Judge in climate case made skeptics disclose their donors

Source: Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Friday, March 23, 2018

A group of climate skeptics who weighed in on climate lawsuits in California revealed their recent funding, and court documents show their donors are a mix of fossil fuel companies and conservative think tanks.

U.S. District Judge William Alsup requested the funding sources and affiliations of the climate contrarians who submitted a friend-of-the-court brief arguing against mainstream research related to rising temperatures.

They include William Happer, an emeritus Princeton University physics professor; Willie Soon, a researcher affiliated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and Steve Koonin, a physicist at New York University and former Department of Energy official.

The documents show that Peabody Energy Corp. and the Heartland Institute have recently supported the skeptics’ work. They also disclosed funding from Exxon Mobil Corp., which is a defendant in the case. Other donors include the Cato Institute and the Heritage Foundation, both of which have been influential in energy policy circles during the Trump administration.

The friend-of-the-court briefs were submitted in a case involving two lawsuits filed by the cities of San Francisco and Oakland against five oil companies for allegedly causing climate-related damages from impacts like sea-level rise. The group of skeptics claimed in their brief that human influence on the climate is negligible.

“Recent changes in the climate over the past century are within the bounds of natural variability. Human influences on the climate (largely the accumulation of CO2 from fossil fuel combustion) are a physically small (1%) effect on a complex, chaotic, multicomponent and multiscale system,” the group wrote. “Unfortunately, the data and our understanding are insufficient to usefully quantify the climate’s response to human influences.”

Scientists from the world’s major science agencies established years ago that humans are driving global warming at an unprecedented pace through the burning of fossil fuels. Yesterday, San Francisco and Oakland — and the oil companies they’re suing, including BP PLC, Chevron Corp., ConocoPhillips, Exxon Mobil and Royal Dutch Shell PLC — participated in a five-hour climate science tutorial. It was required by Alsup, the judge. The fossil fuel companies acknowledged the significant role of humans in climate change (see related story).

The group’s funding sources offer few surprises, but the disclosure offers a rare glimpse of the organizations that fund opponents of mainstream climate science.

Happer, who’s talked about as a possible pick as President Trump’s science adviser, reported receiving $10,000 to $15,000 from Peabody, a coal company. The money was donated to his CO2 Coalition, which also recently received $150,000 from the Mercer family. The Mercers have funded the right-wing Breitbart website as well as Trump’s campaign. Happer did not mention the Mercer support in his court filings.

“None of us has received any compensation for the considerable effort expended in its preparation,” Happer said.

Happer disclosed that the payment from Peabody was for testimony in a Minnesota Public Utilities Commission case in 2015. Peabody also paid Richard Lindzen, an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, $30,000 for testimony in the Minnesota case. Lindzen also reported receiving $25,000 annually from the libertarian Cato Institute, which has supported researchers who reject established climate science.

Koonin, who’s known for his skeptical views on climate and who worked at DOE under President Obama, signed on to the skeptic response. He has pushed for a government-run “red-team, blue-team” science debate that would have scientists squaring off on the latest climate research. Koonin disclosed that he received an $8,000 payment from Exxon for participating in a 2016 event that addressed environmental sciences.

Soon, the physicist affiliated with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, reported past grants supporting his research on the sun’s role in climate change from the ExxonMobil Foundation, Charles Koch Foundation and Southern Co.

The court filing was organized by Christopher Monckton, a former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Monckton reported that he was reimbursed for travel to espouse his rejection of established science by the Moscow city government in Russia. He attended a conference by the Heartland Institute in Washington, D.C., and the Red Pill Expo in Montana, a gathering of conspiracy theorists that promises to “help you to break free from the avalanche of propaganda, fake news and outright deception, and to embrace reality for a better life.”

David Legates, the former state climatologist in Delaware and a geography professor at the University of Delaware, said he has not received federal funding for his research in almost two decades. He has called students “easy targets for the climate alarmism that pervades America today.” He notified the court that his views have cost him federal research grants but did not mention that some of the studies he conducted with Soon received funding from fossil fuel companies, including Exxon Mobil.

“I have been notified (unofficially) that I am on a federal ‘do-not-fund’ list simply because I have been critical of the official position on anthropogenic global warming and have written papers critical of that position,” Legates wrote in the brief.

The skeptics said they were submitting their briefs because the case could set a precedent for climate science in the courtroom.

“The court’s study and investigation of the relevant science is not a one-time project that will end at the hearing on March 21, but rather is an ongoing project, as indeed good science itself must be, that will continue for however many months this case may remain pending,” Monckton said.