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Researcher helps sow climate-change doubt

Industry-funded Cambridge astrophysicist adds to partisan divide

Willie Soon’s work is funded by energy industry grants.

PETE MAROVICH FOR BOSTON GLOBE

Willie Soon’s work is funded by energy industry grants.

WASHINGTON — The setting was not unusual for a scholarly conference: a bland ballroom in a Houston hotel. But Willie Soon’s presentation was anything but ordinary. As PowerPoint slides flashed on a screen, his remarks crescendoed into a full-throated denunciation.

“Those people are so out of their minds!’’ exclaimed Soon, a solar researcher at the prestigious Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge. He assailed former vice president Al Gore, among others, for his views on climate change, calling predictions of catastrophic ocean tides “crazy’’ and scornfully concluding: “And they call this science.’’

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Never mind that Soon, an astrophysicist, is no specialist on global sea levels, and his most notable writing on the subject was an op-ed article in the conservative Washington Times last year.

He has, nonetheless, established himself as a front-line combatant in the partisan crossfire over rising oceans, melting ice, and other climate issues beyond his primary expertise. Coveted for his Harvard-Smithsonian affiliation, and strident policy views, he has been bankrolled by hundreds of thousands of dollars in energy industry grants.

Working in close coordination with conservative groups in Washington, he passionately seeks to debunk the growing consensus on global warming before audiences of policymakers, at academic seminars and conferences, and in the media.

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Polar bears? Not threatened. Sea level? Exaggerated danger. Carbon dioxide? Great for trees. Warming planet? Caused by natural fluctuation in the sun’s energy.

Soon’s views are considered way outside the scientific mainstream, which makes him a prophet or a pariah, depending on which side you ask. Some say his work simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny, that his data are cherry-picked to fit his thesis.

But in Washington, where facts generally lose the race with opinion, he is a force. His writings and lectures are frequently cited by industry backed groups and think tanks, as they attempt to sow doubt about global warming.

And the strategy is working.

Outside the Beltway, the science is largely settled. Yet in the capital, government response to one of the major environmental and economic challenges facing the planet is mired in an endless cycle of conflicting claims and partisan finger-pointing.

The work of Soon, and a handful of like-minded scientists, is seen by critics in Congress and elsewhere as a case study in how this deadlock has been engineered by energy companies and antiregulation conservatives.

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island.

“They are merchants of doubt, not factual information,’’ said Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat who delivers a Senate speech every week demanding stronger air-quality standards. “Their strategy isn’t to convince people that the scientists are wrong. Their strategy is simply to raise the specter that there is enough doubt that . . . you should just move onto the next issue until this gets sorted out,’’ he said. “It gives credibility to a crank point of view.’’

Divided US Congress, public

No fewer than 13 US agencies spend more than $2.6 billion a year gathering and analyzing evidence on climate shifts — in land, at sea, at the poles, in space.

The conclusion? Global warming is real, and human activities are almost certainly a major cause.

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a body that was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, has likewise prepared a series of reports documenting the dangers. The latest, released in September, said there is a 95 percent certainty that human activity is the primary cause of the planet’s warming. The report predicts oceans will rise by nearly 3 feet by the end of the century.

And here is the official view of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest general scientific society: “The scientific evidence is clear: Global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society.”

Yet that global scientific consensus is changing few minds in Congress. By latest count, 127 US representatives and 30 senators believe that global warming is not happening or, if it is, that human activity is not the cause, according to a tally by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group.

Voter surveys also show a divided public. Gallup, the polling firm, said this year that 57 percent of Americans surveyed believe global warming is a man-made phenomenon, while 39 percent say it is due to natural causes.

This muddled picture has made congressional action all but impossible.

The Senate killed comprehensive climate-change legislation in 2010 after the House passed the bill, which was co-authored by then-representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts. Markey said the bill failed because “polluters manufactured a blizzard of industry-funded doubt. If not for that, the climate bill would have passed.”

Frustrated, President Obama has opted to bypass Congress and is pursuing stronger regulations through the Environmental Protection Agency. The capital is girding for yet another round of lobbying and legal battles over those new rules.

There are shrill and over-the-top voices on the left as well, more focused on pillorying climate-change skeptics than in promoting reasoned debate. But conservatives and energy interests have the lengthiest record of funding and promoting reports that attempt to debunk prevailing theories of climate change.

Soon’s work falls into that category.

As is common among the Harvard-Smithsonian scientists, Soon receives no taxpayer-funded salary; his compensation is dependent on outside grant money, according to the Smithsonian Institution.

He has proved adept at winning grants. Over the last dozen years, he has received research funding of more than a $1.2 million from sources such as ExxonMobil; Southern Company, a foundation run by the Koch brothers, conservative energy moguls; and industry trade group American Petroleum Institute, according to public documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Greenpeace, the environmental advocacy group.

Some of Soon’s papers disclose the sources of his funding, others do not. Industry and conservative sources have been the sole source of his funding since 2006, according to the records.

Most of Soon’s industry backers either declined to comment or did not respond directly to questions about why they support his work. The American Petroleum Institute cited the quality of his academic credentials.

“You have a guy that is aligned and associated with Harvard University, one of the top universities in the United States, and the Smithsonian, also very reputable,’’ said institute spokesman Eric Wohlschlegel.

Soon declined multiple requests for a formal interview but responded to some questions in brief conversations after public appearances in Chicago and Washington. The fact that all of his grant money since 2006 has been from energy companies or antiregulatory interests has no bearing on his work or findings, Soon said.

“No amount of money can influence what I have to say and write,’’ Soon told the Globe, “especially on my scientific quest to understand how climate works, all by itself.’’

He said he is seeking only to spread the truth about science as he sees it. Scientists who say carbon-dioxide-induced warming is a virtual certainty, he added, have allowed political fashion to compromise their integrity.

He lays claim to higher standards.

“They have lost sight of the fundamental quest,’’ he said. “We follow the evidence.’’

Furor over published results

Soon, 48, began his journey to prominence in the world of global-warming doubters in Cambridge, where he arrived in the early 1990s.

A native of Malaysia, Soon had earned his PhD at the University of Southern California. He then won a coveted appointment at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as a post-doctoral researcher, assisting another prominent climate-change doubter, Sallie Baliunas, who was studying variations in solar radiation. He won a full-time appointment as an astrophysicist in 1997.

Soon and Baliunas both served as senior scientists at the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington. Based on their analysis of energy fluctuations from the sun, they raised questions about the role of carbon emissions in global warming.

Soon’s overarching argument is that temperature change on Earth is not caused by burning fossil fuels but by what he calls the “King Kong of the climate system,’’ the sun — which is his primary area of expertise.

In 2003, Soon and Baliunas published a research paper that caused an international controversy and won Soon favor among climate conservatives in Congress.

20th Century Climate Not So Hot,’’ the Harvard-Smithsonian press release declared at the time of the paper’s release.

The “meta-analysis,’’ which is a broad review of previously published scientific papers, asserted that 240 studies of climate-related data such as tree rings and ice borings, when taken together, revealed that the last century was neither the warmest nor the most extreme on record. The claim bucked the growing body of evidence that showed a marked increase in temperature in the second half of the 20th century.

Controversy over the paper’s publication included allegations of methodological flaws and the failure of outside peer reviewers to appropriately scrutinize its claims. At one journal that published it, Climate Research, a handful of editors resigned to protest the decision to accept it.

Soon and Baliunas had plucked weather data from various regions in various centuries throughout history, said their detractors, then incorrectly used that information to make broad conclusions about the temperature of the planet during the so-called Medieval Warm Period, about 1,000 years ago.

Published in two separate peer-reviewed journals, the paper contained an acknowledgment: part of the research funding came from the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry’s lobbying arm in Washington.

Michael Mann, a prominent climate researcher who performed crucial temperature studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst during the 1990s and is now a professor at Pennsylvania State University, said he was surprised when he read the paper.

“Every self-respecting climate scientist that I knew that read it agreed, this was appalling,’’ Mann said. “It wasn’t legitimate. It was simply a politically motivated attack on a body of work masquerading as science.’’

Despite doubts about its validity and questions about the authors’ ties to industry, the paper gained immediate traction in Washington.

Industry-funded and conservative skeptics inside and out of the Bush administration seized on it to attack Mann’s own findings from a few years earlier, which showed centuries of relatively level temperatures followed by a sharp uptick after humans began pumping more carbon-dioxide into the atmosphere.

The condemnation of the broader scientific community did not matter in the political debate, Mann said in an interview.

“You attack the science, you create confusion, you divide the public,’’ he said, “and that’s enough to make sure there will be no policy progress in this country.’’

In the last decade, Soon has given private briefings to congressional staff and traveled throughout the United States and the world on speaking appearances.

This year, Soon has been critical of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s $20 billion infrastructure plan to protect New York City from rising waters. He has urged residents of Delaware to disregard dramatic warnings about higher ocean tides.

His work has been cited in floor speeches by members of the US House and Senate, who say evidence of human-induced climate change is lacking and does not justify the economic costs of cutting greenhouse emissions. Among his admirers: Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe, who has cited Soon’s research in the Senate and famously denounced global warming as “the greatest hoax every perpetrated on the American people.’’

Soon also has fans among scientists who tend to share his views.

Freeman Dyson, a theoretical physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

Freeman Dyson, a respected figure at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton, whose turn in recent years toward climate skepticism stunned many of his peers, defended Soon’s work.

“The whole point of science is to question accepted dogmas,’’ Dyson said in an e-mail to the Globe. “For that reason, I respect Willie Soon as a good scientist and a courageous citizen.’’

A ‘hero’ among skeptics

Soon’s work has made for an awkward relationship with his employer, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where most of the scientists train their attention on galaxies, black holes, and other mysteries of the cosmos.

As the name suggests, the center is a hybrid, made up of scientists from both Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, a division of the Smithsonian Institution.

Soon is employed by the Smithsonian side of the house and has an indefinite appointment.

In 2011, for health reasons he declined to disclose, he went from full-time to part-time status. Although Soon initially agreed to an interview, the observatory declined to permit it to take place on its campus.

“Willie’s opinions regarding climate change are his personal views not shared within our research organization,’’ spokesman David Aguilar said in an e-mail.

Soon said he is required by the center to recite a disclaimer – saying his views are his own, and not that of Harvard-Smithsonian — each time he speaks or writes on anything outside his expertise in solar radiation. But the complexities of his relationship with Harvard-Smithsonian are often ignored by his sponsors and conference hosts eager to showcase his impressive credentials.

The Harvard-Smithsonian Center’s former director, Harvard astronomy professor Irwin Shapiro, said there was never any attempt to censor Soon’s views. Nor, he said, was Soon the subject of complaints or concern among the 300 scientists at the center.

“As far as I can tell,’’ said Shapiro, “no one pays any attention to him.’’

While that may be true in the academic environs of Cambridge, it is definitely not the case in Washington.

Soon maintains affiliations with several industry-supported conservative groups that package and aggressively promote his scientific reviews, videos, blogs, and op-eds in an effort to shape the climate-change debate. In addition to the Heartland Institute, a conservative think-tank based in Chicago, they include two nonprofits in Washington where Soon serves as a scientific advisor, the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow and the Science and Public Policy Institute.

All three organizations — which have received energy industry funding — vigorously oppose greenhouse gas regulations and operate websites that provide endless debating fodder for climate-change skeptics in the United States and abroad.

Among the leaders of the Center for a Constructive Tomorrow is its communications director Marc Morano, a former advisor and speechwriter for Oklahoma’s Senator Inhofe and other Republicans on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. Morano also was a producer for conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh’s television show in the 1990s.

“Willie Soon is a hero of the skeptical movement,’’ said Morano. “When you are an early pioneer, you are going to face the scrutiny and attacks.’’

Keeping up the attack

Soon was back in the spotlight one Monday in late September, a typical split-screen day in Washington’s partisan climate wars.

The administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Massachusetts native Gina McCarthy, met with reporters at a hotel breakfast near the White House to defend new greenhouse-gas restrictions the agency had proposed the week before.

“EPA is an agency that, after all, is based on science and moving forward with what peer-reviewed science tells us,’’ she said. “In the issue of climate, it tells us that climate change is real, and that human activities are fueling that change.’’

Two hours later, just a few blocks from the Capitol, Willie Soon appeared on stage at the conservative Heritage Foundation to spread the word about a 1,000-page rebuttal, distributed by the Heartland Institute, of a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The rebuttal, featuring analysis by 47 authors of recent published reports, is intended to provide lawmakers with a competing viewpoint on the science.

Except for a Fox News report that prominently featured Soon, Heartland officials have complained the report has been ignored by the mainstream media.

Before the Heritage Foundation audience of 100 people, Soon won appreciative applause before launching into a fresh set of attacks: “IPCC is a pure bully,’’ he said, accusing the body of “blatant manipulations of fact’’ and engaging in a “charade.’’

“Stop politicizing science!’’ he said. “Just stop!’’

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland @globe.com.
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