What did tobacco companies do when scientific research proving the health hazards of smoking threatened their bottom line? They funded phony research to disprove tobacco’s link to cancer.
It appears that the fossil fuel industry has taken a page from that playbook. Documents released by Greenpeace, have revealed that Wei-Hock “Willie” Soon, a researcher with ties to the Heartland Institute — a conservative think tank that sponsors conferences focused on denying man-made climate change — received more than $1 million in funding from fossil fuel companies that included ExxonMobil and Southern Company.
According to a press release from Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey’s office, Soon was tasked with producing “deliverables” that downplay the role of carbon emissions in causing climate change, and that push back on carbon-cutting policies in papers or Congressional testimony. Although it was required, Soon did not disclose this funding to peer-reviewed scientific journals.
In response to these disclosures, Markey, along with Senators Barbara Boxer and Sheldon Whitehouse, have sent letters to 100 fossil fuel companies, trade groups, and other organizations asking them, according to the press release, about “any funded research efforts related to climate change and the wide range of related issues over the last ten years. The letters also ask for the names of researchers, whether restrictions or terms were put on the requests, and results from the agreements including any publications or other materials.”
In his press release about the investigation, Markey, Ranking Member of the Superfund, Waste Management, and Regulatory Oversight Subcommittee on the Environment and Public Works Committee, commented,
“For years we’ve known that fossil fuel interests have sought to block action on climate change and have denied the science. This investigation will help to determine who is funding these denial-for-hire operations and whether those who are funded by these fossil fuel interests are keeping their funders’ identities secret from the public and legislators. Corporate special interests shouldn’t be able to secretly peddle the best junk science money can buy.”
Markey, Boxer, and Whitehouse hope the information garnered from the responses will clear the way for an honest debate on the solutions to climate change – starting with authentic climate change science. Boxer, Ranking Member of the Environment and Public Works Committee also noted in the press release,
“We’ve known for many years that the tobacco industry supported phony science claiming that smoking does not cause cancer. Now it’s time for the fossil fuel industry to come clean about funding climate change deniers.”
Kayla Scire, an aide in Senator Markey’s office, wrote in a recent email exchange that responses from these letters will help differentiate genuine scientific inquiry and results from fake ones.
“The public needs to know that the amazing work of honest scientists can be trusted. If companies are hiring out researchers to get the answers they want to cast doubt on climate science, that will harm the trust people have in those companies, but it will also be harmful to an honest debate about how to solve climate change. Once there is full transparency, the public can again have an honest discussion about how to solve this generational challenge, without results engineered to distract or deny reality.”
According to Scire, Markey, Boxer, and Whitehouse will determine next steps once they have received and reviewed all the information from letter respondents.
Cartoon by Dan Wasserman for the Boston Globe — used with permission.