Did AEI Seek to Buy Climate Scientists?

The blogosphere is abuzz about this breathless Guardian story alleging that the American Enterprise Institute is offering cash payments to scientists who will "undermine" the new report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). (See, e.g., here, here, and here.) Some suggest this is a scandalous example of "buying science." I've obtained copies of the letters in question and an internal memo circulated to AEI staff by AEI President Christopher DeMuth, and it seems to me there is less here than the Guardian and others might suggest.

Here is the text of the letter described in the Guardian report. It was sent by Steven Hayward and Kenneth Green of AEI in July 2006 to Professor Steve Schroeder of Texas A&M, a climate scientist who has been critical of climate models in the past.

Dear Prof. Schroeder:

The American Enterprise Institute is launching a major project to produce a review and policy critique of the forthcoming Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), due for release in the spring of 2007. We are looking to commission a series of review essays from a broad panel of experts to be published concurrent with the release of the FAR, and we want to invite you to be one of the authors.

The purpose of this project is to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the IPCC process, especially as it bears on potential policy responses to climate change. As with any large-scale "consensus" process, the IPCC is susceptible to self-selection bias in its personnel, resistant to reasonable criticism and dissent, and prone to summary conclusions that are poorly supported by the analytical work of the complete Working Group reports. An independent review of the FAR will advance public deliberation about the extent of potential future climate change and clarify the basis for various policy strategies. Because advance drafts of the FAR are available for outside review (the report of Working Group I is already out; Working Groups II and III will be released for review shortly), a concurrent review of the FAR is feasible for the first time.

From our earlier discussions of climate modeling (with both yourself and Prof. North), I developed considerable respect for the integrity with which your lab approaches the characterization of climate modeling data. We are hoping to sponsor a paper by you and Prof. North that thoughtfully explores the limitations of climate model outputs as they pertain to the development of climate policy (as opposed to the utility of climate models in more theoretical climate research). In particular, we are looking for an author who can write a well-supported but accessible discussion of which elements of climate modeling have demonstrated predictive value that might make them policy-relevant and which elements of climate modeling have less levels of predictive utility, and hence, less utility in developing climate policy. If you are interested in the idea, or have thoughts about who else might be interested, please give Ken Green a call at 202-XXX-XXXX at your convenience.

If you and Prof. North are agreeable to being authors, AEI will offer an honoraria of $10,000. The essay should be in the range of 7,500 to 10,000 words, though it can be longer. The deadline for a complete draft will be December 15, 2007. We intend to hold a series of small conferences and seminars in Washington and elsewhere to coincide with the release of both the FAR and our assessment in the spring or summer of 2007, for which we can provide travel expenses and additional honoraria if you are able to participate.

Please feel free to contact us with questions and thoughts on this invitation.


Steven F. Hayward, Ph.D, Resident Scholar Kenneth Green, Ph.D, Visiting Scholar

In these letters AEI was certainly seeking out prominent analysts willing to participate in a critical examination of the IPCC report, but I don't think the letter suggests AEI wanted Professor Schroeder or anyone else to tailor their views to AEI's agenda. Rather it looks to me like an effort to encourage those who have been critical of climate projections in the past to provide a detailed assessment of the new IPCC report. A second letter was sent out earlier this year to a handful of scientists and economists and others seeking papers on climate change science and policy more broadly.

AEI President Christopher DeMuth took great exception to the Guardian story, and circulated the following memo to AEI staff.

February 2, 2007


Many of us have received telephone calls and emails prompted by a shoddy article on the front page of today's Guardian, the British newspaper, headlined "Scientists offered cash to dispute climate study" (posted at http://environment.guardian.co.uk/climatechange/story/0,,2004397,00.html#article_continue).

The article uses several garden-variety journalistic tricks to create the impression of a story where none exists. Thus, AEI is described as a "lobby group" (we are a research group that does no lobbying and takes no institutional positions on policy issues); ExxonMobil's donations to AEI are either bulked up by adding donations over many years, or simply made up (the firm's annual AEI support is generous and valued but is a fraction of the amount reported—no corporation accounts for more than 1 percent of our annual budget); and AEI is characterized as the Bush administration's "intellectual Cosa Nostra" and "White House surrogates" (AEI scholars criticize or praise Bush administration policies—every day, on the merits). All of this could have been gleaned from a brief visit to the AEI website.

But the article's specific charge (announced in the headline) is a very serious one. Although most of you will appreciate the truth on your own, I thought it would be useful to provide a few details.

First, AEI has published a large volume of books and papers on climate change issues over the past decade and has held numerous conferences on the subject. A wide range of views on the scientific and policy issues have been presented in these publications and conferences. All of them are posted on our website. It would be easy to find policy arguments in our publications and conferences that people at ExxonMobil (or other corporations that support AEI) disagree with—as well as those they agree with and, I hope, some they hadn't thought of until we presented them. Our latest book on the subject, Lee Lane's Strategic Options for Bush Administration Climate Policy, advocates a carbon tax, which I'm pretty sure ExxonMobil opposes (the book also dares to criticize some of the Bush administration's climate-change policies!).

Second, attempting to disentangle science from politics on the question of climate change causation, and to fashion policies that take account of the uncertainties concerning causation, are longstanding AEI interests. Several recent issues of our "Environmental Policy Outlook" address these issues, as does Ken Green's "Q & A" article in the November-December issue of The American. The new research project that Ken and Steve Hayward have been organizing is a continuation of these interests. I am attaching the two letters that Steve and Ken have sent out to climate change scientists and policy experts (the first one emphasizing the scientific and climate-modeling issues addressed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; the second, more recent one covering broader policy issues as well)—and invite you to read them and compare them with the characterization in the Guardian article. The first letter, sent last summer to Professor Steve Schroeder of Texas A&M (and also to his colleague Gerald North), is the one quoted by the Guardian. Ken and Steve canvassed scholars with a range of views on the scientific and policy issues, with an eye to the intrinsic quality and interest of their work rather than to whether partisans might characterize them as climate change "skeptics" or "advocates." They certainly did not avoid those with a favorable view of the IPCC reports—such as Professor Schroeder himself.

Third, what the Guardian essentially characterizes as a bribe is the conventional practice of AEI—and Brookings, Harvard, and the University of Manchester—to pay individuals at other research institutions for commissioned work, and to cover their travel expenses when they come to the sponsoring institution to present their papers. The levels of authors' honoraria vary from case to case, but a $10,000 fee for a research project involving the review of a large amount of dense scientific material, and the synthesis of that material into an original, footnoted and rigorous article is hardly exorbitant or unusual; many academics would call it modest.

We should all be aware that political attacks such as the Guardian's are more than sloppy or sensation-seeking journalism: they are efforts to throttle debate, and therefore aim at the heart of AEI's purposes and methods. The successive IPCC climate change reports contain a wealth of valuable information, but there has been a longstanding effort to characterize them as representing more of a "scientific consensus" than they probably are, and to gloss over uncertainties and disagreements within the IPCC documents themselves. Consensus plays an important role in science and scientific progress, but so does disputation—reasoned argument is essential to good science, and competition of ideas is essential to scientific progress. AEI is strongly opposed to the politicization of science, just as it is to the politicization of economics and other disciplines. On climate change as on other issues, we try to sort out the areas of genuine consensus from the areas of reasonable debate and uncertainty. Ken and Steve's letter to Professor Schroeder was clear about this: "we are looking for . . . a well-supported but accessible discussion of which elements of climate modeling have demonstrated predictive value that might make them policy-relevant and which elements of climate modeling have less levels of predictive utility, and hence, less utility in developing climate policy." The effort to anathematize opposing views is the standard recourse of the ideologue; one of AEI's highest purposes, here as in many other contentious areas, is to ensure that such efforts do not succeed.

Chris DeMuth

If there were evidence that AEI was trying to get individual scientists to change their tune in return for large honoraria, there would undoubtedly be a story here. But there is no evidence this occurred. The general views of Professors Schroeder and North are well knowm to those who work in this area, and were unlikely to be swayed by ths offer (and they were not). More broadly, just as there may be financial incentives to write analyses desired by corporate funders, there are also financial incentives to tailor research projects and findings to increase the likelihood of receiving government grants. This is why I believe scientific studies should be analyzed on their merits, not the source of funding.

In the end, some may wish AEI was not sponsoring critical research and analysis of the IPCC report and current climate policy proposals, but it's hardly a scandal that they do.

UPDATE: AEI's David Frum chimes in here. Frum finds the Guardian story and the charges it has spawned to be absurd. Interestingly enough, Frum also supports the adoption of a carbon tax to address the threat of climate change.

Some folks have pointed me to this item on TNR's "The Plank" by Bradford Plummer. I don't find it any more compelling than the Guardian story, and the suggestion that there should be no criticism of the IPCC report because "any scientists out there who had legitimate complaints about the report . . .could have worked with the IPCC and registered their objections during the drafting process" is positively silly. Set aside the growing critique that the new IPCC report is not alarmist enough, as I discussed here, the Summary for Policymakers released last week is ultimately revised and approved by participating governments, not the hundreds of scientists who participate in the development of the underlying report. The actual IPCC report itself is not immune from critique either. As a "consensus" document that is based upon research conducted prior to a set date, it cannot hope to resolve all of the continuing debates about various aspects of climate science. Judgments are made during the drafting process to accomodate differing views. Further, it presents various scenarios with potentially different implications for public policy. Sincere efforts to distill, analyze, and critique the report, and explain why policy decisions should rely on certain findings more than others, are helpful to the policy development process. This is true whether such efforts are sponsored by AEI, the Pew Foundation, or Environmental Defense.

WaPo on AEI Funding Climate Critiques:

Today's Washington Post reports on the controversy over the American Enterprise Institute's effort to solicit analyses and critiques of the IPCC report and proposed climate policies.

Advocacy groups such as Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Group questioned why the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has offered $10,000 to academics willing to contribute to a book on climate- change policy, an overture that was first reported Friday in London's Guardian newspaper.

Greenpeace spokeswoman Jane Kochersperger, who noted that AEI has received funding from Exxon Mobil in recent years, said yesterday that the think tank "has clearly hit a new low . . . when it's throwing out cash awards under the rubric of 'reason' to create confusion on the status of climate science. Americans are still suffering the impacts of Hurricane Katrina, and it's clearly time for policymakers on both sides of the aisle to take substantive action on global warming and ignore Exxon Mobil's disinformation campaign via climate skeptics."

AEI visiting scholar Kenneth Green — one of two researchers who has sought to commission the critiques — said in an interview that his group is examining the policy debate on global warming, not the science.

"It's completely policy-oriented," said Green, adding that a third of the academics AEI solicited for the project are interested in participating. "Somebody wants to distort this."

Set aside the irony of citing Hurricane Katrina in the context of complaining about those who "create confusion on the status of climate science." The Greenpeace complaint ultimately amounts to nothing more than opposition to critical perspectives on the need for the sort of climate policies Greenpeace supports. Whether or not one likes AEI's work on climate change — some of which has endorsed carbon taxes and other serious measures — this is hardly a substantive argument that AEI did anything unseemly.

One interesting tidbit in the story provides insight on why Steven Schroeder of Texas A&M declined to participate in the AEI project, and further undermines the most outrageous claims against AEI. In particular, the story reports that Schroeder did not believe AEI would have "skewed his results":

Schroeder, who has worked with Green in the past and has questioned some aspects of traditional climate modeling, said in an interview that he did not think AEI would have skewed his results. But he added that he worried his contribution might have been published alongside "off-the-wall ideas" questioning the existence of global warming.

"We worried our work could be misused even if we produced a reasonable report," Schroeder said. "While any human endeavor can be criticized, the IPCC system greatly exceeds the cooperation, openness and scientific rigorousness of the process applied to any other problem area that has significant effects on society."

Faced with such resistance, AEI modified its proposal last month and sent out a new round of offers, asking academics to contribute to a book examining the broad policy options for dealing with global warming.

I have a copy of the model letter Ken Green and Steven Hayward used for the second round of solicitations noted in the WaPo story and, because some have requested it, I am posting it below (even though I don't think it laters the bottom line). So others can judge for themselves, here it is:

This is Steven Hayward and Ken Green writing from the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. We are writing to solicit your thoughts about, and hopefully your participation in, an AEI project on climate change policy. Between the forthcoming Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC due later this year, the Stern Review, and the close of the Kyoto Protocol's first commitment period on the intermediate horizon, the time seems propitious for a fresh round of discussion of climate policy. AEI would like to commission a series of essays from a broad range of experts on various general and specific aspects of the issue, around which we should like to organize several conferences in Washington and ultimately a book.

Two general thoughts dominate our thinking about the structure of a useful project. First, in the public mind at least (which is to say, the news media) climate change has tended to be caught in a straightjacket between so-called "skeptics" and so-called "alarmists," with seemingly little room left in the middle for people who may have reasonable doubts or heterodox views about the range of policy prescriptions that should be considered for climate change of uncertain dimension. This perception is mistaken, of course, as Andrew Revkin's recent New York Times article on "an emerging middle ground" on climate change made evident. Nonetheless, we would like to attempt to break out of this straightjacket and see if it is possible to create a space for an identifiable "third way" of thinking about the problem that is similar to the various "third way" approaches to other social policy problems that were popular in the 1990s.

Our second general thought is that the chief difficulty of carving out a "third way" on climate change is due to the unwieldy size and complexity of both the scientific inquiry and policy approaches to the problem. We had thought to produce a series of essays to review and critique the forthcoming IPCC FAR, early drafts of which are circulating, but have been persuaded that an IPCC-focused project is too limited. Although some commentary on the IPCC FAR is in order, our latest thinking is broaden our scope. One idea is to solicit essays in two categories. The first category would be along the lines of a blue-sky essay on "What Climate Policies Would I Implement If I Was King for a Day." The second category would be specific critiques of existing or proposed policy responses such as will appear in Working Group III or have been put forward in reports such as the Stern Review. (Such essays might take as their focus a single chapter from Working Group III, or an aspect of the Stern Review.)

Above all we want to have a diverse collection of pre-eminent thinkers on this subject, which is why we are keen to include you in the project. AEI is willing to offer honoraria of up to $10,000 for participating authors, for essays in the range of 7,500 to 10,000 words, to be completed by September 1, and we are keen to work with you to refine an appropriate topic.

As I noted before, I don't think there is much of a story here: A think tank is commissioning work from people who are likely to produce reports that will support the think tank's general mission. When those reports are produced, they can be evaluated on their merits. Insofar as there is now controversy, I understand why the WaPo ran its piece. My point is that there should not have been any controversy in the first place.

UPDATE: According to this report, ExxonMobil was not involved, or even aware, that AEI was soliciting critiques and analyses of the IPCC report and climate policy proposals.

On Ad Hominem Arguments:

In the discussion over whether there is something scandalous about AEI's effort to commission analyses of the IPCC report and proposed climate report, more than one commenter sought to defend the use of ad hominem arguments. For instance, "Justin" commented:

The "ad hominen criticism is wrong" argument is thorougly erroneous, as I have discussed before. When the reader, either because the evidence is withheld or too complex for him to understand, on a particular challenged argument, is expected to agree by trusting or distrusting the source, an ad hominen attack/ab hominen defense is all you have to go by.
In a bit of snark, I paraphrased this claim as "Ad hominem arguments are convenient for the lazy and uninformed." Even put this way, the claim has some truth, but all it means is that ad hominem evaluations have some utility as a time-saving, filtering device for those who lack the time or ability to evaluate the substance of a claim on its merits. It does not say anything at all about the truth or falsity of the claim itself. In other words, it does not establish that ad hominem arguments are valid arguments.

Put another way: While it may be reasonable in some contexts to say: "I trust information and arguments from X more than from Y because Y is [corrupt/bought/of the wrong ideology/etc.]", it is a logical fallacy to say "Y's argument is wrong" for the same reasons. The strength or weakness of Y's argument can be evaluated independently of Y's personal failings.

So, if I want to know something about the health risks of smoking, and lack the time, inclination, or ability to research the question for myself in any detail, I may decide to trust the word of a medical professional over that of a tobacco lobbyist — and I will make this decision because one is a medical professional who is concerned about encouraging good health and preventing sickness, while the other may have a financial incentive to gloss over the harms caused by his product. The truth or falsity of each person's claims, however, are independent of my evaluation. In this context, ad hominem information serves as a time-saving heuristic device, but that is all.

In the context of blog comment threads, I think it reasonable to presume that those who rely upon ad hominem arguments typically do so because they lack the time, inclination or ability to mount more substantive critiques. This is particularly the case where the argument is utilized for purposes beyond the dismissal of an appeal to authority. [After all, if one person in a debate wants to take the short-cut of appealing to an authority instead of spelling out an argument, it is reasonable to point out why the authority in question might not be so authoritative.] Blogs like this one aspire to be forums for reasoned discussion of various questions. Whether or not we succeed in our aims, that discussion requires engaging subjects on their merits, not resort to logical fallacies like the standard ad hominem.

The Senatorial Inquisition of AEI:

Spurred by the allegations that the American Enterprise Institute sought to "buy scientists" to challenge the IPCC report, four Democratic Senators wrote to AEI President Chris DeMuth to challenge AEI's actions and demand an apology. In their letter, Senators Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry, alleged that if the published reports that AEI sought to "bribe" scientists were accurate, "it would be both disappointing and inexcusable." The Senators further proclaimed that they "would not stand silently by while organizations attempt to undermine science through offers of significant amounts of money." The letter concludes:

We hope that you will respond to this letter by telling us that the news reports that you offered to pay scientists up to $10,000 are incorrect. If not, we trust that AEI will publicly apologize for this conduct and demonstrate its sincerity by properly disciplining those responsible.

In the meantime, it is clear that the Senators were not reserving judgement about AEI's alleged conduct. In a press release about the letter, Senator Sanders declared:

It's outrageous that a right-wing think tank with ties to Big Oil and the Bush Administration is trying to twist scientific findings for their political purposes on the pressing issue of climate change. . . . The IPCC report confirms the urgency of the problem and adds to the scientific consensus that global warming is happening now and is human-caused. Is there no limit to the lengths that some corporate-funded groups will go to protect their donors' short-term profits? Is the fate of the entire planet not important enough for them to put the common interest above their narrow self-interest? The truth is that this scandalous behavior on the part of AEI is just the latest example of how big money interests distort and undermine honest debate on the important issues facing our country in so many areas.

AEI President Chris DeMuth did not take this lying down. His strongly worded response (complete with attachments) is posted on AEI's website here. Writes DeMuth:

I am saddened that you would not only believe the reports but would seek to give them credence by repeating them in ways that are even more reckless than the original article published last Friday by the Guardian.

The accusations of the Guardian article, and of your letter, are false. I sent around a memorandum to my AEI colleagues the day the article was published, attaching the letters we had sent to various scientists and policy experts knowledgeable about climate change issues . . . . Relevant portions of these documents were in circulation on the Internet last weekend and in the press earlier this week; they were readily available to anyone on your staffs who had wished to look into the matter or to call me or anyone else at AEI about it. . . .

The accusations of your letter, while couched in the form of questions and insinuations, are as I said harshly worded, and are extremely serious coming from four members of the United States Senate. And they are leveled at a long-established research institution, familiar to all of you, which takes the integrity and independence of its research equally seriously . . . . So it is not a rhetorical question to ask whether you stand by your letter and think it was well-considered.

Finally, I must take exception to your pointed opening reference to "the depths to which some would sink to undermine the scientific consensus that human activity is the major source of global climate change." I believe you have overstated the scientific consensus on the subject, but, even if you have not, I find it worrisome that four powerful political leaders would object to scientific dissent per se. Although you later give a formulaic nod to the right of dissent, you object to being paid a "significant" sum for dissenting research, which rather limits your conception of permissible dissent.

Consensus--and freedom to challenge consensus--are equally vital to the progress of science. History, including recent history, is replete with examples of expert consensus that turned out in the fullness of time to be mistaken. When I look over AEI's publications and conferences on climate change issues, I can indeed find arguments against (as well as for) aspects of IPCC modeling and other matters where some have urged that public debate should cease. I want you to know that AEI will continue to sponsor research and host speakers on climate change issues whose views we regard as reasonable and worthy of attention--never seeking to undermine any consensus for its own sake, but also never paying heed to whether particular views are in or out of official favor. AEI scholars have stood in opposition to established orthodoxy many times; we cherish our intellectual freedom and are proud of the uses we have made of that freedom; we will not be silenced by threats to that freedom.

The Wall Street Journal editorializes on the exchange here.

"Scenes from the Climate Inquisition":

AEI's Steven Hayward and Kenneth Green defend their climate policy projects in the Weekly Standard. Here's a taste:

The irony of this story line is that AEI and similar right-leaning groups are more often attacked for supposedly ignoring the scientific "consensus" and promoting only the views of a handful of "skeptics" from the disreputable fringe. Yet in this instance, when we sought the views of leading "mainstream" scientists, our project is said to be an attempt at bribery. In any event, it has never been true that we ignore mainstream science; and anyone who reads AEI publications closely can see that we are not "skeptics" about warming. It is possible to accept the general consensus about the existence of global warming while having valid questions about the extent of warming, the consequences of warming, and the appropriate responses. In particular, one can remain a policy skeptic, which is where we are today, along with nearly all economists.

Of interest to those who have been following this story, Hayward and Green provide some backstory on their letter to Professors Schroeder and North at Texas A&M, and how this became a major story.

North declined our invitation on account of an already full schedule. Schroeder shared our letter with one of his Texas A&M colleagues, atmospheric scientist Andrew Dessler. Dessler posted our complete letter on his blog in late July, along with some critical but largely fair-minded comments, including: "While one might be skeptical that the AEI will give the [IPCC Fourth Assessment Report] a fair hearing, the fact that they have solicited input from a credible and mainstream scientist like Jerry North suggests to me that I should not prejudge their effort."

Dessler's story was linked on another popular environmental blog (www.grist.org), after which someone in the environmental advocacy community (the Washington Post suggests it was Greenpeace and the Public Interest Research Group) picked up the story and tried to plant it, with a sinister spin, somewhere in the media. Several reporters looked into it--including one from a major broadcast network who spent half a day talking with us in November about the substance of our climate views--but reached the conclusion that there was no story here. . . .

They further seek to place the episode in the context of a broader cliamte "inquisition":

The rollout of the IPCC report and the Guardian story attacking us coincide with the climax of what can be aptly described as a climate inquisition intended to stifle debate about climate science and policy. Anyone who does not sign up 100 percent behind the catastrophic scenario is deemed a "climate change denier." Distinguished climatologist Ellen Goodman spelled out the implication in her widely syndicated newspaper column last week: "Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers." One environmental writer suggested last fall that there should someday be Nuremberg Trials--or at the very least a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission--for climate skeptics who have blocked the planet's salvation.

Former Vice President Al Gore has proposed that the media stop covering climate skeptics, and Britain's environment minister said that, just as the media should give no platform to terrorists, so they should exclude climate change skeptics from the airwaves and the news pages. Heidi Cullen, star of the Weather Channel, made headlines with a recent call for weather-broadcasters with impure climate opinions to be "decertified" by the American Meteorological Society. Just this week politicians in Oregon and Delaware stepped up calls for the dismissal of their state's official climatologists, George Taylor and David Legates, solely on the grounds of their public dissent from climate orthodoxy. And as we were completing this article, a letter arrived from senators Bernard Sanders, Pat Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, and John Kerry expressing "very serious concerns" about our alleged "attempt to undermine science." Show-trial hearing to follow? Stay tuned.

Desperation is the chief cause for this campaign of intimidation. The Kyoto accords are failing to curtail greenhouse gas emissions in a serious way, and although it is convenient to blame Bush, anyone who follows the Kyoto evasions of the Europeans knows better. The Chinese will soon eclipse the United States as world's largest greenhouse gas emitter, depriving the gas-rationers of one of their favorite sticks for beating up Americans. The economics of steep, near-term emissions cuts are forbidding--though that's one consensus the climate crusaders ignore. Robert Samuelson nailed it in his syndicated column last week: "Don't be fooled. The dirty secret about global warming is this: We have no solution."