Dr. Willie Soon: a Career Fueled by Koch, Big Oil and Coal

by Kert Davies

June 28, 2011

When climate denier and astrophysicist Dr. Willie Soon wrote a controversial paper in 2003 that attempted to challenge the historical temperature records, we all raised eyebrows at revelations that the American Petroleum Institute funded it.

When he co-wrote a (non-peer reviewed) paper in 2007 arguing that Arctic warming wasn’t happening and polar bears were not threatened by the effects of it, we found that ExxonMobil and the billionaire Koch brothers had paid for it.

So we went digging and came up with more a whole lot more, released today in the new case study: Dr. Willie Soon, a Career Fueled by Big Oil and Coal. Not only did Big Oil punt hundreds of thousands of dollars to Soon, but Big Coal as well specifically, the Southern Company, one of the largest coal burning electric utilities in the U.S. and in the world.

Could this be why Soon (an astrophysicist) has been recently writing op-eds on how mercury is harmless and the mercury emissions from coal are minimal, with a byline saying that he has a strong expertise in mercury and public health.

Southern Company says no in this morning’s Reuters story.

Soon has been relying on the fossil fuel industry for most of his career. Documents obtained from his employer, the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory (SAO), show that he has received no new funding from conventional, university sources since 2002.

Since then, its been all about the Southern Company, a Koch brothers’ foundation, ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute totalling over $1 million since 2001. Together with his colleague at the SAO, Sallie Baliunas, they brought in $1,153,000 since 2001 and only $842,000 from conventional sources.

Were these companies working together? The API started funding Soon’s work as far back as 1994 (he only graduated in 1991). The API was later joined by the Mobil Foundation, then by the electricity industrys research arm, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). The U.S. electricity sector is dominated by coal.

In 1998, the API, ExxonMobil and the Southern Company sat round a table with other oil companies and think tanks they plotted and funded a Global Climate Science Communications Plan to undermine the climate science and support for the Kyoto Protocol that had just been agreed. “Victory will be achieved when… average citizens ‘understand’ (recognize) uncertainties in climate science”… read the plan. “Uncertainty” was also their objective for the media. The detail funding sources from corporate purses going to think tanks and front groups who will coach scientists with messages counter to the rising consensus on the global warming crisis. Even though this ‘scandal’ was front page news at the New York Times, our assumption is they did it anyway.

So when they saw that Willie Soon was writing papers to try to show that it was the sun, not the increase in carbon dioxide, that was causing warming in the Arctic, did they then get together to ensure he got the funding for his work? Did they consider Soon (and Baliunas) a good investment for their corporations?

In around 2003, Soon saw that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was beginning work on its next summary of climate science, the Fourth Assessment (AR4). Another document obtained by Greenpeace was a letter to colleagues hatching a plan to undermine the outcomes of the report, focusing on Working Group 1 (the science). ” I hope we can start discussing among ourselves to see what we can do to weaken the fourth assessment report…” he wrote.

The letter was addressed to a range of climate deniers, but also to two people we can’t find in our database of denier “scientists”. The only names we can find that match two of the addressees “Walt” and “Randy” were the two Exxon staffers who had been at the centre of funding the denial campaign. Indeed, Randy Randol was the Exxon man sitting at the table plotting with the others in 1998.

Willie Soon has been embraced by the denial industry. This week will see him speak, again, at the Heartland Institute’s annual “Denialpalooza“.The “sponsors” of that meeting and organizations the speakers work for have received millions in funding from ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, the Scaife Foundation and other corporate, ‘free-market’ and anti-government, anti-regulation funders. (more on that soon)

Meanwhile, Exxon has cut funding to a large number of climate deniers. Late yesterday, Exxon released its latest “Worldwide Giving Report”, over a month overdue. It reveals that more career climate deniers have been dismissed by their major funder, ExxonMobil Foundation. What was a peak Exxon funding level of $3.5Million per year to these mouthpieces of climate denial, is now below $1M per year. Exxon IS still funding deniers like Heritage Foundation and American Legislative Exchange Council, but major deniers like the Annapolis Center, Atlas Foundation and others have now apparently been cut, as of 2010.

Funding to Dr. Soon at Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory has also been cut according to responses from Exxon in news reports today:

Mother Jones: “Did ExxonMobil Break Its Promise To Stop Funding Climate Change Deniers?” by Kate Sheppard

Reuters: US climate skeptic Soon funded by oil, coal firms by Tim Gardner

ClimateWire (subscription): Power companies fund anti-climate research on ‘solar variability’ by Evan Lehmann

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