Scandal over Leaked Heartland Climate Documents Continues to Stir Controversy

Peter Gleick at the 2009 meeting of the World Economic Forum. Credit: World Economic Forum, flickr.

This week, climate scientist Peter Gleick admitted that he fraudulently obtained and leaked documents from the Heartland Institute, a think tank with a climate science denial campaign. Clashes over the realities of climate change aren’t new. Just a few weeks ago there was the Wall Street Journal opinion piece, for example, signed by 16 scientists (note: few of them climate scientists, half with ties to the oil/gas industry) stating that there isn’t a reason to panic about global warming. After that unscientific attack on climate change, the WSJ then printed a rebuttal by a long list of climate experts, which was widely covered by media outlets. Yet unlike some back and forth in the press, this new Gleick/Heartland scandal does nothing to improve the chances for rational public discussion on this vital subject.

The Heartland Institute expends significant effort and money perpetuating doubt about the reality of manmade climate change. Over the last five years, they’ve spent several millions of dollars undermining climate science, much of the money coming from an anonymous donor. (They do this by funding what some call denialist science and then creating and distributing alternate climate change materials to K-12 schools, to point out just a couple initiatives.) But the way that Gleick, who said until recent events served on the National Center for Science Education board and American Geophysical Union task force on scientific ethics, went about acquiring the documents—by contacting Heartland, saying he was a board member, and then asking them to resend the documents to a different email address, which a staffer did—infuriates many people who have been working long and hard to bring the ramifications of a warming world to the forefront of the public conversation.

“Gleick’s actions were completely irresponsible and while the information uncovered was interesting (if unsurprising), it in no way justified his actions. There is an integrity required to do science (and talk about it credibly), and he has unfortunately failed this test. The public discussion on this issue will be much the poorer for this – both directly because this event is (yet) another reason not to have a serious discussion, but also indirectly because his voice as an advocate of science, once powerful, has now been diminished,” Gavin Schmidt, the NASA climate scientist who leads the RealClimate blog, wrote (and then Andy Revkin quoted on his Dot Earth blog).

Gleick did apologize for his behavior this week in a Huffington Post piece: “My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts -- often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated -- to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.”

Since then, the press has been madly reporting on the repercussions and ethics of the decision. “He was hailed as a hero by Naomi Klein and by science educator Scott Mandia, who told the Guardian that Gleick had acted as any journalist would. ‘Peter Gleick, a scientist who is also a journalist, just used the same tricks that any investigative reporter uses to uncover the truth. He is the hero and Heartland remains the villain. He will have many people lining up to support him.’"

On the other side, we have journalists like The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle, who wrote that it should be a movement’s top priority to voice how horrible Gleick’s actions are instead of minimalizing them. “After you have convinced people that you fervently believe your cause to be more important than telling the truth, you've lost the power to convince them of anything else,” she went on to say.

Admitting guilt in this situation is laudable, but there are other ways to expose groups like Heartland. Tim Dickinson does a nice job discussing this in a post he wrote for Rolling Stone when he compares the Heartland situation to fighting funders of big tobacco.

Still, I’m inclined to agree with Revkin, who ends a recent post on his blog with these words: “The only people I see out there in the climate fight who – as far as I can tell —never admit to an error are people with agendas from which they can never stray. They’re perfect.”

For more links to good reads on the topic, check out Climate Central’s post here.

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