An undercover investigation exposed how fossil fuel companies pay off academics to publish research sowing doubt about climate change and promote corporate interests.

Dirty science, dirty money

Image via Wikpiedia.

Posing as representatives of oil and coal companies, reporters from Greenpeace UK asked academics from Princeton and Penn State to write articles about the benefits of CO2 usage and coal power in developing countries. Shockingly, the researchers they contacted not only stated that they’re willing to write a report for money, but also that they don’t have to disclose the funding source – something that’s prohibited in science. For example, Professor William Happer, agreed to write a report for a Middle Eastern oil company, also revealing that Peabody Energy, a giant coal company from the US, paid thousands of dollars for him to testify at a separate state hearing, with the money being paid to a climate-skeptic think tank. Happer is due to appear in Senate hearings called by Republican Presidential candidate Ted Cruz.

This echoes a previous investigation which found that Wei-Hock Soon, an aerospace engineer and a part-time employee at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics  got over $1 million to speak against climate change.

Another academic reporters approached was Frank Clemente, a sociologist from Penn State university, who was asked if he could produce a report “to counter damaging research linking coal to premature deaths (in particular the World Health Organization’s figure that 3.7 million people die per year from fossil fuel pollution)”. He replied that it was within his “skill set”, and put a price tag of  $15,000 for an 8–10 page paper. He also explained that he charged $6,000 for writing a newspaper op-ed. When asked if he needed to say where the money comes from, he replied:

“There is no requirement to declare source funding in the US.”

Furthermore, he added about previous similar deals:

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“In none of these cases is the sponsor identified. All my work is published as an independent scholar.”

In the exchange Clemente disclosed that for another report on “the Global Value of Coal” he was paid $50,000 by Peabody Energy, who regularly quotes his “research” to argue against climate change. Clemente produced an op-ed arguing against the coal divestment movement in universities, and his article was picked up by over 50 newspapers across the US. However, it wasn’t revealed that he was actually being paid off by the coal industry to write this.

Image via MorgueFile.

Investigators also approached Professor William Happer of Princeton University, who is chairman of the climate sceptic George Marshall Institute and a former Director of Energy Research at the US Department of Energy under the first President Bush where he “supervised all of DOE’s work on climate change”. They were also not reluctant in saying that they don’t need to state the source of funding. Late last month Happer appeared at a climate sceptic summit in Texas. There he defended CO2 production saying:

“Our breath is not that different from a power plant.” He went on to say, “If plants could vote, they would vote for coal”.

The money trail

The investigation revealed not only where the money comes from, but also how it is channeled. Apparently, the dirty funding goes through: climate skeptic think tanks. The reporters posing as coal investors wanted the funding to be kept secret. Then, Professor Happer contacted his fellow CO2 Coalition board member, Bill O’Keefe, explaining:

“I am trying get [sic] another mysterious client to donate funds to the CO2 Coalition instead of compensating me for my writing something for them.”

O’Keefe, a former Exxon lobbyist, suggested channelling it through the Donors Trust, the so-called “Dark Money ATM” of the US conservative movement with a long history of funneling money to climate skeptics. So the investigators then went to Peter Lipsett of the Donors Trust, asking if they could take money from foreign “investors”. His reply was:

“We can take it from a foreign body, it’s just we have to be extra cautious with that.”He added that: “I’ll double check everything and make sure I’m wording things correctly after chatting with our CFO [Chief Financial Officer], but what he’s told me before is that the preference is to have it in US dollars, and the ideal preference is to have it originate from a US source, but the US dollars is the important bit”.

When contacted on record to comment on receiving foreign money, he denied it, stating:

“We only accept donations in U.S. currency and drawn from U.S. banks. Donors Trust has never accepted secret donations from foreign donors. We have supported over 1,500 organizations representing the arts, medicine and science, public policy, education, religion, and civics. We are no more a “middle man” between donors and their causes than any other community or commercial donor-advised fund sponsoring organization”.

Mr O’Keefe said: “As a matter of personal policy, I do not respond to requests such as yours.”

Other prominent climate sceptics who provided testimony in the Minnesota hearing on behalf of Peabody included: Roy Spencer who told Greenpeace he was paid $4,000 by Peabody; Richard Tolwho said he was not paid and Richard Lindzen and Robert Mendelsohn who failed to reply to questions. So far, none of the universities at which these people work hasn’t replied to comments.

You can read the email exchange with Frank Clemente here, and the emails with professor Happer and the Donors Trust here. It’s disheartening to know we live in a world where alleged top level academics sell themselves so blatantly for a bad cause.