Climate Change Skeptic Received Energy Industry Research Funding

Climate Change Skeptic Received Energy Industry Research Funding

The work of a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics whose research is often cited by climate change skeptics has been funded almost entirely by the fossil fuel industry, the Guardian reports.

Documents obtained by Greenpeace under the Freedom of Information Act show that Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon, who claims that variations in the sun's energy, not greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activity, can largely explain global warming, received $1.25 million over the last fourteen years from a variety of corporate interests, including Southern Company Services, a subsidiary of a large utility holding company with significant investments in coal-burning power plants ($410,000); Exxon Mobil ($335,000); the American Petroleum Institute; and the Charles Koch Foundation ($230,000). While Exxon Mobil and API appear to have stopped funding Soon in recent years, the documents show that as support from the oil industry fell, he received an additional $324,000 in donations through DonorsTrust, an organization that enables donors to give anonymously to conservative causes.

According to Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center, Soon — who has appeared on conservative news programs and testified before Congress and state legislatures and whose work is cited by climate change skeptics such as Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) — failed to disclose the conflict of interest in at least eleven papers published since 2008 and, in at least eight cases, apparently violated the ethical guidelines of the journals in which his work appeared.

A staff researcher of the Smithsonian Institution with a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering but little formal training in climatology, Soon, like many other Harvard-Smithsonian scientists, is not on salary and relies on outside grant money. He has received little federal research funding and has been accused of using out-of-date data, publishing spurious correlations between solar output and climate indicators, and not taking into account evidence implicating emissions from human behavior. Harvard-Smithsonian Center director Charles R. Alcock told the New York Times that, aside from the disclosure issue, he thought it was important to protect Soon's academic freedom, even if most of his colleagues disagreed with his findings. Soon himself has in the past acknowledged some corporate ties with regard to his funding but has insisted that they in no way altered his scientific findings.

Academic institutions and scientific journals have been lax in ferreting out dubious research created to serve a corporate agenda, Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, told the Times. She added that the journals should retract Soon's papers that omitted disclosure of his corporate funding. "The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate," she said.

"The company was paying him to write peer-reviewed science, and that relationship was not acknowledged in the peer-reviewed literature," former Greenpeace researcher and Climate Investigations Center founder Kert Davies, who filed the FOIA requests, told the Guardian. "These proposals and contracts show debatable interventions in science literally on the behalf of Southern Company and the Kochs."

Justin Gillis, John Schwartz. "Deeper Ties to Corporate Cash for Doubtful Climate Researcher." New York Times 02/22/2015. Suzanne Goldenberg. "Work of Prominent Climate Change Denier Was Funded by Energy Industry." Guardian 02/21/2015.