Work of prominent climate change denier was funded by energy industry

23.02.2015 16:23

A prominent academic and climate change
denier’s work was funded almost entirely
by the energy industry, receiving more
than $1.2m from companies, lobby groups
and oil billionaires over more than a
decade, newly released documents show.
Over the last 14 years Willie Soon, a
researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian
Centre for Astrophysics, received a total of
$1.25m from Exxon Mobil, Southern
Company, the American Petroleum
Institute (API) and a foundation run by the
ultra-conservative Koch brothers, the
documents obtained by Greenpeace
through freedom of information filings
According to the documents, the biggest
single funder was Southern Company, one
of the country’s biggest electricity
providers that relies heavily on coal.
The documents draw new attention to the
industry’s efforts to block action against
climate change – including President
Barack Obama’s power-plant rules.
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Unlike the vast majority of scientists, Soon
does not accept that rising greenhouse gas
emissions since the industrial age are
causing climate changes. He contends
climate change is driven by the sun.
In the relatively small universe of climate
denial Soon, with his Harvard-Smithsonian
credentials, was a sought after commodity.
He was cited admiringly by Senator James
Inhofe, the Oklahoma Republican who
famously called global warming a hoax. He
was called to testify when Republicans in
the Kansas state legislature tried to block
measures promoting wind and solar
power. The Heartland Institute, a hub of
climate denial, gave Soon a courage award.
Soon did not enjoy such recognition from
the scientific community. There were no
grants from Nasa, the National Science
Foundation or the other institutions which
were funding his colleagues at the Center
for Astrophysics. According to the
documents, his work was funded almost
entirely by the fossil fuel lobby.
“The question here is really: ‘What did
API, ExxonMobil, Southern Company and
Charles Koch see in Willie Soon? What did
they get for $1m-plus,” said Kert Davies, a
former Greenpeace researcher who filed
the original freedom of information
requests. Greenpeace and the Climate
Investigations Center, of which Davies is
the founder, shared the documents with
news organisations.
“Did they simply hope he was on to
research that would disprove the
consensus? Or was it too enticing to be able
to basically buy the nameplate Harvard-
From 2005, Southern Company gave Soon
nearly $410,000. In return, Soon promised
to publish research about the sun’s
influence on climate change in leading
journals, and to deliver lectures about his
theories at national and international
events, according to the correspondence.
The funding would lead to “active
participations by this PI (principal
investigator) of this research proposal in
all national and international forums
interested in promoting the basic
understanding of solar variability and
climate change”, Soon wrote in a report to
Southern Company.
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In 2012, Soon told Southern Company its
grants had supported publications on
polar bears, temperature changes in the
Arctic and China, and rainfall patterns in
the Indian monsoon.
ExxonMobil gave $335,000 but stopped
funding Soon in 2010, according to the
documents. The astrophysicist reportedly
received $274,000 from the main oil lobby,
the American Petroleum Institute, and
$230,000 from the Charles G Koch
Foundation. He received an additional
$324,000 in anonymous donations through
a trust used by the Kochs and other
conservative donors, the documents
Greenpeace has suggested Soon also
improperly concealed his funding sources
for a recent article, in violation of the
journal’s conflict of interest guidelines.
“The company was paying him to write
peer-reviewed science and that
relationship was not acknowledged in the
peer-reviewed literature,” Davies said.
“These proposals and contracts show
debatable interventions in science literally
on the behalf of Southern Company and
the Kochs.”
In letters to the Internal Revenue Service
and Congress, Greenpeace said Soon may
have misused the grants from the Koch
foundation by trying to influence
Soon did not respond to requests for
comment. But he has in the past
strenuously denied his industry funders
had any influence over his conclusions.
“No amount of money can influence what I
have to say and write, especially on my
scientific quest to understand how climate
works, all by itself,” he told the Boston
Globe in 2013.
As is common among Harvard-Smithsonian
scientists, Soon is not on a salary. He
receives his compensation from outside
grant money, said Christine Pulliam, a
spokeswoman for the Center for
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The Center for Astrophysics does not
require scientists to disclose their funding
sources. But Pulliam acknowleged that
Soon had failed to meet disclosure
requirements of some of the journals that
published his research. “Soon should have
followed those policies,” she said.
Harvard said Soon operated outside of the
university – even though he carries a
Harvard ID and uses a Harvard email
“Willie Soon is a Smithsonian staff
researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian
Center for Astrophysics, a collaboration of
the Harvard College Observatory and the
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory,” a
Harvard spokesman, Jeff Neal, said.
“There is no record of Soon having applied
for or having been granted funds that were
or are administered by the University.
Soon is not an employee of Harvard.”
Both Harvard and the Smithsonian
acknowledge that the climate is changing
because of rising levels of greenhouse gas
concentrations caused by human activities.
Pulliam cast Soon’s association with the
institutions as an issue of academic
freedom: “Academic freedom is critically
important. The Smithsonian stands by the
process by which the research results of all
of its scholars are peer reviewed and
vetted by other scientists. This is the way
that the scientific process works. The
funding entities, regardless of their
affiliation, have no influence on the