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Cash for climate denial scandal sparks calls for more transparency

Fossil fuel-backed researcher Willie Soon has argued that climate change is not related to the manmade release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Creative Commons: Billy Wilson, 2009

Fossil fuel-backed researcher Willie Soon has argued that climate change is not related to the manmade release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Creative Commons: Billy Wilson, 2009

A lengthy investigation has uncovered financial ties between a prominent climate-change denying scientist and the fossil fuel industry.

Newly released documents obtained by Greenpeace show that Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, took as much as $1.5 million dollars from the fossil fuel industry while authoring a number of highly controversial scientific journal articles challenging the scientific consensus on climate change.

Mr. Soon, a researcher at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA), is well known for his claims that climate change is best understood as a result of variations in the sun’s energy. These views scored Soon spots on conservative news broadcasts; garnered him accolades from an American Senator who has called climate change a “hoax” and a “conspiracy;” and won him a “Courage in Defense of Science” award from the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank.

Correspondence obtained under the US’s Freedom of Information Act shows that Soon took $1.2 million from fossil fuel interests including ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and a foundation run by the Koch brothers.

The single biggest funder of Soon was Southern Company, an energy giant that depends on coal for more than half of its business.

The documents show that Soon also took $340,000 from the shadowy Donors Trust, which refuses to disclose its funding sources, while producing a number of scientific articles cited by climate change-denying politicians who have blocked laws to reduce carbon pollution in the United States.

Unlike many of his colleagues, Soon did not receive any grants from NASA or the National Science Foundation. Instead, nearly all his work was funded by the fossil fuel industry.

For about a decade he has failed to disclose that conflict of interest in many of his scientific papers. According to the the New York Times, he has published at least 11 papers since 2008 where he has failed to provide that disclosure and in “at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.”

The documents of Soon’s correspondence with fossil fuel industry funders for his research show that Dr. Soon, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money.

Soon has long been associated with various entities in the denier world. He was a scientific advisor with one of the original climate denier think tanks, the George C. Marshall Institute for several years, where he worked closely with another CfA staffer, Sallie Baliunas. He is well known for co-publishing a controversial review article titled “Proxy climatic and environmental changes of the past 1000 years” with Baliunas. The article claims that the 20th century was not the warmest century in the past 1,000 years and that the climate has not changed significantly during this time.

Soon was also the Chief Science Advisor with another denier think tank, the Science and Public Policy Institute, where he still blogs. Other personnel there include long-time deniers like Lord Monckton and David Legates.

The leaked documents have sparked a media firestorm, and are garnering congressional attention just one day after their release.

Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.) is calling on fossil fuel companies to reveal their financial ties to scientific research in climate change. In a release, Markey said:

For years, fossil fuel interests and front groups have attacked climate scientists and legislation to cut carbon pollution using junk science and debunked arguments. The American public deserve an honest debate that isn’t polluted by the best junk science fossil fuel interests can buy. That’s why I will be launching this investigation to see how widespread this denial-for-hire scheme stretches within the anti-climate action cabal.

Senator Markey’s office will send letters to energy companies, trade associations, and other fossil fuel-backers asking them to disclose their financial support for climate change research.

This most recent call for transparency comes after Greenpeace wrote to the US Inland Revenue Service, questioning the legality of Koch-funded science being used to influence legislation.

Soon has not responded for requests for comment from many major news outlets, including the Boston Globe, and the Guardian.

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