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Peter Gleick, climate hero?


I need to say a few words about Peter Gleick.

If you haven’t heard of him, you will. Gleick is a co-founder of the respected Pacific Institute, a widely-recognized water expert and a McArthur Foundation “genius” fellow, but none of that matters anymore. This week, Gleick confessed to lying to the Heartland Institute to obtain confidential documents. He wrote:

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.

Until he resigned last week, Gleick was chair of the American Geophysical Union’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics.

This is a sad and shocking turn of events, and you can be sure that those who try to undermine or distort climate science will make the most of it. They already are, here and here and here at Heartland. Ugh. 

Disturbing, too, has been some of the reaction from climate activists. On the DeSmogBlog, a website that devotes itself to “clearing the PR pollution that clouds climate science,” Richard Littlemore writes:

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.

This is breathtaking in its obtuseness. Setting aside the questionable ethics involved, Gleick committed a big tactical blunder.

Only slightly more measured is this blogpost (The  Morality of Unmasking Heartland) from scientist Stephan Lewandowsky:

Revealing to the public the active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial that seeks to delay action against climate change likely constitutes a classic public good.

It is a matter of personal moral judgment whether that public good justifies Gleick’s sting operation to obtain those revelations.

Good judgment, of course, is exactly what’s lacking here.

Megan McArdle put it well:

When skeptics complain that global warming activists are apparently willing to go to any lengths–including lying–to advance their worldview, I’d say one of the movement’s top priorities should be not proving them right.  And if one rogue member of the community does something crazy that provides such proof, I’d say it is crucial that the other members of the community say “Oh, how horrible, this is so far beyond the pale that I cannot imagine how this ever could have happened!” and not, “Well, he’s apologized and I really think it’s pretty crude and opportunistic to make a fuss about something that’s so unimportant in the grand scheme of things.”
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.

One of the ironies here is that the leaked Heartland documents didn’t prove very much. Anyone who’s paid attention knows that Heartland has gone to extraordinary lengths to challenge the scientific consensus around climate change. And, yes, folks, it is a consensus. If anything was surprising in the documents, it was the realization that Heartland is a puny little group in the grand scheme of things (with less than an $8 million annual budget) and that so far as is known, it is not a front for the fossil fuel industry, as has been widely alleged. (There remains the mystery of Heartland’s Anonymous Donor who gave more than $14 million to the organization and may turn out to be an oil or coal baron. Here’s some informed speculation on the Anonymous Donor.) It’s absurd to compare the Heartland documemts to, say, the Pentagon Papers, as some have. Gleick’s behavior is more akin to the sting operations conducted by conservative filmmaker James O’Keefe.

This story will get worse before it gets better. There remains the sticky problem of a “climate strategy” memo which appears to be a forgery, for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that it includes mistakes about Heartland that no insider would make.  (See McArdle for the details. ) Even before Gleick confessed, his critics suggested that he forged the climate memo; it’s written in a style similar to his, and identifies him as a nemesis of the climate deniers, thus inflating his own importance. Gleick says that he got the strategy memo in the mail, and that was what prompted him to lie to pry the other documents out of Heartland. That story strains credulity, to put it mildly.

Let’s hope that we can all agree that it’s not OK to forge a document, not even when the planet’s future is at stake.

In his confession, Gleick wrote that a “rational public debate is desperately needed” about climate.

That, at least, he got right.

Marc Gunther's picture

Thank Marc for the Post!

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Robert Rapier's picture
Robert Rapier on Feb 23, 2012 6:46 pm GMT

Marc, your take on it is very much like my own: 

And credibility at DeSmogBlog is rapidly evaporating. If you haven’t seen their latest — in which they purport to authenticate the document — it’s a doozy. Basically, the document is authentic because it contains things that are in the files. No mention of course of the error about the Koch donation.

My biggest shock is that Gleicks’ supporters aren’t pressing him for evidence that the strategy document is real. Rather they are saying that HI must prove that it isn’t. 


David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on Feb 24, 2012 5:34 pm GMT

Nick Stern, lead author of the Stern Review, after he gave a recent lecture at the London School of Economics, was asked by a reporter about the Heartland issue.  His answer:

“The Heartland Institute?  I don’t think that’s a very important question quite honestly.  I think that scientists… should get on and do decent solid serious research and try to do it on issues that count and share their ideas in a productive way.  That’s what really matters and I think the tawdry stories of who hacked into whom when and just how dodgy it looked when they hacked in – I think they’re diversions from serious discussion.  We have to ask ourselves what are the big policy issues.  And I hope you as a reporter will focus in what you do on these subjects about what are the big policy issues and not simply on who looked through whose window in the night.  I just don’t think that’s a very good way of proceeding.”

During Climategate the big news item was climate scientists and their science appear to be discredited, and during this Heartland BS it seems many want to make the big news item appear to be climate scientists and their science appear to be discredited.  Why is the story the same no matter what happens?  


Marc Gunther's picture
Marc Gunther on Feb 28, 2012 7:35 pm GMT

Thanks for your comments, and sorry to be slow in responding.

Just to be clear–I do NOT think Peter Gleick is in anyway a climate hero.

I’ve also lost all confidence in DeSmogBlog. They are as partisan and unmoved by the facts as Heartland, sad to say.

Having said that, I’m ready to  move onto to other topics…unless there is significant news here.


Jesse Parent's picture
Jesse Parent on Feb 29, 2012 12:40 am GMT

I think the takeaway from Mr Gleick’s situation is that when it comes to such tricky and politically volatile (and downright important) matters as dealing energy and trying to address extremely important public issues, you have to be discipliend about your credibility.

No, Mr Gleick’s wrong-doing may not affect the course of things in the long run, but it’s just one more stumbling block in terms of getting where we need to be in having a serious energy and climate discussion in the US.

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