Last week Fortune magazine named the Southern Company a top utility for the sixth year in a row, citing its "wise use of corporate assets" and "social responsibility." The nation's fourth-largest electric utility is headquartered in Atlanta and serves more than 4.4 million customers in the South through its subsidiaries Alabama Power, Georgia Power, Gulf Power and Mississippi Power.
But the good press was soon followed by bad: Two days after Southern received Fortune's honor, the news broke that Greenpeace and the Virginia-based Climate Investigations Center obtained documents through a Freedom of Information Act request revealing that the company was the leading funder of a controversial scientist whose work has been used to raise doubts about the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change in order to stall regulatory action. The Southern Company is the top carbon polluter among U.S. utilities and the eighth-biggest in the world, according to Carbon Monitoring for Action.
The documents show Southern provided more than $400,000 between 2006 and 2015 to fund research by and part of the salary of Wei-Hock "Willie" Soon of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics -- more than a third of Soon's total funding. In return, Soon and Harvard-Smithsonian gave the utility the right to review his scientific papers before publication while promising not to disclose the company's funding without its permission. Other contributors to Soon's work revealed in the documents include oil and gas giant ExxonMobil and the American Petroleum Institute -- corporate funding sources that in some cases Soon failed to disclose in violation of journal policy.
The Smithsonian has asked its inspector general to review Soon's ethical conduct. In addition, three U.S. senators -- Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) -- sent 100 letters to fossil fuel companies including Southern, trade groups and other industry organizations seeking to unearth the extent of what they call "climate denial-for-hire programs."
"We've known for many years that the tobacco industry supported phony science claiming that smoking does not cause cancer," said Boxer, ranking member of the Environment and Public Works Committee. "Now it's time for the fossil fuel industry to come clean about funding climate change deniers."
Soon, an aerospace engineer whose work has depended heavily on funding from fossil-fuel interests, has promoted the hypothesis that the sun causes climate change, making him a favorite of the climate change denial crowd. He has served as an adviser to various denialist think tanks and has spoken at denialist conferences.
Soon's scientific work has long been controversial, with a widely criticized 2003 study he co-authored with astronomer and fellow climate change denier Sallie Baliunas leading to the resignations of several editors who were involved in the journal's peer-review process. The publisher eventually admitted that the flawed study should not have been published.
Scientists have pointed out various weaknesses in Soon's work, such as misinterpreting other scientists' data and relying on obsolete information for analyses. Some have noted an even more fundamental problem: Soon's claim that any evidence of a sun effect means carbon dioxide is not driving climate change. For example, in a 2009 article titled "It's the Sun, Stupid!," Soon wrote that because he has assembled evidence supporting the hypothesis that the sun causes climatic change in the Arctic it "invalidates the hypothesis that CO2 is a major cause of observed climate change."
Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist with the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Earth Institute at Columbia University, critiqued Soon's claim at Real Climate:
But this is a fallacy. It is equivalent to arguing that if total caloric intake correlates to weight, that exercise can have no effect, or that if cloudiness correlates to incident solar radiation at the ground, then seasonal variations in sunshine are zero. The existence of one physical factor affecting a variable in a complex system says nothing whatsoever about the potential for another physical factor to affect that same variable.
Paying to turn doubt into 'conventional wisdom'
The Southern Company has long been involved in efforts to mislead the public about climate change and to block regulatory action to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
In 1998, as the United States was considering signing the international Kyoto Protocol treaty to limit global greenhouse gas emissions, Southern was part of an initiative called the Global Science Communications Team that brought together industry, public relations and think tank leaders to devise a plan to confuse the public about the state of climate science. The company's representative on the team was research specialist Robert Gehri, who was also Soon's contact at the utility.
Though the Kyoto-era communications effort was supposed to be secret, a memo from the group written by an American Petroleum Institute representative became public. It said "victory" would be "achieved" when industry leaders, the media and average citizens "understand" uncertainties in climate science, and when recognition of uncertainties becomes part of the "conventional wisdom."
The draft plan called for spending $5 million over two years to "maximize the impact of scientific views consistent with ours on Congress, the media and other key audiences," the New York Times reported:
It would measure progress by counting, among other things, the percentage of news articles that raise questions about climate science and the number of radio talk show appearances by scientists questioning the prevailing views.
While the United States signed the treaty that November, the Clinton administration did not submit it to the Senate for ratification. The Bush administration rejected it altogether three years later.
A decade after its efforts to block U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol, the Southern Company had become the nation's top lobbyist on federal legislation to address climate change by creating an emissions trading plan, which it opposed. A 2009 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found the utility had nearly twice as many climate lobbyists as any other company or organization. While the House of Representatives approved the bill, it was defeated in the Senate.
More recently, Southern deployed its lobbying power to block carbon emission limits for power plants proposed by the Obama administration. The Environmental Protection Agency plans to finalize the carbon regulations this summer, but they're now being challenged in court by 12 states and a coal mining company.
In 2013, as the administration was preparing to roll out the rules, a lobbyist with a utility consortium told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Southern Company devotes more resources to lobbying than most utility companies and is "very active in pushing its point of view." Indeed, the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics classifies the company as a "heavy hitter" for its generous spending on lobbying (over $12 million in the 2014 cycle alone) and campaign contributions (over $1.4 million in 2014, with most of that benefiting Republicans).
Southern's campaign contributions have helped promote climate science denial in Congress. The top recipient of contributions from the company's PAC and employees in the 2014 campaign cycle was Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.), who is part of what Climate Progress has dubbed the "Climate Denier Caucus." Perdue has accused the EPA of "overreaching" in its efforts to address climate change and has echoed the line Southern has pushed, saying that "in science, there's an active debate going on."
And Perdue's not the only leading recipient of Southern's political support to help spread the questionable scientific talking points the utility has paid for: Rep. Gary Palmer, an Alabama Republican who received $18,000 from the company's PAC and employees in the 2014 cycle, last year told WATE that science "says global climate change is more a function of nature and solar activity than it is anything man does."
Chalk it up as yet another "victory" for a company that last year raked in $2 billion in profits.