|Details1:||Joe Barton: How bad is global warming?|
Congress and taxpayers have every right to learn the facts behind the science
10:05 PM CDT on Sunday, July 31, 2005
In 1998, three climate scientists produced a graph of global temperatures over the past millennium, which showed an abrupt upswing around 1900. That line on paper, dubbed the "hockey stick," has been widely cited and, more recently, vehemently questioned.
In June, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, asked the scientists to provide the data underlying their conclusions, as well as information about the financing of their research. Other scientists accused Mr. Barton
of taking a hockey stick to the integrity of their profession. Should he go to the penalty box? You be the judge. Afew weeks ago, I wrote to three reputable climate scientists and asked them to tell Congress about the facts underlying their theory that human activity is warming the planet. From the spate of political complaints that letter generated, you'd think I had invited them to quit breathing instead of to start bragging.
At issue is their research product, a chart that demonstrates 900 years of stable temperatures on the Earth's surface followed by an abrupt upturn about the time Henry Ford started making cars. Observers call it the hockey-stick effect because that's what it looks like on paper. Most important, the body of work supporting it is accorded great weight among those who believe humans are responsible for the undeniable phenomenon of global warming.
Others, however, look at the hockey stick and wonder what's up. Some assert that flaws exist in the computer program or in the exclusion of data acknowledging the Little Ice Age and Medieval Warm Period and that these flaws exaggerate the business end of the hockey stick.
I can tell you that just questioning it generates warmth. House Science Committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert, a New York Republican, and Rep. Henry Waxman, the prominent California Democrat, consider me a bull in their china closet. The publisher of the journal Science intelligently explained how valuable it could be if I would butt out. Other scientists and journalists were more or less gentle, but never less insistent that Congress stick to spending money and leave science to the professionals.
Here's what I'm after, and why.
First of all, I think it is timely to ask these questions now because now is when concerns are emerging. For example, according to an article published this year in The Wall Street Journal, questions were raised about the significance of methodological flaws and data errors in studies of the historical record of temperatures and climate change. In peer-reviewed articles published this year by Science, Geophysical Research Letters and Energy & Environment, researchers questioned the hockey-stick theory.
We also understand from these reports that some have failed to replicate the findings of the earlier studies, in part because of problems with the underlying data and the calculation used to reach the conclusions.
That's the way science works. Researchers research, cogitate and theorize. Others challenge the work, and truth eventually emerges.
My letter did ask for a lot of facts, and some say it is uncomfortably burdensome. I don't think so. The nature of the request reflects the nature of the research, which stretched over years and is rich in detail. We're happy to make accommodations that acknowledge that complexity and, in fact, have already done so.
In the end, however, sharing data seems like all indoor work and no heavy lifting. That's the definition of a great job in some places.
Some see the fact that we mailed a letter as sinister. Why a letter? We wrote a letter because writing a letter is routine and because it permits a fuller explanation of the request we want to make.
More explicitly, letters requesting information are a normal exercise of the committee's responsibility to gather knowledge on matters within its jurisdiction. Literally no day goes by that we do not exercise that responsibility. This is not the first time this committee has asked for this type of information, and it surely won't be the last. When studies were criticized and results seemed hard to replicate by other researchers, asking why seemed like a modest but necessary step. It still does.
Finally, it is worth noting that this research is financed by you, if you pay taxes. My own working theory on that relationship goes like this: People who use taxpayers' money need to explain what they're doing with it every now and then.
Public money for public science doesn't fall like manna from heaven; it comes from the pockets of working people who earned it. In my experience, the recipients of public funding are almost uniformly proud of their work and downright eager to explain it to the people who pay for it. The plant worker in Ennis who contributes some of his paycheck to public science is not a "peer" of the scientist – neither am I – but he is worthy of respect and the occasional explanation. Federally funded scientists with nothing to hide have nothing to fear from either of us.
As things turned out, the three scientists were generous with their time and their data. In the end, we expect their facts to speak for themselves, and I want to hear what they have to say.
The alternative is the Boehlert-Waxman "don't ask, don't listen" approach. If you have excess money and no questions, that's the one for you.
U.S. Rep. Joe Barton, R-Ennis, is chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Contact him through the Web site www.joebarton .house.gov.