U.S. Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) has picked a fight with Alaska over the state’s refusal to protect polar bears as an endangered species. Alaska’s Republican Gov. Sarah Palin, however, disputes Miller, saying his “unfounded criticism could chill scientific debate.”
Miller, chairman of the House subcommittee on investigations and oversight, under the Science and Technology Committee, challenged efforts by ExxonMobil to fund research on how global warming affects the habitat of polar bears.
In a letter (.pdf) dated Oct. 17 to ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, Miller criticized the company’s sponsorship of an article penned by seven scientists for the journal Ecological Complexity. The scientists concluded in their article that no evidence exists that the diminishment of polar bears in the Western Hudson Bay area is caused by global warming.
A co-author of the article, Dr. Willie Soon, an astrophysicist and chief science advisor to the conservative Science and Public Policy Institute, said he thinks most global warming is caused by solar variation (or volatile activity on the sun’s surface). In the Ecological Complexity article Soon thanked ExxonMobil, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and the American Petroleum Institute for support of his research on polar bears, which drew Miller’s curiosity.
“The Subcommittee wants to understand how ExxonMobil decided to fund an astrophysicist to do research on polar bears,” Miller said in a press release. “We have asked for their files on funding for Dr. Soon in this area as well as funding of any other researchers working on Arctic animal species.”
In a committee hearing on the same day the ExxonMobil letter was sent, Miller emphasized the cautionary perspective of the scientific global warming debate.
“Rapid Arctic ice and permafrost melt are the kind of events with ‘cascading effects’ that tip the planet’s climate into an uncontrollable cycle of warming,” he said. “For 20 years we have heard warnings from scientists — first in a forum here held by Mr. [former Vice President Al] Gore, an alumnus of this committee. Now we are seeing the consequences of global warming in the endangering of polar bears, in the eroding infrastructure of the Arctic and in the melting sea ice.”
In his letter, Miller cited the ExxonMobil’s concern about the issue because if polar bears were listed as officially endangered, which could lead to protection of their habitat in Alaska’s North Slope, “this could directly hurt ExxonMobil’s economic interest since it is a partner in [oil] production at that field.” Miller also criticized the Ecological Complexity article because it was characterized as a “viewpoint” by the journal, rather than as a scientific article.
“To a lay person, this ‘viewpoint’ is indistinguishable from a peer-reviewed journal article,” Miller wrote.
Miller, whose 13th District stretches from Raleigh across the Virginia border of North Carolina and into parts of Greensboro, also characterized four of the article’s seven authors as “widely recognized ‘climate doubt’ scientists who have been identified in the past as having received funds from ExxonMobil and other petroleum interests.”
Palin came to the scientists’ defense because Alaska’s comments (.pdf) on the proposed listing of polar bears under the Endangered Species Act were informed in part by a study conducted by them. The state referenced 54 reports in taking the position that the bears should not be classified as endangered.
In a press release Oct. 29, Palin said Miller’s “unfounded criticism could chill scientific debate.” She contended that the seven scientists carry expertise in climate and environmental research, and that their study explores many variables that could affect Arctic temperatures and sea ice erosion.
Palin said Miller questioned the study’s validity because one of the scientists received partial funding from an oil company for additional research on temperatures and sea ice, after initial analysis was done but before the study was published.
“If the government is going to discredit all such scientists’ research, as Miller does, needed research will not be done,” Palin said. “Competent scientists will no longer be willing to undertake required studies or accept industry grants to conduct vital research.”
Palin’s office noted that many government agencies require oil companies to conduct environmental research and that if the bear study should be questioned because of funding from petroleum companies, then all research they do for the government should be doubted.
“The United States is a world leader in science because it encourages academic debate among scientists,” Palin said. “We stand by our use of the study and by our commitment to free and open scientific debate.”
Paul Chesser ([email protected]) is associate editor of Carolina Journal.