Turns out ExxonMobil, one of the world’s worst climate polluters, has known about the dangers of climate change since 1981. Yet the oil giant continues to be a major funder of climate change denial today. The new evidence comes from reports and emails written by Lenny Bernstein, ExxonMobil’s top climate scientist, who worked for Exxon for 30 years. The documents, which speak directly about the dangers of global warming from CO2 emissions were released by The Union of Concerned Scientists, in a report called “The Climate Deception Dossier." Exxon has spent well over $30 million attacking climate change science since Bernstein’s first warning. As Suzanne Goldenberg wrote in the Guardian:
Exxon, unlike other companies and the public at large in the early 1980s, was already aware of climate change – and the prospect of regulations to limit the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, according to Bernstein’s account. National Academy of Science describing a consensus on climate change from the 1970s.
While we have known that Exxon was responsible for opposing climate change solutions and funding climate denial, now we know they knew the truth 27 years ago. Much like big tobacco did with the link between cigarettes and cancer, Exxon leadership has denied the harm the company has done long after the scientific evidence was clear. Incredibly, Exxon continues to play down their roll in climate change denial. In an interview with the Guardian, Exxon Spokesperson Richard Keil:
“rejected the idea that Exxon had funded groups promoting climate denial. “I am here to talk to you about the present,” he said. “We have been factoring the likelihood of some kind of carbon tax into our business planning since 2007. We do not fund or support those who deny the reality of climate change.”
Earlier this year, Greenpeace revealed that Exxon, along with other fossil fuel corporations like Southern Company, funded a notorious climate change denier named Willie Soon. In fact Exxon continued to fund Soon’s roundly debunked research well after the company promised Congress they would stop funding confusion on climate change in 2007. Exxon spent over $1 million on climate denial groups in 2014 alone.
Newly released documents provide further indication that Florida officials were directed not to talk about climate change.
In an email exchange from April of 2014 obtained by a records request, a communications official working for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Florida instructed a scientist to “make no claims as to cause” of Florida’s sea level rise. The scientist responded “I know the drill,” suggesting that a prohibition on mentioning climate change was well established in the department.
The exchange came in response to a request for an interview from National Geographic. In a report to her superiors, the “administrator of external affairs” for the DEP, who was in charge of approving the interview request, expressed confidence that the scientist would “stay on message,” but offered to be “more hands on with this because of the sensitivity,” should her supervisors insist. Scientists have repeatedly warned rising sea levels pose a serious threat to Florida'a coast. A Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact paper that water in the Miami area could rise by 2 feet by the year 2060, due to climate change.
This latest evidence of a ban on mentioning climate change is congruent with earlier reports that Governor Rick Scott forbade Florida agencies from discussing the matter. As was first uncovered by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, DEP officials were told not to use the terms “climate change,” “global warming,” or “sustainability” once Rick Scott was elected governor in 2011. Rick Scott, a republican, has been a long time denier of climate change science. As the New Republic reported:
a reporter asked Scott whether man-made climate change "is significantly affecting the weather, the climate." Scott tried to change the subject and replied, "Well, I'm not a scientist." When asked by the Tampa Bay Times in 2010 whether he believed in climate change, Scott simply replied, "No."
Governor Rick Scott is well connected to the oil and gas billionaire Koch brothers’ world of climate change denial. Scott has attended secretive strategy meetings held by the Kochs, and has benefitted politically from Koch initiatives and funding. The Koch brothers have given over $79 million to groups that deny climate change science and oppose regulations on greenhouse gas pollution.
Inside Climate News has revealed that a key leader of oil and gas industry front groups that oppose new fracking regulations may have been playing both sides of the issue. In an investigation into the funding of the Environmental Defense Fund's (EDF) work on oil and gas regulation, Inside Climate News discovered that a key EDF funder had hired FTI Consulting's David Blackmon to promote fracking regulations. Unbeknownst to his employer, Blackmon is a longtime oil industry consultant who is paid to oppose regulation of the fracking industry.
The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation
The funder in question is the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation, established by the late George Mitchell, known as the "father of fracking." George Mitchell owned and operated Mitchell Energy, the first company to combine horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett shale, which sparked the "shale revolution." Mitchell created the foundation with part of the $3.5 billion sale of Mitchell Energy to Devon Energy. The Mitchell Foundation describes itself as "a grantmaking foundation that seeks innovative, sustainable solutions for human and environmental problems." While its goals seem noble, the fortunes of the foundation and the people who run it continue to be inexorably linked to the success of the oil and gas industry. The foundation itself has more than $38 million in stock in Devon Energy. Three of George Mitchell's beneficiaries own over $21 million of Devon Energy apiece. Altogether the Mitchell Foundation and the Mitchell heirs own over one fifth of Devon Energy. One such heir is Todd Mitchell, who sat on the foundation's board for years and worked for Devon Energy for a decade. He currently runs oil and gas production companies and an investment business built on the assumption that gas will provide the baseload for electricity generation around the globe. The Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation has funded a series of greenwashing efforts that have portrayed the shale and fracking industry as safe, clean, and reliable. These efforts include an online-based "virtual reality" well pad that makes no mention of water or air quality concerns. In fact, the "virtual well pad" does not mention any of the environmental or social impacts that communities near shale drilling experience. However, the Mitchell Foundation has also dedicated millions of dollars to groups that are trying to "green" the shale industry, like the Environmental Defense Fund. Since 2012 the foundation has given over $1 million to EDF. The funding was for studies of methane emissions from the fracking industry. These studies, which have been criticized as incomplete, are built on a base assumption that the drilling can be done "right." They have also led to some of the first federal regulations on the shale industry, including the methane regulations announced by the Obama administration in early 2015. The foundation also gives to a range of environmental groups, some of which are strongly opposed to fracking and oil and gas development, like the Tides Foundation and the Sierra Club.
David Blackmon and FTI Consulting's Conflicts of Interest
While the Mitchell family's finances are tied to the success of the gas industry in general, the foundation's funding of efforts to limit pollution from fracking appears genuine. That is what makes the Mitchell Foundation's hiring of David Blackmon and FTI Consulting so peculiar. In 2012 the Mitchell Foundation selected Blackmon of FTI Consulting to run the foundation's gas strategy. FTI Consulting is a PR firm that has worked with the shale and fracking industry to limit shale regulations by attacking journalists and community groups. FTI Consulting runs Energy in Depth, an oil and gas industry front group that maintains a hard line of attack against those who would regulate or criticize its corporate funders. The Mitchell Foundation paid FTI Consulting $120,000 to "start a dialogue between fossil fuel concerns and environmentalists around natural gas." Blackmon himself has long been a power player in the world of pro-fracking PR. Blackmon started his career as an oil industry flack, doing communications work and lobbying for Shell, Tesoro, and various other oil and gas companies. More recently, he has had top positions with nearly every major pro-fracking front group, including the Consumer Energy Alliance, Energy in Depth, and the industry's biggest lobbying arm, America's Natural Gas Alliance. That Blackmon was in charge of the Mitchell Foundation's gas strategy is troubling. His career has been dedicated to obstructing and delaying regulation on the oil and gas industry, especially in regard to fracking. While working for Mitchell, he led industry-funded groups that opposed the very methane regulations he was hired by Mitchell to promote. It is also troubling because of Blackmon's personal denial of the science of climate change, and his aggressive denial of the environmental and health impacts of fracking, which he called an "attention-grabbing boogeyman for all manner of nutcases, chicken littles and radicalized environmental organizations." Tweets from Blackmon's Twitter account reinforce the fact that he denies some of the basic pieces of climate-change science:
Fracking has been shown to pose a serious threat to the climate, given that methane, natural gas' primary component, traps 86 times more heat in the atmosphere than CO2 does. Blackmon and FTI Consulting's anti-regulatory and pro-fracking work constitute a potentially major undisclosed conflict of interest. Marilou Hastings, the communications manager for the Mitchell Foundation, admitted to Inside Climate that before settling on FTI, she approached and was turned down by "more than a dozen consulting firms" due to conflicts of interest. When she approached FTI Consulting and Blackmon, they not only accepted the job but failed to reveal their anti-regulatory work to Hastings. Inside Climate News writes that Hastings "didn't know of FTI Consulting's ties to anti-regulatory efforts." Furthermore, at the same time that Blackmon was being paid by the Mitchell Foundation, Energy in Depth, which is run by FTI Consulting and boasts Blackmon as a "field director," attacked the very studies Blackmon was paid to promote. All the while, Blackmon was using his position as a contributor to Forbes to promote the Mitchell Foundation's work without disclosing his financial incentives. This potentially violated Forbes' conflicts of interest clause. This raises the question: Did David Blackmon use his position with the Mitchell Foundation, in which he was tasked with promoting regulation, to feed information to his colleagues at FTI Consulting, which is paid to oppose regulation?
A Greenpeace investigation has uncovered close ties between a Colorado political couple and at least six oil and gas industry front groups that have been fighting state regulations designed to protect the health of its citizens and the environment.
The husband and wife team are ex-state senator and onetime Republican gubernatorial primary candidate Josh Penry and his wife, founder of republican PR and fundraising firm Starboard Group, Kristin Strohm. Colorado has emerged as a key battleground in the national debate over shale drilling and fracking. The state’s oil and gas industry has over 50,000 hydraulically fractured wells, and plans to drill many thousands more every year into the foreseeable future. These wells have caused severe water and air pollution problems, and have sparked a grassroots movement against drilling and fracking across the state. Concern over pollution from fracking culminated in a series of local laws to ban or regulate fracking, efforts that sent shockwaves through the shale industry. To combat the growing threat of local control over drilling practices, the shale industry began funding political strategies to undermine local action against drilling. Enter Penry and Strohm, who who helped develop the shale industry’s sophisticated astroturf campaign strategy that was created in concert with legal strategies to override popularly-supported local drilling restrictions. (Astroturf is a term used to describe fake “grassroots” groups that are conceived and paid for by corporations or public relations firms to advance a business or political interest.)
Josh Penry has strong connections to both Colorado politics and the oil and gas industry. He became the youngest person ever elected to the state Senate in 2006. While a state senator, he sponsored and passed legislation designed to benefit the drilling industry by boosting the use of gas-fired electric power plants. His biggest achievement was HB 1365, a bill designed to help Xcel Energy build gas-fired power plants. The bill was called the ”Clean Air Clean Jobs Bill,” and sold as a boon for the environment because it eased the transition from coal fired power to gas fired power. However, Penry made the intentions behind the legislation clear by promising a 15% increase in gas drilling in the state if the bill was passed. Josh Penry is apparently unconcerned about the enormous contribution that gas extraction and combustion makes to climate change, explaining during a debate that it doesn’t "keep [him] up at night." However, studies of highly fracked areas in Colorado raise alarms for the climate. One recent study of the Front Range drilling area in Colorado found a methane leakage rate of 19.3 tons per hour. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, at least 86 times as powerful as CO2 at disrupting the climate. After surprising his staff and supporters by backing out of the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2009 and serving out his time as State Senator, Penry became Vice President of EIS Solutions, a public relations and political strategy consulting firm that specializes in “grassroots coalition building.” The group has been a key cog in the fracking industry’s pushback against community resistance and the state of Colorado’s gas regulations. EIS advertises their ability to create a “path to advocacy.” In practical terms, this means EIS will create non-profit and fake grassroots groups to give the illusion of widespread public support for oil and gas drilling. EIS has been criticized for repeatedly stepping outside of respectable practices, including one case in 2013 when they were caught faking signatures on an anti-regulation petition. EIS has long standing contracts with the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the leading industry lobbying group in the state. A Greenpeace investigation has uncovered the following non-profit front groups tied to EIS solutions: Colorado Liberty Alliance - shares a phone number with EIS phone, and advocates against local control. Environmentally Conscious Consumers for Oil Shale - shares an address with EIS solutions and promotes drilling. Grow Our Western Economy - has an EIS Solutions phone number and the chairman is former EIS Solutions employee, now president of the Koch Brothers front group Americans for Prosperity, Justin Zvonek. The group attacks people who promote local control over drilling. The groups listed above represents only those created by EIS employees that have registered as non-profits. EIS also creates groups that have not registered as tax-exempt non-profits, thereby avoiding reporting requirements.
Vital for Colorado
One such group is Vital for Colorado, a well-funded and highly active pro-fracking front group. While the Vital for Colorado website makes no direct mention of Penry, he serves as spokesman and strategist for the group, and coordinates messaging with other anti-regulation groups through Vital for Colorado. In September, Penry attended a meeting in Denver where he spoke to an audience of State Policy Network groups from around the country about the industry’s strategy to fight oil and gas drilling restrictions in Colorado. Josh Penry’s ties to Vital for Colorado run deep. Both EIS employee Dan Haley and Penry’s wife Kristin Strohm sit on the Advisory board of Vital for Colorado. Vital for Colorado’s website is registered to Charity Meinhart, a web developer that works for both EIS Solutions and Starboard Group according to her LinkdIn account.
Kristin Strohm is the managing partner at her own pubic relations firm, Starboard Group. Strohm, who is an advisor for Vital for Colorado, has also set up other front groups that work in concert with Vital for Colorado to oppose drilling regulations. The Western Colorado Jobs Alliance and The Common Sense Policy Roundtable Forum were created by Starboard Group to oppose local control over shale drilling and fracking. Both groups also publicly support Vital for Colorado, creating a seemingly independent network of reinforcing voices that oppose fracking regulations, while being centrally coordinated by Strohm and Penry. Strohm worked for Penry in his run for State Senate in 2006. Penry and Strohm married in 2012, shortly after his divorce from his wife, whom he had married in 1999.
Ties to the Koch Brothers
The Penry and Strohm team both have connections to the national effort to reduce regulation on the oil industry through the creation of front groups, bottom-lined by oil and gas billionaires Charles and David Koch. Kristin Strohm has successfully solicited major funding from the Kochs. While Strohm was the finance director for Mike Coffman’s congressional campaign, Coffman benefited from ads run by Americans for Prosperity supporting his campaign. Through Strohm, he also received the maximum possible donation allowed by law from David Koch. Starboard Group’s website boasts of working for the Koch Brothers' flagship front group, Americans for Prosperity. Strohm has also hired former Koch Interns to the Starboard Group. A former director of the Common Sense Policy Roundtable, a front group created by Strohm, attended the secretive 2010 Koch strategy meeting in Aspen. Penry’s EIS Solutions also has close ties to the Koch network. The director for Colorado’s Americans For Prosperity chapter is a former EIS Solutions employee, Dustin Zvonek. Like the other front groups in Penry’s orbit, Zvonek and AFP have been consistently working against local control of drilling regulations.
This means that Congressman Stewart now has dominion over the EPA, climate change research, and "all activities related to climate." According to the House Science Committees website (of which Stewart's subcommitee is a part), the chair of the Environment subcommittee oversees:
"all matters relating to environmental research; Environmental Protection Agency research and development; environmental standards; climate change research and development; the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, including all activities related to weather, weather services, climate, the atmosphere, marine fisheries, and oceanic research;…"
Unfortunately for the EPA, NOAA, and anyone worried about climate change, Chris Stewart is a climate science denier. Mr. Stewart believes there is "insufficient science" to determine if climate change is caused by humans. He believes this in spite of the fact that the EPA, NOAA, and all experts in the field (which he now oversees), disagrees with him.
For the record, Chris Stewart has no advanced degrees in science. However, before running for congress he was owner and CEO of Shipley Group, a company that trains government workers on environmental issues. Shipley Group actually runs a training on climate change science, and according to the Shipley Group website "Upon completion of the workshop, participants will be able to understand basic climate change science." Clearly Mr. Stewart has never taken his company's training.
Ties to Fossil Fuels
Though Stewart seems to ignore climate change science (while his company profits by teaching it), he does not ignore the fossil fuel industry. In fact he is quite sympathetic to the plight of oil and gas companies. His campaign website claims:
"I am the CEO of a company that works extensively with independent energy producers. I understand how difficult it is to get a drilling permit on federal lands. It is painfully slow, incoherently arbitrary, and always expensive."
Stewart's "extensive" knowledge of the fossil fuel industry is not a surprise. His brother, Tim Stewart is a lobbyist for American Capitol Group, a washington DC lobbying firm. American capitol Group lobbies for fossil Fuel interests, like the Western Energy Alliance, a group mainly comprised of fracking and oil companies. Tim Stewart also lobbied for EnergyNorthAmerica, a company he cofounded to lobby for the Fossil Fuel Industry. One EnergyNorthAmerica slide presentation reads:
"The fact that fossil energy and mining are viewed by political "elites" with disfavor, a view driven by acolytes of radical environmentalism, has resulted in damaging laws and regulation and general neglect"
Unsurprisingly, the fossil fuel industry does not ignore Chris Stewart either. One of Stewart's books (which were published and praised by Glenn Beck), is recommended reading at Koch Industries. Stewart received the maximum possible campaign contribution from ExxonMobil and Koch Industries during his last campaign. He also received considerable support from several Koch and Exxon funded SuperPACs. All told, he received more funding from dirty energy companies and their superPACs than any other single source.
See Chris Stewart's PolluterWatch profile for more information.
Opposing Action on Climate Change
ALEC's 2015 Annual Meeting Sponsors
President's Level - $100,000
Chair's Level - $50,000
Vice Chair's Level - $20,000
Director's Level - $10,000
Trustee's Level - $5,000
As the nation warily watches every Republican presidential candidate kiss the ring of billionaire donor Charles Koch for a shot at his network's $300,000,000 pool of presidential cash, Charles Koch did something unusual. Last week's USA Today interview with Charles Koch noted his shifting opinion on what he calls climate change "hysteria:"
For the record, Koch says this of climate change: "You can plausibly say that CO2 has contributed" to the planet's warming, but he sees "no evidence" to support "this theory that it's going to be catastrophic."
Wait...Charles Koch just accepted that the planet is warming? Hold your applause. Clearly, Mr. Koch still denies that there's a problem - which means he's missing the entire point of discussing climate change. But any movement from Charles on the 5 Stages of Climate Denial--from #1 down to #3--is a big deal. This is the same guy who has poured $80 million into organizations that have misrepresented climate change science to the public and advocated against any viable solutions to the problem.
Koch's Right-Hand-Man: "Charles is ahead of me on this."
Last June, leaked recordings surfaced from Koch's regular meeting of millionaires and billionaires who are coordinating $889 million in spending around the 2016 election. Charles's Koch top strategist Richard Fink indicated that we may see a shift in Koch's rhetoric on climate change. Fink, aka "Charles Koch's Brain," told attending prospective donors what they wanted to hear: donate to us, and we'll fight the crazy commie hippies and their pesky science. From the Undercurrent:
“The environmental movement. Occupy Wall Street. These kids are searching for meaning. They're protesting the 1 percent. They are the 1 percent, but they're protesting the 1 percent. The environmental movement and climate change. It's not about climate change. I studied climate change for six years. I can't figure it out, quite frankly. Charles is ahead of me on this. I'm not a climatologist, but I'm not completely stupid. I can tell you I meet with people, particularly in California, that are convinced the world is going to burn up in you know, a year or two. They don't know the answer -- they don't even know the question, because it's not about climate change. It's about a cause. It gives their life meaning.”
For context, you should probably know that Fink told the room's billionaires that the minimum wage would lead to fascism, comparing today's low-income Americans to pre-Nazi Germany citizenry. Not exactly a room full of academics. And since one of the people that Mr. Fink 'meets with' was a scientist that he funded to study global temperature data, you have to wonder how much experience Rich Fink has with willful ignorance.
When Charles Koch Accidentally Proved Global Warming
Charles Koch cannot deny is that he's seen the global temperature record data. In 2011, through the Charles Koch Foundation (CKF), CKF president Richard Fink funded a high-profile study on global surface temperature data. This dataset, which was an unnecessarily redundant reproduction of several other similar studies, was constructed by a scientist who at the time was a climate change denier.
BEST data compared with previous reconstructions of global surface temperature data.
Dr. Richard Muller's Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Study (BEST) made headlines when he announced his acceptance of what climate scientists had already been saying for over 15 years--yes, people are responsible for unnatural climate variability that scientists have documented--and surprised the country by becoming an advocate for solutions to global warming.
This put Mr. Koch in an awkward spot. Koch's $150,000 grant to Dr. Muller made him the project's top single donor, and Muller was a celebrated skeptic before his dramatic change-of-heart.
Add to that Mr. Koch's background in science--a chemical engineering degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. For such an educated, celebrated albeit controversial high-society businessman, the refusal to acknowledge science that is understood by middle schoolers guaranteed to undermine the sensible reputation that Koch Industries has spent a lot of money to put out there.
But Charles gets no credit here. Dumping almost $80 million into organizations that have attacked the scientists who study climate change and interfered with virtually every proposed policy and regulation to solve global warming isn't being a science-savy CEO. It's being a denier, and especially in the context of a self-serving petrochemical billionaire, that's pretty offensive to the rest of us.
We define climate change denial as "anyone who is obstructing, delaying or trying to derail policy steps that are in line with the scientific consensus that says we need to take rapid steps to decarbonize the economy." Mr. Koch remains a staunch denier in that regard.
Why focus on Charles Koch and David Koch? Many large foundations associated with corporate fortunes are active in financing climate denial groups - Anschutz, Bradley, Coors, DeVos, Dunn, Howard, Pope, Scaife, Searle, and Seid, to name a few. Unlike Koch, most of those fortunes did not come from owning a corporation like Koch Industries, historically rooted in fossil fuel operations. And none come as close as the Kochs in terms of decades-long focus on actively building a political influence network and coordinating other wealthy executives, corporations and families to dump amounts money into politics that not even the Koch brothers could afford.
Check out Greenpeace.org for more research on the Koch brothers crusade against climate science.
Here's a headline you might expect to see on Reddit's "Not The Onion" page:
Washington Post: This conservative group is tired of being accused of climate denial — and is fighting back
The "conservative group" is ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. ALEC is a lobbyists' policy factory, where corporations vote as equals on "model bills" with state legislators.
The Post notes that ALEC takes issue with the label "climate change denier," after the group's work doing just that led to the departures of major corporate supporters. Two organizations got letters from ALEC's lawyers, insinuating there would be legal action taken for accurately describing ALEC's legacy of denying climate change.
If you want to see how ALEC's own member politicians, lobbyists, and materials deny the science of climate change, check out ALECClimateChangeDenial.org. It's in their own words, so they may have to send a Cease and Desist letter to themselves.
For the record, Greenpeace's feelings are a bit hurt we too didn't get a warning. Did you not see our years of work to expose ALEC's climate change denial?
ALEC may have ignored us, but ALEC's member corporations haven't. Companies ranging from Google to BP to eBay to Northrop Grumman have recently dumped ALEC. Google's chairman said ALEC is "literally lying" about climate change in a surprise announcement to abandon the lobbying group on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show.
This isn't the first time ALEC got turned away at the dance. In the past, ALEC has faced mass corporate defections for its role in spreading lethal Stand Your Ground gun laws across the country and for disenfranchising legitimate voters with "Voter ID" legislation. Over 100 companies have ditched ALEC.
Together, lobbyists and lawmakers create fill-in-the-blank laws to hide chemicals used in fracking (for ExxonMobil), attack renewable energy incentives in the name of "Electricity Freedom" (for The Heartland Institute's corporate clients), and create red tape around the President's plan to reduce carbon pollution from coal plants (for polluters represented by the Edison Electric Institute), and many many more examples of promoting fossil fuels, attacking clean energy competition and denying the science of climate change.
ALEC may be nervous with the attention its operations are getting. ALEC's own lawyers have written about their precarious relationship with IRS tax law, acknowledging they would need to spin off a sister organization and register some staff as lobbyists in order to avoid potential action from the IRS that could affect ALEC's tax-exempt status. For ALEC's member corporations, that's a big deal - it's unclear what liabilities they would face if ALEC's nonprofit status was revoked.
Common Cause - one of the organizations to get these legal threats from ALEC over the "climate denial" exposure - has submitted detailed complaints to the IRS documenting how ALEC operations likely violate their nonprofit status. So far, the IRS has failed to do its job and walk into the shadows of ALEC's operations, where there is every indication that ALEC has crossed the line.
So no hard feelings, Common Cause. You're probably getting the legal letters because ALEC would rather have you arguing about climate science that their questionable relationship with the IRS.
"The science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless."
Recent revelations regarding Smithsonian scientist Willie Soon's financing and coordination with fossil fuel companies for studies undermining the science of climate change has received quite a bit of attention. Our friends at the Climate Investigations Center have links to source documents, letters to the IRS and Congress, letters to journals that Soon appears to have mislead, and some of the press covering all of this.
The drama has largely outshone the main point among most scientists: Willie Soon's work is vastly discredited. For those who aren't familiar with Willie Soon's fossil fuel company contracting over the last fifteen years, there is probably a legitimate question of whether or not this guy deserves to be in his current pinch.
Frankly, he had it coming.
Scientists and science reporters have often had to waste their time addressing the interference of Soon and his cohorts, who take advantage of the public's general unfamiliarity with scientific nuance.
But scientists too are talking about Dr. Soon's work and what it means for the troubled peer-review process that the most stringent journals usually adhere to. Here is a summary of some of the most interesting conversations in science publications about Willie Soon's #Fakexpert scandal.
First, Soon's manager at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Charles Alcock, has time and time again said that neither he nor Smithsonian support Soon's fossil-funded conclusions. From E&E Publishing's ClimateWire:
"I'd have to say that I've reached my conclusions independent of Dr. Soon's work," Alcock said. "Dr. Soon is not actively engaged in actually gathering new data. He's principally disputing the interpretation of data gathered by other people. And I think this is an area where most of the progress will be made by people who collect new [climate] data or who build new models."
Soon's industry-financed papers have been debunked by climate scientists over and over. Just last month, Soon co-authored a paper claiming to debunk decades of science using a "simple" model of long term temperature projections. Scientists worldwide noted that Soon's methodology was grossly oversimplified, ignoring key factors that scientists have warned will lead to unprecedented temperature increases in the coming decades.
The Heartland Institute, a think tank with ties to the fossil fuel industry, paid to promote this paper in Science Bulletin, a journal published by the Chinese National Academy of Sciences. Heartland has misrepresented the Chinese NAS for political purposes before, and Science Bulletin was the latest victim of Dr. Soon's serial lack of disclosure of fossil fuel funding to science journals. Science Insider - published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) - interviewed editors at science journals who appear to have been fooled by Dr. Soon's non-disclosure of his industry payments.
But Soon's work was widely disregarded before his controversial 2015 paper in Science Bulletin. The prestigious science journal Nature notes that Dr. Soon's haggard relationship with science isn't new:
The scientist has published numerous papers that go against mainstream climate science. Most famously, in 2003, Soon co-authored a paper in the journal Climate Research that questioned the standard interpretation of climate change over the past millennium and argued that recent warming is not unusual by historical standards. Subsequent controversy led to the resignation of several of the journal’s editors. In that case, the controversy revolved around scientific issues, not disclosure of funding sources. [More on this scandal in our profile of Willie Soon]
NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt for RealClimate re-starts, giving Soon the benefit of the doubt (select clips):
However, a valid question is whether the science that arose from these funds is any good? It’s certainly conceivable that Soon’s work was too radical for standard federal research programs and that these energy companies were really taking a chance on blue-sky high risk research that might have the potential to shake things up. [...]
It is most succinctly highlighted in an article Soon wrote ‘It’s the Sun, stupid’ (not sure if it was ever really published anywhere, but he did send it to his contacts at Koch Industries). Towards the end he states:
The evidence in my paper is consistent with the hypothesis that the Sun causes climatic change in the Arctic.
It invalidates the hypothesis that CO2 is a major cause of observed climate change – and raises serious questions about the wisdom of imposing cap-and-trade or other policies that would cripple energy production and economic activity, in the name of “preventing catastrophic climate change.”
It is the leap from the first to second sentence that drives Soon’s research – the notion that if you can find enough correlations to solar forcing, the impact of CO2 must be diminished, if not obliterated altogether. But this is a fallacy. It is equivalent to arguing that if total caloric intake correlates to weight, that exercise can have no effect, or that if cloudiness correlates to incident solar radiation at the ground, then seasonal variations in sunshine are zero.
If you're feeling masochistic enough to read more from scientists into the documented gap between reality and Willie Soon's research, check older RealClimate posts on Dr. Soon here, here, and here, and this generously-detailed debunk of Soon's presentation at the latest Heartland Institute climate denial conference by ecologist Richard Telford.
Telford isn't the only scientist baffled by Soon's awkward presentations. University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank details his "depressing" encounter with Willie Soon, at an event and a personal encounter, from NPR:
When it was announced that Soon was giving a talk at the University of Rochester, I knew it would be interesting. I was more than willing to hear what the man had to say. The whole point of being a scientist is, after all, to try to leave your preconceptions at the door and let the work speak for itself. I also wanted to understand Soon's own thinking about the role he was playing as a public skeptic.
On all counts I was disappointed.
Taken as nothing more than a scientific talk, Dr. Soon's presentation was, in my opinion, pretty bad. I watch a lot of these things. It's part of my job. If Soon had been giving a Ph.D defense, he would have been skewered. I was left without a clear line of argument or clear justifications for his claims. More importantly, for a topic this contentious there was insufficient discussion of the voluminous and highly detailed response critics have offered to his claims that solar activity accounts for most observed climate variability. Many of my colleagues listening to the talk said they felt the same way. I came away thinking, "Is that the best they have?"
The presentation that Prof. Adam Frank found depressing was focused on Soon's long-since-discredited thesis that the Sun, not industrial pollution, is responsible for climate change. Citing peer-reviewed material on Skeptical Science, science reporter Chris Mooney re-examines how Soon's primary argument is debunked, for the Washington Post:
[T]he idea that the sun is currently driving climate change is strongly rejected by the world’s leading authority on climate science, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found in its latest (2013) report that “There is high confidence that changes in total solar irradiance have not contributed to the increase in global mean surface temperature over the period 1986 to 2008, based on direct satellite measurements of total solar irradiance.”
The IPCC “basically says that global warming is not caused by the sun,” says Gerald Meehl, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. “The strongest evidence for this is the record of satellite measurements of solar output since the late 1970s that show no increasing trend in solar output during a period of rapid global warming.” [...]
A recent scientific review article on climate and the sun similarly notes “the lack of detection of an underlying irradiance trend in the past three decades,” and concludes, in rather strong terms, that:
Claims that the Sun has caused as much as 70% of the recent global warming … presents fundamental puzzles. It requires that the Sun’s brightness increased more in the past century than at any time in the past millennium, including over the past 30 years, contrary to the direct space-based observations. And it requires, as well, that Earth’s climate be insensitive to well-measured increases in greenhouse gases at the same time that it is excessively sensitive to poorly known solar brightness changes. Both scenarios are far less plausible than the simple attribution of most (90%) industrial global warming to anthropogenic effects, rather than to the Sun.
So in sum: It’s not that the sun can’t influence climate. It can, and it does. And climate scientists have accordingly been studying the influence of the sun for many years.
Discover Magazine has a similar rundown of Soon's debunked "it's the sun" thesis, based on a video of a presentation Soon gave to a Koch-funded student group.
Even Koch-funded scientist Richard Muller has abandoned Soon's solar theories in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, as Brad Friedman reminds us, in a study that Charles Koch Foundation itself helped finance (oops).
While most scientists may agree that Soon's work is nothing to bat an eyelash at, Soon's corporate funders aren't trying to influence scientists - they're trying to influence policymakers, and the people who vote for them. The Scientist quotes Harvard's Naomi Oreskes, author of Merchants of Doubt, a book documenting corporate manipulation of science that is now being released as a critically-acclaimed movie (trailer here):
Though the vast majority of climate scientists agree that the Earth’s climate is changing as a result of human activities that increase the amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, researchers like Soon foment debate by publishing alternate hypotheses or denials. “The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate,” Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard, told the Times. “Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.”
And the implications for this? Jay Michaelson at the Daily Beast has a brilliant summary of why these climate deniers matter, when their work is so discredited and marginalized in the scientific community:
Yet unlike 9/11 trutherism, and Obama-is-a-Muslim trutherism, the Climate Truther campaign has an air of respectability, a unanimous adherence among Republican presidential candidates. How is that possible?The answer is money. Lots of money. Billions of dollars, in fact, spent to create an entire industry of scientists, publicists, think tanks, and legislative organizations.Willie Soon, for example, should never have been given much credence in the first place. Like nearly all of the Climate Truthers’ scientists, he is not a climate expert. He’s not even an astrophysicist, as he is often presented. As the New York Times revealed, “He is a part-time employee of the Smithsonian Institution with a doctoral degree in aerospace engineering.”
“Willie Soon (as amply documented in my book “The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars”) was instrumental in the early attacks on the Hockey Stick by James Inhofe and other fossil fuel industry-funded politicians. Now we know for certain that his efforts were a quid pro quo with special interests looking to discredit my work as a means of calling into question the reality and threat of climate change.”