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Renowned Scientist Confesses to Stealing Heartland Institute Documents

RP Siegel | Friday February 24th, 2012 | 3 Comments

In a startling disclosure, world renowned scientist, Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security and the chair of the American Geophysical Union’s Task Force on Scientific Ethics – the man that the BBC had called a “visionary on the environment,” – confessed yesterday to using a false identity to obtain confidential documents from the Heartland Institute, and then to leak those documents to the press. The documents contained the organization’s 2012 strategy to continue their assault on climate science by deliberately spreading doubt on the subject and targeting young children, among others.

Gleick claims that he was sent copies of a document from an anonymous source early in the year. And then, “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 professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name.”

He claims that the materials he received confirmed the strategic elements contained in the document. The Heartland Institute has acknowledged the authenticity of the material they sent him, though they insist that the strategy document itself was a fake.

The question of who authored the allegedly fake document remains unanswered. Could it have been Gleick himself? Megan McArdle at the Atlantic thinks that is certainly possible, based on admittedly circumstantial evidence. This includes things like a glaring error in the amount contributed by the Koch Brothers, the fact that it had been scanned just the day before the leak occurred, some similarities to Glieck’s writing style, and the way the facts all lined up, suggesting that the document, if it was indeed a fake, was written after the pilfered documents had been read.

McArdle calls Gleick’s actions, “an absolutely astonishing lapse of judgment for someone in their mid-twenties, and is truly flabbergasting coming from a research institute head in his mid-fifties.”

It certainly was odd for a man at the pinnacle of such a distinguished scientific career to suddenly take on the role of environmental suicide bomber.

Gleick, who received his B.S. from Yale and an M.S. and Ph.D. from Berkeley is an internationally recognized water expert and was named a MacArthur Fellow in October 2003 for his work. In 1999, he was elected an Academician of the International Water Academy, in Oslo, Norway and in 2006, he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. He served on the boards of numerous journals and organizations, and is the author of many scientific papers and seven books, including the biennial water report, The World’s Water, and the new Bottled and Sold: The Story Behind Our Obsession with Bottled Water.

Why would he have done such a crazy and reckless thing, when he could have done so much more for the cause that he clearly believes in so passionately by just continuing to do his job? I think there is only one plausible answer: he lost his cool. Clearly frustrated by the massively funded antics of the denialist camp, he set aside reason and argument and patience and strapped on the journalistic equivalent of a body bomb. He may have also been influenced by the apparent impact of WikiLeaks.

Gleick writes, “My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists.”

Whether he helped out his cause at all is questionable. Most people who have followed Heartland’s operation were not really surprised by the content of the disclosures, except perhaps the boldness of the rhetoric. More likely he dealt climate science another setback.

Meanwhile, Heartland president Joseph Bast said in a press release: “It has caused major and permanent damage to the reputations of The Heartland Institute and many of the scientists, policy experts and organizations we work with.”

Of course the denialists will howl with indignation in hopes that Gleick’s lapse in judgment will override the heinous nature of what was disclosed, as if the one somehow excuses the other. It doesn’t, let’s make no mistake about that. But Gleick’s decision to “go commando” on this was clearly a mistake. This will add to the characterization by Heartland and others of their ilk of climate scientists as unscrupulous and untrustworthy, an appellation that only time, professionalism and humility will overcome.

The climate scientist Simon Donner, who joined Gleick in signing a recent letter to The Wall Street Journal rebutting a denialist op-ed article, warned of the downside of lowering ethical standards in the name of a worthy mission:

“Reforming public communication about anthropogenic climate change will require humility on the part of scientists and educators. Climate scientists, for whom any inherent doubts about the possible extent of human influence on the climate were overcome by years of training in physics and chemistry of the climate system, need to accept that there are rational cultural, religious, and historical reasons why the public may fail to believe that anthropogenic climate change is real, let alone that it warrants a policy response.”

Donner goes on to say in his blog, “[I]f climate discourse is a street fight, then we need to do more than fight back with the same dirty tactics. If you want to win a fight, you need to be able to take a punch.”

Is this is street fight? Can the scientific community really expect to beat the denialists’ well-funded propaganda machine at their own game? Apparently not. Gleick clearly didn’t have the stomach to maintain his intellectual thug role long enough to withstand the sleepless nights that eventually dragged him back onto his email to confess his sins.

Who is to say that this is not like the story of the bully punching the scrawny kid in school when the teacher’s back is turned? When the teacher turns around, all she sees is the scrawny kid hitting the bully and off he goes to the principal’s office. Of course, it’s unfair, but if there’s a lesson in this, it should be that choosing the low road is rarely the best idea, especially when you have other means at your disposal.

It seems to me, that if we stoop to their level, they win, though maintaining the high road is often easier said than done.

[Image credit: Fotolia Royalty free collection]

RP Siegel, PE, is the President of Rain Mountain LLC. He is also the co-author of the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


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  • Cbksk

    Assymetrical ethical standards are a recipe to lose.

    Wingnuts are the biggest hypocrites.

    Gleick did nothing wrong and nothing that Heartland hasn’t supported thousands of times.

  • James Mayeau

     The Nigerian Widow did nothing wrong when she phished Aunt Tilly’s credit card number.

    The guy pretending to be an internet service rep did nothing wrong, as he conned the unsuspecting public out of their password. 

    If you can kid yourself that those two statements are right, you might as well believe in global warming. 

    • RP SIegel

       The greenhouse effect of CO2 was discovered by Svante Arrhennius around 1896. It has been demonstrated in the laboratory countless times since then. The fact that humanity has been pumping enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere is not disputed by anyone. Starting with those two facts makes for a difficult argument for the deniers but they persist. Add to that, the fact of unprecedented temperature, drought and flood records in recent years. Yes climate is complex and is not entirely predictable, but the overall trend is plain to anyone who cares to look. If you measure the temperature above a candle flame you will see moments when, due to flickering, the temperature momentarily drops. But to use that as an argument that the candle is not fundamentally warming the room is simply wrong.