How political football over climate change rattles the windows of an ivory tower

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 03/23/2015 08:31 AM EDT

Normally, it’s football that makes the big noise at Georgia Tech, which has been playing the game since 1905, but this year, there is an uproar in the school’s small earth science department. Two out of 34 climate scientists are being probed by members of Congress — amazingly, by both Republicans and Democrats.

Correction appended.

Normally, it’s football that makes the big noise at the Georgia Institute of Technology, which has been playing the game since 1905, but this year, there is an uproar in the school’s small earth science department. Two out of 34 climate scientists are being probed by members of Congress — amazingly, by both Republicans and Democrats.

Rodney Weber, an atmospheric scientist, is being questioned by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who wants to know why Weber’s climate-change-related research deserved a federal grant in 2012. And Judith Curry, an atmospheric scientist who is often critical of dominant scientific views of climate change, is being probed by Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who wants to know Curry’s funding sources. Curry runs a weather-forecasting business that supplies information to oil companies, among others.


"I was personally surprised about both of [the inquiries]," said Greg Huey, chairman of the department at Georgia Tech, which is located in Atlanta. Both scientists do stellar work, he said.

"[Weber and Curry] may have different views on climate change, but I think that’s a strength of our department that we can have academic freedom and host faculty members with different opinions about subjects," Huey said.

That a single department would receive queries from both political parties within a fortnight is a reminder that Republicans and Democrats feel the need to score political points where they can, dragging science into the spotlight when convenient.

Their target is not science so much as a slew of U.S. EPA regulations meant to clean up the nation’s coal-fired power plants and reduce the levels of smog in the air. Democrats support the regulations, most Republicans do not, and so the lineups are ready for some collegiate political football.

"I think science and politics are becoming more and more difficult to separate," said Daniel Sarewitz, co-director of the consortium for science, policy and outcomes at Arizona State University. "And I think voters recognize that."

A significant number of Americans already do not use science to inform their opinion on controversial topics from genetically modified crops to climate change, according to a January poll by the Pew Research Center. The message getting to the public on certain topics is that science is laden with noise, said Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale University.

The political wrangling over science "disables people’s abilities to make sense of information," he said.

Greenpeace staffer kicks off

To understand the Curry inquiry, one has to go back to the last Bush administration. Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, was then an environmental activist with Greenpeace. Over his two-decade career, Davies has perfected the art of using the Freedom of Information Act request to probe government and publicly funded institutions for evidence of propaganda related to climate change. He collects the documents and provide them at the "right time" to journalists.

Willie Soon
Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon. | Photo courtesy of the Heartland Institute.

In 2003, his target was the White House. An astrophysicist named Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon affiliated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics had published a study suggesting that climate change was caused mainly by the sun, a theory that most climate scientists would classify as hogwash. The study was funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute, an industry group.

The Bush administration had, by then, already backed out of the Kyoto Protocol, the only global treaty that has ever existed on climate change. Soon’s study helped justify its choice of inaction, Davies said.

"We got back all these emails where [administration officials] are sending that study around in a circle and saying, ‘Look! This proves we are right!’" Davies said, referring to emails from the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality in 2003.

It’s not just Republicans who target science, of course. Democrats have sponsored bills in Congress this year that require labeling of genetically modified foods, which most scientists say is an unscientific attitude toward a technology that will be invaluable in adapting to the impacts of climate change.

"There is a long tradition of each side choosing the sorts of things they want to single out and question," Sarewitz of Arizona State said. "But both sides, overall, have always been supportive of the R&D enterprise as a whole."

But Republicans more often than Democrats have honed the practice of defunding research that would support future regulation. Climate change research is one of their favored targets, and they invited Soon to testify on his research in 2003.

When an agency like EPA puts a rule together, its crafters have to prove that the economic costs of the rule are far outweighed by its benefit to society. For example, its pending rule, called the Clean Power Plan, would cut greenhouse gas emissions of coal-fired power plants.

Democrats tackle Willie Soon

It was arguably to block climate change regulation that Congress invited Soon — and other scientists skeptical of the mainstream view on global warming — to testify. Soon told Congress that climate change was largely a natural phenomenon driven by the sun. He did not mention at the time that his research was funded by the American Petroleum Institute and the Electric Power Research Institute, as revealed in FOIA documents recently obtained by Davies.

By 2007, Soon’s funders had grown to include a number of fossil fuel interests such as Exxon Mobil Corp., Southern Co. and the Charles G. Koch Foundation. While it’s not unusual for scientists to get private funding from industry and nonprofits, such inputs are usually clearly labeled as such. The reason for transparency is simple: It seems unlikely that a company would fund, without any strings, research that could prove an existential threat to its core business.

"Their dream of dreams would be for Willie Soon to prove that there’s no such thing as anthropogenic climate change," Davies said.

Soon did not reveal his funding sources in all the peer-reviewed articles he published. A 2007 study found that polar bears are not threatened in a warming world. In 2009, he wrote emails to his Exxon Mobil funders where he exulted about challenging former Vice President Al Gore during a climate conference on the practical implications of climate change.

Soon also offered to stop by the Exxon Mobil offices in Washington, D.C., "and just say hello and brief you on all the exciting science progress regarding my sun-climate research."

If one were keeping score in this game, which has lined up skeptics like Soon against most climate scientists, 2009 would be the year when it got rough. Hackers broke into the emails of climate scientists at the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom. The emails were taken out of context to suggest that scientists were orchestrating a conspiracy to foist global warming onto an unsuspecting public.

Davies wanted to find out who knew about these Climategate emails, which had been timed to coincide with climate change talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009. He and his colleagues at Greenpeace assembled a list of all the scientists who were gloating about the scandal in media: among them, Soon at the Harvard-Smithsonian astrophysics center, Patrick Michaels and Fred Singer at the University of Virginia, John Christy at the University of Alabama, Robert Balling at Arizona State, and David Legates at the University of Delaware. All were at publicly funded universities that were subject to FOIA requests, which Davies soon filed. He was looking for correspondence.

Meanwhile, a Republican attorney general from Virginia demanded the notes of Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who formerly taught at the University of Virginia. Mann successfully blocked that, only to be hit with a FOIA request from a conservative think tank.

Seeing that, Davies decided not to pursue most of his FOIAs filed with the public universities. If the universities responded positively to Davies’ requests, he worried that it might make other climate scientists a target of conservative FOIA-based attacks.

"I didn’t want to complicate the story," he said.

Touchdowns in Boston and New York

Tech Tower
The administration building of the Georgia Institute of Technology towers over midtown Atlanta. Built in 1886, it is known as the “Tech Tower.” | Photo by Hector Alejandro, courtesy of Flickr.

Davies maintained the one FOIA with the Smithsonian Institution, which is not a university, targeting Soon. In 2011, the institute sent Davies a list of Soon’s funders, which included a number of oil and coal companies, a list that Davies passed on to journalists. Reuters wrote in 2011, "American climate skeptic Soon funded by oil, coal firms." In 2013, The Boston Globe, the newspaper of record for Massachusetts, where Soon is based, worked over the same ground.

In 2014, the Smithsonian gave Davies a set of documents that carried the ball a bit further: the contracts between Soon and his fossil fuel funders.

Davies, who quit Greenpeace last year and founded the Climate Investigations Center, did not pass on the documents immediately. But then Soon tried another play, this time in a journal published by the Chinese Academy of Sciences challenging man-made global warming (ClimateWire, Jan. 23).

Ann Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace U.S., sent letters to the leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. The letters said Exxon Mobil, the world’s largest fossil fuel company, had told the committee in 2007 that it was no longer funding Soon. But that was untrue, Leonard wrote.

"We are troubled to learn that two months after ExxonMobil assured the House Committee on Science that the company did not direct scientific studies from the Center, the company began negotiating with Dr. Soon and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, in part, for publication of scientific studies," she wrote in her letter. She sent the contracts Davies had obtained to the committee.

Davies then provided the documents to The New York Times, which wrote up the story. The impact was immediate. The Smithsonian launched an internal investigation into Soon.

Grijalva pursues Curry

Grijalva, the top Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee, sent out letters to the universities of seven climate change researchers who had been previously invited by Republicans to testify in Congress. Most of the researchers tended toward skepticism of the consensus view on climate change. Grijalva wanted backup documents related to their testimony and details about their funding sources. The list included Curry of Georgia Tech.

To those who sided with Mann when his emails were targeted by conservative groups, Grijalva’s summons were particularly worrisome.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, which defended Mann, said in a statement that Congress should restrict itself to narrow inquiries regarding funding. Requesting correspondence between colleagues or about research processes can "impair scientists’ ability to consult openly with their colleagues," the group wrote in a statement.

In the Senate, Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) sent a letter to 100 energy companies and think tanks asking them to reveal all the scientists they were funding. In response, Republicans dispatched a letter telling the energy companies not to respond.

The endgame for Davies, who started all this, is to get academic journals to tighten up their conflict-of-interest guidelines. And he hopes to influence policy. "What’s the hottest thing we are going to be talking about the next three months in climate policy? The Clean Power Plan," he said.

Leading the cheers to kill the rule are Republicans, coal companies and utilities. But one major owner of coal-fired power plants, Southern, has so far lingered on the sidelines and publicized its investments in clean coal technology and nuclear power.

"They are pretending to be good guys by doing clean coal and nuclear, but they are also funding Willie Soon to erase the entire problem," Davies said.

What’s the score?

The game goes on. This week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Whitehouse slammed two of their Republican colleagues for challenging the Clean Power Plan, citing the fossil fuel funding of Soon in their letter.

"There is a massive political and public relations operation being run by the fossil fuel industry to create false doubt and plant phony questions to delay their day of reckoning so they can keep making money," they wrote.

Meanwhile, the conservative right is lining up to defend Soon. Joseph Bast, president of the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, canceled his talk at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month to help block some of Soon’s detractors.

Conservative operatives like Bast ultimately see climate policy as a threat to small government and refer to attacks on climate skeptics as an intricate liberal conspiracy.

As for the general public, the folks in the stands, Kahan of Yale says most Americans are ignorant of Soon. Climate science is already such a politicized topic that the events of the last month are a drop in the ocean of toxic partisanship, he said.

The din makes it difficult for normal people to make sense of climate science, Kahan said. At this point, people’s views on climate change are most likely to be influenced by what their neighbors and friends think, he said.

Correction: The article originally stated that Kert Davies, director of the Climate Investigations Center, hastily withdrew most of his FOIAs filed with public universities. It has been updated to state that he decided not to pursue most of his FOIAs.