How's a million bucks sound to sell out the planet?
Environmental group Greenpeace revealed that one of the world's most prominent climate change skeptics has been quietly cashing huge checks from the fossil fuel industry.
Documents obtained by Greenpeace and released to the media implicate Wei-Hock Soon, a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics aerospace engineer, of essentially marketing his services as a climate change skeptic to large energy companies involved in extracting and selling fossil fuels.
It's really, really bad. The New York Times reports the documents show Soon accepted about $1.2 million from fossil fuel and energy companies over the past decade while simultaneously failing to disclose those conflicts of interest on at least 11 papers published since 2008. "At least eight" of those times, Soon appeared to have violated ethics guidelines established by the journals in which they appeared.
Even more damning, the documents reveal that Soon referred to his climate change research as "deliverables" for the companies giving him money. As ThinkProgress notes, the scientist has pitched a variety of less credible explanations of climate change, including that the 20th century wasn't as warm as scientists say it was, and that the sun, not unprecedented burning of fossil fuels, is responsible for global warming. Goddard Institute for Space Studies director Gavin A. Schmidt told the New York Times that the work Soon did on solar output was "almost pointless," since it explains less than 10% of global temperature change. The paper also reported that he has "little formal training in climatology."
Soon's willingness to buck the near-unanimous scientific consensus on climate change has made him a regular fixture in congressional hearings, conservative talk shows and the climate-skeptic community. He's touted by the right-wing Heartland Institute as a "leading authority on the relationship between solar phenomena and global climate" and "one of the world's most respected and influential voices for climate realism." His work has been cited by deniers in Congress like Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who thinks the Bible proves climate change is a hoax.
For example, here's the good doctor throwing shade at climate scientists on Fox News:
Soon's skepticism also apparently made him popular with wealthy special interests who are more interested in protecting their bottom line than promoting good science. According to the Guardian, Soon accepted $410,000 from Southern Co., $335,000 from ExxonMobil, $274,000 from the American Petroleum Institute and $230,000 from the Charles G. Koch Foundation, as well as $324,000 from anonymous donors using a trust linked to right-wing causes.
The scale of this ethical breach can't be understated. It's like if Soon had accepted money from Big Tobacco to claim smoking doesn't cause cancer, or cashed a check from Coca-Cola to suppress evidence that soda causes cavities in kids. The New York Times notes that while he has previously admitted to accepting energy industry funding, he's reacted with anger or downplayed its significance to his scientific work.
These revelations are especially disconcerting considering that while Soon has spent the past decade making a small fortune promoting an industry-friendly imaginary world where burning titanic amounts of fossil fuels has a negligible impact on the environment, the real world has been heating up — and quick.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the world needs to cut 70% of its greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 (and 100% by 2100) to prevent a rise in global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius or more, which could "increase the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems." A recent study by University College London researchers found that avoiding a catastrophic temperature increase of 5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century likely depends on whether humans abstain from burning the world's fossil fuel reserves.
Soon's already fringe research is now irreparably tainted, but the real damage isn't to his reputation. The hurt will be felt by future generations that have to live under a world vandalized by reckless disregard for the real effects of fossil fuels, and people like him who helped energy companies maintain the charade that we had nothing to worry about.