BBC Asks Dr. Willie Soon to Respond to Climate Conspiracy Claims

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

The BBC has belatedly decided they need at least a little input from one of the targets of their latest big oil climate conspiracy propaganda piece. Dr. Willie Soon does not hold back in his response.

Note some of the links take you to a “You are leaving the service” page. This is a harmless artefact caused by copying Dr. Soon’s email, click continue to see the referenced document.

Dear Ms. Keane,

I am wary of responding to your false allegations, since your questions seem somewhat loaded. Disappointingly, they appear to repeat the dishonest and misleading claims of the former Greenpeace USA research director, Kert Davies (now running the so-called “Climate Investigations Center”), whose research we have shown to be disingenuous in Section 2 of our attached 2018 report on Greenpeace (Attachment 1). Unfortunately, the premise of your series seems to be the dangerous conspiracy theories promoted by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway in their 2010 book Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Climate Change and their 2014 film of the same name. I’ve attached a short 3-page .pdf (Attachment 2) summarizing just a few examples of the poor scholarship and bizarre hypocrisies in Oreskes & Conway’s conspiracy theories.

The BBC has an established history of stifling genuine scientific inquiry and nuanced debate on climate change since its infamous 2006 Climate Change – the Challenge to Broadcasting? seminar, as described in detail in Andrew Montford’s short book The Propaganda Bureau and summarized in various blogs in 2012, e.g., hereherehere and here.  

It is also regrettable that you attempted to contact me in such a roundabout way, i.e., by going through the Heartland Institute, rather than emailing me directly here at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I am not pleased that you saw fit to circulate your letter, with its numerous libellous comments, to a third party.

The BBC seems to encourage the unethical pseudo-journalistic practice of selectively quoting and cherry-picking out-of-context interviewees who disagree with the narrative of the program, in order to make the interviewees seem foolish or uninformed. Richard North, summarized this unethical practice well in this 2011 essay: was a particular concern when I considered whether to reply to your allegations.

I am hoping that you have more journalistic integrity than your BBC colleagues who have carried out unethical “hatchet jobs” in the past. I suspect that you may not be planning to “fairly and accurately reflect any comments” as you promised me. 

Nonetheless, given the number of false allegations you are threatening to broadcast, I feel compelled to respond. I have copied this letter a number of friends and colleagues who might be interested to see the questions you have asked me and my responses.

I have copied and pasted your letter to me below. Your letter is in bold face: and my responses are in Roman face.

Will you change course in your grave misunderstanding on this timely subject and uphold honest debate and discussion on climate science?

Yours faithfully,

Willie Soon

Phoebe Keane

BBC Radio Current Affairs

BBC New Broadcasting House

Portland Place



Dear Wei Hok ‘Willie’ Soon,

My Chinese name given by my father is Wei-Hock. There is no need to put a quote on Willie as this is my name.

I’m making a BBC Radio series about the way oil companies have over emphasized the uncertainty around climate change. The series will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in the UK and we intend for it to be available as a podcast internationally and may appear as an online article. It is a 10 part series, each episode is 15 minutes long.

The series is currently titled ‘How they made us doubt everything’ and will discuss how the oil industry has carried out a campaign to make us doubt climate change. It explores how it drew on a ‘playbook’ of tactics developed by the tobacco industry and PR company Hill & Knowlton to make us doubt the connection between smoking and cancer. We’ll set out that these tactics weaponised doubt and enabled both the tobacco and oil industries to undermine science, but also has fed into a broader sense of distrust in facts and experts which has spread far beyond climate change. 

I should strongly urge you to reconsider the current premise of your proposed series which seems to be based on the flawed conspiracy theories promoted by Naomi Oreskes & Erik Conway in their 2010 book (and 2014 film), “Merchants of Doubt”. I would recommend you read the attached 3-page critique (Attachment 2) of this pseudo-scientific conspiracy theory by Oreskes & Conway.

Instead, if you genuinely want to address the vested interests who are most seriously hindering and undermining scientific inquiry into climate change, I would urge you to read our 2018 analysis of the anti-science, anti-education and ultimately anti-environment behaviour that Greenpeace has engaged in. In particular, I would refer you to Section 2, in which we specifically review the dishonest and insidious misinformation campaigns which Kert Davies spearheaded while he was Greenpeace USA’s Research Director. I’ve attached a .pdf copy (Attachment 1), but you can also download a copy from the Heartland Institute’s website here:

We’d like to offer you the opportunity to respond to the points we intend to broadcast. We therefore draw your attention to the following: 

1)      You received millions of dollars for your research through 2000 up to 2015 from fossil fuel interests including Southern Company, American Petroleum Institute, Exxon Mobil Foundation. Is that the case? Would you like to respond?

WS: This is definitely not the case. I have definitely not “received millions of dollars for your research through 2000 up to 2015”. My employer, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, is simply not that generous. Frankly, if making money was my main priority, I would not have gone into science. Indeed, if I did not care about science or the environment, maybe I would have found it more lucrative to work for an advocacy group like Greenpeace, which as we discuss in the attached report has an annual turnover of about $400 million.

My salary has come from the Center since I started as a staff position in 1997. Until about 2008, I had no involvement in where the Center received its funding. After my immediate supervisor retired in 2009, one of my additional duties was to write grant proposals on behalf of the Center, which has received funding from many sources including government, industry, charities, foundations and many others. This includes the three groups you mentioned, amongst many others. 

However, most employees (including me) receive their salary through the Center. This has the advantage that our research is uninfluenced by the Center’s funding sources. In any case, I am a scientist. I believe it is important to follow the science wherever it leads. I appreciate that there probably are some “scientists” out there who might alter their research results to facilitate vested interests, but the idea is abhorrent to me.

2)      Kert Davies of the Climate Investigations Centre says your research was used to slow down progress on climate change. Would you like to respond?

On the contrary, in my opinion, the dishonest and unethical misinformation spearheaded by Kert Davies of the Climate Investigations Center (and previously Greenpeace USA) has been used to slow down progress on genuine climate change research. See for example, Section 2 of our Greenpeace attached report, where we describe what he did through his “ExxonSecrets” campaigns.

3)      Our guests outline that this played into a  broader campaign to misrepresent the data on climate change, leading to many people doubting legitimate climate change science. Would you like to respond to this?

Again, on the contrary, in my opinion, it is the misinformation promoted by Kert Davies and others like him that is “leading to many people doubting legitimate climate change science”. Often the original sources of this misinformation seem to have arisen from people associated with campaigning groups who have a vested interest in downplaying the extensive ongoing scientific debate within the scientific community on many aspects of climate change: for instance, Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the David Suzuki Foundation (in particular, see the DeSmogBlog website co-founded by the Chair of this foundation, James Hoggan), the Union of Concerned Scientists, etc. 

If you visit the websites of any of these groups, you will quickly find that many of their campaigns explicitly rely on the assumption that “97% of scientists agree” and “the science is settled”. In fact, as Legates et al. (2015), of which I was a co-author, demonstrated that the widely-quoted Cook et al. (2013) paper that purported to find 97.1% of 11,944 peer-reviewed climate papers published in the 21 years 1991-2011 all agreed that climate change is mostly human caused, was based on flawed analysis and bad science. Upon a close inspection of their data, they had only found 64 papers or 0.5% of their sample had explicitly argued that climate change was mostly human caused. A subsequent examination showed that only 41 of these, or 0.3% of the original sample, had made that statement. On the other hand, 27 papers concluded the exact opposite that i.e., climate change is mostly natural. Vast majority of the papers did not make any statements one way or the other. For more details on the 97% consensus myth, please read here.

As we discussed in our Greenpeace report, these campaigns can be very lucrative for the campaigning groups. As a result, an honest reporting of the messy and contentious scientific debates that continue to this day within the scientific community would directly harm their claims of “scientific consensus” and “settled science”. 

Our case study of Greenpeace showed that it has an annual turnover of about $0.4 billion, and that from 1994-2017 they spent $521 million (i.e., more than $0.5 billion) on their “Climate/Climate & energy” campaigns. In comparison, Greenpeace’s “ExxonSecrets” campaign (led by Kert Davies) claimed that ExxonMobil allegedly spent $1.8 million/year over the period 1998-2014 on “funding climate denial” and that this supposedly substantially altered the public discourse on climate change. I encourage you to read our complete analysis in the report. Meanwhile, consider that if Kert Davies were correct that the alleged $1.8 million/year from ExxonMobil on “funding climate denial” has substantially altered the public discourse on climate change, what was the impact of Greenpeace’s $31 million/year expenditure on “Climate/Climate & energy” campaigning, 17 times greater than Exxon’s alleged expenditure?

4)      You have been characterised as downplaying the impact of human activities on climate change. Is that a fair portrayal of your work?

No, definitely not. My climate change research considers all of the plausible mechanisms for climate change that are discussed in the scientific literature. I’m not sure of what definition you have in mind, but to me “downplaying” means making something appear less important than it really is. If that’s the same definition you are using, then that is the exact opposite of my research. My research involves trying to find out exactly how important each of the many proposed climate change mechanisms are in current, past and future climate change. 

It is true that many scientists (in particular, several of the main computer modelling groups) have “downplayed” (to use your word) the role of solar variability and other forms in recent and historic climate change. So, by not downplaying these important factors, my work often leads to more nuanced, and in my opinion, more accurate and reliable, conclusions.

Indeed, several of my recent publications have argued that the current global and regional temperature datasets have substantially underestimated the role of a specific local form of human-caused climate change, i.e., the urban heat island phenomenon. The Urban Heat Island is a well-recognized form of local climate change that has nothing to do with greenhouse gas emissions, but is definitely a result of human activities. This is an underappreciated problem because even though urban areas only comprise 1-2% of the planet, many of the weather stations used in current global temperature datasets and most of the ones with the longest records are urbanized. This appears to have led to a sampling bias: the trends of the sampled data are unrepresentative of the global trends.

Your response would be appreciated in writing to the above by 7th July 2020 so we can fairly and accurately reflect any comments you wish to make, where appropriate. Please respond to: [redacted]

For your information we also intend to report:

1)      That a 1995 draft primer to the Global Climate Coalition dismisses solar variability, which we describe as your main thesis. The primer says it’s ‘accounted for 0.1 degrees C temperature increase in the last 120 years, it is an interesting finding, but it does not allay concerns about future warming which could result from greenhouse gas emissions.’ [SOURCE: Primer sent from L S Bernstein, Exxon Mobil, Environmental health and safety department, to members of GCC, 21ST December 1995. Made publicly available as part of the court case ‘Green Mountain Chrysler Plymouth Dodge Jeep v. Crombie’ 2005.]

Are you implying that the Global Climate Coalition had already in their 1995 document reached “the definitive answers” on the complex and challenging problem of the attribution of recent and future climate change, a year before IPCC’s Second Assessment Report and nearly 20 years before its fifth? Are you suggesting that all scientific research into climate change since 1995 is redundant? 

I’m not sure how you think science works, but that is utter nonsense. Climate change is a complex multi-causal phenomenon, and scientists have been debating the relative importance of different factors since the 19th century, particularly following the discovery of the ice ages.

The role of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is in many ways the easiest to assess, because according to the Antarctic ice core estimates, atmospheric CO2 has increased near-exponentially from pre-industrial concentrations of nearly 0.03% to a little above 0.04% today. In contrast, the role of the Sun is a much more challenging subject: there is much ongoing debate over which estimates of past “Total Solar Irradiance” (TSI), i.e., solar output, are most reliable. There are also ongoing debates over the various mechanisms by which solar variability influences the Earth’s climate.

If you are interested in learning more about the ongoing debates in the scientific literature over this, I would recommend reading our comprehensive 2015 review paper: Soon et al. (2015), Earth-Science Reviews, Vol. 150, p 409-452. You can download a copy from my CfA website here. If you don’t have time to read the full 44-page article, which is technical in places, there is a simpler overview here:

However, one of the problems inherent in the research of those groups who “downplay” (to use your word again) the role of solar variability in recent and historic climate change and instead focus on CO2 as the “primary climate driver” (as the current computer models do), is that they find it very difficult to explain climate changes before about 1950, as CO2 seems to have still been only 0.031% then.

A consequence of this is that in order to try and fit the historic global temperature trends in terms of CO2 as the primary climate driver, researchers have had to:

a.       Increase the modelled “climate sensitivity” of global temperatures to CO2 concentrations; and

b.       Revise the estimates of past climate changes to downplay the climate variability before about 1950.

A bizarre result of these attempts to “shoehorn” CO2 as the primary climate driver is that even the IPCC’s latest (Fifth) Assessment Report still suggests that the “Equilibrium Climate Sensitivity” (ECS) to CO2 could be anything from 1.5 °C to 4.5 °C. This year (Meehl et al, 2020Zelinka et al. 2020) it is reported that the sixth-generation models of the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project find the spread to be 1.8-5.6 °C. ECS is the expected global warming that would occur from a doubling of CO2

In a recent scientific paper that we published in March, we showed that the value of this metric has major implications for international climate change policies. If ECS is at the higher end of the IPCC’s “likely” range, then the 2015 Paris Agreement would be broken in a few decades if we continue “business-as-usual”. However, if ECS is less than 2 °C, then if we continued “business-as-usual” for the rest of the century, the Paris Agreement wouldn’t be broken until at least the 22nd century. That seems to me a pretty important point that the BBC should be discussing.

In case you’re interested, you can download our 2020 “Business-as-usual” paper here: Connolly et al. (2020), Energies, Vol. 13, 1365. Again, it is a rather long paper. However, I hope you appreciate by now that these are complex problems, and that there is a lot of ongoing scientific debate within the scientific community on these issues.

2)      That you published a paper in 2006 relating to Polar Bears which concluded that there was no reason for alarm for their continued safety. Please let me know if that’s incorrect. 

WS: Incorrect. 

I’m not sure what “2006” paper you are referring to. I did co-author three scientific papers which looked at polar bear populations around that time, but none in 2006. It is possible that you’re referring to Dyck et al. (2007) as that was accepted for publication subject to minor revisions in October 2006 (after a lengthy peer review process), but it was not officially published until April 2007. 

In any case, that was not the conclusion of the paper. 

I also co-authored a follow-on paper, Dyck et al. (2008), in response to some comments on the 2007 paper, and I was a co-author on a separate paper, Armstrong et al. (2008) which also looked at forecasting of polar bear populations.

The three papers are:

·         Dyck et al. (2007), Ecological Complexity, Vol. 4., p 73-84. Pdf available here

·         Dyck et al. (2008), Ecological Complexity, Vol. 5, p 289-302. Pdf available here

This was a response to comments in Stirling et al. (2008), Ecological Complexity, Vol. 5, p 193-201. Pdf available here.

·         Armstrong et al. (2008), Interfaces, Vol. 38, p 382-405. Pdf available here.

I would recommend reading the papers to find out the exact details of what we found in those papers, in particular, the Dyck et al. (2007) which I suspect is probably the “2006” paper you were referring to. However, in brief, two researchers (Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher) and colleagues had published a series of papers in which they concluded that the primary factor in the local polar bear populations in the western Hudson Bay region was global warming from increasing CO2. Specifically, they argued that the long-term spring-time warming since the 1970s in the region was: (a) due to increasing CO2, (b) was reducing local sea ice cover and (c) leading to reductions in local polar bear population.

We looked at the basis for their claims and realized that their analysis was scientifically flawed for multiple reasons. For instance, they apparently hadn’t realized that while the Arctic has warmed since the 1970s, it followed a period of Arctic cooling from the 1940s-1970s, and there was a similar warm period to present during the early 20th century. If their theory was correct, then the polar bear populations should have responded accordingly during those pre-1970s periods. They didn’t. Instead, we found that the local polar bear populations appear to be more influenced by other factors, such as the numbers of bears that are allowed to be hunted.

More recently, I have co-authored a study in which we reconstructed Arctic sea ice cover back to 1900, and found that the variability in Arctic sea ice cover is a lot greater than the IPCC had assumed in their latest reports: Connolly et al. (2017), Hydrological Sciences Journal, vol. 62, p1317-1340. I also co-authored a study in 2019 in which we compared the observed snow cover trends for the entire Northern Hemisphere since 1967 to the trends which the IPCC computer models say should have occurred – according to their assumption that CO2 is the primary climate driver. The results were shocking. The current computer models are unable to explain the observed trends in snow cover for either winter, spring, summer or fall. None of the 196 computer model simulations that the IPCC used for their most recent report succeeded in replicating the observed 1967-2018 trends for any of the seasons. The paper is: Connolly et al. (2019), Geosciences, vol. 9, 135.

As a result, these two recent papers reveal that the computer models which Stirling and Derocher as well as the IPCC had been relying on for their analysis of the Arctic seriously “downplayed” the natural variability in Arctic sea ice and seriously “up-played” the role of CO2in recent trends.

Yours faithfully, 

Phoebe Keane

BBC Radio Current Affairs; [redacted]

A final thought: I think it important that you should understand that science is not a matter of mere politics: it is an earnest, continuing and rigorous search for the objective truth. In this reply I have given you some indication of the fact that your underlying premise – that there is only one scientific viewpoint on the climate question and that all other scientific opinions are bought and paid for by vested interests running counter to the vested interest of the BBC – is in all respects wholly false. 

Are you a campaigner for a cause that is rooted in such bad science, or are you a proper journalist willing to ask real questions? The moment you begin to look at the climate question not through the eyes of blind faith, not through the lens of political zeal, but through the searing prism of logic and scientific method, you will realize that there are two sides to the climate question based on the data currently available.

Attachment 1 – Analysis of Greenpeace’s business model

Attachment 2 – Paradoxes of the Merchants of Doubt conspiracy theory

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via Watts Up With That?

July 14, 2020 at 12:17AM

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