Exxon- and Koch-funded scientist Willie Soon confronted at University of Wisconsin over discredited climate research

  • Posted on: 8 April 2013
  • By: Connor Gibson

Written by Hannah Noll.

I was just getting out of class last Tuesday when Dan Cannon, Greenpeace Student Network Coordinator, called to inform me that Dr. Willie Soon was coming to University of Wisconsin-Madison the following night to “challenge the Global Warming status quo.” I attend school an hour away, but I just couldn’t allow myself to pass this opportunity up. I had prior knowledge that there are climate deniers that are funded from Big Coal and Big Oil, but what I learned about Willie Soon's funding, motives, works published, and past (and present) controversies shocked me.

“Harvard Astrophysicist Dr. Willie Soon,” as listed on the fossil-fuel funded Collegians For A Constructive Tomorrow’s event notification, consistently misrepresents himself to seem credible. Dr. Soon is not employed by Harvard University as suggested by CFACT Campus, but he uses the affiliation with the university to his advantage. He works for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Though located on Harvard’s campus, the group is not officially associated with the University, and Harvard University has distanced itself from Soon. He is an astrophysicist by training, but has no formal education on climate science.
His self-misrepresentation alone wouldn’t be jaw-dropping, but when paired with information about Willie Soon’s funding, it is clear that something fishy is going on here. The last grant he received from a funder with no ties to dirty energy interests was in 2002 (a grant that carried through to 2006). Since then, he has been entirely funded by fossil fuel interests. Dr. Soon has received over $1 million in coal, oil and gas funding for his work, including funding from Southern Company, the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil, Texaco (now Chevron), and the Koch Brothers. Greenpeace Freedom Of Information Act inquiries to Smithsonian Institute reveal that in 2011 and 2012, Dr. Soon received nearly $115,000 from Donors Trust. He has been caught directly coordinating with lobbyists from ExxonMobil to undermine the United Nation’s latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report before it was even released. IPCC is the global research authority on climate change. 

Recounting the day’s events:

When the time came to leave Milwaukee for CFACT's event in Madison, Lynda Mouledoux and I probably had over 100 different species of butterflies in our stomachs. I’m just a college student, but this was my chance to demand accountability from someone meddling with important science in order to hold the world back from addressing climate change. After his presentation, he held a question and answer session. I came prepared to ask critical questions. During the questioning, something must’ve gotten under his skin and caused an aggressive and defensive posture that launched phrases like “childish,” “extremely rude,” “wrong,” and “if you had a bit of intelligence”  Not once did I use a personal attack on him; I was simply asking him about factual details of his career and those funding it.
My ask was "You have received over one million dollars in funds from coal and oil interests. The last grant you received from a funder with no ties to the energy industry was in 2002. That's over a decade ago. So Dr. Soon, why should we trust someone without credentials in climate science whose work is only funded by coal and oil interests?”  Watch the video below to see his reaction to this question.
Dr. Soon made an interesting claim, emphasis added:
"I don't like to claim that I am an expert on anything, but I have enough knowledge about climate science and climate system to be able to write scientific papers and go to meetings and talk about monsoon systems and talk about any other things that you want to discuss about climate science issues. I'm as qualified as anybody that you know on this planet on this topic"
But Soon certainly appears to claim that he’s an expert on things outside of his expertise. His lack of climate science credentials aside, perhaps the $290,000 he has received from coal-burning utility Southern Company explains why he abruptly appeared in a 2011 Wall Street Journal op-ed dismissing mercury pollution from coal plants. The op-ed, titled "The Myth of Killer Mercury," ends with the following description:
Mr. Soon, a natural scientist at Harvard, is an expert on mercury and public health issues.
...except Soon doesn’t work for Harvard and carries no formal expertise on “mercury and public health issues.” Co-authoring that article was Paul Driessen, another known fossil fuel shill from the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT)--the parent organization to the campus group hosting Soon’s discussion on climate science.
We’re living in a time where corporations and junk science are crippling the effectiveness of our own government to serve us. According to Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, “ExxonMobil made more money each of the last three years than any company in the history of money.” Corporations put profits over people and destroy the earth to please shareholders. I refuse to accept this, so I will continue to perform Non-violent Direct Action in order to do my best to change the status quo.
This blog was written by Hannah Noll. Hannah is a sophomore at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, a Campus Coordinator with the Greenpeace Student Network, and a Greenpeace Semester alumna.
Check Greenpeace.org for more Koch Facts.
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