This article titled “Gleick apology over Heartland leak stirs ethics debate among climate scientists” was written by Suzanne Goldenberg, US environment correspondent, for guardian.co.uk on Tuesday 21st February 2012 19.04 UTC
The outing of the researcher who exposed the Heartland Institute’s efforts to discredit climate change has thrown the scientific community into tumult, with fierce debates raging on Tuesday over whether to brand his actions heroic, or misguided.
Peter Gleick, a water scientist and president of the Pacific Institute, admitted in a blogpost on Monday night to using a false name to dupe the thinktank into sending him confidential board materials, which he then forwarded to campaigners and journalists.
He apologised for the deception – which he described as “a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics” – but added in the blog post published at the Huffington Post: “My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts – often anonymous, well-funded and co-ordinated – to attack climate science.”
Gleick’s admission – nearly a week after Heartland’s financial plans and donors list was put online – set off a fierce online debate about whether his actions made him a hero or a villain, and whether he had helped or set back the cause of climate change.
He suffered his first fallout on Tuesday, when he decided against taking up a new position on a board that fights for science education in schools. Gleick was to have headed a new venture defending climate science in classrooms.
The National Centre for Science Education said it had accepted his decision not to take up a board post, and that it did not condone his action.
For some campaigners, such as Naomi Klein, Gleick was an unalloyed hero, who should be sent some “Twitter love”, she wrote on Tuesday.
“Heartland has been subverting well-understood science for years,” wrote Scott Mandia, co-founder of the climate science rapid response team. “They also subvert the education of our schoolchildren by trying to “teach the controversy’ where none exists.”
Mandia went on: “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.”
Others acknowledged Gleick’s wrongdoing, but said it should be viewed in the context of the work of Heartland and other entities devoted to spreading disinformation about science.
“What Peter Gleick did was unethical. He acknowledges that from a point of view of professional ethics there is no defending those actions,” said Dale Jamieson, an expert on ethics who heads the environmental studies programme at New York University. “But relative to what has been going on on the climate denial side this is a fairly small breach of ethics.”
He also rejected the suggestion that Gleick’s wrongdoing could hurt the cause of climate change, or undermine the credibility of scientists.
“Whatever moral high ground there is in science comes from doing science,” he said. “The failing that Peter Gleick engaged in is not a scientific failing. It is just a personal failure.”
But other scientists said Gleick did far more harm than good.
Richard Klein, a climate researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute, said he was astounded at Gleick’s actions. “All I can say is: what was he thinking?” he said. “It’s an own goal. It’s not just his own credibility, his own integrity on the line. It’s a whole community of climate scientists who, with the odd exception, want to do good science and make sure science is recognised.”
He went on: “It doesn’t just blur the line between climate science and science policy. It blurs the line between what are acceptable and what are not acceptable methods. He is not perceived by the outside world as acting in his personal capacity. He acted also by responding as Peter Gleick the scientist and of course that hurts other scientists as well.”
John Nolt, a professor of environmental ethics at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, said his big fear was that the furore over Gleick’s deception would distract from efforts to act on climate change. The revelations in the Heartland document – many already familiar to the environmental community – were not worth that cost, he said.
“Nothing serves climate change deniers better than the loss of perspective that ensues when debate turns from urgent matters of science and policy to largely inconsequential disputes about personal behavior,” said Nolt.
Nolt said he did not subscribe to the argument that Gleick’s wrong was minor in comparison to the damage done by Heartland. “I do think he crossed a line. It is unethical to obtain documents through deception in that way and I don’t think it matters what the other side is doing,” he said.
For many veteran of the climate wars, there was an uncanny parallels to the breach of Heartland materials and the hack of scientists’ emails from East Anglia’s climate research unit in 2009. However, scientists almost invariably noted that Gleick had come clean, unlike those who carried out the East Anglia hack.
“It’s wrong to obtain documents under false pretenses, just as it was wrong for hackers to have taken scientists’ emails from the University of East Anglia. There’s no excuse for fighting deception with deception,” Kevin Knoblach, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote. “Gleick has now come forward to publicly acknowledge his responsibility in this matter. Obviously, the person or persons who took scientists’ emails have not felt a similar need to come clean.”
The climate science legal defence fund went even further, in a letter tweaking the Heartland Institute for its complaints about invasion of privacy.
There was also intense speculation on Tuesday about whether Gleick had exposed himself to criminal prosecution or a law suit brought by Heartland. The thinktank president, Joseph Bast, said the unauthorised release of confidential documents, and a two-page memo which Gleick said was sent to him anonymously, had caused permanent damage to its reputation.
“A mere apology is not enough to undo the damage,” Bast said in a statement. He said Heartland was consulting legal experts.
Heartland claims the two-page memo, which summarises other documents that appear to be authentic, is a fake.
In a sign of combat to come, Gleick has taken on Chris Lehane, a top Democratic operative and crisis manager. Lehane, who worked in the Clinton White House, is credited for exposing the rightwing forces arrayed against the Democratic president. He was Al Gore’s press secretary during his 2000 run for the White House.
In his admission, Gleick claimed that he carried out the hoax on Heartland as a means of verifying the authenticity of a document that appeared to set out the thinktank’s climate strategy.
“At the beginning of 2012, I received an anonymous document in the mail describing what appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute’s climate programme strategy,” Gleick wrote. “It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. I do not know the source of that original document but assumed it was sent to me because of my past exchanges with Heartland and because I was named in it.
“Given the potential impact however, 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 and 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.”
Gleick, a well regarded scientist, has been an important figure in the increasingly heated climate wars, and has sparred often in print against Heartland and others who deny the existence of climate change, such as the Republican senator Jim Inhofe.
But Gleick does not appear to have experienced immediate remorse. He did not move to claim the ruse until there was already feverish online speculation about his involvement. He responded to a request by the Guardian for comment last Wednesday by saying he did not wish to comment.
Those actions may have undercut an entire career, the journalist Andrew Revkin wrote in his Dot Earth blog on the New York Times website.
“Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others,” he 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.”
But there were relatively few in the campaigner or scientific community who shared that view on Tuesday. “I don’t think there was ever going to be a kumbaya moment with the folks from Heartland anyway,” said Jeff Ruch, director of the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. “When you have interests that are funding organisations to spread doubt regardless of the circumstances they are still going to find ways to spread doubt.”
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