disclosure

Climate Scientists: Coal-funded #Fakexpert Willie Soon was Never Credible.

Illustration by Thomas Avila for Greenpeace's Dealing in Doubt report (Cindy Baxter, 2013).

"The science that Willie Soon does is almost pointless."

- NASA climate scientist Gavin Schmidt, to the New York Times

 

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.” [...]

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.”
This type of industry-funded public relations has frustrated legitimate climate scientists for a long time. Science writer Greg Laden sought comment from renowned climate scientist Michael Mann, whose work has been attacked by Soon and just about every other person in the fossil fuel rolodex. Quoting Mann:
“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.” 
Most of this denial is implemented through the vast web of Koch-funded front groups in the State Policy Network, with presence nationally and in all 50 states.
 
For a look at how SPN uses science denial in the policy arena, check out Willie Soon's climate denial testimony to Kansas legislators from January, 2013. This dismissal of climate science to Kansas legislators marked the opening of a nationally-coordinated attack on Kansas' clean energy incentives by SPN members. In that case, Dr. Soon failed to disclose his payments from the nonprofit Charles Koch Foundation for his work, which he cited in the Kansas statehouse.
 
Hence our letter to the IRS, asking about potential violations of law. The Charles Koch Foundation funded most of the groups working to attack the clean energy law, Koch Industries itself was lobbying against the law, and rumor has it that Willie Soon was flown in on the dime of Americans for Prosperity, a group founded, financed and governed by the Kochs.
 
PolluterWatch has more on the history of Willie Soon, whose denial isn't limited to temperature changes, but the hazards of mercury pollution from burning coal, ocean acidification and polar bears' increasing struggle to survive as their habitats melt. I'll leave you with an image from InsideClimate News, which has done in-depth reporting on Soon:

Report Highlights Failure of Media to Disclose Fossil Fuel Interests

Freshly released today: a report by the Checks & Balances Project examining how often top U.S. newspapers fail to attribute fossil fuel ties to organizations or people that appear news articles to promote fossil fuels, demonize clean energy or promote delay of climate change solutions. Tracking ten of the top fossil fuel front groups in 58 leading U.S. newspapers, the new report finds over 1,000 instances where ties to or funding from coal, oil and gas interests was not disclosed when including a shill group or quoting one of its "experts."

Only 6% of the time were fossil fuel ties disclosed when these top 58 newspapers reported on the ten fossil fuel front groups examined in the study. These groups wind up in the paper, on average, at least once every other day. In the five-year window the report uses, the ten front groups got at least $16 million from coal, oil and gas interests.

According to Checks & Balances:

These groups, and their proponents, have been quoted on average every other day for the past five years in 60 of the largest mainstream newspapers and publications. Despite having received millions of dollars from fossil fuel interests, such as ExxonMobil and Koch Industries, these groups’ financial ties to the fossil fuel industry are rarely mentioned.

Deniers are already taking notice--see Steven Milloy's complaints here. Steve Milloy has been a central climate denier, who was paid to shill for tobacco company Phillip Morris and oil giant Exxon before work for the Cato Institute (see below) and starting the climate denial website "JunkScience."

The ten groups that Checks & Balances examined are well-established fossil fuel apologists. Here is a roundup of watchdog sites with more information on each of these organizations' historic funding from and work for fossil fuel interests like ExxonMobil and Koch Industries (2006-2010 funding figures compiled in the Checks & Balances Project report):

American Enterprise Institute (AEI): $1.675 million from fossil fuel interests (2006-2010)

Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI): $88,279 from fossil fuel interests (2006-2010)

Cato Institute: $1.385 million from Koch/Exxon (2006-2010)

George C. Marshall Institute: $675,000 from fossil fuel interests (2006-2010)

Heartland Institute: $115,000 from Exxon (2006-2010, see also $25,000 grant from Charles Koch in 2011)

Heritage Foundation: $2.523 million from fossil fuel interests (2006-2010)

Hudson Institute: $75,000 from fossil fuel interests (2006-2010)

Institute for Energy Research (IER): $310,000 from fossil fuel interests (2006-2010)

Manhattan Institute: $1.38 million from fossil fuel interests (2006-2010)

Mercatus Center: $8.06 million from fossil fuel interest (2006-2010)

ALEC slips Exxon fracking loopholes into new Ohio law

Wake up and smell the frack fluid! But don't ask what's in it, at least not in Ohio, cause it's still not your right to know.

Ohio is in the final stages of making an Exxon trojan horse on hydrofracking into state law, and it appears that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) connected Exxon's lawyers with co-sponsors of Ohio Senate Bill 315: at least 33 of the 45 Ohio legislators who co-sponsored SB 315 are ALEC members, and language from portions of the state Senate bill is similar to ALEC's "Disclosure of Hydraulic Fracturing Fluid Composition Act."

...disclosure of fracking fluids? On behalf of ExxonMobil?!

Frack fluids include unknown chemicals that gas drillers mix with sand and large amounts of water. The mixture is pumped underground at high pressure in order to retrieve gas and oil by fracturing shale formations. These are the chemicals that have caused widespread concern among residents near gas fracking operations, concerns echoed by doctors who don't know how to treat patients harmed by exposure to chemicals that oil companies keep secret. Oil companies like XTO Energy, a subsidiary of ExxonMobil, the first company lined up to drill in Ohio's Utica shale.

Concern over unconventional energy like gas fracking may be the reason by Ohio SB 315 also addresses clean energy standards and drilling regulations. While the new law will allow doctors to obtain disclosure of fracking chemicals, it places a gag order on them...meaning some chemicals aren't disclosed to the public at all (Cleveland Plain Dealer). Instead, chemicals that subsidiaries of Big Oil use during fracking can remain exempt from public disclosure as "trade secrets," mirroring language of ALEC's model law.

What's most suspicious is that seven of the ten Ohio Senators co-sponsoring SB 315 are ALEC members, as are 26 of the 35 co-sponsoring Representatives.

Among the co-sponsors are Ohio Senate President Tom Niehaus and state Senator Troy Balderson. Senators Niehaus and Balderson are members of ALEC's Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force, which approved the fracking "disclosure" bill internally sponsored by ExxonMobil, modeled after a Texas bill (see New York Times and ProPublica).**

Four of the co-sponsors of SB 315 attended ALEC's meeting in Scottsdale, AZ, although it is unclear which (if any) of them may have been inside the EEA task force meeting the day that the fracking chemical loophole bill was discussed and approved:***

  • Rep. Cheryl Grossman
  • Rep. Casey Kozlowski
  • Rep. Louis Terhar
  • Rep. Andrew Thompson

Some co-sponsors became ALEC members in the lead up to ALEC's late 2011 meeting in Scottsdale, AZ, where the fracking disclosure loophole model bill was finalized by ALEC's Energy, Environmental and Agriculture task force. Emails between representatives of ALEC, the Ohio state government and Time Warner Cable's Ed Kozelek show that last-minute recruitment of new ALEC members before the Scottsdale meeting brought in three state legislators who ended out co-sponsoring SB 315 (PDF pp. 71-76): Rep. Lou Terhar, Rep. Brian Hill and Sen. Bob Peterson (who was appointed to the Ohio Senate in 2012).

 

Head spinning yet? Let's summarize:

  • Exxon pushed the fracking loophole bill through ALEC's [anti]environment task force,
  • A couple of key Ohio legislators directly involved in that task force brought the bill back home...
  • ...and then a pile of Ohio legislators used ALEC's model to mold Exxon's Ohio fracking disclosure loopholes into state law!

While over 50 state legislators have cut ties with ALEC due to its widespread controversies, no Ohio lawmakers have responded in such a fashion. ALEC remains particularly influential in Ohio.

Beyond their involvement in these ALEC task force meetings, Exxon and API were involved in the creation of a similar fracking bill through the Council of State Governments before the ALEC model even existed. As if being a Private Empire isn't enough...

ALEC, CSG, OMG!

ALEC isn't the only group that peddles corporate-written state laws, as DeSmogBlog's Steve Horn pointed out in a blog on state fracking bills and the "Council of State Governments." With direct financial support from Exxon, API, TransCanada and others, the Council of State Governments (CSG) drafted a similar fracking chemical "disclosure" bill two months before ALEC's was internally approved, although they both appear to be modeled off of a Texas law.

While one of the co-sponsoring Senators of Ohio SB 315, Troy Balderson, is a member of CSG Midwest's Energy Committee, Ohio politicians aren't part of the Suggested State Legislature (SSL) committee that vetted the Council's version of the fracking bill. Because of that disconnect and the overwhelming influence of ALEC politicians sponsoring SB 315, ALEC appears to be the keeper of Exxon's fracking secrets in Ohio.

Regardless of the varying influence of groups like ALEC and CSG forging Big Business state laws, ExxonMobil is getting what it wants. According to Don't Frack Ohio!--a project of 350:

  • Fracking companies can hide which chemicals they use in the fracking process by calling them ‘trade secrets’. That means they are exempt from telling you what they put in your water. What little they do disclose is 60 days after drilling takes place, too late for communities to test to show what was in their water before drilling, rendering the disclosure meaningless.
  • The gas industry pays nothing for the mess they create. Gov. Kasich’s minor tax on individual wells is offset by new tax breaks on property taxes and other giveaways, which means the gas industry will pay less in Ohio taxes than they do in any other state in the country.
  • No citizen notification or input will be allowed on any part of the fracking industry. There is no public notice, no public comment, and no right to appeal for drill sites, pipelines, or compressor stations.

Ohio Governor John Kasich has numerous ties to ALEC and was "involved with ALEC in its formative years," but he called for SB 315 to include full disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing. Senators replaced true disclosure requirements with Exxon's loopholes and ALEC Representatives decided to leave them.

ALEC secrecy in Ohio

ALEC legislators have found ways to make their moves harder to track in light of repeated exposure of ALEC's pollution of democracy in the United States over the last year, and sometimes existing state laws don't help. Ohio's financial disclosure forms for legislators specifically mention that expenses or reimbursements from ALEC conferences do not need to be publicly disclosed. In Ohio and other states, ALEC dodges lobby laws through corporate-funded "scholarship" programs that are thoroughly documented by the Center for Media and Democracy through open records requests. 

People for the American Way and Progress Ohio report that ALEC's scholarship fund in Ohio is financed donations from the American Petroleum Institute, Duke Energy, Reynolds Tobacco, and other major corporations interested in buying the loyalty of Ohio lawmakers.

I'm sure you'd understand if you were in the same position. Sometimes steak and cigars are more important than energy that doesn't poison us.

---

*Cross-referenced between a list of ALEC legislators listed in an Aug. 9, 2011 email from the legislative aid of ALEC's Ohio State Chairman, Rep. John Adams, obtained through a public records request (see PDF pp. 82-84 and PFAW p.12).

**ALEC documents published by Common Cause show that Sen. Balderson was a member of ALEC's EEA task force throughout 2011, although Sen. Balderson did not attend the ALEC task force meeting last December in Pheonix, AZ, according to a staffer at his office over the phone, nor is he listed in emails obtained through a public records request as attending the previous meetings in New Orleans (Aug. 2011) or Cincinnati (Apr. 2011). Ohio Senate President Tom Niehaus was a consistent member of ALEC's [anti]environment task force from August 2010-August 2011, the time period for which ALEC's EEA task force rosters are available. SB 315 co-sponsoring Representatives Carey, Damschroder and Derickson were all listed as members of ALEC's EEA task force as of August, 2011.

***Co-sponsors cross referenced with an email from ALEC Ohio State Chairman John Adams' legislative aid to Emily Petrovich of US Steel, dated 11/22/2011--eight days before the Scottsdale meeting (see PDF p. 138).

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