Paris Prospects: Texas Political Cowboy Leads Latest Anti-Science Attacks

Back in the day, when America’s Cowboy-in-Chief was Ronald Reagan, the former movie star and horse lover set a high-saddle level for his followers to admire and emulate. Today the Texan Lamar Smith, now chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, does Reagan proud.

As the Texas reporter Diane Wray said in the Houston Press last week, “Well, we have to hand it to Representative Smith. The dude is consistent.” After becoming chair of the House Committee, “the good congressman from San Antonio has been doing his best to use his new subpoena powers to push his anti-climate science views as far as they will go.”

Smith’s abuse of power as chair has been on display all fall, its intensity brightened by the approach of the Paris climate change conference a month away. Not only has he used his power to subpoena to request all records of internal communications and data for the last six years of climate change temperature research conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He’s also seeking cuts in NASA’s budget for earth science exploration to the tune of $300 million, which may cripple ongoing research by NASA on the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet.

Oh, and Rep Smith is also after the National Science Foundation for waste of taxpayer money in what Jeffrey Mervis, writing in the Science Insider, calls “an unprecedented – and some say bizarre – intrusion into the much admired process that NSF has used for more than 60 years to award research grants.”

Overall, Smith is a one-dude political cowboy attack on science, trailing clouds of Reagan-era obfuscation and self righteousness. He proclaims his anti-regulation creed and has the power to block 21st century science at its source: funding and the free exchange of ideas. He’s skilled at chasing hundreds of scientists’ work and countless documents and data streams, acting like the whole lot of it is a liberal conspiracy to hoodwink the American public.

He’s nothing new, of course. Back in 1995 the Republican’s top political cowboy was a Texan named Tom Delay. Delay was minority whip in the House when Bill Clinton was Lover-in-Chief and carrying on his Oval Office peccadilloes. DeLay got a burr in his saddle about ozone science, and like Smith, went on the attack. “A hole in our atmosphere that you can see from Mars,” as F. Sherwood Rowland, a chemistry professor, described it, didn’t seem such a big deal to DeLay.

But when Rowland, his assistant Mario Molina, and Paul Crutzen got the Nobel Prize for their work on ozone, proving how it blocked short ultraviolet rays from the sun reaching the Earth and triggering cancer in cells, DeLay complained that the award came from “an extremist environmental country.” He called for congressional hearings on the “ozone hole scare” to protect the American people, “making sure the so-called UV radiation that’s supposed to make people drop like flies is actually making people drop like flies.”

And DeLay knew flies. Before becoming a politician he’d owned a pestilence company in Texas.

Much to his chagrin the work of the three scientists recognized by Norway led to the Montreal Protocol, which closed the ozone hole by virtually eliminating the industrial pollutants that rose to the stratosphere where they destroyed ozone. Not the kind of discovery a cowboy was likely to make, the protocol remains the only international atmospheric treaty of note. It was signed by 24 countries in 1987 and in 2009 became ratified globally.

If Smith has his way, it will remain the only treaty of note for a very long time. Smith seems to care less about science than he does about slowing the collection of complex – and let’s admit, sometimes perplexing – evidence that threatens his world view. He may be a modern day political cowboy, but with an anti-regulation and anti-science mind formed during the Reagan administration (“I’m not a scientist,” was a famous Reagan line, followed by some lying jelly spread over the facts and handed out with an avuncular smile.)

Smith lacks the Cowboy-in-Chief’s smile but shares his last millennium brain, with dark consequences for climate change science if NOAA, NASA, the NSF and other research institutions under attack fold to Republican pressure.

A Democratic member of the House Committee on Science that Smith chairs, US Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, has put up a loud and consistent fuss about Smith. Johnson sent a public letter to him, in which she described his tactics as a means “to “harass and second guess our nation’s preeminent research scientists,” and said he’s creating a “baseless conflict.” Her stand probably helped NOAA take a stand and defy the subpoenas from Smith. But the battle over the funding and distribution of climate-related science in Washington is only heating up.

To me the attacks seem like something out of a gnarly rodeo. One in which the media is the audience and dramatic tie-downs – like calf roping, and like the put-downs of science and scientists that Smith is fomenting – are themselves evidence of the very kind of waste he rants about. Ultimately, the research organizations funded by federal dollars will get money and continue their work. Albeit with momentum slowed, morale lowered, funding jeopardized, and scheduling screwed up. Which, of course, is the sub-text of a political attack in cowboy mode to begin with.

It’s both maddening and sad that Smith, a 67-year-old career politician, can’t quite seem to get his mind around the notion that Greenland is melting away. And when the ice is gone and Greenland exposed, the world’s oceans will have risen about 20 feet. The latest reports from NOAA, as well as other, foreign and scientifically-rigorous research entities, vary in details and time schedules. What does not vary is the truth that the beautiful, huge, magical sheet of white covering our planet’s largest island is rather swiftly flowing into the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Paris Ripples

For sure, the consequence of many political cowboys’ antics has been a disruption of science progress. Work slows, doubt spreads, money shrinks. What we see today is that a single political cowboy from the 21st congressional district of a state famous for this nonsense can gum up the works of thousands on a collective mission. Such intrusions are corrosive. Not because science should not be held accountable and can’t do wrong and waste money. But because Lamar Smith, Tom Delay and their ilk seem so ignorant about the basics of the scientific method and its always uncertain outcomes – yet wield so much power that they can throw sand in the eyes of the science community with impunity, and get away with it for decades.

At this writing Lamar Smith’s attack has been challenged and temporarily parried. Meanwhile, the carbon loading increases daily, the complexities of climate change science mutate throughout Earth’s biosphere, and the political cowboys gloat. Once again they have a tie-down of environmental science in motion. Flipping climate change on its side and tying up its legs with legal half hitches. Still, in Paris there is hope that the “fundamental and effective agreements” championed by Pope Francis might find some traction. At least the majority of the participants believe in science and will be working towards the whole planet forging a sane path to a livable future.

Texas included.