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Senator Markey questions climate studies

Calls for review of links to energy companies

Senator Edward J. Markey will send letters to fossil fuel companies, trade organizations, and others with a stake in carbon fuels. J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File

WASHINGTON — Senator Edward J. Markey is calling on coal and oil companies to reveal whether they are funding scientific climate change studies after his staff reviewed newly obtained documents illuminating the relationship between a researcher for a Cambridge-based institution and energy interests.

The Massachusetts Democrat will send letters to fossil fuel companies, trade organizations, and others with a stake in carbon fuels, aiming to reveal other climate-change-skeptical scientists whose work has been subsidized by those parties, a Markey spokesman said via e-mail.

“For years, fossil fuel interests and front groups have attacked climate scientists and legislation to cut carbon pollution using junk science and debunked arguments,” Markey said in a statement. “The American public deserve an honest debate that isn’t polluted by the best junk science fossil fuel interests can buy. That’s why I will be launching this investigation to see how widespread this denial-for-hire scheme stretches within the anti-climate action cabal.”

The documents reviewed by Markey’s staff were obtained by Greenpeace, the environmental group, through the Freedom of Information Act. They show a relationship between Dr. Willie Soon, a solar researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and several fossil fuel companies who’ve funded his research on climate change. The Cambridge-based center is a joint project of Harvard University and the Smithsonian Institution, though Soon is employed by the Smithsonian side. The center has previously said that Soon’s views are his alone and not reflective of the institution.


In 2013, the Boston Globe profiled Soon, who has spent much of the past decade studying the sun’s effect on climate change and downplaying the role of carbon emissions. Some climate scientists and environmental groups have questioned the scientific basis of his work.

Soon did not respond to a request for comment.

Since 2001, Soon has received more than $1 million in grants from the ExxonMobil Foundation, Southern Company, the Texaco Foundation, the American Petroleum Institute, and other organizations either affiliated with fossil fuel companies or active in undermining carbon’s role in climate change, according to documents that have been previously reported. Soon also is affiliated with the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank known for its conferences on climate change skepticism.


The new documents, which were given to the Globe by Kert Davies, an environmental activist who is executive director of the Virginia-based Climate Investigations Center, contain proposals and contracts made between the Smithsonian wing of the center and four entities: ExxonMobil, Southern Company, DonorsTrust and The Charles G. Koch Foundation.

Southern Company is one of the country’s largest power companies, operating coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, and natural gas plants across the southern United States. DonorsTrust relays donations from anonymous patrons “dedicated to the ideals of limited government, personal responsibility, and free enterprise,” according to its website. Koch is a libertarian-conservative mogul who has fought climate change rules.

The newly obtained documents show Soon received more than $270,000 from DonorsTrust and close to $60,000 from Southern Company for solar studies since 2012.

Soon and three co-authors in January published in a Chinese journal a study in which they said the United Nations panel on climate change used a flawed methodology to estimate global temperature change. The authors said they have developed a more accurate model and the panel’s calculations are exaggerated. Christopher Monckton, one of the paper’s co-authors, insisted he, Soon, and the other two co-authors funded the study entirely. He also said the study was done on the researchers’ own free time and that Soon’s funding from DonorsTrust and Southern Company had nothing to do with the paper published in Science Bulletin.


Soon said in the study that he had no previous conflicts of interest in the study despite his previous funding, and Science Bulletin, the journal that published the study, did not comment on whether that funding can be considered one. Science Bulletin is investigating the matter but did not respond to requests for comment about their findings.

Co-author Dr. William Briggs declined to comment.

While Southern Company has taken measures to reduce its carbon footprint, it also funded a 2010 study conducted by Soon entitled “Avoiding Carbon Myopia: Three Considerations for Policy Makers Concerning Manmade Carbon Dioxide.” The study accused the UN panel of overstating the negative environmental effects of carbon dioxide emissions. It also said efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions wouldn’t have a measurable effect on severe weather or levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to a report Soon submitted to Southern Company in May 2011.

The report also highlights a March 2011 study funded by Southern Company, which calls the panel’s global warning alarm “an anti-scientific political movement.”

Southern Company funds research on issues with public policy implications on its business, but is committed to producing clean and reliable electricity, said spokesman Jack Bonnikson via e-mail.

Sylvan Lane can be reached at sylvan.lane@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @SylvanLane.