A scientist calling on the federal government to prosecute those who question his position on global climate change has paid himself and his wife millions of dollars in federal grant money, public records show.
George Mason University meteorologist Jagadish Shukla was the lead signatory to a letter sent this month to the president and the attorney general asking them to use federal racketeering laws to prosecute "corporations and other organizations that have knowingly deceived the American people about the risks of climate change."
Recent Stories in Issues
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.) first suggested the tactic in a May Washington Post column.
"We don’t have enough information" to state definitively whether fossil fuel companies have engaged in criminal racketeering schemes by funding research that undermines Whitehouse’s climate policy positions, he wrote. "Civil discovery would reveal whether and to what extent the fossil fuel industry has" committed fraud by doing so.
"We strongly endorse Senator Whitehouse’s call for a RICO investigation," wrote Shukla and 19 other scientists in their Sept. 1 letter.
A copy of that letter is publicly available on the website of the Institute of Global Environment and Society, a nonprofit group run by Shukla and his wife Anne.
That group, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit founded in 1991, is almost entirely funded by taxpayers. Since 2001, the earliest year for which its annual tax filings are available, the IGES has received more than $63 million in government funds, comprising more than 98 percent of its total revenue in that time.
Its federal support has come primarily through the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, according to its website.
Jagadish and Anne Shukla have together received $5.6 million in compensation from IGES since 2001, tax filings show. According to the group’s website, their daughter Sonia is also on staff.
IGES did not respond to a request for comment.
With Shukla’s government salary from GMU, a public university, "that totals to $750k/yr to the leader of the RICO20 from public money for climate work & going after skeptics. Good work if you can get it," wrote Colorado University professor Roger Pielke in a Sunday tweet.
"NASA, NOAA & NSF have some Qs to answer on #RICO20 climate scam," he said in another tweet on Monday. "How does this happen on their watch?"
Pielke has been a prominent critic of congressional efforts to use political and legal measures against scientists and academic organizations that get funding from fossil fuel companies.
Other critics scoffed at government backing for a scientist that they say is attempting to shut down dissent on a contentious political issue.
"It appears that Shukla enriching his family with tax dollars is not enough, he wants more tax dollars to be dedicated to prosecuting those who have committed the crime of closely examining his government-funded research and disagreeing with his alarmist conclusions," said Jim Lakely, a spokesman for the conservative Heartland Institute.
"That takes a special brand of chutzpah," Lakely said in an email.
Another signatory to Shukla’s letter insisted in a post on GMU’s website that the RICO effort is about prosecuting fraud, not shutting down political dissent. The science on climate change is not settled, according to GMU oceanographer Barry Klinger, a research scientist at IGES’s Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies.
"A RICO suit like the one we propose would be very narrowly focussed on whether companies were engaged in fraud in order to continue selling a product which threatens to do harm," Klinger wrote. "[T]he vast majority of people opining on climate are not even theoretically threatened by such a case."
Klinger did not immediately respond to follow-up questions.
IGES is no neutral observer, Lakely said, highlighting Klinger and Shukla’s financial interest in perpetuating their federal support.
"The research of skeptics should be seen as more trustworthy because it is not tainted by government grants that specifically seek to perpetuate the unproven hypothesis that human activity is causing a climate crisis," Lakely said. "If Shukla weren’t willing to continue to ‘prove’ that notion, you can bet his government grants would dry up."
Heartland was tangentially involved in a controversy that set off congressional efforts to root out supposed fossil fuel funding for climate scientists after it was revealed that a handful of oil companies had funded research conducted by Dr. Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
The Center stood by Soon’s research, but members of Congress, led by Whitehouse and Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.), began what critics called a "witch hunt" to root out academic research supposedly tainted by fossil fuel funding.
Pielke, whose research has cast doubt on the link between climate change and extreme weather, was one of the scientists probed in that effort. He subsequently announced that he had "shifted all of my academic work away from climate issues."
"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," Pielke wrote.
Update 10:27 A.M.: After publication, Professor Klinger sent an email calling criticism of the Shukla letter "ironic."
"Dr. Shukla and the rest of us are studying just the kind of phenomena that critics of the anthropogenic global warming say scientists should be studying: natural cycles," Klinger wrote.
"If someone is trying to make a parallel between oil company funding and government funding of climate change research, they are overlooking the obvious difference, which is that some results may threaten the entire purpose of oil companies but not of NOAA and NSF," he said. "The government has been paying scientists to study climate long before Al Gore came along, and climate funding would continue even if we reported that global warming was less of a problem than we thought."
Update 2:00 P.M.: The headline of the piece was updated to reflect the fact that letter was calling for a federal investigation, not a criminal one.