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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

ExxonMobil breaks 2007 pledge to stop funding climate deniers, funds Willie Soon to the tune of more than $1 million. Soon also received $175,000 from Charles Koch Foundation, $274,000 from the American Petroleum Institute

POLITICS: Power companies fund anti-climate research on 'solar variability'  

Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter, June 28, 2011
The oil and gas industry gave astrophysicist Willie Soon more than $1 million over the past decade to fund publications that challenge man-made climate change, according to a report released today by Greenpeace.
Soon is a popular figure among skeptics for his assertions that the sun, not greenhouse gases, affects global temperatures. He works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where energy companies have exclusively funded his research for the past five years, says the report. He could not be reached yesterday for comment on the report.

Among the companies that have provided grants to Soon is Exxon Mobil Corp., which pledged in 2007 to discontinue funding for groups questioning climate change. Greenpeace obtained documents from the Smithsonian observatory through a freedom of information request showing that Exxon gave four grants to Soon totaling $335,000 between 2005 and 2010.

The company said publicly in 2007 that it would stop funding groups "whose position on climate change could divert attention" from developing responsible energy sources.

Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said the company is committed to that pledge, which was made two years before the company stopped funding Soon.

"I think the last time we funded [Soon] was in '09," Jeffers said. "Sometimes you have, over a number of years, commitments that you can't just break."

Exxon has worked to brighten its image on the climate issue by promoting a revenue-neutral carbon tax, funding research for algae-based fuels and providing money for a climate program at Stanford University.

Jeffers criticized Greenpeace for pursuing a "conspiracy theory."

"It's much easier and much more convenient for them to demonize the industry and Exxon Mobil," he said. "Does anyone really think that funding of a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian institute is really now turning back what people believe about ... the risk of climate change? It's preposterous, really."

Soon: This is not the warmest century

Greenpeace also obtained documents showing that Southern Co., a major supplier of coal-based electricity, gave Soon $320,000 between 2005 and 2009 for research around solar variability as the cause of temperature changes.
"Southern Company has never been revealed to [provide] straight pipe funding to these guys," said Kert Davies, research director for Greenpeace.

Southern Co. spokeswoman Stephanie Kirijan confirmed that the company provided grants for Soon's research into "solar variability," but she wasn't sure how much he received.

The company's connection to Soon is over, Kirijan said. She couldn't say whether Southern Co. incorporated the findings into its policies. But she noted that it's a small part of the industry's investment in research and development.

Other Soon underwriters include the foundations of Koch Industries, which gave him two grants amounting to $175,000; and the American Petroleum Institute, which provided Soon with $274,000, according to Greenpeace.

Soon gained notoriety among climate skeptics in 2003 when he challenged climate scientist Michael Mann's findings that global temperatures were fairly even for nine centuries, before quickly rising in the 1900s -- creating the "hockey stick" chart that attributes industrial activity to warmer temperatures.

Soon, an astrophysicist, co-authored a paper that pointed to Viking settlements in Greenland, pollen fossils in China, centuries-old river levels in Arizona and droughts suffered by the Mayans to weave a colorful narrative about past warming periods. His point, which was drawn on existing research about these climate "proxies," was popular among people who don't believe in climate change.

"Past researchers implied that unusual 20th century warming means a global human impact," he wrote. "However, the proxies show that the 20th century is not unusually warm or extreme."

Mercury, a 'miniscule' risk

Mann and 10 other scientists responded sharply, describing Soon as promoting "invalid" research that's "inconsistent with the preponderance of scientific evidence."

"The simulations, furthermore, show that it is not possible to explain the anomalous late 20th century warmth without the contribution from anthropogenic forcing factors," Mann and his co-authors said in response to Soon's work.

Soon's work is publicized on conservative blogs and by free market think tanks. He is scheduled to speak later this week at the Heartland Institute's International Climate Change Conference, a large annual event held to question the existence of man-made global warming.

"Willie Soon is clearly one of the most knowledgeable solar science experts in the world and he also is very knowledgeable about climate change," said James Taylor [known liar about climate change who maintains a blog at Forbes Magazine], a lawyer and Heartland's senior fellow for environment policy.

"Here's the thing, Dr. Soon has been consistent on his position regarding the sun's influence on global climate for many, many years," he added. "It's a little disingenuous for Greenpeace to imply that funding might be driving Dr. Soon's assertions on this topic."

Soon has also portrayed himself as an expert on power plant emissions. Last month, he co-wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal arguing against upcoming regulations on mercury emissions, a process begun in 1990 under the Clean Air Act amendments passed by Congress.

Utility mercury emissions provide "miniscule risks," Soon wrote. "As a result, the EPA's actions can be counted on to achieve only one thing -- which is to further advance the Obama administration's oft-stated goal of penalizing hydrocarbon use," he added.

Soon's boss: nothing improper
EPA says the mercury rules will prevent thousands of premature deaths, heart attacks, asthma attacks and other health problems costing billions of dollars.

Soon is unique among his colleagues at the observatory, none of whom apart from Soon receive funding exclusively from private corporations, says Charles Alcock, the center's director and an astrophysicist.

"I don't think there's anything fundamentally wrong with it," he added. "The money comes into us with very limited strings attached to it. There's certainly not any provisions requiring the supporting organizations to review the results of his work or to have any direct control of conclusions."

Still, Soon's work on climate appears to not be contributing greatly to the understanding of carbon dioxide's role in elevating temperatures, Alcock said in a personal aside, noting that he isn't a climate scientist but believes that greenhouse gas concentrations are increasing.

"I'd have to say that I've reached my conclusions independent of Dr. Soon's work," Alcock said. "Dr. Soon is not actively engaged in actually gathering new data. He's principally disputing the interpretation of data gathered by other people. And I think this is an area where most of the progress will be made by people who collect new [climate] data or who build new models."

"But I definitely think there is an important role for discussion of the interpretation," he added.

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