Breitbart News: Go-To Outlet For “Academics-For-Hire” By The Fossil Fuel Industry?

Breitbart CO2 Not the Enemy

A professor who was caught agreeing to hide the oil funding behind a climate denial research paper named Breitbart News as a media outlet that could “likely help” publicize the research, according to emails unearthed as part of an undercover investigation by Greenpeace. Indeed, Breitbart News has frequently cited Princeton Emeritus Professor William Happer to promote the supposed “benefits” of climate-warming carbon pollution and argue against a "war on CO2" --  including just days before the Greenpeace investigation was released. And now that Greenpeace has exposed Happer's ethically dubious actions, Breitbart News is defending Happer's behavior as “morally and scientifically unimpeachable.”

On December 8, Greenpeace released the results of its investigation, in which Greenpeace UK reporters claiming to represent oil and coal companies asked two university professors to write industry-friendly research papers, and the professors agreed to do so without disclosing the fossil fuel funding behind them. According to Greenpeace, the investigation details “how fossil fuel companies can secretly pay academics at leading American universities to write research that sows doubt about climate science and promotes the companies' commercial interests.” 

As part of its report about the investigation, titled “Exposed: Academics-for-hire agree not to disclose fossil fuel funding,” Greenpeace released a series of emails between its undercover staffers and the two academics, William Happer and Penn State Emeritus Professor Frank Clemente. In an email exchange in early November, a Greenpeace employee who was posing as an oil company consultant based in Beirut asked Happer if he could write a briefing paper “examin[ing] the benefits of fossil fuels to developing economies,” and if there were any “US outlets or contacts you may have” that could help “get this research out far and wide.” The Greenpeace employee also mentioned a London Times column praising carbon emissions by Matt Ridley, who Happer said was in “close touch” with a pro-carbon group called the CO2 Coalition that Happer helped organize. The Greenpeace employee then asked Happer if Ridley -- a Times columnist who also frequently writes op-eds published by The Wall Street Journal -- “would help to disseminate our research.” Happer replied: “I am sure Matt Ridley will be interested in whatever you produce. The Breitbart news organization would also likely help, as would various blogs, syndicated columnists, etc.”

Given Breitbart News' past coverage of Happer, it should come as no surprise that he mentioned Breitbart when asked to name media outlets that would promote his industry-funded, climate-denying research. For instance:

  • A June 3, 2015 Breitbart article touted a letter from Happer and two other physicists attacking the American Physical Society (APS) for a statement recognizing the reality of man-made climate change.
  • A January 22, 2015 Breitbart article purporting to list off “Ten reasons why the war on CO2 has done far more harm than good” approvingly quoted Happer referring to “the jihad against atmospheric carbon dioxide.”
  • An October 24, 2014 Breitbart article quoted “climate expert” Happer as saying: “No chemical compound in the atmosphere has a worse reputation than CO2, thanks to the single-minded demonisation of this natural and essential atmospheric gas by advocates of government control and energy production. The incredible list of supposed horrors that increasing carbon dioxide will bring the world is pure belief disguised as science.”
  • A September 2, 2011 Breitbart article quoted Happer as follows: “Disagreeing with [the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change] is like going to Saudi Arabia and criticizing Muhammad.”

On December 4, several weeks after Happer mentioned Breitbart News in his email to Greenpeace (and just days before Greenpeace released the results of its investigation), Breitbart News published yet another article touting Happer, this one titled "Carbon Dioxide Is Not Our Enemy." In it, Breitbart's John Hayward wrote a highly sympathetic profile of Happer's climate science denial, asserting that a white paper Happer co-authored was “meant to be a conversation-starter” and took “a non-confrontational approach with copious footnotes and supporting sources, inviting readers to perform their own research and gain a fuller understanding of CO2 and its benefits.” Hayward also stated that Happer “lamented the vicious treatment given to scientists who showed even modest skepticism toward the link between CO2 and climate change.”

After Greenpeace released its investigation, Breitbart News' James Delingpole rushed to Happer's defense with a December 8 article, in which he wrote: “What's clear is that [at] every stage Happer's behaviour was morally and scientifically unimpeachable.” Delingpole alleged that Happer was not at fault because he made clear he “would only say in his paper what he believed anyway” and indicated that he did not “wish to benefit personally from the fee, but preferred that the money should go to a tax-exempt educational charity, which pays only his travel expenses.”

It's true that Happer has a long track record of advocating for the purported “benefits” of carbon pollution, and it's also true that he requested in his emails to the undercover Greenpeace employee that “whatever fee would have come to me would go directly to the CO2 Coalition” -- the group Happer helped organized earlier this year. But Delingpole tellingly did not provide Happer's answer to two other questions Delingpole noted that Greenpeace had raised:  “Would the CO2 Coalition be happy to take a direct donation on condition the donor remained anonymous?” and  “Might Happer be able to get his paper peer-reviewed by sympathetic authors?”

This is where Happer's conduct is far from “unimpeachable,” as Breitbart News claimed.

The Greenpeace staffer posing as a representative of the Middle Eastern oil company told Happer over email that “we are happy to make a direct donation to the CO2 Coalition, providing it is anonymous,” and asked Happer whether “the CO2 Coalition voluntarily discloses its funders.” Happer replied that he believed the CO2 Coalition isn't “required to make public any donors, although it is required to disclose them to the Internal Revenue Service.” He also forwarded the question to William O'Keefe, another member of the Board of Directors of the CO2 Coalition and former Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the American Petroleum Institute. O'Keefe replied by suggesting that the oil company funnel the funds through the Donors Trust, which has been dubbed the “dark-money ATM” of the conservative movement:

We are under no obligation to identify donors, except to the IRS but I think that is just organizations. When people ask the IRS or a firms 990 [sic], the donor list is redacted. If the person participates in the Donors Trust, he/she can make the donation through that and have complete confidentiality.

Happer then forwarded O'Keefe's response to the undercover Greenpeace employee. As Greenpeace noted, in his emails “Happer also disclosed that [coal giant] Peabody Energy paid $8,000 in return for his testimony in a crucial Minnesota state hearing on the impacts of carbon dioxide. This fee was also paid to the CO2 Coalition.”

The exchange between Happer and the undercover Greenpeace staffer exemplifies how the fossil fuel industry's funding of shoddy science can be hidden from public view, and how this strategy can apply not just to the research papers themselves but also to op-eds and other media coverage about them. Indeed, the other university professor that Greenpeace approached, Penn State's Frank Clemente, listed over email a series of op-eds he had written that had been published in newspapers across the United States, and then observed: “Note that in none of these cases is the sponsor identified. All my work is published as an independent scholar.”

The other serious issue raised in Happer's emails relates to peer review, the process by which scholarly work is checked by a group of experts in the same field prior to publication. As Greenpeace documented, in his emails Happer “laid out details of an unofficial peer review process run by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a UK climate sceptic think tank, and said he could ask to put an oil-funded report through a similar review process, after admitting that it would struggle to be published in an academic journal.” Specifically, Happer wrote that if he submitted the research paper to a peer-reviewed journal, it might “no longer make the case that CO2 is a benefit, not a pollutant, as strongly as I would like, and presumably as strongly your client would also like.” Instead, Happer proposed a review process that would not be anonymous and would be conducted by the climate-denying Global Warming Policy Foundation, writing that although “purists might object that the process did not qualify as a peer review ... I think it would be fine to call it a peer review.”

The Global Warming Policy Foundation recently conducted a similar review of another pro-carbon pollution paper, with Ridley -- who used to be a regular columnist for The Wall Street Journal -- deceptively alleging in the London Times that the paper had been “thoroughly peer reviewed.”