Climate Denier’s Funding from Fossil Fuel Industry Exposed at a Staggering $1.25 Million
For nearly two decades avid researcher, Kert Davies, has been hunting climate deniers and exposing their links to the fossil fuel industry.
Last year, Davies decided to move on from Greenpeace and set up the Climate Investigations Center, whose remit is to “monitor the individuals, corporations, trade associations, political organizations and front groups who work to delay the implementation of sound energy and environmental policies that are necessary in the face of ongoing climate crisis.”
For anyone who has followed how climate sceptics have distorted the debate on climate science, there are a few key names on the list. And one of those is Wei-Hock Soon, more commonly known as Willie Soon, who is an astrophysicist from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.
Only last week I wrote about the Philip Morris’s “whitecoat” program and how the tobacco industry strategy of using scientists to promote their message had been copied by the oil industry.
Soon is the perfect whitecoat for the fossil fuel industry and those who want to deny or delay action on climate change because he believes that climate change is caused not by fossil fuels but by the sun.
These views mean that Soon has been a valuable commodity to the fossil fuel industry and Republicans who deny climate change.
He has long established connections to leading denial think tanks from the U.S., such as the Heartland Institute. Indeed at last year’s annual climate sceptic conference run by Heartland, Soon was one of three skeptics to be given an ward for “speaking truth to power, whistleblowing, and the defense of science.”
Nothing, it seems, could be further from the truth. It is the powerful fossil fuel industry which has been trying to undermine—not defend—science.
We have known for years that Soon has taken fossil fuel industry money, but the exact amount has always remained a mystery.
And now documents uncovered by Davies and Greenpeace reveal just how much funding Soon received from Exxon Mobil, Southern Company, American Petroleum Institute (API) and Donors Trust, which is a secretive foundation run by the ultra-conservative Koch brothers.
And the total comes to a staggering $1.25 million over the last 14 years.
The largest donor was Southern Company, one of the America’s biggest electricity providers which relies heavily on dirty coal for its power plants.
The strategy has been simple. To employ Soon to sow doubt about climate change. “What it shows is the continuation of a long-term campaign by specific fossil-fuel companies and interests to undermine the scientific consensus on climate change,” argues Davies.
Davies adds: “The question here is really: ‘What did API, ExxonMobil, Southern Company and Charles Koch see in Willie Soon? What did they get for $1m-plus.” He asks: “Did they simply hope he was on to research that would disprove the consensus? Or was it too enticing to be able to basically buy the nameplate Harvard-Smithsonian?”
More worryingly, the documents suggest that Soon also “improperly concealed his funding sources” from scientific journals in contravention to their guidelines.
According to the New York Times, which broke the story, at least 11 papers Soon has published since 2008 omitted disclosing his funding sources, “and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.”
“The [Southern] company was paying him to write peer-reviewed science and that relationship was not acknowledged in the peer-reviewed literature,” argues Davies.
Greenpeace has now written to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service and Congress arguing that Soon may have misused grants from the Koch foundation by trying to influence legislation.
Meanwhile, Soon has always denied that his industry funding influences his work.
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A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)