A key congressional Democrat is trying to find out more about who funds the research of a leading climate change skeptic at Georgia Tech.
Rep. Raul Grijalva’s inquiry into the extent to which special interests fund the work of Judith Curry comes on the heels of revelations that one of the scientific community’s most prominent climate change skeptic accepted more than $1.2 million from fossil-fuel related interests.
Documents uncovered last month by the Climate Investigations Center show that $409,000 of that $1.2 million came from the Southern Co., which is the parent company of Georgia Power. They also show that the scientist — aerospace engineer Willie Soon of the Smithsonian Institution — specified that he’d provide such “deliverables” as publishing research and testifying before Congress in exchange for grants from fossil-fuel interests.
Soon appears to be in hot water with his employer, because he failed to disclose the funding to scientific journals and may have violated other conflict-of-interest rules.
In response to the disclosures about Soon, Grijalva — the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Natural Resources — wrote last week to leaders at seven universities to request information about the funding of specific scientists at each institution who are critics of the consensus view among scientists on climate change.
“I am hopeful that disclosure of a few key pieces of information will establish the impartiality of climate research and policy recommendations published in your institution’s name and greatly assist me and my colleagues in making better law,” Grijalva wrote in a letter regarding Curry to Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson. “Companies with a direct financial interest in climate and air quality standards are funding environmental research that influences state and federal regulations and shapes public understanding of climate science.”
Curry, a geophysicist, actually has acknowledged that an oil company has been a client of CFAN, a consulting firm she founded with a Georgia Tech colleague in 2006. In a 2010 profile on the her growing criticism of the majority view on climate change, she told Scientific American:
I do receive some funding from the fossil fuel industry. My company … does hurricane forecasting … for an oil company, since 2007. During this period I have been both a strong advocate for the IPCC, and more recently a critic of the IPCC, there is no correlation of this funding with my public statements.
In a disclosure prepared for testimony before congressional committees, Curry elaborates that “CFAN contracts with private sector and other non-governmental organizations include energy and power companies, reinsurance companies, other weather service providers, NGOs and development banks.”
But Grijalva’s letter asks Georgia Tech to provide more specific information, including sources of, amounts of, and communications regarding funding from “consulting fees, promotional considerations, speaking fees, honoraria, travel expenses, salary, compensation, and other moneys given to Prof. Curry that did not originate from the institution itself.”
The letter set off one of those side debates that seem regularly to pop up on climate change. In this case, those who want to see action on climate change tended to argue that scientists should be transparent about the funding of research that could affect public policy, while those opposed to the scientific consensus argued that any inquiry singling out individual scientists amounts to an attack on academic freedom.
Curry responded by playing up the victim angle. “Looks like I am next up in this ‘witch hunt’,” she Tweeted. In blogposts, she called Grijalva’s letter an “inquisition” and declared, “It looks like it is ‘open season’ on anyone who deviates even slightly from the consensus.”
She also offered another tidbit on her funding: While Georgia Power gives “considerable money” to Georgia Tech, she noted, neither the Southern Co. nor Georgia Power have funded her work.
The argument that it seems like “open season” on climate skeptics is ironic on two or three counts.
Curry first gained national prominence in 2005, when a paper she wrote drew the ire of an aide to Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, who is Congress’ most outspoken critic of climate science. Published around the same time that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the paper argued that the most powerful tropical storms were becoming more frequent as the climate got warmer. To the shock of many scientists, Inhofe’s top aide stormed into a briefing being held by the American Meteorological Society to berate Curry and her colleagues.
Over the next few years, however, Curry moved progressively into the skeptics’ camp — at first saying that she wanted to promote dialogue, but eventually becoming a harsh and sometimes personal critic of other scientists. Since 2010, she’s written a prolific and provocative blog called Climate Etc. on climate and the politics surrounding it. Nowadays, she’s regularly invited to testify before Congress by the some of the same conservative politicians who earlier attacked her work.
And last week, it was Inhofe of all people who took up the cause of “academic freedom.” “At the end of the day, those disagreeing with certain scientific findings should judge them based on whether or not they are sound and transparent,” said a letter that he and his Republican committee colleagues sent as a followup to those seven leaders of research institutions.
“We ask you to not be afraid of political repercussions or public attacks regardless of how you respond.” the letter concludes. “Above all, we ask that you continue to support scientific inquiry and discovery, and protect academic freedom despite efforts to chill free speech.”
A press release on Inhofe’s letter selectively quotes “noted climate scientist Dr. Michael Mann” as referring to Grijalva’s request as “heavy handed and overly aggressive.” The funny thing is that Mann was the subject of a political attack on his academic work that was far more direct and sustained than Grijalva’s letter.
In 2009, the Penn State geophysicist was a central figure in the trumped-up scandal over emails between scientists that climate-change skeptics — Curry among them — have taken to calling Climategate. Numerous academic and government investigations have cleared the scientists involved of wrongdoing related to the emails.
Even though they were cleared, Inhofe targeted Mann as one of 17 scientists whom he argued should face federal prosecution related to the emails. House Oversight Committee Chairman Dan Burton, R-Indiana, launched an investigation into the emails. And, until a court barred him from doing so, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli attempted to use state subpoena power to comb over Mann’s research documentation from the time that he served on the University of Virginia faculty.
Last week, the National Journal asked for Mann’s take on Grijalva’s letter. What he actually said was more nuanced than the partial quote in Inhofe’s press release. “It does come across as sort of heavy handed and overly aggressive,” Mann noted. But he drew a clear distinction between his ordeal — which went on for years, involved law enforcement and resulted in death threats — and a single inquiry regarding climate skeptics’ sources of funding.
Mann said the Grijalva letters on funding should not be “conflated” with probes he has faced from GOP Rep. Joe Barton and Cuccinelli.
“The difference being that they were demanding materials that are protected under principles of academic freedom—private deliberations between academics or scientists, unpublished manuscripts, raw source code that was written, stuff that’s intrinsic to your work as a scientist,” Mann said.