The sad tragedy of Peter Gleick and how a hypocritical Heartland Institute, skilled at the art of communication, has spun good out of a bad
This story has had plenty of coverage in the U.S., so this is more for Canadian readers. If I was to ask Peter Gleick one question, I’d ask why he decided to verify the anonymous documents himself? He could just as easily let someone else — the media, perhaps — do the dirty work and spare himself the controversy he is currently in.
I still can’t get over how hypocritical Heartland Institute is being about this, given how it delighted in seeing climate scientists’ e-mails hacked in the 2009 “Climategate” non-scandal. This so-called “charity” has been extremely vocal in criticizing news organizations for reporting on the Gleick-supplied documents. “How could they not have known that posting the documents would invade the privacy and endanger the safety of many people?” according to a statement from Heartland.
Hmmm… Heartland didn’t seem too concerned about the privacy and safety of those scientists whose e-mails were stolen and who were the target of earlier attacks, including death threats from whack-jobs in the blogosphere.
Do I, as the beginning of the column asks, think Gleick is a whistleblower who deserves our gratitude? I have to say, I’m having a hard time answering that question. More information is needed. What I can say is that I’m sympathetic to climate scientists who have been the subject of well-organized, targeted smear campaigns, and I understand why one would resort — out of frustration and desperation — to some of the same dirty tactics in an effort, however misguided it may have been, to get the truth out to the public. A lie to one is worth it if it brings truth to all. But climate scientists, not the spin doctors at Heartland, are held to a higher standard and this is how it must be.
Without the intention of bringing a religious tone to this discussion, it all reminds me of that excellent Chris De Burgh song “Spanish Train,” in which The Lord is playing poker against the Devil for the souls of the dead on the Spanish train. The Devil cheats and wins, taking the souls. The song ends, “The Lord and Devil are now playing chess. The Devil still cheats and wins more souls. And as for The Lord, he’s just doing his best.”
Is Peter Gleick a heroic whistleblower or a climate scientist in disgrace?
Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute, placed himself in the middle of controversy this week after admitting he had assumed a false identity to verify the authenticity of documents he says he received anonymously through the mail.
The documents in question reportedly came from within the Heartland Institute, a libertarian U.S. think tank that disputes the consensus scientific view of climate change: that the planet is warming and human activity is the primary cause.
Critics say Heartland, under the guise of serious debate, has put great effort into planting doubt and sewing confusion around climate science, with the intention of delaying or halting government action aimed at reining in greenhouse-gas emissions.
The package of documents Gleick obtained backed up such criticisms. “It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy,” he wrote this week in a Huffington Post commentary.
Citing public interest, Gleick made the decision to release the information to select media outlets. Heartland has since declared at least one of the documents a fake – a confidential memo about its 2012 climate strategy – but two other documents, a fundraising plan and a budget plan, appear to be legitimate.
What do they reveal? Nearly half of the think tank’s budget in some years has come from a single anonymous donor, showing how much influence a single individual can have in shaping public opinion, which Heartland – a leading voice in the climate skeptic movement—has been quite effective at doing.
But most disturbing is a plan to hire a consultant working for the U.S. Department of Energy to create a “global warming curriculum” for schools, specifically grades six to 12, which would question whether humans are changing the climate or altering our natural environment.
These teaching “modules” would train students to question the need to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and attempt to paint the climate models that underpin modern climate science as unreliable and controversial.
Where there’s controversy there’s uncertainty, and where there’s uncertainty there’s inaction. The tobacco industry milked this line of reasoning for years before governments got the courage to clamp down. If past actions are any indication, this is Heartland’s approach as well – borrowing from the well-worn book of Republican strategist Frank Luntz.
It doesn’t seem to matter that 97 per cent of the most cited and published climate scientists have concluded that climate change is a human-caused problem, as found in a 2010 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. If 97 per cent of oncologists said you had curable cancer, would you act on their recommendations to treat it or listen to the 3 per cent telling you it’s nothing to worry about?
What’s telling is how Heartland has responded to this week’s revelations. You may recall that Heartland was among the first to attack and spread false allegations against several well-regarded climate scientists in 2009, when e-mails from a climate research group at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. were illegally obtained – likely hacked from university servers – and posted on the Internet.
At the time, Heartland officials did not hesitate to quote the illegally obtained e-mails out of context. It moved quickly to dub the controversy—known as “Climategate”—as a conspiracy to falsify data and suppress academic debate. Its supporters then continued on this war path, even after several independent investigations cleared the scientists named in the e-mails of any wrongdoing.
Now that Heartland is on the receiving end, the think tank’s hypocrisy is palpable. It insists it has been the target of Internet fraud and defamatory speech, though it’s still unclear what fraud or defamation has taken place. It has let loose its lawyers, threating legal action against Web sites and blogs that have posted the documents.
In the words of Heartland president Joseph Bast, “It was an outrageous violation of ethics and the law.”
It’s no surprise that several climate scientists targeted by Heartland in 2009 shined a light this week on the think tank’s blatant double standard.
“We hope that the Heartland Institute will heed its own advice to ‘think about what has happened’ and recognize how its attacks on science and scientists have helped poison the debate over climate change policy,” they wrote in a letter published in the U.K. Guardian newspaper.
And Gleick? He says his frustration with the “anonymous, well-funded, and co-ordinated” attacks on climate science clouded his judgment and that he deeply regrets his actions.
Climate scientists in general have a reason to be frustrated. They have been muzzled, misquoted, defamed and threatened for doing their jobs. More are fighting back, but without the public strongly in their corner it’s an unfair contest. Some, out of desperation, resort to the same below the belt punches thrown at them.
Whether you praise Gleick for blowing a whistle or condemn him for playing dirty, he will take the heat on this. But the message, really, is that we’ll all take the heat if we don’t start dealing with a global threat that can’t be argued or wished away.
Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.