Willie Soon: 'Too Much Ice Is Really Bad for Polar Bears'

In return for undisclosed funding from a coal utility, the scientist delivered contrarian talks and papers on Arctic melting.

Credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News

"Too much ice is really bad for polar bears," climate skeptic Willie Soon said in a 2008 speech titled, "Endangering the Polar Bear: How Environmentalists Kill."

Soon later cited the talk as a "deliverable" in return for a research grant from Southern Company Services, one of the largest U.S. coal companies. Under the same grant the contrarian scientist also published two papers questioning whether climate change was dangerous for polar bears and whether the Arctic was warming, without disclosing the fossil fuel companies that funded his work.

The polar bear theories advanced by Soon in these and other works have been discredited by scientists worldwide. Even so, the ideas have sowed confusion about the fate of an iconic species that biologists expect to experience widespread devastation as climate change worsens.

"It plants doubt in the minds of people because of the complex nature of the science," said Juscelino Colares, a professor of law and associate director of the Frederick K. Cox International Law Center at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. "That's all the industry needs is doubt to delay action."

Soon works at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass. The center houses the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, which employs Soon. The polar bear papers were among 11 he published in research journals that failed to disclose Southern Co.'s funding, according to documents made public Saturday. All the papers question the extent, severity, cause or existence of man-made climate change.

Read: A Guide To Willie Soon's Climate Research Funded by Fossil Fuel Companies

The information comes from a trove of public emails and documents obtained by Greenpeace through Freedom of Information Act requests. They were released by the Climate Investigations Center, a watchdog group that tracks the activities of companies and organizations that fight climate action.

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Between 2001 and 2012, Soon received $838,717 from the American Petroleum Institute, ExxonMobil and the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation for his research, the documents show. Since 2006, he has received an additional $409,754 from Southern Co. Soon relies on grants from outside funders for his research and salary.

On Monday, the Smithsonian Institution said in a statement that it was "greatly concerned" about the allegations of Soon's failure to disclose his funding sources. The U.S. government-backed museum and research organization said it would initiate a full review of the organization's ethics and disclosure policies.

Soon did not respond to multiple requests for comment and Southern Co. did not respond to a request for an interview. In an emailed response, the company said, "Southern Company funds a broad range of research on a number of topics that have potentially significant public policy implications for our business."

Soon's polar bear research has focused on various issues, from the population ecology of polar bears to the accuracy of models that predict how sea ice loss will affect the bears. The state of Alaska used his polar bear work in a failed attempt to block the listing of polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

2007 Polar Bear Paper

Since 1979, almost 700,000 square miles of sea ice have vanished in the Arctic as global warming caused temperatures to rise. That's roughly the area covered by California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Utah and most of Idaho. Biologists have predicted for decades that as the ice disappears, polar bear populations will decline because they rely on the ice as a hunting platform.

By 2050, two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone, with extinction a real possibility by the end of the century, according to biologist Steven Amstrup, a leading polar bear biologist who spent 30 years with the U.S. Geological Survey. He is now chief scientist for Polar Bears International, a conservation and advocacy group.

Scientists are seeing evidence of this decline, especially in Canada's western Hudson Bay, one of the world's most studied polar bear regions. Research there has shown a direct link between the loss of sea ice and the health of polar bears, including a connection between an earlier spring melting of sea ice and lower survival rates for cubs.

One of Soon's polar bear papers, published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Ecological Complexity, focused on this population. The paper questioned whether climate change was dangerous for polar bears and whether the region was warming at all, even as NASA reported that the 2007 minimum sea ice levels were at an all-time low, falling to nearly 40 percent below the 1979-2000 average. (A new historical low-point was reached in 2012.)

The paper suggested alternative theories for population declines, such as stress from interactions with tourists, and predicted that the carnivores would find new sources of food such as berries and vegetation to supplement their diet of seals and other marine mammals.

The lead author was Markus Dyck, a polar bear biologist for the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Among the six other authors were a number of known climate deniers, including Sallie Baliunas, who co-authored a 2003 study with Soon that challenged climate scientist Michael Mann's "hockey stick theory" of global warming.

The authors stated that they began without funding but that "W. Soon's effort for the completion of this paper was partially supported by grants from the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, American Petroleum Institute, and Exxon-Mobil Corporation." No additional funders were listed.

Read: Documents Reveal Fossil Fuel Fingerprints on Contrarian Climate Research

The paper challenged the work of two longtime, respected polar bear biologists—Ian Stirling and Andrew Derocher. In 2003, Derocher had seen a version of the paper that was submitted to the journal Ecography. Derocher was one of two people asked to peer-review it. Both reviewers recommended against publication, and it was rejected.

"I thought it was heavily flawed," Derocher said in an interview. Derocher decided to sign his review, though typically reviews are anonymous. Derocher said he thought it would be helpful if the authors knew who had written it.

When the paper was published in 2007, Derocher was surprised to see his review referenced—without mention of what he had said.

"We are grateful for the constructive comments on earlier versions of the manuscript from S. Polischuk, S.-L. Han, and A. Derocher, which were critical for the improvement of the final version," the study said.

"It was turned around to be used as an endorsement," Derocher said. "That was not my intent."

'Endangering the Polar Bear'

Almost a year after that paper's publication, a group of polar bear biologists including Stirling and Derocher published a response in Ecological Complexity. They wrote that Dyck, Soon and their collaborators ignored data from the previous decade that showed that as the climate warmed, the sea ice is melting earlier each spring, sending polar bears ashore for longer periods of time in progressively poorer condition.  

Dyck and Soon struck back with a reply in Ecological Complexity that July, accusing the biologists of using "uni-dimensional, or reductionist thinking, which is not useful when assessing effects of climate change on complex ecosystems."

In a progress report to Southern Co., Soon reported his reply paper as one of seven "deliverables" in return for a grant of $120,000 grant from the coal utility, the documents released by the Climate Investigations Center show. Neither Southern nor any other funding source is disclosed in Ecological Complexity.

The documents show that Soon and Harvard-Smithsonian granted Southern the right to comment and provide input before the "deliverables" were published. The contract also stated that Soon could not name or identify Southern in a publication without "express written consent of SCS" (Southern Company Services).

In the report to Southern on how he fulfilled his grant, he also lists a number of speaking events, at least two of which dealt with polar bears.

At a July 2008 event in Mesa, Arizona, Soon presented his "Endangering the Polar Bear" talk to the nonprofit Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, which distributes "scientific and defense related information on public health, safety and security issues," according to publicly available financial reports. The group regularly includes climate skeptics in its conferences.

"I really don't think that you can find or argue convincingly that there are any significant worries about the sea ice condition in the Arctic," Soon told the group. "I would suggest that the current condition today is nowhere near optimal for the polar bear, which means it can grow a little bit warmer."

Opposing Protection for Bears

Not long after publication of the first Ecological Complexity paper, Alaska hired Soon for another polar bear-related job. He was to assess the U.S. Geological Survey's forecasting models. These had been used to predict how climate change would affect polar bears, according to Doug Vincent-Lang, who was then the state's Endangered Species Act (ESA) coordinator. Alaska was opposing the federal government's proposed listing of polar bears as threatened under the ESA.

Soon and his colleagues concluded that USGS scientists relied on faulty models in predicting that by mid-century two-thirds of the world's polar bears could be gone.

The state used Soon's work to argue against the ESA listing for polar bears. Designating the animals as threatened would mean increased protections of their habitat, and raised concerns that listing a species based on predictions of future population loss could be a slippery slope, with other ice-dependent species not far behind. Alaska lost the argument. When Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne announced on May 14, 2008, that the bears would be listed as threatened, he said it was based on the science of the USGS and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

"My hope is that the projections from these models are wrong, and that sea ice does not further recede," Kempthorne said in his announcement. "But the best science available to me currently says that is not likely to happen in the next 45 years."

Steven Amstrup, the biologist who led the USGS team, said Secretary Kempthorne held a conference call with all of the scientists involved in the forecasting reports that Soon challenged.

"He very candidly indicated that our science was so compelling he could see he had no other choice than to recognize it and proceed accordingly," Armstrup said.

A few months later, Soon and his collaborators published a paper based on their Alaska research in the September/October edition of Interfaces, a journal that focuses on the science of business and management. The paper acknowledged funding from Alaska—but not from Southern Co. The authors wrote that they had begun the work that led to the paper as consultants for Alaska, for which they were paid $9,998.

"We were impressed by the importance of the issue," they wrote. "Therefore, after providing our assessment, we decided to continue work on it and to prepare a paper for publication. These latter efforts have not been funded."

However, in reporting on his "deliverables" to Southern Co., Soon listed this paper first.

Interfaces does not have a conflict of interest policy unless questions are raised during the peer review process "with respect to suspicion of duplicate publication, fabrication of data or plagiarism," according to Miranda Walker, director of publications at the professional society that publishes the journal.

InsideClimate News reporters David Hasemyer and Lisa Song contributed to this report.

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