Case Study: Polar Bear Junk Science and Koch Industries

Page - March 29, 2010
In 2007, several prominent climate denial scientists published a non-peer reviewed article (Dyck, Soon et al, 2007 “Polar bears of western Hudson Bay and climate change: Are warming spring air temperatures the "ultimate" survival control factor?”), concluding that polar bears are not being threatened by anthropogenic global warming. One of the paper’s authors, Dr. Willie Soon, disclosed in the acknowledgments section that he had received direct corporate funding for the work, stating “W. Soon’s effort for the completion of this paper was partially supported by grants from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, American Petroleum Institute, and Exxon-Mobil Corporation.” (Exxon grants to Soon’s organization are detailed below. The exact amount received from the Koch foundation was not found on its 990 forms. The American Petroleum Institute does not disclose the multiple grants it has made to such climate denial organizations over the years.)

The paper, which did not include any new scientific research, but drew from other published work, appeared in the journal Ecological Complexity as a "Viewpoint" piece. This article declared Arctic sea ice decline was less severe than recent well-founded conclusions in peer-reviewed literature. The authors question the climate science of Arctic warming and the scientific modeling that indicates climate change as a threat to polar bear populations. Leading polar bear and Arctic ice scientists criticized the article for containing "no new research" and drawing erroneous conclusions from existing research.

Two polar bear experts, Dr. Ian Stirling and Dr. Andrew Derocher, published a response to the paper, stating that the 2007 article did not adequately support the claim that non-climate factors were causing the polar bear population decline. Stirling and Deroucher wrote,  "[The article's authors] …suggest that factors other than climate warming are responsible for a decline in the polar bear population of Western Hudson Bay… In our examination of their alternative explanations, and the data available to evaluate each, we found little support for any."  

Oil interests and their allies likely realize that polar bear protections might hinder oil exploration in the Arctic. In addition, because polar bear decline is an iconic symbol of the climate crisis, undermining the scientific proof of polar bears in peril would potentially delay overall climate policy measures that will reduce oil consumption.

The co-authors of the paper include long time climate deniers: Sallie Baliunas, David Legates  and Tim Ball. Willie Soon and Sallie Baliunas have a documented history of receiving money from oil interests. ExxonMobil Foundation tax records and company documents confirm a series of grants to the Center for Astrophysics, which employs both Soon and Baliunas. In 2008, ExxonMobil contributed $76,106  to Soon and Baliunas' institute, the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory, with funding totaling over $340,000 in four grants since 2005.

Soon and Baliunas were the authors of another controversial climate "junk science" report in 2003, funded by the American Petroleum Institute. The paper, "Lessons & Limits of Climate History: Was the 20th Century Climate Unusual?", published by another industry-funded think tank, the George Marshall Institute, attacked the research of climate scientist Michael Mann, who has also been a prominent target in the "Climategate" controversy detailed above. Soon, Baliunas and Legates teamed up on a version of the same paper, published in a small journal Climate Research, which generated such an uproar that the Editor in Chief and several others resigned in protest. Both Soon and Baliunas have been associated as spokespeople, advisors and board members of multiple Koch-funded climate denial groups over the past decade.  

The 2007 polar bear junk science paper prompted a letter to ExxonMobil from North Carolina Representative Brad Miller, Chair of the US House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight, which raised a key question about Exxon's funding, which could well have been asked of Koch and API:

"To people outside the scientific community, one PhD may seem like another. Certainly Exxon knows better, however. Yet according to Dr Soon, an astrophysicist by profession, ExxonMobil funded the development of his "opinions" on global warming and its potential impact on polar bear populations…The Congress and the Public have a right to know why ExxonMobil is funding a scientist whose writing is outside his area of expertise to create the impression that expert scientists have conducted vigorous, peer reviewed work that says the problems with polar bears [and climate change] are unproven or unserious."

Exxon responded,  denying responsibility for Soon's research and claiming that the paper had undergone a "lengthy peer review process."

The Koch-funded climate denial groups kicked into gear before the paper was published. Regardless of the non-peer reviewed status of the Ecological Complexity paper, it gave the appearance of a peer reviewed paper. Multiple Koch- and Exxon-funded groups rebroadcast the story through their websites and other media outlets, emphasizing the paper and its 'findings' that polar bears are not endangered by climate change. When the Bush Administration was forced to consider listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act (by a lawsuit brought by Greenpeace and other environmental groups), Sarah Palin and her officers in the Alaskan government referenced the 2007 Dyck, Soon et al. polar bear paper in its formal protest of government action to protect the polar bear, before the paper was even published.  

Additional Koch-funded groups and industry groups threatened to sue the Federal government for listing the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, including the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and National Association of Manufacturers.