Climate change skeptic ‘scientist’ revealed to be on payroll of energy industry

The parallels between climate change deniers and those skeptics who argued that tobacco was not a health hazard are becoming more apparent every day. The tobacco industry spent huge sums of money to conduct their own ‘research’ and used the pronouncements of friendly scientists whom they had funded to argue that whether smoking was dangerous was an open question that was still unresolved, that the jury was out, and hence no action should be taken until further research was done, with that horizon constantly receding.

That the climate change skeptics were following that same playbook has been obvious for some time but yesterday comes further evidence of that in the revelation that a leading scientific skeptic had been getting money from the energy industry for years, all the while claiming that his work was independent of any pressure group. He did not disclose his sources of funding in his papers as he is obliged to do. As Tom Yulsman writes:

If documents acquired under the Freedom of Information Act by the environmental group Greenpeace are accurate, [Willie] Soon has been on the payroll of large corporate donors who have a lot to gain by blocking measures to reduce humankind’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases implicated in global warming.

Soon’s angle was that it was the Sun’s activity that was causing global warning and that climate scientists were ignoring this factor. This was wrong in that other scientists had looked at the Sun’s influence and found that its contribution was negligible. As Yulsman says:

For the record, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has assessed both natural and human-caused drivers of climate change, including the Sun. In the argot of climate science, these contributions are measured in terms of “radiative forcing,” or RF. A positive radiative forcing leads to surface warming, whereas a negative RF has the opposite effect.

What has the IPCC found? Between the dawn of the industrial era in 1750 and 2011, the major greenhouse gases we’ve added to the atmosphere during that period have increased radiative forcing by 3.00 watts per meter squared (with a range of uncertainty of 2.22 – 3.78). By comparison, changes in the amount of energy reaching us from the Sun have caused an increase in radiative forcing of just 0.05 watts per meter squared (with uncertainty ranging from 0.00 to 0.10). That’s a tiny fraction of the influence coming from greenhouse gases.

The IPCC also points out that between 1986 and 2008, the radiative forcing from the Sun actually declined — even as large amounts of heat continued to buildup up in the Earth’s climate system.

These released documents also reveal his communications with his corporate benefactors that suggest a quid pro quo. Soon had some affiliation with the Harvard-Smithsonian institution, though he was not on their payroll, and he got his salary from grant money provided by the Koch brothers and other petroleum energy sources opposed to the climate change scientific consensus.

This case also raises troubling questions about how carefully the Harvard-Smithsonian guards against people trading in on its prestigious name. They would not be the only major research and educational institution to allow big corporate interests to buy their way into getting their own people on the payroll and thus lending a veneer of credibility to what are essentially hired guns, further threatening the increasingly threadbare credibility that academics have for being objective analysts.


  1. Chiroptera says

    … large corporate donors who have a lot to gain by blocking measures to reduce humankind’s emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases implicated in global warming.

    And who have a lot to lose by blocking those measures.

    I’m still trying to figure out the calculus that makes continued huge profits worth what is essentially suicide.

    Is it a case of “well, it’ll be my grandchildren’s problem, not mine”?

    Or are these people so afraid to anything that might cut into their compensation packages even a little that they are psychologically incapable of considering anything that might indicate that they are wrong?

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    This is hardly breaking news, is it? This story about Soon is almost four years old.

    Willie Soon, a U.S. climate change skeptic who has also discounted the health risks of mercury emissions from coal, has received more than $1 million in funding in recent years from large energy companies and an oil industry group, according to Greenpeace.

  3. phytophactor says

    This is really old news about Soon. The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 4, 1997) published a column with the title “Science has spoken: global warming is a myth”, by Robinson & Robinson (father & son hired denialists). Three months later a “reprint” was nationally circulated “Environmental effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide,” by A. B. Robinson, S. L. Balinus, W. Soon, and Z. W. Robinson. While it was formatted to look exactly like a PNAS article it had no date and was not a real publication. My seminar students at the time quickly figured out that Soon, et al. were hired guns for gas/oil/chemical interests, and that the article failed to meet even the lowest standards of honest science.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    This case also raises troubling questions about how carefully the Harvard-Smithsonian guards against people trading in on its prestigious name.

    Documents have surfaced showing that H-S signed an agreement not to reveal Soon’s funding by The Southern Company (an electricity-producing consortium relying heavily on coal) without TSC’s approval. That, to my mind, answers those “troubling questions” and raises new ones -- about firing H-S leadership and opening H-S files.

    If Harvard U could dump tenured Professor Marcus Hauser for violating experimental protocols, which had little public impact and no influence on national policies, then how could they possibly not do the same for non-tenured administrators acting corruptly against the public good?

  5. Callinectes says

    I’ve always thought that changes in the sun’s output would leave other clues in the temperatures of, say, all the planets and moons in the solar system.

  6. hyphenman says


    For many years I have had my own modest version of the Randi Challenge. Show me a paper published in a peer-reviewed science journal by a scientist in the field discussed and who has no ties to either the petrochemical or energy industries that successfully discredits humanity’s role in Climate Change/Global Warming and I’ll cut you a check for $100. (I said my version was modest.)

    I think two, maybe three, people have tried to claim the prize, but in each case I have only had to invest maybe an hour or so to follow the money back to corporations with vested interests in heading off legislation based on our need to cut our global carbon footprint.

    How Willie Soon escaped detection for as long as he did boggles the mind.

    Have Coffee Will Write

  7. dogfightwithdogma says

    Can we now stop labeling Soon a climate change skeptic and call him what he truly is: a climate change denialist or contrarian. He has clearly shown that he is misusing his scientific credentials to advance a position on climate change that he almost certainly holds as part of his political ideology and not because of the science.

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