Who are the energy companies that have paid for the research of climate change scientist Willie Soon? That is the question on the public's mind after revelations that the scientist was paid over $1 million to speak out against climate change at conservative fundraisers.
When conservatives seek to refute science in support of man-made climate change, they point to scientists like Willie Soon. Soon has long been the conservative poster boy for the oil industry, but now the legitimacy of his research is under fire. In the interest of the common good, It is important to ask which companies are bankrolling Soon and why?
While many are familiar with Koch Industries who gave Soon $230,000 and Exxon Mobile who paid $335,000 for research papers, the largest contributor to Soon's research is Southern Company, an energy giant owning no less that ten power companies relying heavily on coal.
Over the years, Southern Company paid Soon over $400,000 for his research, which has the been used as a main talking point in conservative circles. The question remains whether they paid to influence the Harvard graduates research.
Soon's colleague, Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University, criticized Soon's role in the debate over climate change.
"The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate. Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater."Oreskes in the co author of 'Merchants of Doom' a book about similar advertising campaigns.
Adding to Soon's disgrace, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, Charles R. Alcock acknowledged that Dr. Soon had in fact violated the disclosure standards of several journals.
"I think that's inappropriate behavior...this frankly becomes a personnel matter, which we have to handle with Dr. Soon internally."According to the documents, Soon offered his reports, or "deliverables", in return for large sum payments from the industry giants. Although Soon maintains that the funding did not influence his research, there is no question that his credentials were highly valuable to the conservative community as a leading climate expert.
A closer look at Southern Company reveals it started in 1924, and has continually grown in size, creating an oil juggernaut with a financial stake in keeping the energy status quo. A 2007 study concluded that the energy giant was the single largest emitter of carbon pollutants in the U.S. for a utility company, emitting a total of 172 million tons of carbon gases annually.
While signs at Southern Company point to a transition to bio mass fuel, part of their transition includes coal based gas as a major component of their business model. While coal based gas will emit less carbon into the atmosphere, it is still a major contributor to C02 emissions.
Southern Company's major investments are still solidly in coal, they have since started work on carbon capture technology. The funding used to limit emissions is further evidence that the company is turning things around.
Southern Company has also used research by scientists like Soon to lobby against greenhouse gas regulations. Environmentalists criticize their forays into alternative energy as nothing more than public relations.
Whatever the case may be, as the Willie Soon scandal unfolds, the nature of Soon's research and the companies who paid for it are called further into question. Even if giants like Southern Company are starting to turn things around, it seems as if their past is returning to haunt them.
While Soon himself was not willing to comment on the latest scandal, he had previously commented on lesser known charges against his research.
"I write proposals; I let them decide whether to fund me or not. If they choose to fund me, I'm happy to receive it...I would never be motivated by money for anything."His stance may come across as untenable to some, but even his most ardent supporter would have to admit that his credentials are considerably less valuable. He no longer has the clout that conservatives once used to refute man-made climate change and he is now less attractive to big industry names like Southern Company.