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Strong Reactions to Scientist’s Role in Heartland Case

Last week’s publication of leaked documents detailing the finances and strategic planning of the Heartland Institute, a right-wing think tank based in Chicago that has played a prominent role in promoting climate change skepticism, took an unexpected turn late Monday when a prominent climate scientist confessed to being the source of the leak.

Amid growing suspicion of his possible role in the leak, Peter Gleick, a leading scientific authority on climate and water issues, admitted to being the source of the leaked documents and apologized for his role in the scandal in a blog post for the Huffington Post. Gleick, the director of the Pacific Institute, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a past recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant,” said he had received the files from an anonymous source, and in an effort to verify their authenticity, he solicited information from the Heartland Institute using an assumed name, and then leaked the documents to the media.

The documents detailed Heartland’s plans to influence school curricula to encourage science teachers to present global warming as a controversy rather than a scientific theory based on evidence, and also disclosed information on Heartland’s funders. 

Gleick wrote: 

“… I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and in a serious lapse of my own professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name. The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.”

“I will not comment on the substance or implications of the materials; others have and are doing so. I only note that the scientific understanding of the reality and risks of climate change is strong, compelling, and increasingly disturbing, and a rational public debate is desperately needed. 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.”

Judging by its press release, the Heartland Institute was not placated: “A mere apology is not enough to undo the damage,” Heartland president Joseph L. Bast said. “We are consulting with legal counsel to determine our next steps...”

According to Politico, Gleick has secured the pro bono public relations services of Democratic operative Chris Lehane, who was the spokesman for Al Gore's 2000 presidential bid, and has retained a lawyer. Corey Goodman, a member of the Pacific Institute's board of directors, told Politico that Gleick's confession was characteristic of his commitment to honesty. "This is very Peter-esque if he discovers he did something wrong to get right out there," said Goodman. "There's a lot of people in these issues who don't do things like that."

“If he discovers he made a mistake, he'd want to be the first one to say so. Give him some credit for that,” Goodman added.

Gleick’s confession is eliciting a wide range of reactions from climate reporters and bloggers on all sides of the climate debate. Here's a roundup of the coverage so far:

New York Times blogger Andy Revkin criticized Gleick for his actions and suggested that there would be serious repercussions for his career. Revkin noted that Gleick is now under increased suspicion of altering a “strategy document” that was among the leaked materials, and which Heartland maintains is a forgery.

Revkin and other climate writers said that Gleick has done significant damage to the cause of defending climate science against the attacks from organizations such as Heartland, which have criticized mainstream climate scientists for years and argued that there is little support for the widely held scientific conclusion that emissions of greenhouse gases are warming the climate.

“One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others . . . That is his personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family),” Revkin wrote.

“The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the “rational public debate” that he wrote — correctly — is so desperately needed.”

Over at Time.com, Bryan Walsh said that Gleick’s tactics would not have been tolerated if they were committed by an investigative journalist. “And just so we’re clear, this is deception — no reputable investigative reporter would be permitted to do what Gleick did. It’s almost certainly a firing offense.” (For a nuanced view of how journalistic ethics may or may not apply in this case, see this commentary from anthropologist and science communicator Greg Laden.)

Houston Chronicle science writer Eric Berger reported that Gleick chairs the American Geophysical Union’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics, making his actions stand out even more. “Thus a policeman for scientific ethics at one of this country’s most prestigious scientific organizations has just made an incredibly serious ethics violation. If you wanted to hand red meat to your opponents in the battle for public hearts and minds in the climate change debate, congratulations, you have just done it,” Berger wrote.

“Beyond the very serious legal consequences Gleick faces, he has unquestionably ceded some of the high ground scientists held in the climate science debate. It will not be easily won back.”

In a statement released late Tuesday, the American Geophysical Union said Gleick resigned from the task force on Feb. 16, a few days before the publication of his Huffington Post blog entry. 

Michael McPhaden, president of the AGU, said: 

"AGU is disappointed that Dr. Gleick acted in a way that is inconsistent with our organization's values. AGU expects its members to adhere to the highest standards of scientific integrity in their research and in their interactions with colleagues and the public. Among the core values articulated in AGU's Strategic Plan are 'excellence and integrity in everything we do.' The vast majority of scientists share and live by these values."

"AGU will continue to uphold these values and encourage scientists to embrace them in order to remain deserving of the public trust. While this incident is regrettable, it should not obscure the fact that climate change is occurring or interfere with substantive scientific discourse regarding climate change."

Climate skeptics are trumpeting Gleick’s admission as proof that climate scientists are playing dirty in the climate debate. The website ClimateDepot has a banner headlines touting “Gleickgate,” for example. Judith Curry, a climate scientist and blogger who has been critical of mainstream climate researchers and the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, focused on the contradictions between Gleick’s actions in this case and his views on scientific integrity.

“Gleick’s strategy has failed on all counts. I don’t think this is from the Art of War, but I read it somewhere and it seems apt:  When fighting a war, don’t waste a bullet on yourself (ouch),” Curry wrote on her blog. “When ‘Heartlandgate’ first broke, I saw no parallels with Climategate. Now, with the involvement of Gleick, there most certainly are parallels. There is the common theme of climate scientists compromising personal and professional ethics, integrity, and responsibility, all in the interests of a ’cause’.”

Other climate skeptic blogs, from Tom Nelson to Climate Audit, are also covering the new developments. Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit eschewed the celebratory note struck by some bloggers, instead writing: “No one should feel any satisfaction in these events, which have been highly damaging to everyone touched by them, including both Heartland and Gleick.”

Meanwhile, some left-leaning climate bloggers are lionizing Gleick as a whistleblower. For example, here's what Richard Littlemore of DeSmogBlog (which along with Thinkprogress was among the first outlets to publish the leaked Heartland documents) wrote:

“Whistleblowers — and that's the role Gleick has played in this instance — deserve respect for having the courage to make important truths known to the public at large. Without condoning or promoting an act of dishonesty, it's fair to say that Gleick took a significant personal risk, and by standing and taking responsibility for his actions, he has shown himself willing to pay the price. For his courage, his honor, and for performing a selfless act of public service, he deserves our gratitude and applause.”

Watts dismissed that defense of Gleick’s actions, saying of DeSmogBlog: “These paid propagandists are shameless, they are labeling him as a martyr for the cause.”

Several commentators have noted that this incident is yet another demonstration of just how unethical and dangerous the climate debate has become. For example, Warren Meyer, writing at Forbes.com, says Gleick’s actions should be a wakeup call to climate scientists and skeptics alike. 

“When we convince ourselves that those who disagree with us are not people of goodwill who simply reach different conclusions from the data, but are instead driven by evil intentions and nefarious sources of funding, then it becomes easier to convince oneself that the ends justify the means. And before skeptics revel in too much schadenfreude here, they are susceptible to falling into exactly the same trap.”

In a sign of how environmental advocacy groups may line up in response to this turn of events, the Union of Concerned Scientists released a statement today criticizing Gleick, but maintaining their position against the Heartland Institute and other groups they say deliberately distort climate science. "There’s no excuse for fighting deception with deception and Dr. Gleick has now come forward to publicly acknowledge his responsibility in this matter," UCS president Kevin Knobloch stated.

"Our criticism of the Heartland Institute’s strategy of spreading misinformation about climate science still stands. It is waging a cynical campaign, funded by corporate interests and anonymous individuals, to undermine the public’s understanding of climate science and introduce ideology disguised as science into our children’s classrooms."