A House Democrat looking for ties between climate skeptics at several universities and fossil fuel interests is facing allegations that his probe goes too far. And they're not just coming from his political opponents.
Following revelations that a prominent climate skeptic failed to disclose funding from Exxon, Southern Company, and other fossil fuel industry sources, Rep. Raul Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent letters to seven schools demanding information about—and "communication regarding"—specific professors' funding sources and their preparation of testimony before Congress and other bodies.
Grijalva's effort marks a flipping of the script of sorts. In recent years, some of the highest-profile probes of climate scientists have been generated by Republicans and global warming skeptics, notably former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli's campaign against the prominent researcher Michael Mann.
"Politicians should not persecute academics with whom they disagree. No ifs or buts," tweeted Bob Ward, policy and communications director with the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment in the U.K.
The University of Colorado's Roger Pielke, Jr., one of the recipients of the letters, slammed Grijalva's probe as a 'witch hunt.'
Grijalva's letters cite recent reports of Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, a scientist affiliated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon disputes the scientific consensus that human activities are the main driver of global warming, and documents obtained by environmentalists showed that Soon referred to his work as "deliverables" for funders.
The congressman implies that other researchers may have undisclosed relationships with fossil fuel companies. "If true, these may not be isolated incidents," Grijalva wrote.
Joanne Carney of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said she understands the concerns around Soon's work, and noted her organization requires disclosure of funding sources and potential conflicts in its journals. If the group were to find that a researcher has not disclosed the information, they would examine that author's other work, Carney said.
But she was skeptical of Grijalva's letters that probe other researchers. "I think we are questioning why they are making the assumption that other researchers need to be questioned," Carney said, and later added: "It is not clear to us why these other scientists were being targeted."
Pielke said he has "no funding, declared or undeclared, with any fossil fuel company or interest" and never has, he wrote in a blog post Wednesday. "Representative Grijalva knows this too, because when I have testified before the U.S. Congress, I have disclosed my funding and possible conflicts of interest.
"So I know with complete certainty that this investigation is a politically-motivated 'witch hunt' designed to intimidate me (and others) and to smear my name," Pielke said.
On Twitter, University of Washington earth sciences professor Eric Steig, who has battled with Pielke in the past, said that he has his back. "Welcome to the new McCarthyism. Congress should not be able to investigate on a whim. You have my *unequivocal* support," Steig said.
Mann, a prominent Penn State climate scientist who has has been subject of Republican-led probes of his work in past years, had a mixed verdict on the letters.
"It does come across as sort of heavy handed and overly aggressive," Mann told National Journal, adding that he is "a little uncomfortable" with the demands for the professors' correspondence. But he said there's nothing wrong with seeking information on funding sources. "That is something that no scientists should have any qualms" about providing, Mann said.
Mann also said the Grijalva letters on funding should not be "conflated" with probes he has faced from GOP Rep. Joe Barton and Cuccinelli.
"The difference being that they were demanding materials that are protected under principles of academic freedom—private deliberations between academics or scientists, unpublished manuscripts, raw source code that was written, stuff that's intrinsic to your work as a scientist," Mann said.
Mann is best known for research that produced the "hockey stick" chart, which that reconstructs global temperature over the past 1,000 years and shows a sharp uptick in the 20th century. His conduct has been cleared in several probes.
Grijalva's office insists it's not crossing the line, and argued there's a difference between these letters and past GOP-led probes of climate scientists.
"We are not asking for drafts of scientific research. We are not asking for raw data. We are not asking for whole hard drives worth of stuff," said Adam Sarvana, Grijalva's spokesman. "This is about finances and it is about the connection between money and testimony, because testimony is not research. Testimony is interpreting scientific information for public consumption to influence policy, and in our view that is not protected entirely by academic shielding."
Sarvana similarly defended the request for communications with funders, to determine if there was an "implicit or explicit promise made."
"The whole Willie Soon story turns on exactly the kinds of things that we are asking for," he said.
The American Association of University Professors does not have an official position on the letters, but the group referred questions to Martin Kich, an English professor at Wright State University.
Kich said Grijalva has every right to ask for the sources and amounts of research grants and specific proposals that have been funded. "But in requesting the personal correspondence of faculty, he is asking the institutions to violate the academic freedom of those faculty members. AAUP will almost certainly be opposed to that," he said in an email.
Pielke is one of several academics who have testified before Congress at the invitation of Republicans to be targeted by one of the letters, which were sent to the presidents of the universities that employ the researchers Grijalva's probing.
Pielke doesn't dispute human-induced climate change, but frequently says advocates have gone too far with claims that it has worsened extreme weather events like hurricanes and severe droughts, or increased their frequency.
Other professors targeted by the letters break in various ways with the overwhelming majority of scientists on climate change.
For instance, Judith Curry of the Georgia Institute of Technology has attacked the 2013 finding by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that there's at least a 95 percent chance that human influences have been the dominant cause of warming since the mid-20th century, arguing that evidence had weakened since the IPCC's big 2007 assessment.
Curry, in a lengthy post on her website Wednesday, criticized Grijalva's letters and pointed to statements about her funding sources that she attaches to congressional testimony.
"It looks like it is 'open season' on anyone who deviates even slightly from the consensus," she writes, later adding: "I don't think anything good will come of this. I anticipate that Grijalva will not find any kind of an undisclosed fossil fuel smoking gun from any of the 7 individuals under investigation."
The other professors who are targets of Grijalva's letters are:
David Legates of the University of Delaware; John Christy of the University of Alabama; Richard Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Robert Balling of Arizona State University; and Steven Hayward of Pepperdine University.
Across Capitol Hill, other Democrats are taking a different tack in launching new probes of the nexus between fossil fuel industries and climate research and testimony.
Sens. Ed Markey, Barbara Boxer and Sheldon Whitehouse sent letters to roughly 100 fossil fuel companies, trade groups, and conservative organizations—like this one to the American Petroleum Institute—seeking information on climate-related research they have supported.