One Step Forward, Two Steps Back? Southern Company Funds Climate Denial Machine

Chris Carnevale | March 2, 2015 | Climate Change, Energy Policy

A story broke in the New York Times last week that reveals that Atlanta-based utility giant Southern Company has paid a significant sum of money supporting one of the most prominent climate denying scientists. This scientist is Dr. Wei-Hock Soon, known also as Willie Soon, from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Research conducted by Greenpeace and the Climate Investigations Center, and revealed by the Times, details the depth of this work:

[Dr. Soon] has accepted more than $1.2 million in money from the fossil-fuel industry over the last decade while failing to disclose that conflict of interest in most of his scientific papers. At least 11 papers he has published since 2008 omitted such a disclosure, and in at least eight of those cases, he appears to have violated ethical guidelines of the journals that published his work.

This $1.2 million was given by a handful of fossil fuel interests, including Southern Company, the Charles Koch Foundation, Exxon Mobil, and American Petroleum Institute, in exchange for the right to review the papers before publication and the condition of anonymity.

Revelations that Southern Company gave Dr. Soon at least $409,000 brings up a number of questions about Southern’s decision-making and how it prioritizes being an ethical corporate citizen: what is Southern doing funding climate-related astrophysics research anyway, especially papers like “Variation in surface air temperature of China during the 20th century?” Were the studies funded by ratepayers and, if so, wouldn’t that money be better spent on reducing customers’ bills? Are there other areas of research or advocacy that Southern is funding against the best interests of their customers?

We want to acknowledge that Southern Company, in an attempt to maintain good stakeholder relationships, proactively reached out to SACE directly to address this issue. We have been given assurance that Southern Company takes responsibility for the funding but stated that upper management did not have direct knowledge of this activity. We also appreciate the perspective that the funding contract with Dr. Soon was of a recurring nature and that Southern has stated that they will not renew funding contracts in this line of research. Southern further acknowledges that going forward, it is does not want to “engage in influencing the science.”

That said, this news is particularly disheartening to hear, as just two weeks ago we published a blog lauding the leadership of Gulf Power, a subsidiary of Southern Company, in clean energy. Furthermore, in recent years, two of Southern Company’s other subsidiaries have made great strides in clean energy as Georgia Power purchased 250 MW of wind power and is planning over 900 MW of solar by the end of next year, and Alabama Power purchased 404 MW of wind power from Oklahoma and Kansas.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time we’ve criticized Southern Company for exacerbating the climate crisis and this latest seems to be yet another example of the strategy fossil fuel companies use to delay taking responsibility for climate change. The New York Times article explains the strategy succinctly (emphasis ours):

Historians and sociologists of science say that since the tobacco wars of the 1960s, corporations trying to block legislation that hurts their interests have employed a strategy of creating the appearance of scientific doubt, usually with the help of ostensibly independent researchers who accept industry funding.

Fossil-fuel interests have followed this approach for years, but the mechanics of their activities remained largely hidden.

“The whole doubt-mongering strategy relies on creating the impression of scientific debate,” said Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at Harvard University and the co-author of “Merchants of Doubt,” a book about such campaigns. “Willie Soon is playing a role in a certain kind of political theater.”

In order to ensure the integrity of scientific research, it is essential that corporations do not use their wealth and political influence to corrupt the science. However, corporate-sponsored research papers, like those Dr. Soon published, have been the key to creating just enough doubt to perpetuate climate denial. This is despite the fact that such dissenting opinions on climate change represent a mere 3% of the stated positions on the cause of climate change in peer reviewed published studies. This process has been detailed in another fantastic Greenpeace research piece, “Dealing in Doubt.

The revelation about Southern’s role with Dr. Soon’s research gives the appearance that the utility is taking one step forward, two steps back. We remain hopeful that this is not the case, but unfortunately history has provided examples of Southern’s vacillation between commendable and terrible policy. Looking forward, we will trust, but verify, that Southern will make good on their promise to stop interfering with climate science and continue their recent excellent leadership in clean energy.

Chris Carnevale
Chris is SACE’s Climate Advocacy Director. Chris joined the SACE staff in 2011 to help with building public understanding and engagement around clean energy solutions to the climate crisis. Chris…
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