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Climate Deniers Exposed: Top Scientist Got Funding from ExxonMobil, Koch Brothers, Big Coal

February 25, 2015
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Guests

Kert Davies

executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, who formerly worked with Greenpeace. He obtained documents through public records requests that shed new light on the influence of fossil fuel interests on the research of Dr. Willie Soon, which has been prominently promoted by climate denier politicians like Senator James Inhofe.

A new investigation exposes how one of the top scientists involved in denying climate change has failed to disclose his extensive funding from the fossil fuel industry. Dr. Wei-Hock Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has downplayed global warming and rejected human activity as its cause, arguing the sun is more responsible than greenhouse gases from pollution. Climate denialists — including Republican Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee — frequently cite Soon’s work to reject concrete action. But documents obtained by the Climate Investigations Center show Soon received more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel corporations and conservative groups over the last decade and failed to disclose those ties in most of his scientific papers. Funders include ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, coal utility Southern Company and the Charles G. Koch Foundation. In letters with his funders, Soon referred to his scientific papers or congressional testimony as "deliverables." We are joined by the Kert Davies, executive director at Climate Investigations Center.


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Kert Davis, I want to turn now to your new investigation that exposes how one of the top scientists involved in denying climate change has failed to disclose his extensive funding from the fossil fuel industry. Dr. Wei-Hock Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics has downplayed global warming, rejected human activity as its cause, argued the sun is more responsible than greenhouse gases. Climate denialists, including Republican Senator James Inhofe, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, frequently cite his work to reject concrete action. But documents obtained by your group, by the Climate Investigations Center, show Dr. Soon received more than $1.2 million from fossil fuel corporations and conservative groups over the last decade and failed to disclose those ties in most of his scientific papers. Funders include ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, coal utility Southern Company, and Charles G. Koch Foundation. In letters with his funders, Dr. Soon referred to his scientific papers or congressional testimony as, quote, "deliverables." These new details confirm earlier concerns about Dr. Soon’s funding, which he downplays in this clip from 2013.

WEI-HOCK SOON: I have received funding from federal government, but I stopped receiving. I have no penny of that money from the government since 2004 or so. And I’ve been receiving money from whoever that wants to give me money. I write my scientific proposal. I have received money from ExxonMobil, but ExxonMobil no longer give me any money for a long time, American Petroleum Institute. Anything you wish for, from Southern Company, from all these companies, I write proposal. I let them judge whether they will fund me or not, always for a very small amount. If they choose to fund me, I’m happy to receive it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Dr. Soon from 2013. Kert Davies, you’re the executive director of the Climate Investigations Center, which obtained the new documents through public records requests that shed new light on the influence of fossil fuel interests on the research of Dr. Willie Soon. Can you talk about what you found?

KERT DAVIES: Well, first, to clarify, it is a Greenpeace investigation going back to 2009, when I was there. We started with a FOIA, a Public Records Act request to the Smithsonian, asking for any information on Soon’s sources of outside income. We knew from 2007 that he was getting money from the Charles Koch Foundation, American Petroleum Institute and ExxonMobil. So we asked a simple question: Show us where he’s getting his funding from. We got a spreadsheet back. Then we said we want to see the communication with these funders. Years go by. We got some email. Then, in the email, it showed that there were attachments, there were contracts. We said, "Let’s see the contracts, and let’s see the proposals." We finally got those. And it is a very rare window into this universe and an amazing moment, actually, probably the most important investigation that Greenpeace has done on climate denial.

What we’ve discovered is that these contracts are explicit in keeping the funder quiet, keeping the funder secret. In the case of the Southern Company, one of the largest polluters in the country, a massive utility that stretches from Georgia to Alabama to Mississippi, owns some of the largest coal plants in the world and in the country, burns Powder River Basin coal, you know, trains going a mile long going to these plants every day and up into the atmosphere—they want to keep us in the dark about climate change, and Willie Soon is one of their pawns, actually. They’re using him, and they’re using the Harvard-Smithsonian name to get that word out that there’s misinformation—that is, that there’s no scientific consensus, rather.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics says it’s launched an inquiry into whether Dr. Soon properly reported the more than $1.5 million in private funding he received to the journals that have published his research. The Center said it, quote, "does not support Dr. Soon’s conclusions on climate change." But it has previously insisted its scholars are peer-reviewed and vetted by other scientists, saying, quote, "This is the way the scientific process works. The funding entities, regardless of their affiliation, have no influence on the research." Your reaction, but also the impact on these journals and the scientific community of these undisclosed donations to Dr. Soon?

KERT DAVIES: Well, we’ve written all the journals to ask them what their reaction is. This is the key part of this investigation, is that we’ve uncovered basic conflict of interest in science. If a doctor, if a medical doctor wrote a paper saying, you know, a drug was bad for you, and was taking money from its competitor, that would be pretty immoral, if not illegal and unethical, to tell people that a drug was harmful and while they’re taking money from the other side. This is what’s happening here. This is a guy taking money from polluters to say that greenhouse gases are not the problem, it’s actually variation in the sun’s radiation that causes the warming we’re experiencing. And he’s taking money from the other side and not disclosing it in the papers, then telling the corporation, "This is what I did for you. I wrote these papers." So, that—

AMY GOODMAN: These "deliverables."

KERT DAVIES: Deliverables, exactly. Like anybody who’s ever written a grant, you have "Here are the outcomes of the grant, here’s what I promised to do with your money." This is—so this is a pretty important thing. And Senator Markey has launched an investigation. The House Science Committee, House Resource Committee are looking into it. There’s a lot of people who are very concerned that other rules may have been broached. There’s a—you know, the IG’s investigation at Smithsonian, we hope, will look into a lot of things, and we’re posting on ClimateInvestigations.org a piece about what they might ask, the questions they might ask internally.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think he should be fired?

KERT DAVIES: I’m not the judge of that. I mean, if he wants to do his science, if he wants to, you know, go back to studying plasmas in the atmosphere and the sun’s corona and whatever he’s an expert at, that’s fine. If he discloses who’s funding it, that’s fine. I mean, when he did a paper in 2007 that said—was funded by Exxon, Koch and the American Petroleum Institute, saying that polar bears are just fine and the Arctic is not melting, you know, why are those entities interested in telling that story? It’s a pretty simple line: because they don’t want us to know that polar bears are in trouble and the Arctic is melting. They want us to think differently about that. So, he can go on doing whatever he wants to do. I don’t care if he stays there or gets fired, as long as it’s transparent and the world knows that he’s being paid by polluters.


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