WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Willie Soon, a U.S. climate change skeptic who has also discounted the health risks of mercury emissions from coal, has received more than $1 million in funding in recent years from large energy companies and an oil industry group, according to Greenpeace.
Soon, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, has also gotten funding from scientific sources including NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But starting early in the last decade, Soon began receiving more funding from the energy companies, Greenpeace reported.
Last year, the foundation of Charles Koch, chairman and CEO of privately held Koch Industries, gave Soon $65,000 to study how variations in the Sun are related to climate change.
Koch is co-owned by David Koch, founder of Americans for Prosperity, a group aligned with the Tea Party movement, which opposes new air pollution regulations.
Beginning in 2002, Soon's funding mostly came from oil companies, including Southern Co, one of the largest coal burners in the United States, and the American Petroleum Institute, according to documents uncovered in a Freedom of Information Act request by Greenpeace and seen by Reuters.
"A campaign of climate change denial has been waged for over twenty years by Big Oil and Big Coal," said Kert Davies, a research director at Greenpeace US.
"Scientists like Dr. Soon who take fossil fuel money and pretend to be independent scientists are pawns."
Soon was criticized by many climate scientists for a 2003 paper he co-wrote, concluding that 20th century warming was not unusual compared to that of centuries past. About 5 percent of the study's funding, or $53,000, came from the API, they said.
Soon, who says global warming is mostly caused by changes in the Sun, not emissions from burning oil, gas and coal, has written some peer-reviewed studies on global climate change.
More recently, he has written non-peer reviewed papers. In 2007 he co-wrote a paper that concluded polar bears are not threatened by human-caused climate change, which was also funded partially by grants from the oil industry.
While corporate funding of science is not new, the focus on the ethics of such aid is growing as state and federal science grants are reduced amid budget cuts.
MYTH OF KILLER MERCURY
Soon co-wrote a May 25 opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal called "The Myth of Killer Mercury." In the piece, Soon was identified as a natural scientist from Harvard, but the newspaper did not disclose that he receives most of his funding from the energy industry. The Journal did not return a request for comment.
Soon wrote that the EPA, which is under court order to finalize rules on the pollution from power plants, wants to discipline the energy industry. "To build its case against mercury, the EPA systematically ignored evidence and clinical studies that contradict its regulatory agenda, which is to punish hydrocarbon use," the piece said.
Most scientists say children exposed to mercury from mother's milk or from certain types of fish are at risk of learning and developmental problems.
Southern gave Soon $120,000 starting in 2008 to study the Sun's relation to climate change, according to the FOIA documents. Spokeswoman Stephanie Kirijan said Southern has spent about $500 million on environmental research and development and funding and did not fund Soon last year.
Southern funded Soon for studies of solar variability but not to deny that mercury emissions are dangerous, she said.
Soon also got $131,000 from oil major Exxon Mobil Corp in 2007 and 2008 received grants to study the Sun's role in climate change and global warming in the Arctic, Greenpeace said.
In 2008, Exxon said it would stop funding groups that divert attention from finding new sources of clean energy.
Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said this week the company did not fund Soon last year and that it funds hundreds of organizations to do research on climate and the environment.
"Greenpeace needs to get into the 21st century; they're still fighting a war to try to make a villain here, when there's a very serious issue about how you deal with emissions and energy needs that go with growing economies around the world," said Jeffers.
Soon agreed he had received funding from all of the groups and companies, but denied any group would have influenced his studies. "I have never been motivated by financial reward in any of my scientific research," he said.
"I would have accepted money from Greenpeace if they had offered it to do my research," he added.
(Reporting by Timothy Gardner; editing by Todd Eastham)