"When scientific integrity is undermined in pursuit of financial and political gain"
Explosive testimony this week argues that climate research has a serious conflict of interest problem
Recently I was surprised to see a Tweet from a climate researcher who I’ve known for a while that looked like an advertisement for a particular renewable energy company. The researcher was promoting the company to his many followers. Reading on, I saw that the researcher disclosed that he was being paid by the company and had an equity interest. So it was an advertisement. Academics can also be investors, right? So no problem?
Well, here is the problem. This researcher was one of the central analysts whose work was used to design and then promote the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act. The company he is promoting is a direct beneficiary of that legislation. At the same time, the researcher claims that his analyses offer an “independent environmental and economic evaluation of federal energy and climate policies.” BS. There’s a sucker born every minute.
I called out the researcher on Twitter for taking money not just from one but from many companies that are direct beneficiaries of the legislation he helped to design and sell to policymakers and the public. He responded to me in a huff — proclaiming his noble intent and track record of advocacy for renewable energy for many years (almost as bad as the climate researcher who told me she could not have a conflict of interest because her husband was a preacher). All that may well be true, but goodness, this absolutely stinks.
I’m not naming the researcher (you can find him easily enough), because his case is far from unique in climate research these days, and this post is about a far bigger more important issue.
There is a gold rush going on in climate research right now, as researchers scramble to cash in on their new-found access to politicians and philanthropists. As Professor Jessica Weinkle of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington stated in her opening remarks in testimony before the U.S. Senate last week, “Today, it is not easy to separate the going-ons in climate change research from the special interests of financial institutions.”
The landscape of climate change research is made complicated by an outcropping of non-profit advocacy organizations that double as analytic consultants, hold contracts with private companies and government entities, and engage in official government expert advisory roles- all while publishing in the peer reviewed literature and creating media storms.
This is not really an issue of any one entity. It is pervasive.
Experts monetizing their expertise is one important reason why people become experts, and there is no problem with people seeking to make a buck. But where expertise and financial interests intersect, things can get complicated. That is why there are robust mechanisms in place for the disclosure and mitigation of financial conflicts of interest, a subject I’ve focused on for decades.
All of this is just common sense. Your doctor can’t prescribe you drugs from a company that pays him fees. You wouldn’t think much of a report on smoking and health from a researcher supported by the tobacco industry. Should climate researchers play by a different set of rules, because the cause is so important?
Call me a stickler, but in my view, the more important the cause, the more important it is to enforce standards of research integrity.
Following her testimony, Weinkle addressed a few questions that were raised at the Senate hearing. Here is her response to the first one:
Well… I don’t know if it was really a question. It was a set up to imply that the only conflicts of interest that should matter are those coming from the fossil fuel industry.
I don’t agree. At. All.
Frankly, that’s absurd.
In fact, when people argue that the only conflicts of interest that matter are those held by their opponents they are saying that the rules of the game don’t apply to themselves or those that support them.
Conflicts of interest are a concern for scientific integrity no matter where the money is coming from.
Further, it was implied in the hearing that only the fossil fuel industry hides what they are doing by donating to non profit groups that then do research. No.
I encourage you to read Professor Weinkle’s testimony in full. She cites three examples of many that raise serious questions of financial conflicts of interest in climate research (see the testimony for all the footnotes, which I removed here):
Central bank stress testing scenarios are developed by researchers who are also lead authors on IPCC reports and have important roles in organizing the international modeling community in the development of IPCC scenarios. Funding for central bank scenario development and the most recent meeting of the scenario modeling community comes from influential organizations including, Bloomberg Philanthropies, ClimateWorks, and the Bezos Earth Fund.
McKinsey & Company used a climate consultancy to produce a series of widely influential reports on climate change financial risks. In defense of their use of RCP 8.5 the report cited a peer-reviewed publication written by its own consultants. The researchers did not declare their COI as consultants for McKinsey or their association with the asset management firm, Wellington. Shortly after publication of the article one of its authors landed a political position while the authors’ home institution announced coordinated efforts with Wellington to influence SEC regulatory decisions.
The Risky Business Project, an academic-industry research collaboration was organized by three wealthy politicians with the goal to “mak[e] the climate threat feel real.” Research products are important components to national climate and sea level rise assessments, and a policy advocacy tool used to evaluate real estate flood risk. Core members of the research collaboration move seamlessly between private consulting, policymaker science advisory positions, and academic research.
Again, this stinks.
Nothing could be more delegitimizing to climate science and policy than a toxic combination of unmitigated financial conflicts of interest and claims that climate researchers, by virtue of the noble cause, are exempt from the rules that govern every other setting where expertise and money intersect.
I’ll let Professor Weinkle have the last word today:
Climate change science demonstrates an underappreciated dynamic system of conflicts of interest among climate change researchers, advocacy organizations, and the financial industry.
If you haven’t subscribed to Professor Weinkle’s Substack, called Conflicted — run, don’t walk, and sign up — link below.
"Your doctor can’t prescribe you drugs from a company that pays him fees."
I don't know what you're writing about, because as far as I know, doctors can and do routinely prescribe drugs from companies that pay them fees:
You should definitely change that sentence...unless the paper above and I don't know what we're talking about. Perhaps you meant "shouldn't," rather than "can't"?
The Many Ways to Look at Al Gore’s Environmental Activism
By Stephen Heins
Al Gore is a well-known advocate for sustainability and environmental stewardship, and his business ventures have reflected this commitment. One of his most notable projects is Generation Investment Management, a sustainable investment firm that he co-founded in 2004. The company's mission is to invest in companies that prioritize sustainability and environmental stewardship, while also delivering strong financial returns for its investors.
In addition to Generation Investment Management, Al Gore has been involved with a number of other businesses that prioritize sustainability. For example, he is the chairman of The Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit organization that works to educate people about climate change and promote solutions to this global challenge. He is also a board member of Tesla and Apple, the electric vehicle manufacturer that is leading the charge (no pun intended) toward a more sustainable transportation future.
However, it is important to note that Al Gore's advocacy work and business ventures are not separate from each other. In fact, Al Gore has many conflicts of interest. It’s surprising that the SEC has never mentioned it.
Like all conflicts, they are two sides of the same coin. Through his advocacy work, he has helped to raise awareness about the urgent need to address climate change, and by supporting sustainable businesses, he has profited handsomely, said to be over $400 million.
Non-government organizations (NGOs) and Al Gore are often seen as agents of change and progress, but unfortunately, some have succumbed to environmental misconduct. The largest is the conflict I mentioned above.
Some of these scandals have had severe implications, ranging from the destruction of natural habitats to an increase in air and water pollution. In recent years, a number of high-profile cases have brought to light the severity of environmental misconduct perpetrated by nonprofit organizations.
One of the most well known cases of environmental misconduct by an NGO was the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010. This disaster was caused when a rig operated by the BP oil company exploded and leaked an estimated 4.9 million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. A nonprofit organization named Ocean Conservancy was implicated in the scandal.
Another example of environmental misconduct by an NGO is the case of the former Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). In 2017, the New York State Attorney General’s office filed a complaint alleging that the WCS had improperly managed $100 million in taxpayer money and other funding that had been allocated for conservation projects. The organization was accused of diverting resources and funds away from their original purpose, leading to an overall lack of progress in conservation efforts. This case highlighted the need for greater transparency and accountability within NGOs and the necessity of holding them to a higher standard.
Finally, NGOs around the world have been criticized for destroying ecosystems in pursuit of economic gain. In Latin America, for instance, numerous NGOs have been accused of large-scale deforestation in order to clear land for cattle grazing or other forms of agricultural or extractive activity. This kind of environmental misconduct has been linked to species extinction, the deterioration of water quality, and reduced access to essential resources such as clean drinking water.
Environmental misconduct including Greenwashing Greenwishing, and irregular accounting by NGOs can have severe consequences. It is therefore essential that we take steps to address this problem.
While Governments have many of the same conflicts, they must take the lead in enforcing regulations and ensuring transparency and accountability within all participants. At the same time, citizens must hold governments, private sector, and environmental NGOs to a higher standard and demand greater transparency and ethical practices.
Together, we can create a more sustainable future free from environmental misconduct and providing the electricity that will lift them out energy.