As Climate Wars Heat Up, Some Skeptics Are Targets

Mar 10, 2015
Originally published on March 10, 2015 7:57 pm

Scientists who warn that the earth's climate is changing have been subjected to hacking, investigations, and even court action in recent years. That ire usually comes from conservative groups and climate skeptics seeking to discredit the research findings.

Now it appears that liberals and environmentalists may be using some of the same tactics against the handful of scientists who either deny climate change outright, or think the risks are not as great as stated.

The goal, according to those pursuing the skeptics of climate change, is to expose ties between those scientists and industry. But some mainstream climate scientists are nervous, fearing that investigations by both sides may be more about intimidation than truth.

The first target of the latest attacks was Willie Soon, a solar physicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon claims the sun causes climate change. In contrast, almost all scientists believe humans are changing the climate.

Soon's views got the attention of Kert Davies, executive director of the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center. He decided to use the Freedom of Information Act to expose the climate skeptic's funding. "We got the contracts, Soon's proposals to get the money from these various oil companies and power companies and also his year-end reports," says Davies.

In several year-end reports to the utility Southern Company, Soon listed peer-reviewed scientific articles as deliverables. "He is telling them, here's what I did for you, I wrote peer-reviewed science," Davies says.

Publishing those articles without disclosing Southern Company's funding is a big no-no in science. In late February, Soon's ties made the front page of the New York Times. Several journals and his employer have launched investigations. Soon did not respond to an NPR request for an interview. But, in a written statement, he calls the accusation "underhanded and unscientific."

Shortly after Soon's ties to industry were exposed, U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., sent letters to the universities of seven climate researchers, asking for details about the scientists' funding.

Among those named was Roger Pielke Jr., from the University of Colorado. Unlike Soon, Pielke does believe the climate is changing due to human influences, but he doesn't necessarily believe it will be catastrophic. The two-page letter on Pielke cited testimony he had given to Congress, and it requested detailed information and correspondence regarding his funding sources.

"It's quite simple for me to respond to this, because I have absolutely no corporate connections," Pielke says. "I mean I'm as clean as they come."

Nevertheless, the letter sends a chilling message to scientists, he says. "If you come and testify before the U.S. Congress, and people don't like what you're saying, they can make your life pretty miserable."

Other recipients of the letter agree that it constitutes little more than harassment. "They just assume that if I have the view I have, I must be getting paid for that view," says John Christy of the University of Alabama at Huntsville. Christy adds that all of his funding is from state and federal sources.

"It's a complete fishing expedition," says Judith Curry, a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who has doubts about climate change.

In a strange twist, the climate skeptics are getting support from mainstream climate scientists, who worry that investigations on both sides of the debate tread on the academic freedom of researchers everywhere.

"We do have the right as citizens to try and find out what's going on with the funding of scientists," says Eric Steig, a climate researcher at the University of Washington and a contributor to the blog Real Climate. But Steig worries that some of the new investigations might cross the line into harassment, a tactic that has been used by the political right against mainstream scientists, including himself.

"It was wrong when it was done by Republicans and right-wing think tanks, and it's wrong when it's done by Democrats and left-wing think tanks," he says.

Steig is not alone in his concern over the new attacks. The American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union have also been critical of the letters.

Congressman Grijalva says he wasn't trying to target scientists simply because they disagree with his views on climate change. "But I also want to make sure that if that's the basis for formation of policy, that it's clean and that it's empirical," he says.

Kert Davies, the environmentalist who investigated Soon, says he wants to see more of this kind of work from the left: "I would like to send the same letters to a lot of other scientists, many of whom don't work for public institutions," he says.

There may be more revelations to come: three Democratic senators have sent a separate letter to 100 corporations and think tanks, asking them to disclose corporate ties to scientists they fund.

Few think that either side of the political fight over climate change will abandon tough tactics, however. In the fall, world leaders meet in Paris, to try and reach a deal on climate. Eric Steig says he hopes the run-up to the summit will be civil. But, he adds, "I think it's wishful thinking."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There's been an escalation in the political war over climate change. Over the past month, environmentalists and a Democratic congressman have probed the ties between prominent climate skeptics and industry. They say their work is needed to expose links between skeptics and major oil and gas companies. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some climate scientists worry those investigations will make the fight over the science even uglier.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The first target was Willie Soon, a solar physicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon claims the sun, not people, is causing climate change.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIE SOON: You would think that if you want to talk about the sun and the climate, don't you think that when you write the report you ought to at least have somebody who knows something about the sun, please?

BRUMFIEL: That was Soon criticizing a major scientific report on climate change at a conference last July. Soon's views are way out there. Almost all scientists believe humans are changing the climate. His position makes him an ally of climate skeptics and an enemy of environmental groups. Kert Davies is executive director of the nonprofit Climate Investigation Center. He decided to look at Soon's funding and found the astronomer was getting money from the fossil fuel industry.

KERT DAVIES: We got the contract, Soon's proposals to get the money from these various oil companies and power companies and also his year-end reports.

BRUMFIEL: In several year-end reports to the utility Southern Company, Davies found that Soon listed peer-reviewed scientific articles.

DAVIES: He is telling them here's what I did for you. I wrote peer-reviewed science.

BRUMFIEL: Publishing those letters without disclosing Southern Company's funding is a big no-no in science. Several journals and his employer have launched investigations. Soon did not respond to an NPR request for an interview, but in a written statement, he calls the accusations, quote, "underhanded and unscientific." Shortly after Soon's links were exposed, another scientist named Roger Pielke, Jr., was on his way to a conference in Berlin. When Pielke landed in Germany, he turned on his phone...

ROGER PIELKE JR.: And learned that I was being investigated by a member of Congress.

BRUMFIEL: Pielke's views aren't like Willie Soon's. He does believe humans are changing the climate, but he doesn't necessarily believe climate change will be catastrophic.

PIELKE: To try to scare people into taking action is ultimately going to backfire because the science just isn't there to support those strong claims.

BRUMFIEL: That contrarian view was enough to get the attention of Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva. Grijalva's letters cited the case of Willie Soon and asked for details about who pays for Pielke's work.

PIELKE: It's quite simple for me to respond to this because I have absolutely no corporate connections, consulting, anything. I mean, I am as clean as they come.

BRUMFIEL: Pielke says that the letter sends a chilling message to scientists.

PIELKE: If you come and testify before the U.S. Congress and someone doesn't like what you're saying, they can make your life pretty miserable.

BRUMFIEL: Congressman Grijalva from Arizona sent letters inquiring about six other scientists as well. He says he wasn't trying to target scientists simply because they disagree with his views on climate change.

CONGRESSMAN RAUL GRIJALVA: But I also want to make sure that if - if that is the basis for formation of policy, that it's clean and that it's empirical.

BRUMFIEL: Now, in a strange twist, the seven scientists Grijalva's looking at are getting support from mainstream researchers who do believe in climate change - researchers like Eric Steig.

ERIC STEIG: It's real. It's happening. The science has been in for about a hundred years.

BRUMFIEL: Steig is at the University of Washington. He thinks environmentalists were right to expose Willie Soon's hidden funding, but the investigation of Pielke reminds him of something else.

STEIG: There was a request - actually, very much like the one that has gone out to these seven scientists - that went to the University of Washington requesting a huge amount of information about me and five or six other people.

BRUMFIEL: Steig says it came from a conservative think tank. In the past, some Republican politicians who oppose action against climate change have sought emails and data from climate scientists in an effort to discredit them. To Steig, these latest letters suggests liberals have started using a similar strategy against scientists who disagree with them. And if that's what's going on, he doesn't like it.

STEIG: It was wrong when it was done by Republicans or by right-wing think tanks, and it's wrong when it's done by Democrats or left-wing think tanks.

BRUMFIEL: Several big scientific societies have also been critical of the letters. Congressman Grijalva says he's willing to discuss details of his requests to make sure they're fair. Few think these tactics are going to disappear, though. In the fall, world leaders meet in Paris to try and reach a deal on climate. I asked Eric Steig whether he thinks the climate for climate scientists will get even hotter in the run-up to the summit.

STEIG: Will it get uglier? I think that perhaps even those who seem to enjoy harassing people may be tired of it (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Do you really believe that or is that just wishful thinking?

STEIG: I think it's wishful thinking (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.