One of Congress’ most notorious climate deniers is calling it quits

Mr. Smith leaves Washington.

(CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
(CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

On Thursday afternoon, one of Congress’ most infamous climate science deniers — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) — announced that he would not seek re-election in 2018. Smith has served in Congress since 1986, and has served as chair of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology since 2012.

Since taking the helm of the House Science Committee, Smith has made headlines for his tendency to use committee hearings as an opportunity to challenge mainstream climate science and berate climate scientists. In 2015, Smith used his position to subpoena scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) over a study that showed that the global warming “pause” had never actually occurred.

He has also subpoenaed environmental groups, agency heads, and academic climate scientists over their work, as well as state attorneys general investigating ExxonMobil for potentially misleading investors on the risks of climate change. The sheer volume of these subpoenas was unprecedented: under Smith’s tenure, the House Science Committee issued more subpoenas than any time in its history.

Under Smith’s chairmanship, the House Science Committee has held hearings challenging the EPA of regulatory overreach and questioning the mainstream consensus on climate science. In March, he convened a hearing on climate science where three out of four witnesses espoused views on climate change far outside of the mainstream consensus.

Smith, who is a contributing author for Breitbart, has long been an outspoken proponent of climate denial. In mid-May, Smith went on a secret tour of the Arctic with several members of Congress, where he met with climate scientists and learned about federally-funded climate research (the trip was first reported by Buzzfeed News).

Upon returning, Smith penned an op-ed on the the Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal blog where he lamented that “the benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched.” Smith went on to argue that increasing concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide could open up new shipping lanes through the Arctic, which could “increase international trade and strengthen the world economy.” He also argued that climate change could help agriculture by enhancing crop growth — despite the fact that numerous studies have shown an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide would likely have a negative impact on crop growth and nutrition.

Under Smith’s tenure, the House Science Committee’s majority office also sent out a newsletter — using taxpayer funds — which linked to articles from sites with a strong history of peddling scientific misinformation, like Breitbart and the Daily Mail. The newsletter also included links to Koch-affiliated outlets like the Washington Free Beacon and the Daily Caller.

Because Republicans limit their party’s chairmanship to three terms, Smith would have been due to give up his position in 2018. Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who sits on the Science Committee and has been a vocal proponent of climate action, told ThinkProgress in April of 2016 that he hoped that Republicans on the committee would feel more free to speak about climate change when Smith stepped down as chair.

“Many, many of the Republicans that you talk to individually are much more enlightened than they feel that they can be, publicly, on that committee, especially with him as the chair,” Beyer said. “So I really think it could be in a much better place two years from now.”

In 2016, despite losing the support of the San Antonio News-Express, which withdrew its endorsement in part due to Smith’s “bullying on the issue of climate change,” Smith won re-election in Texas’ 21st District — which includes parts of Austin and San Antonio — with 57 percent of the vote. But his outspoken climate science denial made Smith a target for environmentalists and climate hawks, with five Democrats already announcing their intention to challenge Smith for his seat. At least one of those challengers — Derrick Crowe — has made climate action and renewable energy a pillar of his campaign.

Smith, by contrast, has spent his years in Congress acting as a reliable ally for the oil and gas industry — the League of Conservation Voters, which rates members of Congress based on their environmental voting record, gives Smith just a six percent lifetime score. According to Open Secrets, Smith has received more than $750,000 in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry over the course of his career.