Busted: Academics-for-Hire Exposed for Failing to Disclose Fossil Fuel Funding
A Greenpeace undercover investigation has exposed how fossil fuel companies can secretly pay academics at leading American universities to write research that sows doubt about climate science and promotes the companies’ commercial interests.
Posing as representatives of oil and coal companies, investigators from Greenpeace UK asked academics from Princeton and Penn State to write papers promoting the benefits of CO2 and the use of coal in developing countries.
Exposed: Academics-for-hire agree not to disclose fossil fuel funding #COP21 https://t.co/xMyxNzdrEZ https://t.co/eEFDpn2pa5— Greenpeace UK (@Greenpeace UK)1449585541.0
The professors agreed to write the reports and said they did not need to disclose the source of the funding.
Citing industry-funded documents—including testimony to state hearings and newspaper articles—Professor Frank Clemente of Penn State said: “In none of these cases is the sponsor identified. All my work is published as an independent scholar.”
The leading climate-skeptic academic, Professor William Happer, agreed to write a report for a Middle Eastern oil company and to allow the firm to keep the source of the funding secret.
In emails to investigators he also revealed Peabody Energy paid thousands of dollars for him to testify at a separate state hearing, with the money going to a climate-skeptic think-tank.
The investigation also found:
- U.S. coal company Peabody Energy paid tens of thousands of dollars to an academics who produced coal-friendly research and provided testimony at state and federal climate hearings, the amount of which was never revealed.
- The Donors Trust, an organization that has been described as the “dark money ATM” of the U.S. conservative movement, confirmed in a taped conversation with an undercover investigator that it could anonymously channel money from a Middle Eastern oil and gas company to U.S. climate skeptic organizations.
- Princeton Professor William Happer laid out details of an unofficial peer review process run by the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), a UK climate skeptic think tank and said he could ask to put an oil funded report through a similar review process, after admitting that it would struggle to be published in an academic journal.
- A recent report by the GWPF that had been through the same unofficial review process, was promoted as “thoroughly peer-reviewed” by influential columnist Matt Ridley—a senior figure in the organization.
The full story and all the documents have been published here.
NEW: How much does it cost to commission ‘independent’ research that denies climate change? https://t.co/ZrJjDdNu6N https://t.co/d8S8jsUwUx— Energydesk (@Energydesk)1449583521.0
The findings echo the case of Willie Soon, a prominent academic exposed in an investigation in the New York Times as having accepted donations from fossil fuel companies and anonymous donors in return for producing climate-skeptic scientific papers.
Greenpeace investigators approached the academics claiming to be representatives of unnamed fossil fuel companies looking to commission "independent" research.
Professor Frank Clemente, a sociologist from Penn State university, was asked if he could produce a report “to counter damaging research linking coal to premature deaths (in particular the WHO’s figure that 3.7 million people die per year from fossil fuel pollution).” He said that this was within his skill set; that he could be quoted using his university job title and that it would cost around $15,000 for an 8-10 page paper.
Asked whether he would need to declare the source of the money, Professor Clemente said: “There is no requirement to declare source funding in the U.S.” He then shared examples of a testimony and an op-ed, explaining: “Note that in none of these cases is the sponsor identified. All my work is published as an independent scholar.”
Clemente also disclosed that for another report on “the Global Value of Coal” he was paid $50,000 by Peabody Energy—the sponsorship was mentioned in the small print of the paper, but the amount has not been disclosed until now.
EXPOSED: This is how climate-skeptic 'science' is funded. https://t.co/LtPuQsg0mP via @Energydesk #COP21 https://t.co/yHW8VzH062— Greenpeace USA (@Greenpeace USA)1449587065.0
The academics’ willingness to conceal the source of funding contrasts strongly with the ethics of journals such as Science, which states in its submission requirements that research “should be accompanied by clear disclosures from all authors of their affiliations, funding sources or financial holdings that might raise questions about possible sources of bias.”
The investigation has also revealed a system by which foreign oil and gas companies can anonymously fund U.S. climate-skeptic scientists and organizations.
When asked to ensure that the commissioning of the report could not be traced back to the Middle East oil and gas company, Professor Happer contacted his fellow CO2 Coalition board member, Bill O’Keefe, a former Exxon lobbyist. He suggested channelling it through the Donors Trust, a controversial organization that has previously been called the “Dark Money ATM” of the US conservative movement.
When investigators asked Peter Lipsett of the Donors Trust, if the trust would accept money from an oil and gas company based in the Middle East, he replied that, although the trust would like the cash to come from a U.S. bank account, “we can take it from a foreign body, just we have to be extra cautious with that.”
Professor Happer, who sits on the GWPF’s Academic Advisory Council, was also asked by undercover investigators if he could put the industry-funded report through the same peer review process as previous GWPF reports claimed to have been “thoroughly peer reviewed.” Happer explained that this process had consisted of members of the Advisory Council and other selected scientists reviewing the work, rather than presenting it to an academic journal.
He added: “I would be glad to ask for a similar review for the first drafts of anything I write for your client. Unless we decide to submit the piece to a regular journal, with all the complications of delay, possibly quixotic editors and reviewers that is the best we can do and I think it would be fine to call it a peer review.”
GWPF’s “peer review” process was used for a recent GWPF report on the benefits of carbon dioxide. According to Dr. Indur Goklany, the author of the report, he was initially encouraged to write it by the journalist Matt Ridley, who is also a GWPF academic advisor. That report was then promoted by Ridley, who claimed in his London Times column that the paper had been "thoroughly peer reviewed."
Commenting on the investigation, Greenpeace UK executive director John Sauven said:
“This investigation exposes a network of academics-for-hire and a back channel that lets fossil fuel companies secretly influence the climate debate while keeping their fingerprints off. Our research reveals that professors at prestigious universities can be sponsored by foreign fossil fuel companies to write reports that sow doubt about climate change and that those professors will keep that funding secret from the public. The question now is very simple. Down the years, how many scientific reports that sowed public doubt on climate change were actually funded by oil, coal and gas companies? This investigation shows how they do it, now we need to know when and where they did it. It’s time for the skeptics to come clean.”
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Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
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