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

October 10, 2015

A climate scientist who was the lead signatory on a letter to President Obama, supporting a proposed inquiry 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.”

Rep. Smith has criticized the idea of man-made climate change, and once suggested that climate scientists colluded “to hide contradictory temperature data.”[1]  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.”[2]  The House Science Committee he heads has also introduced “massive cuts” to federally-funded climate science research.[3]  To our knowledge, this is the first time Rep. Smith has used his position as chair of the House Science Committee to target specific climate researchers.

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, endorsing 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,[4] and the support for an initial investigation was echoed in the scientists’ letter.  Since then, InsideClimate News published an exposé detailing a $30 million, multi-decade effort by Exxon Mobil to sow doubt about climate change, despite the company’s own internal deliberations about known climate risks associated with fossil fuel use.[5])  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.”[6]

Not everyone reacted supportively to these scientists speaking out.  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.

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[7] 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.[8]  “The work of Shukla and his research associates has made fundamental contributions”[9] to the notion of climate “predictability in the midst of chaos,”[10] which has been particularly helpful in improving sustainable development in tropical regions.[11]

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.[12]

“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.”[13]  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.”[14]

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.”[15]  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.”[16]

Rep. Smith’s inquiry comes on the heels of critical pieces about Dr. Shukla in conservative news sources such as the Daily Caller, a website that has published claims that “global warming only exists in the world of computer models.”[17]  Rep. Smith’s October 1 letter cites several such articles to support his call for an investigation; the cited articles accuse Dr. Shukla of various misdeeds, including being overpaid and suggesting that he may have even misappropriated federal grants.[18]

Dr. Shukla told CSLDF that his reported salary levels were “grossly exaggerated.” As a part-time employee of IGES and GMU, he receives partial salaries from both organizations; Dr. Shukla said these part-time salaries have been reported on annual basis, while he is actually paid on a pro rata basis, and “media reports have erroneously combined the two.”  Accusations of “double dipping” or other financial misdeeds are “blatantly false,” he said.  He also pointed out that all of IGES’s federal grants go through rigorous approval processes and IGES is audited by independent financial auditors.[19]

“Scientists have the same right as anyone to engage in the political process and express their beliefs without fear of being hauled before Congress,” said Halpern.[20]  But unfortunately, Rep. Smith’s inquiry is only the latest in a series of investigations into climate scientists by members of Congress.  In 2005, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) conducted an investigation of climate scientists Michael Mann of Penn State and Ray Bradley of the University of Massachusetts, an action that was widely described as “harassing scientists” while the investigation itself “bec[a]me mired later in allegations of plagiarism and misconduct.”[21]  And in 2010, Rep. James Inhofe (R-OK) sought, unsuccessfully, “opportunities to criminalize the actions of 17 leading scientists who have been associated with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports.”[22]

CSLDF has been working with Dr. Shukla to fight back against this newest attack on climate scientists, including arranging attorney assistance to help him navigate what appears to be a clearly ideologically-motived Congressional probe.  We are proud to be partnering with Tom Spiggle, Esq., of the Spiggle Law Firm to defend Dr. Shukla.  CSLDF is confident that this Congressional investigation, like the earlier ones against other climate scientists, will ultimately be exposed as baseless.


[19] See here for interviews with representatives from each grantmaker, confirming that all grants go through extensive reviews, http://www.foxnews.com/science/2015/10/07/scientist-who-urged-government-to-sue-climate-skeptics-gets-millions-from.html


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