Climate Science for Hire: How Deep Do Industry Ties Go?

Got Science? | March 2015

Last month, we learned that, for years, a powerful utility company had been secretly funding a contrarian climate scientist. What’s worse, this happened at the Smithsonian Institution, one of America’s oldest and most respected scientific research organizations.

Freedom of information requests from Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center revealed that Southern Company, a powerful utility based in Georgia, paid aerospace engineer Willie Soon more than $400,000 to support his work criticizing mainstream climate science. Soon has long used his affiliation with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to add credence to his largely discredited scientific work, which broadly overstates the role the sun plays in climate change.

According to the latest revelations, Soon relied on grants from outside funders for his entire salary and research budget. What’s particularly troubling is that the Smithsonian entered into funding agreements that gave Southern Co. the right to review Soon’s scientific studies before they were published. They also pledged not to disclose Southern Co.'s role as a funder without their permission. In addition to his research, Soon also reported things like Congressional testimony back to Southern Co. as a “deliverable.”

The case raises troubling questions about exactly how much covert funding “independent” researchers who challenge mainstream climate science have received from fossil fuel interests.

Skewing public perceptions

There’s nothing wrong with iconoclastic scientists trying to take on their colleague’s well-established conclusions, so long as their arguments are based on evidence and logic. But when corporate interests create a political platform for contrarian researchers to espouse their views, they purposefully skew public perceptions of the science.

By itself, Soon’s research is no big deal. But interest groups and politicians who oppose climate policies have breathlessly promoted his work to try to spread doubt about the fact that industrial emissions—including those from Southern Company’s coal-fired power plants—are causing climate change. As recently as January, for example, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe referenced Soon and a handful of other contrarian researchers in a floor speech disputing the obvious realities of climate change.

The Smithsonian’s inspector general is now investigating the details of Soon’s funding. And the institute’s acting director has pledged to review Smithsonian’s conflict of interest and disclosure rules. But the problem is far bigger than one researcher at one institution.

A pattern of disinformation

The Smithsonian’s contact at Southern Company was Robert Gehri, another figure with a long history of promoting misinformation about climate science. In 1998, he and others contributed to an infamous memo outlining the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) plans to spread misinformation about climate science. API is the country’s largest oil lobbying group, and the memo discussed how it could secretly promote “independent” scientists who would criticize mainstream climate science—pretty much exactly what the Southern Company was doing in its arrangement with Soon.

It’s disturbing to find Gehri following the essentials of this plan so many years later. It’s also troubling to learn that ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and Donor’s Trust, a so-called “dark money” group that does not reveal its supporters, also funded contrarian research at the Smithsonian and elsewhere.

In the past decade or more, many investor-owned fossil-fuel companies appear to have stepped away from directly funding climate misinformation front groups and contrarian researchers. But no one outside the companies knows how extensive their funding was or whether it truly has stopped. While companies are required to report contributions to political campaigns, their spending on lobbying, public relations and support for foundations, advocacy groups and research is much more opaque.

Nowadays, major fossil fuel companies tend to acknowledge the basics of climate science. Many even say they support climate policies. And yet, many are still supporting groups that spread misinformation about climate science as well as climate policy.

The oil giant Shell and Peabody Coal both work with the American Legislative Exchange Council, for example, which has tried to promote legislation that would inject misinformation about climate change into public classrooms and block renewable energy standards. Other fossil fuel companies have left the group because of its retrograde climate positions.

BP, Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, and Shell also support the Western States Petroleum Association, which has been fighting California’s pioneering climate policies. If they were doing it under their own name, that would be one thing, but a leaked presentation from the group last year revealed that they’ve been supporting an array of front groups with names such as the “California Drivers Alliance” that purport to work on behalf of average citizens instead of large oil companies.

These companies are among 90 institutions that are responsible for extracting the coal, oil, and gas that have produced about two-thirds of all industrial global warming emissions. They bear significant responsibility for climate change. If they want to be responsible corporate citizens, they simply must stop supporting efforts to deceive the public.

Of course, the tobacco industry played this ugly game for many years with public health research. Asbestos manufacturers went so far as to pay scientists to put their names on papers downplaying health risks from their products. The fossil fuel industry has followed a similar strategy. As a result, most Americans don’t know how extensive the scientific evidence is that fossil fuels are causing climate change or the overwhelming extent of agreement about it by experts in the field.

More investigations underway

The Smithsonian revelations have prompted some politicians to investigate just how pervasively fossil fuel and energy interests have tried to influence public perceptions about climate science.

Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona is asking seven universities about funding sources for contrarian researchers. Senators Ed Markey (Mass.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) recently sent letters to 100 energy companies and interest groups asking for information about their activities, too.

To be clear, just because research is funded by a fossil fuel company doesn’t mean it’s wrong. In fact, fossil fuel interests fund plenty of good science. The problems occur when companies and scientific institutions fail to disclose their funding relationships, especially when companies are funding scientists to influence political debates rather than foster discovery and innovation.

Public disclosure needed

We need more transparency in science, especially as researchers increasingly turn to private rather than public sources of funding. Scientists and their institutions can and should do more to proactively disclose where their funding comes from. And they should ensure that funders are unable to exert influence over the conduct of research or the conclusions scientists reach.

People trust scientists because they’re open and transparent. It’s up to scientists and the institutions that employ them to retain—and never lose—that trust, especially as the public and policymakers demand more transparency from them.