Willie Soon is at the centre of a perfect climate science denial storm, writes Brendan Montague with additional reporting from Kyla Mandel.
The aerospace engineer working at the the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics was caught out when telling his fossil fuel industry funders that his research papers and U.S. Senate evidence were “deliverables”.
The controversy made the front page of the New York Times and now his employer has launched an investigation into the ethics of his secret funding. There is even a petition asking for his dismissal.
And his day is about to get even worse.
I first met Soon in Chicago in May 2012, at the Seventh International Climate Change Conference of the Heartland Institute. We spoke immediately after he gave his presentation claiming carbon dioxide was not driving recent climate change.
One Hour with Willie Soon
At the time, he was in the middle of a huge fight with his employers because they wanted to release emails and funding information to Greenpeace US. He lost the fight — hence the controversy breaking over the last week.
So I genuinely could not believe what he told me.
During a one-hour, nine minute interview he managed to attack his former sponsors at ExxonMobil, disparage his hosts at Heartland, and reveal that his employers were already seriously angry about his oil and coal sponsorships.
Soon knew I was a reporter, and he knew that I was taping the conversation. I have held back from publishing his remarks so far because I have a book in the pipeline.
But in light of recent revelations, this stuff is too good not to share. We began with me letting the hyperactive researcher explain why his latest paper was so important, and shortly after, I turned our conversation to his funding.
All the trouble started, Soon explained, when scientific journals rejected his submissions because their peer reviewers were concerned that he had failed to make reference to the famous ‘hockey stick’ paper authored by Professor Michael Mann.
Soon — independently of the fact he was being funded by ExxonMobil — decided in the end to attack Mann, and found himself in a whole world of pain.
“I am public enemy number one,” he told me. “I have been called a mass murderer. It’s just too many things that give me headaches. I am just a scientist who wants to learn.”
Soon grumbled that after graduating he failed to secure necessary funding from the government to cover his pay as a Postdoc at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center.
He believes that the government wasn’t interested because his research asserted that the sun was the main driver of recent changes in the climate, and that carbon dioxide from fossil fuels had been wrongly blamed for global warming.
He told me: “I have been very unsuccessful in getting government funds, that’s for sure.”
So he turned to ExxonMobil and other companies with a vested interest in convincing the public that global warming was not happening — and if it was happening then it was no bad thing, and if it was a bad thing, it wasn’t caused by fossil fuels.
“The way it worked in the past is that I would make a proposal to them. I would just submit to the office they have,” he explained.
“One of their chief scientists is Brian Flannery. He was a famous professor of astrophysics at Harvard. There is name recognition.
“I think their company should be open about who is handling the thing. All I know is you just submit at a place at ExxonMobil and see whether they want to fund it or not…
“I do not know who makes the decision. I don’t know if Brian Flannery makes the decision because they have their own system for judgement.”
Exxon Grants to Willie Soon
Soon was clearly furious with ExxonMobil for cutting off his funding after Greenpeace US first exposed his anti-climate change research was paid for by the oil industry.
“They have refused to fund a single proposal for four or five years already. Exxon should be more courageous. Why? Are they afraid of funding me? No, because I have done nothing wrong. Too much pressure, it is not worth it!”
Later, I asked whether ExxonMobil funding could be distorting the scientific process by ensuring oil-friendly researchers had money to work while those promoting climate research had to rely on government grants.
“It’s a very good question, a philosophical question,” he replied. “I take everything I say very seriously. I do not know.
“I don’t think that I can be able to handle this kind of picture. I understand how it will always look. That’s why I understand people treat me very unkindly.”
Video featured on Democracy Now detailing investigation into how Soon failed to disclose funding
He also complained that ExxonMobil’s funding process was secretive and apparently almost random.
“It’s luck. Pot luck,” he said. “A lot of these things are pot luck. I am willing to survive on this basis because I really love what I am doing.”
Requests for Emails
Soon explained why he was, at the time we met, fighting hard to stop Greenpeace US having access to his email. This is particularly ironic.
In 2009, a hacker broke into the server of Professor Phil Jones and other world renowned scientists working at the Climatic Research Unit in Norwich, England. The incident was soon dubbed ‘Climategate’.
The hacker — aided and abetted by spokespeople from ExxonMobil-funded free market think tanks — told the world he had exposed an international conspiracy to exaggerate the threat of climate change.
The fact Jones had fought Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests demanding the release of data to climate deniers was presented as prima facie evidence that he was guilty of everything. After all, if he had nothing to hide why not respond to the requests?
There were five inquiries into Climategate, which all cleared Jones and his colleagues of any dishonesty or wrongdoing. The climate deniers made much of the fact that Jones was told off for not responding to FOIA requests.
But the reasons Jones gave are exactly the same as the ones Soon gave me during the interview.
“I am still in a big fight because of Greenpeace,” he said, referring to the requests for information. “The position is, my superior, is that they’re trying to force me to do that. I said ‘no’.
“I am concerned about where society is going through the direction of the FOIA. This is a fight which is bigger than me alone…
“I have got nothing to hide. Read every email you want. I really, literally, mean that. The problem is, why does Greenpeace have the right to see my email? That is all I wanted to know.”
Willie Soon’s Future
Finally, we spoke about the future. Even then, Soon was mindful of the fact that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center might not want to employ him in the long term.
The answer, obviously, would be to work directly for one of the think tanks like the Heartland Institute, who have long promoted his work while also being funded by fossil fuel industry and tobacco cash.
He said: “I am up to the point where I’m in a really bad situation … I want to keep doing science in one form or another.
“If let’s say I am no longer able to work at that place then I will find any other academic institute — or even a think tank, I don’t mind.
“Of course I will be labelled. I don’t want to go to the think tank because it’s going to immediately label you. But remember, I have to eat.”
Indeed, Soon was very disparaging about his fellow presenters at the Heartland Institute conference in Chicago that year.
“In my point of view I can say that 50 percent is wrong here — too extreme. People are trying to argue that you cannot make a CO2 measurement,” he said, looking around the room. “This is crazy.”
The next time we met — at the Heartland Institute in Las Vegas in 2014 — Soon told me he would be better off flipping burgers for McDonald’s rather than sending anti-climate science to ExxonMobil and Southern Company for funding.
I do kind of hope that the next time we meet — at the 10th International Conference on Climate Change hosted by Heartland in Washington DC — Soon isn’t in fact working at the fast food joint down the road.
SOME EDITED HIGHLIGHTS FROM OUR INTERVIEW
“I would say I’ve been going as a Postdoc at this place [HSC] for 21 years. I would say the first 15 years I would never have come to a conference like this, not even if invited. But my conscience — it has become too much, I couldn’t take it any more … As a scientist I am not trying to be rebellious against anything … In my point of view I can say that 50 percent is wrong here — too extreme. People are trying to argue that you cannot make a CO2 measurement … this is crazy.”
Energy & Environment
“I just do not like the editor, Sonja Boehmer Christiansen. I think she takes too strong of an editorial stance. She involves too much of her social and political view point. I just do not like it. She treats us like somebody who would need to make use of her journal. Excuse me. What I don’t like about her is, eventually when the emails were released during Climategate, I saw she said something very negative about me which is not true. I mean come on, I openly tell her everything. I said, here’s the situation, if you wish to review it please review it again, and she did, she sent it to one more, I don’t know who reviewed it, but I said it was pre-reviewed here’s what they did but here’s the whole version that I want to print here. This time, as an author, I sort of made the strong demand, you don’t want to print this I’m going somewhere else, I don’t care, I’ll put it on the internet. It’s just simply I don’t like the way this thing has been going for far too long, and I want to go on the record, I don’t typically do this, I would never do it again, put it that way.”
“I am still in a big fight because of Greenpeace. The position is, my superior, is that they’re trying to force me to do that [release information]. I said ‘no’. I am concerned about where society is going through the direction of the FOIA. This is a fight which is bigger than me alone … During Climategate [Richard Lindzen] asked me, ‘should I release all my mail?’. I said, Dick, sure we do not mind that but the problem is people are going to take that and take it out of context, so it is not a good thing to do. He was just joking. I have got nothing to hide. Read every email you want. I really, literally, mean that. The problem is, why does Greenpeace have the right to see my email? That is all I wanted to know.
“The process is we have to go through my centre I am working for, where I get a paycheque, so it goes through our grants office and of course the director has to approve it. My previous director was very friendly. He loved what we do. Then the new director is somewhat, very not friendly so I’m in a bit more trouble. That’s why I can never ever put my name on this kind of thing [his Heartland presentation]. I just say I am an independent scientist. I cannot put Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I am under too much pressure. They constantly make sure, because the point is if I make one single mistake, if I even raise one mention … you could say that do I even respect my own or do I work for that place? I don’t even want that to be mentioned now, because they would consider that negative publicity. [They would ask] ‘Why would he even mention that, because it is bad publicity.’ All I know is I am illegitimate.”
“I do not recall the exact amount of funding. The figures from Greenpeace, these are accurate I am sure because it comes from my centre.
“The way it worked in the past is that I would make a proposal to them. I would just submit to the office they have. One of their chief scientists is Brian Flannery. He was a famous professor of astrophysics at Harvard. There is name recognition.
[BM: Did you apply to him for funding?] WS: “That I should not mention the name. They always have a place where I can try and submit a proposal … It has maybe it gets them into trouble for nothing. I think their company should be open about who is handling the thing. All I know is you just submit at a place at ExxonMobil and see whether they want to fund it or not. You get a contact for some person; it is almost always their secretary. I do not know who makes the decision. I don’t know if Brian Flannery makes the decision because they have their own system for judgement. They have refused to fund a single proposal for four or five years already. Exxon should be more courageous. Why? Are they afraid of funding me? No, because I have done nothing wrong. Too much pressure, it is not worth it! Remember what I get from them. Every time I applied, every year I try to get something. Mostly what I get was in the range of $50k to $60k a year at the most. It’s a small amount — because a large part of it goes on overheads.”
I asked Soon whether he would have been better off had he never taken funding from ExxonMobil. “I would say so. I am reaching a point where I am becoming more negative on quote-unquote ‘government official science’ or government funding. It is my own personal view that science should be funded everywhere by any enterprise as long as there is no interference. I understand there is perception issues and sub-conscious pressures but it has to be looked at case by case.”
I then asked: “If ExxonMobil is funding science you would have selection bias, that they would pay one scientist and not the other one. Then within the scientific literature you would get 10 papers supporting Exxon and none not supporting Exxon. How do you account for that?”
Soon answered: “It’s a very good question, a philosophical question. I take everything I say very seriously. I do not know. I don’t think that I can be able to handle this kind of picture. I understand how it will always look. That’s why I understand people treat me very unkindly.”
“It looks like they will not give me any more funding but maybe if I am still around, I will see if they can give me more money in the next few years. I do not know. It’s luck. Pot luck. A lot of these things are pot luck. I am willing to survive on this basis because I really love what I am doing.”
I am up to the point where I have a really bad situation. I am just going to keep doing what I am doing. I love the science by the way…I want to keep doing science in one form or another. If let’s say I am no longer able to work at that place then I will find any other academic institute — or even a think tank, I don’t mind. Of course I will be labelled. I don’t want to go to the think tank because it’s going to immediately label you. But remember, I have to eat. I have two kids. I am somewhat sad that this situation for me has to go this far … I was not able to get government funding … I am a promising person who does this work. I am dedicated to this place for so long.