As Climate Wars Heat Up, Some Skeptics Are Targets Environmentalists and Democrats have launched investigations into the funding of climate skeptics. Some say the probes are necessary, while others worry they could rightly be seen as harassment.
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As Climate Wars Heat Up, Some Skeptics Are Targets

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As Climate Wars Heat Up, Some Skeptics Are Targets

As Climate Wars Heat Up, Some Skeptics Are Targets

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

There's been an escalation in the political war over climate change. Over the past month, environmentalists and a Democratic congressman have probed the ties between prominent climate skeptics and industry. They say their work is needed to expose links between skeptics and major oil and gas companies. But as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reports, some climate scientists worry those investigations will make the fight over the science even uglier.

GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: The first target was Willie Soon, a solar physicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Soon claims the sun, not people, is causing climate change.

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WILLIE SOON: You would think that if you want to talk about the sun and the climate, don't you think that when you write the report you ought to at least have somebody who knows something about the sun, please?

BRUMFIEL: That was Soon criticizing a major scientific report on climate change at a conference last July. Soon's views are way out there. Almost all scientists believe humans are changing the climate. His position makes him an ally of climate skeptics and an enemy of environmental groups. Kert Davies is executive director of the nonprofit Climate Investigation Center. He decided to look at Soon's funding and found the astronomer was getting money from the fossil fuel industry.

KERT DAVIES: We got the contract, Soon's proposals to get the money from these various oil companies and power companies and also his year-end reports.

BRUMFIEL: In several year-end reports to the utility Southern Company, Davies found that Soon listed peer-reviewed scientific articles.

DAVIES: He is telling them here's what I did for you. I wrote peer-reviewed science.

BRUMFIEL: Publishing those letters without disclosing Southern Company's funding is a big no-no in science. Several journals and his employer have launched investigations. Soon did not respond to an NPR request for an interview, but in a written statement, he calls the accusations, quote, "underhanded and unscientific." Shortly after Soon's links were exposed, another scientist named Roger Pielke, Jr., was on his way to a conference in Berlin. When Pielke landed in Germany, he turned on his phone...

ROGER PIELKE JR.: And learned that I was being investigated by a member of Congress.

BRUMFIEL: Pielke's views aren't like Willie Soon's. He does believe humans are changing the climate, but he doesn't necessarily believe climate change will be catastrophic.

PIELKE: To try to scare people into taking action is ultimately going to backfire because the science just isn't there to support those strong claims.

BRUMFIEL: That contrarian view was enough to get the attention of Democratic Congressman Raul Grijalva. Grijalva's letters cited the case of Willie Soon and asked for details about who pays for Pielke's work.

PIELKE: It's quite simple for me to respond to this because I have absolutely no corporate connections, consulting, anything. I mean, I am as clean as they come.

BRUMFIEL: Pielke says that the letter sends a chilling message to scientists.

PIELKE: If you come and testify before the U.S. Congress and someone doesn't like what you're saying, they can make your life pretty miserable.

BRUMFIEL: Congressman Grijalva from Arizona sent letters inquiring about six other scientists as well. He says he wasn't trying to target scientists simply because they disagree with his views on climate change.

CONGRESSMAN RAUL GRIJALVA: But I also want to make sure that if - if that is the basis for formation of policy, that it's clean and that it's empirical.

BRUMFIEL: Now, in a strange twist, the seven scientists Grijalva's looking at are getting support from mainstream researchers who do believe in climate change - researchers like Eric Steig.

ERIC STEIG: It's real. It's happening. The science has been in for about a hundred years.

BRUMFIEL: Steig is at the University of Washington. He thinks environmentalists were right to expose Willie Soon's hidden funding, but the investigation of Pielke reminds him of something else.

STEIG: There was a request - actually, very much like the one that has gone out to these seven scientists - that went to the University of Washington requesting a huge amount of information about me and five or six other people.

BRUMFIEL: Steig says it came from a conservative think tank. In the past, some Republican politicians who oppose action against climate change have sought emails and data from climate scientists in an effort to discredit them. To Steig, these latest letters suggests liberals have started using a similar strategy against scientists who disagree with them. And if that's what's going on, he doesn't like it.

STEIG: It was wrong when it was done by Republicans or by right-wing think tanks, and it's wrong when it's done by Democrats or left-wing think tanks.

BRUMFIEL: Several big scientific societies have also been critical of the letters. Congressman Grijalva says he's willing to discuss details of his requests to make sure they're fair. Few think these tactics are going to disappear, though. In the fall, world leaders meet in Paris to try and reach a deal on climate. I asked Eric Steig whether he thinks the climate for climate scientists will get even hotter in the run-up to the summit.

STEIG: Will it get uglier? I think that perhaps even those who seem to enjoy harassing people may be tired of it (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Do you really believe that or is that just wishful thinking?

STEIG: I think it's wishful thinking (laughter).

BRUMFIEL: Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington.

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