One of the world’s most prominent climate researchers publishing scientific papers that doubt humanity’s role in climate change has received at least $1.2 million from the fossil fuel industry to fund his research and salary, according to documents revealed this weekend.
Wei-Hock Soon (known mainly as “Willie”) is aerospace engineer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and has written papers on how the sun’s role in the Earth’s climate outshines the warming impact of humans burning fossil fuels. His papers have cast doubt on how hot the last century really was, whether polar bears are negatively impacted by a warming Arctic, and concluded the sun plays a larger role in climate change than greenhouse gas emissions. He has said that mainstream climate scientists and those concerned by the causes and impacts of human-caused climate change are “out of their minds.”
Soon received hundreds of thousands of dollars each from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, coal utility Southern Company, the Charles G. Koch Foundation, and other conservative groups, according to documents obtained by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center, and spotlighted by the New York Times on Saturday. Over the last decade, Soon failed to disclose this funding in at least 11 of his scientific papers, likely violating ethical guidelines in eight of those cases.
That Soon has received funding from the fossil fuel industry has been known for some time, however these documents reveal the scope of the largesse that enabled him to publish what he did, and helps illuminate the quid pro quo nature of the relationship.
According to the documents, Soon received at least:
- $409,000 from Southern Company, a huge utility company whose giant coal plants regularly top the list of largest greenhouse gas emitters in the country
- $274,000 from the nation’s main oil and gas lobby, the American Petroleum Institute
- $335,000 from ExxonMobil, though the oil giant stopped funding Soon in 2010 despite stopped funding Soon in 2010
- $230,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, a billionaire whose money has been made mostly through oil refining
- $324,000 from anonymous donations via DonorsTrust, a fund set up to funnel money from the Koch brothers and other conservative funders to groups that promote climate science denial like the Heartland Institute and Americans for Prosperity
In many cases he referred to scientific papers or congressional testimony as “deliverables” in correspondence with his funders. Southern Company’s agreement with Soon and Harvard-Smithsonian gave the coal utility the ability to review the scientific papers and suggest changes before they were published. In 2009, he wrote Southern Company about an upcoming paper, saying “I have a big super-duper paper soon to be accepted on how the sun affects the climate system.”
When asked about his funding sources in 2013 at an event in Wisconsin (video here), Soon pushed back forcefully on the questioner.
“I’ve had no penny of government money since 2004 or so,” he said. “I’ve been receiving funding from whoever that wants to give me money. I write my scientific proposal.” He said he received money from ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and Southern Company. “I write the proposal, and let them judge whether they will fund me or not,” he said. “Always for very small amounts — if they choose to fund me I’m happy to receive it.”
“The only condition as I always tell anybody is: ‘I would never be motivated by money for anything.’ And to put it even more simply, if you’d be so kind as to listen, is that if Al Gore wants to fund me, if Greenpeace wants to fund me, I will be happy to take their money. Unless their money is so dirty, by the way. If it’s from stealing people’s money I will not take it because it’s not principled. I’m a very principled man.”
“I think that’s inappropriate behavior,” the Harvard-Smithsonian Center’s director, Charles R. Alcock, told the New York Times. “This frankly becomes a personnel matter, which we have to handle with Dr. Soon internally.”
The Smithsonian is also “checking into this” according to W. John Kress, interim under secretary for science at the Smithsonian, who told the New York Times, “I am aware of the situation with Willie Soon, and I’m very concerned about it.”
The Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change has reported with “high confidence” that without cutting greenhouse gas emissions, the world risks “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” Every major government in the world has signed off on the panel’s report, and the vast majority of climate scientists have settled on the fact that humans are the main cause behind climate change.
That is where firebrand scientists like Soon come in. Valued for his legitimizing affiliation with Harvard-Smithsonian, Soon is a fixture at climate denier conferences, before state legislatures, and on conservative news programs. In congressional hearings and in news articles his presence embodies the other side of the “false balance” paradigm where expertise is evenly cited from a climate science denier and a mainstream scientist.
One of his industry backers, the American Petroleum Institute, touted those academic affiliations in an interview with the Boston Globe last year. “You have a guy that is aligned and associated with Harvard University, one of the top universities in the United States, and the Smithsonian, also very reputable,’’ spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel reportedly said.
The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics does not have a policy that prevents fossil fuel companies from funding research done by its scientists. In fact, the contract between Soon and Southern Company forbids the disclosure of their funding relationship. At the same time, it is careful to emphasize that scientists’ personal views do not reflect the official position of the Center. Soon receives no salary from the Center; he relies on outside grants and funding to fund his position and his research.
Harvard sought to make clear the distance between the institution and Soon, with a spokesperson telling the Guardian, “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.”
A MoveOn.org petition asking the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, a joint program of the Smithsonian Institution and Harvard University, to end its association with Soon. Specifically the petition calls on the Center to cut its ties with the researcher, “end all financial relationships with the fossil-fuel industry,” and “establish strong financial public disclosure rules for all institute scientists that prevent anonymous or secret funding of research.”
In response to the revelations contained in the documents, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) said that he would be sending letters to major fossil fuel companies asking them to disclose their funding of climate science research.
The Smithsonian Institution released a statement on the matter, saying it was “greatly concerned about the allegations surrounding Dr. Willie Soon’s failure to disclose funding sources for his climate change research.” They said their Inspector General will be investigating the matter and the Acting Secretary will be reviewing the Institution’s ethics and disclosure policies. The statement also distanced the Institution from Dr. Soon, saying he is a part-time researcher that receives funding externally and that the Smithsonian “does not support Dr. Soon’s conclusions on climate change.”
Our statement on Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory scientist Willie Soon pic.twitter.com/9WhjBH1NdF
— Smithsonian (@smithsonian) February 23, 2015
One of Soon’s biggest allies in the media noted over the weekend that Harvard-Smithsonian does receive about 40 percent of the grant money netted by Soon.