Ultraconservative news media, the new Congress, and some state governments have heavily relied on the testimony of Dr. Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon to discredit national and international reports on climate change by mainstream scientists. It turns out they’re probably making a big mistake.
Dr. Soon has claimed repeatedly that variations in the sun’s energy, rather than atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, are the prime cause of global warming. Here’s what he says:
“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’.”
Because Soon is a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (not a full-time climate or atmospheric scientist, but a part-time aerospace engineer who works for the Smithsonian Institution, not Harvard), people have tended to believe him. Politicians opposed to action on climate frequently cite his work.
Many critics, however, say Soon’s climate change denials are based on spurious links between solar output and climate factors, out-of-date information, and inadequate study of anthropogenic sources of climate change. For almost 10 years, the DeSmogBlog Project has been investigating Soon’s connections and contributing to major media such as ABC News, Associated Press, and the BBC World Service about their findings.
Thanks to some sleuthing under the Freedom of Information Act by the environmental organization Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center in Alexandria, Virginia, we now know that Dr. Soon is at the center of a massive and unreported conflict of interest. ScienceInsider, The New York Times, Nature, The Guardian, and Inside Climate News have all covered the climate change denial story, although the Academy Awards may have preempted it for many. Soon has reportedly received unacknowledged financial support totaling over $1 million during the past decade from oil and gas companies and other corporate interests wishing to limit government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions from their commercial activities.
Soon and many of the journals that published his work are obliged by modern standards of academic publishing to fully disclose any financial support for their technical reports. Although he did not acknowledge support in his technical papers, Soon revealed it in another location: his financial reporting. He reported at least nine technical papers as “deliverables” to the Southern Company, a large Alabama energy conglomerate. These climate change denial and obfuscation “reports” are listed at the end of this article.
Soon has also accused the distinguished global United Nations panel on climate change of blowing the negative environmental effects of carbon dioxide emissions out of proportion. “Our wonderful planet is not IPCC’s private casino parlor,” Soon has said, as if to absolve industrial stakeholders for their own considerably closer-to-chest, higher-stake gaming.
Southern Company is one of a number of oil and gas and power companies that oppose government regulation of greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, it’s one of the largest utility holding companies in the nation. The Boston Globe cites Southern Company spokesman Jack Bonnikson as stating that the company funds research on issues with public policy implications on its business but is committed to producing clean and reliable electricity. Among the other groups supporting Soon’s perspective are the ExxonMobil Foundation, the Texaco Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, and other organizations with interests in denying carbon’s role in climate change. The Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank known for popularizing climate change denial, is also affiliated with Soon and has presented him at least one award.
Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), ranked by National Journal as the eighth-most conservative senator and now majority ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has used Dr. Soon as a climate authority numerous times over the years. As recently as last month, Inhofe called Soon one of the “scientists that cannot be challenged” about his work in climate change. The senator backs up his strenuous opposition to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan partly because he accepts Soon’s disputed reports.
The news has found its way in several directions following the disclosure. On Friday, Greenpeace Executive Director Ann Leonard wrote about it to members of Congress, including the heads of the House science committee and the Senate’s environment panel.
Yesterday, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) said that he would question fossil fuel companies, trade organizations, and other carbon fuel stakeholders to disclose any funding of other other climate change denial. Merkey’s statement:
“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.”
Also, the Climate Investigations Center will formally notify all parties to the disputed work over the coming week. Greenpeace has contacted the Internal Revenue Service questioning possible violation of rules against tax-exempt organizations using donations to influence legislation. Both Soon and a foundation backed by energy mogul Charles Koch may have stepped over a legal boundary here. And there’s also concern over anonymous sources funneled through omnibus groups like Alexandria’s Donor’s Trust, which has recently begun to support Soon’s publishing as well.
Scientific journal reports by Dr. Willie Soon with apparently questionable undisclosed funding:
- Polar Bear Population Forecasts: A Public-Policy Forecasting Audit. J. Scott Armstrong, Kesten C. Green, and Willie Soon. Interfaces 2008, 38:5, 382-405.
- Reply to response to Dyck et al. (2007) on polar bears and climate change in western Hudson Bay by Stirling et al. (2008) M.G. Dyck, W. Soon, R.K. Baydack, D.R. Legates, S. Baliunas, T.F. Ball, L.O. Hancock. Ecological Complexity, Volume 5, Issue 4, December 2008, Pages 289-302.
- Centennial Variations of the Global Monsoon Precipitation in the Last Millennium: Results from ECHO-G Model. Jian Liu, Bin Wang, Qinghua Ding, Xueyuan Kuang, Willie Soon, and Eduardo Zorita. J. Climate, 2009, 22, 2356–2371.
- Validity of climate change forecasting for public policy decision making.KC Green, JS Armstrong, W Soon – International Journal of Forecasting, 2009.
- Multiple and changing cycles of active stars – II. Results K. Oláh, Z. Kolláth, T. Granzer, K. G. Strassmeier, A. F. Lanza, S. Järvinen, H. Korhonen, S. L. Baliunas, W. Soon, S. Messina and G. Cutispoto. A&A 501 (2) 703-713 (2009)
- Solar Arctic-Mediated Climate Variation on Multidecadal to Centennial Timescales: Empirical Evidence, Mechanistic Explanation, and Testable Consequences. Willie W.-H. Soon. Physical Geography. Vol. 30, Iss. 2, 2009.
- Temporal derivative of Total Solar Irradiance and anomalous Indian summer monsoon: An empirical evidence for a Sun–climate connection. Agnihotri, R., Dutta, K., & Soon, W. (2011). Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, 73(13), 1980-1987.
- Variation in surface air temperature of China during the 20th century. Soon, Willie. (2011-10–1), 73(16), 2331-2344.
- Solar irradiance modulation of Equator-to-Pole (Arctic) temperature gradients: Empirical evidence for climate variation on multi-decadal timescales. Soon, W., & Legates, D. (2013). Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, 45-56.