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.


  1. Ed Reid says

    “rational public debate is desperately needed”


    Gleick declined to participate in a public debate offered by Heartland roughly one week before the stolen documents and the fake document were released. Perhaps he had pre-determined that any debate involving Heartland could not be “rational”.

    There is a wonderful, though somewhat long, evaluation of the first draft of AR5 by Alec Rawls here:

  2. Dan says

    it sure would be nice if our side were in fact more ethical than the other side…but we aren’t. we are right on the science, and right on the politics (for the most part). But the left has no monopoly on morality.

  3. says

    I (try) to teach business students about the importance of climate science when making strategic decisions and I use McKinsey and the national security apparatus as examples of non-ideological organizations that take the issue seriously.

    Peter Gleick only harmed efforts to ‘de-ideologize’ climate science. His inflated sense of self importance is not to be celebrated but condemned. He made our job much more difficult.


    Bryan Stinchfield, Ph.D.
    Assistant Professor of Business, Organizations, & Society
    Franklin & Marshall College

    • Ed Reid says

      Perhaps we should begin discussing “green collar” crime.

      I hope that Heartland will pursue all available criminal and civil remedies available to it. This type of activity cannot be tolerated.

      I also hope the the US will get serious about FOIA enforcement.

  4. David Andersen says

    Apparently there are many differing definitions of ‘consensus’ and apparently they are selected to be most favorable to one’s point of view. I’m pretty sure though, that consensus has almost no place in scientific endeavor. In the case of climate science it’s most often used as a rhetorical device to attempt to end debate about what is happening and turn the conversation to what should be done. And yet I keep reading – with greater frequency – scientists who disagree with the assertions of the IPCC and other climate scientists.

    In the very link you cite for ‘consensus’ the very first sentence states “Science achieves a consensus when scientists stop arguing.” Is that where we are at? I hadn’t noticed.

    As to the oft-quoted 97% figure, the scientists who wrote this:
    have significant disagreement with that assertion. As a journalist I’m sure you’re well aware how polls can be easily constructed to arrive at a desired conclusion. Not being privy to the polls I can’t say either way, but there is a tremendous amount of yelling ‘CONSENSUS’ from the pro-global warming POV along with a disturbing amount of falsification, discussions of suppression, and data withholding.

    There are none so blind as those who will not see, eh?

  5. says

    Can you elaborate on why you believe Gleick’s account of the events strains credulity? I’ve been intrigued by the “honeypot” theory from the beginning of this story; the first thing I thought when I heard Heartland’s response to the leak (in which they focused their outrage on the forged “2012 strategy memo”) was, “Oh, just like the Killian documents” (those being the forged documents allegedly showing George W. Bush malfeasance in his National Guard days, the publication of which ended the career of Dan Rather). I dismissed the thought just as quickly, though, because it didn’t seem to make sense: I could see the forged strategy memo being leaked by a Heartland-connected trickster in order to attack the recipient for using a forged document when it became public, but I couldn’t see them also including the legitimate documents, which really were embarrassing and probably made their donors quite unhappy.

    When Gleick made his confession the following week, though, it suddenly became a viable theory again, because it matched up nicely with his version of events: The anonymous source who supplied him the forged memo did not anticipate that Gleick would have been enterprising enough to obtain the legitimate documents via his phishing attempt. Of course, given that Gleick was no doubt feeling the heat by this point, it could be that his version of events fitting nicely with the honeypot theory is just another layer of deception, in which he attempts to construct a plausible villain to deflect (some) culpability from himself.

    Your other comments, I think, were spot on. Thanks for being a beacon of reason in the midst of what is becoming quite the stormy sea of its opposite.

    • David Tomlin says

      As I understand it, it’s not just that the forger had access to Heartland documents. It’s that he seems to have had access to exactly those documents that Gleick acquired, and no others. That’s the big coincidence.

  6. Mark Bulger says

    Mr Gunther

    In the following quote, you define yourself as a man:

    “Setting aside the questionable ethics involved, Gleick committed a big tactical blunder.”

    So your first impulse is to set aside ethics, and move on to the negative propaganda effects of Gleick’s actions. With such a priority, I can only hope you have not been entrusted with raising children and teaching them the basic lessons of right and wrong.

    The moral bankruptcy of the entire global warming ideology has never been stated so clearly as today. I am still waiting for a single climate change policy advocate or scientist to say it simply – Gleick was wrong. Every ‘yes but’ is another nail in the coffin of AGW orthodoxy.

    • says

      I think you’ve misread my blogpost.
      Gleick was wrong in what he did. Period. End of quote. No but.
      He ALSO committed a tactical blunder.

  7. Tommy says

    When reading the Strategy memo, it instantly jumped out as being written by someone that is very pro AGW theory, not by someone in the skeptical camp. Not to mention the errors in funding allotment. It’s not just obviously a forgery, it’s a really bad one. Whoever wrote it showed a very poor sense of how skeptics of AGW think–thus revealing something of their identity. You may think they are wrong, but they never think of themselves as anti-climate or wanting to stop teachers from teaching science. It’s almost comical, it’s so bad.

    • David Tomlin says

      Either way, Gleick thought it would pass. I think he forged it himself, but the alternative is that the forger wanted it to fool Gleick but not to hold up under general scrutiny.


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