As the debate over the existence of climate change shifted from “We don’t know,” to “Okay, most of the science says it exists, but we gotta hear both sides,” nobody has been more important to the fragile climate denialism side than scientists like Wei-Hock Soon. As data massed in support of man-made climate change, the work of Soon, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center astrophysicist, was coveted by oil companies because he offered alternative explanations that seemingly absolved the energy sector of any wrong doing.
Soon argued that it wasn’t human activities like, say, carbon emissions, that are leading to a greenhouse effect; the Earth’s rising temperature is instead a result of energy fluctuations in the sun. Blaming the sun rather than SUV’s and coal factories had a certain appeal to industries which relied on SUVs and coal for profits. If that all sounds very convenient, well, it turns out that it is.
According to newly released documents obtained by Greenpeace, Soon’s “research” was less about truthseeking and more a pay-by-the-data-point mercenary number of jobs that were, for all intents-and-purposes, commissioned by the oil industry to keep the debate over the existence of climate change intentionally muddy. The parties didn’t even try to hide it.
The New York Times summarizes the findings:
He has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.
The documents show that Dr. Soon, in correspondence with his corporate funders, described many of his scientific papers as “deliverables” that he completed in exchange for their money. He used the same term to describe testimony he prepared for Congress.
To break it down, Exxon Mobil paid Soon $335,000 for his “work,” American Petroleum Institute chipped in $274,000, and our friends, the Koch brothers, gave him another $230,000. The idea that these groups paid Soon out of a dispassionate love for objective science is laughable. The Koch brothers don’t even want to give their employees health insurance, so thinking they’d give a quarter of a million dollars to a scientist without any obvious benefit to themselves is delusional. Soon was “hired” to get the results that would benefit oil and gas companies, plain and simple.
Despite the obvious incentives, Soon’s work has been used again and again by everyone from Fox “News” hosts to politicians to justify inaction on climate change. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), a man who literally wrote the book on climate denialism, loves Soon’s work and uses it as part of his climate change fighting machine that works to block any bill that seeks to address the problem.
What Soon has done is not only scientifically disingenuous but helps reinforce the strategy enacted by oil companies to delay and confuse action on climate change, in a very similar way to what tobacco companies did in the 1990s. The goal isn’t to “win” the debate, because the evidence is overwhelming against them. Instead, the endgame is to avoid reaching the endgame. Every year that America fails to address climate change in any meaningful way means one more year of extremely high profits for the companies who perpetuate the problem. Soon is among the hired guns that enable this strategy to work. And he’s made a fortune from it.
Soon has not commented publicly about the new allegations, but has previously said that while he does take money from oil companies, he “would never be motivated by money for anything.” I guess we’re just supposed to take his word for that.