Democrats probe outside funding of skeptical climate change researchers 

Source: Evan Lehmann, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, February 26, 2015

A senior House Democrat launched an open-ended inquiry yesterday into the finances of seven climate researchers following revelations that Willie Soon accepted $1.2 million from fossil fuel interests before publishing articles related to global warming.

Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent letters to seven university presidents asking if the researchers had accepted any industry funding. If they did, Grijalva suggested, it could raise ethical questions around their motivations to testify before Congress on climate change.

Many of the academics have questioned the assertions of mainstream scientific findings around climbing temperatures and their causes. Grijalva noted that Richard Lindzen, a professor of meteorology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, once described scientists who are concerned about warming as “just like little kids locking themselves in dark closets to see how much they can scare each other.”

Steven Hayward, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, suggested in 2013 that climate scientists should “get real jobs,” according to another letter by Grijalva. Hayward also referred to a report about the climate impacts on the Great Lakes as a “silly” document produced by “some kind of cannabis-related entity.” It was actually drafted by the U.S.-Canada Joint Commission.

At least one of the academics is sharply disputing the suggestion that he rejects the consensus around climate science. Roger Pielke Jr., a professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder, who studies the economic impacts of natural disasters, not climatology, called the inquiry “bizarre.”

“I have been a strong defender of the IPCC,” Pielke said in an email from Berlin, referring to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “I support Obama’s EPA climate regs, I have called for a carbon tax, and I have devoted 20+ years of my life to studying climate change as an important topic.”

The inquiry was launched in response to news reports last weekend that Wei-Hock “Willy” Soon, an aerospace engineer with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, failed to disclose that he had accepted more than $1 million over the last 10 years from fossil fuel groups while publishing journal articles that questioned the science of climate change. The New York Times identified 11 articles in which Soon failed to disclose the funding, potentially creating a conflict of interest.

“If true, these may not be isolated incidents,” Grijalva said in his letters, raising the idea that other researchers could be influencing public policy on behalf of undisclosed donors.

An inquiry that could expand?

It’s unclear if the inquiry will expand to include additional researchers. Adam Sarvana, communications director for the Democratic members of the Natural Resources Committee, said the panel would “reassess” its direction if it finds that the initial researchers followed university guidelines for disclosing external financial payments.

On the other hand, Sarvana said it’s unlikely that Soon is the only academic to have received payments from oil companies and groups associated with Koch Industries.

“We could have sent 100 letters,” Sarvana said, noting that the panel instead decided to focus on researchers who have testified before Congress. “Rather than going on an enormous fishing expedition, this seems like a good way to start.”

The inquiry has its detractors. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-Utah), chairman of the Natural Resources Committee, believes that it’s based on “politicalized reports from The New York Times,” according to his spokeswoman, Julia Bell.

Curry, of Georgia Tech, called the examination a “witch hunt” on Twitter yesterday.

Then there’s Pielke, who admits rankling some lawmakers with his findings showing that climate change hasn’t caused additional damage to society through events like hurricanes and tornadoes. He blames humans for that — because we undertake rapid development in areas such as coastal shorelines that are more exposed to disasters.

“At the global level, it should be clear that the available evidence provides no support for claims that disaster losses have been increasing due to climate change, whether those changes are human-caused or not,” Pielke writes in his book published late last year, “The Rightful Place of Science: Disasters & Climate Change.”

Colo. researcher finds probe of him to be ‘bizarre’

That’s not to say that humans are not causing climate change, he says. It’s just that the climate “signal” in monetary losses hasn’t shown up yet in particular events and may not for decades or even centuries to come.

Others aren’t so sure. Researchers with Munich Re, a global reinsurer, believe that a warming climate might be showing up in German thunderstorm losses, which have climbed skyward in the last 30 years.

Pielke says that’s based on expanding development. But Munich Re says that would mean earthquake losses would also be on the rise. The company says they’re not.

Pielke was also criticized last year by John Holdren, the assistant to President Obama for science and technology, for asserting misleading statements about the impacts of climate change on drought. At the time, Pielke had been critical of Obama’s and Holdren’s descriptions of worsening droughts in the western United States based on climate change. Obama had just visited California and described the drought as a sign of rising temperatures.

Pielke, testifying last February before a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, said droughts have become “shorter, less frequent, and cover a smaller portion of the U.S. over the last century.” Pielke was quoting a 2008 report from the Climate Change Science Program.

Holdren, who was also testifying, would later write an analysis of Pielke’s statement, noting that it didn’t represent mainstream climate science. He noted that the same CCSP report also found “rising drought trends” in the Southwest and interior parts of the West.

Pielke didn’t consider it much of a dress-down. Yesterday, he said he stands by his testimony.

He also said the congressional inquiry is misplaced. Pielke has never taken any funding from fossil fuel groups or Charles and David Koch, he told ClimateWire.

“No. Never. Not even close. (Which makes the allegations against me all the more bizarre.),” he said in an email.