Climate Scientist Threatened with Investigation by Member of Congress for Purported “Partisan Political Activity”

A climate scientist who was the lead signatory on a letter to President Obama, supporting a proposed RICO investigation of some corporate opponents to action on climate change, has himself been threatened with a Congressional investigation by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).  Rep. Smith – chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology – claims that by sending the letter, scientist Dr. Jagadish Shukla engaged in inappropriate “partisan political activity.”

Dr. Shukla was one of twenty scientists who wrote a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and White House science advisor John Holdren last month.  The letter endorsed a call by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) for an investigation under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) of “corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change, as a means to forestall America’s response to climate change.”  (In May, Sen. Whitehouse wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling for a civil investigation of the fossil fuel industry and its “campaign to mislead the American people,” which would determine if a civil RICO prosecution was warranted,[1] and the support for an initial investigation of fossil fuel corporations was echoed in the scientists’ letter.)  Holdren responded that while legal matters are up to the Justice Department, “the Administration shares the concern expressed in the letter about the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change.”[2]

Not everyone reacted supportively.  Dr. Shukla and other signatories have been recipients of hate mail, invasive open records requests, as well as an online smear campaign.  But as lead signatory, Dr. Shukla has experienced the worst of it, including now being targeted by Rep. Smith.

Rep. Smith has criticized the idea of man-made climate change, and once suggested that climate scientists colluded “to hide contradictory temperature data.”[3]  More recently, he characterized an official national climate report requested by Congress and produced by university scientists, federal agencies and private sector researchers, as a “political document.”[4]

Dr. Shukla is a professor at George Mason University (GMU), and heads the independent Institute of Global Environment and Society (IGES).  Dr. Shukla has authored or co-authored nearly 250 scientific papers[5] and was a lead author on the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore later that year.[6]

A copy of the RICO letter was briefly available on the IGES website, although it did not otherwise mention IGES.  Rep. Smith concluded that the letter was associated with IGES, and wrote in an October 1 letter to Dr. Shukla that this “raises serious concerns” warranting an investigation, because IGES receives government funding and the letter constituted “partisan political activity.”  Rep. Smith directed Dr. Shukla to preserve “all e-mail, electronic documents, and data” since January 2009 that “can be reasonably anticipated to be subject to a request for production by the committee” during an investigation.[7]

“I signed this letter as a private citizen on personal time, urging action on climate change, and I have been shocked by the reaction,” Dr. Shukla told InsideClimate News.  “Any allegations of inappropriate behavior are untrue.”[8]  He also told ScienceInsider that he and other signatories could “not believe the viciousness of attacks because we signed a letter as our civic duty with the ultimate goal of repairing our planet.”[9]

Michael Halpern, a program manager at the Union of Concerned Scientists, commented that the “House Science Committee isn’t going after Dr. Shukla and his colleagues for their scientific work, but for their opinions as private citizens.”[10]  The ranking minority member on the House Science committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), suggested this could be seen as an “attempt to stifle the constitutionally protected right of any citizen, including the nation’s scientists, to engage in free speech without interference.”[11]

Lauren Kurtz is the Executive Director of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which seeks to protect the scientific endeavor, and which has provided Dr. Shukla with legal assistance to help him respond to Rep. Lamar Smith’s inquiry.  A modified version of this post appeared here.











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