WASHINGTON, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- Several members of Congress have begun sending letters to universities, energy companies and trade associations, seeking information about funding to scientists who have been critical of climate change.
Critics have been quick to label the effort a "witch hunt," but those responsible say the outreach is a logical response to revelations that one of the country's leading climate skeptics had been receiving funding from major players in the energy industry.
Over the weekend, activist group Greenpeace published documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request that showed ExxonMobil, Southern Company and others had funneled more than $1 million to Wei-Hock Soon, known as Willie, for research papers and congressional testimony described as "deliverables."
Soon, who is a research scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, obliged by publishing several papers in science journals questioning widely held views on climate change. Journals require scientists to disclose all financial conflicts of interest.
Letters were sent to 100 companies and organizations signed by Sens. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., while additional letters were mailed to universities signed by Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva, D-Ariz.
"My colleagues and I cannot perform our duties if research or testimony provided to us is influenced by undisclosed financial relationships," Grijalva wrote in his letter.
Some of the letters were addressed directly to prominent climate science critics, including University of Colorado's Roger Pielke, Jr.
Pielke wrote a blog post Wednesday, titled "I am Under 'Investigation," denouncing the efforts of Grijalva and affirming that he has not ever received funding from any fossil fuel companies or representatives.
"Rep. Grijalva knows this too, because when I have testified before the U.S. Congress, I have disclosed my funding and possible conflicts of interest," Pielke wrote. "So I know with complete certainty that this investigation is a politically motivated 'witch hunt' designed to intimidate me (and others) and to smear my name."
Boxer and her colleagues insist their efforts aren't about intimidation, only about rooting out hidden corporate interests in public discourse.
"We've known for many years that the tobacco industry supported phony science claiming that smoking does not cause cancer. Now it's time for the fossil fuel industry to come clean about funding climate change deniers," Boxer said in a press release.
The last time such an inquiry took place it was led by Republicans, and the targets were a number of prominent climate scientists whose work has lent credence to man-made climate change -- a concept that has convinced the vast majority of scientists.
"It does come across as sort of heavy-handed and overly aggressive," researcher Michael Mann, a Penn State climate scientist and subject of Republican-led probes, told National Journal.
But Mann said that disclosing funding is something no scientists should have a problem with, and is markedly different in tone and substance to the requests he was subject to.
"The difference being that they were demanding materials that are protected under principles of academic freedom -- private deliberations between academics or scientists, unpublished manuscripts, raw source code that was written, stuff that's intrinsic to your work as a scientist," Mann said.