview, but in an email to ScienceInsider expressed surprise at the storm the RICO letter has caused. “We can not believe the viciousness of attacks because we signed a letter as our civic duty with the ultimate goal of repairing our planet,” he wrote.
It’s not clear what exactly Smith’s committee will be investigating. A committee spokeswoman, Laura Crist, declined to say whether the panel was looking at whether public funds were misused for political purposes, or whether IGES might have violated its nonprofit status with political activity.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), said in a statement to ScienceInsider that, “since the letter contains no specific allegations, I am puzzled as to the Chairman’s intent in writing it. To be clear about my own position, I would resist any attempt to stifle the constitutionally protected right of any citizen, including the nation’s scientists, to engage in free speech without interference.” [more]