Peter Gleick and the Heartland Institute Expose

Jonathan focused last week, appropriately in my view, on the ethics of the way in which Peter Gleick got documents from the climate-denying Heartland Institute.  His conclusion is that as a scientist Gleick’s deceptions to get the documents were unethical. A new column in The Guardian comes out in the opposite place, arguing that Gleick may  have been justified in attempting to expose the denialists given the importance of the issue.  But I have a different question that sidesteps the ethics question.  Will the long-term effects of Gleick’s move to expose the Heartland  Institute’s efforts to spread doubt about the science of climate change matter in efforts to persuade the American public (and politicians) that we need to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions?

For those who haven’t followed it, here’s the backstory.  Gleick — a highly respected expert on water and climate change — impersonated a board member of the Heartland Institute in order to attempt to verify a document he says he received anonymously.  His tactics worked in that he got the verification he was seeking and then anonymously forwarded the documents to journalists.  He later admitted that he got the documents through fraudulent tactics.  The Heartland documents show that the Institute receives money, including from the vilified Koch brothers (though their money apparently funds a non-climate project) and many energy companies and that the Institute’s strategy includes a public education campaign to promote climate denialism aimed at school children.  The  Institute claims that one of the purloined documents is fake but tacitly admits that the others – -including a fundraising plan, are real. That plan includes a “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Schools” to produce materials that “isn’t alarmist” about global warming.  But much of the focus and outcry since the release of the documents has been on Gleick’s admission that he falsely represented himself in emails as a Heartland board member.

Others have noted the parallels between the Gleick/Heartland incident and “climategate,” the brouhaha that revealed emails stolen from researches at University of East Anglia that climate denialists claimed show that the science behind global warming is fradulent.  Eight committees that have investigated the hacking scandal have concluded that the emails show no such fraud and that the scientific case for climate change remains strong.

What is of course striking about climategate is that the email hackers have never been identified and the moral outrage about the scandal has focused almost entirely on the scientists whose accounts were hacked.  In the Gleick/Heartland affair, by contrast, a quick google of the incident finds all the focus on Gleick’s behavior.  Of course Gleick came forward and admitted his role and that admission has generated enormous press and criticism of him.  We have never learned the identities of the climategate hackers.  But the lack of equal condemnation still strikes me as wrong.

The larger  fear is that the press will focus only on Gleick  rather than on the behavior of the Hearthland Institute and its donors.  And the even greater fear is that Gleick’s behavior will have the same effect on public opinion that climategate did (see, for example, this study showing that climategate led to declines in trust of scientists and belief that global warming is real).

My guess is that the Gleick/Heartland affair will not have such a significant effect.  I suspect — and could be wrong — that Gleick will provide plenty of fodder and red meat for the denialist community and maybe help Heartland’s fundraising.  But I’m guessing that the effects will be mostly short term and marginal.  He admitted wrongdoing.  He’s been punished by his own institute and will likely see his own career suffer dramatically.  He’s been roundly condemned by scientists and skeptics alike.  I think the story may have short legs.  And I hope I’m right.

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Reader Comments

26 Replies to “Peter Gleick and the Heartland Institute Expose”

  1. While I found the news about Gleick’s tactics troubling, I agree that this episode won’t escalate to “Denial-Gate.” To me, this scenario is different because of the documents’ content and source.

    The fact that an organization like the Heartland Institute takes money from the Kochs and large energy producers seems obvious. Heartland casts no shadow on its conservative mission, and its no surprise that the “think” tank relies on funding from the billion-dollar industry with the greatest stake in fighting GHG regulation.

    The Climategate emails were mis-portrayed as legitimate grounds for skepticism about the impartiality of climate research (not just by Fox News I might add, but also by members of Congress). Concern spread largely because the information released was from respected IPCC members. Not only has this group been an international authority on climate change for years, but the public expects (to some degree) that extensive scientific research isn’t susceptible to bias. To top it all off, Climategate gained more undeserved steam as we were told to fear the impending economic collapse sure to follow the the EPA’s “unAmerican” emissions standards issued in spring/summer of 2010.

    But what about the K-12 education plan? Am I still not surprised? Nope … Climate science, like any projection-based study, will always have an inherent level of uncertainty that allows some to question its validity altogether in order to further their own agenda.

    But not to worry, as long as our education system continues to indoctrinate the youth with liberal propaganda like science, art, and civil rights, Heartland should have a long journey toward spreading its curriculum (having to go door-to-door in search of home schoolers).

  2. While I found the news about Gleick’s tactics troubling, I agree that this episode won’t escalate to “Denial-Gate.” To me, this scenario is different because of the documents’ content and source.

    The fact that an organization like the Heartland Institute takes money from the Kochs and large energy producers seems obvious. Heartland casts no shadow on its conservative mission, and its no surprise that the “think” tank relies on funding from the billion-dollar industry with the greatest stake in fighting GHG regulation.

    The Climategate emails were mis-portrayed as legitimate grounds for skepticism about the impartiality of climate research (not just by Fox News I might add, but also by members of Congress). Concern spread largely because the information released was from respected IPCC members. Not only has this group been an international authority on climate change for years, but the public expects (to some degree) that extensive scientific research isn’t susceptible to bias. To top it all off, Climategate gained more undeserved steam as we were told to fear the impending economic collapse sure to follow the the EPA’s “unAmerican” emissions standards issued in spring/summer of 2010.

    But what about the K-12 education plan? Am I still not surprised? Nope … Climate science, like any projection-based study, will always have an inherent level of uncertainty that allows some to question its validity altogether in order to further their own agenda.

    But not to worry, as long as our education system continues to indoctrinate the youth with liberal propaganda like science, art, and civil rights, Heartland should have a long journey toward spreading its curriculum (having to go door-to-door in search of home schoolers).

  3. I think this account omits some important things. First, Gleick does not claim the one disputed memo came from Heartland. He claims he received it anonymously, causing him to seek out additional information to verify its contents. Interestingly enough, he started seeking the documents, by impersonating a Heartland board member, on the very same time he turned down an invitation from Heartland to participate in a debate at one of their events. Nonetheless, when he first distributed the documents, he did not inform the recipients that he could not vouch for the authenticity of one of the documents, nor did he note that it contained errors — errors that could be found by consulting the other documents.

    Second, on ClimateGate, we do not know whether the ClimateGate e-mails were stolen or released by an insider. While nothing in the release undermines the basic case that humans are influencing the climate, there was plenty in the released material that showed unethical and illegal behavior, including willful efforts to avoid compliance with the UK’s FOI law. As one of the subsequent investigations found, the FOI law was violated. The only reason no action was taken was because the relevant statute of limitations had lapsed.

    The reason these events have a lasting impact is that the average person, who does not have time to get themselves up to speed on climate science, sees how people behave and ask “Is this how someone would act if the facts were on their side?” Would such a person resist FOI requests and try to spike articles in peer-reviewed journals? (as the ClimateGate e-mails revealed) Would such a person refuse to engage in public debate and then engage in fraudulent behavior to obtain confidential information (and perhaps even falsify a document)?

    FWIW, I believe in climate change and that we should do reasonable things to address it, and have sought to convince others who share my libertarian leanings of the same. These sorts of incidents make that harder to do, largely because they trigger tribal instincts. because of Peter Gleick, Heartland is likely to have a larger influence on climate policy than if he had left them alone.

    JHA

  4. I think this account omits some important things. First, Gleick does not claim the one disputed memo came from Heartland. He claims he received it anonymously, causing him to seek out additional information to verify its contents. Interestingly enough, he started seeking the documents, by impersonating a Heartland board member, on the very same time he turned down an invitation from Heartland to participate in a debate at one of their events. Nonetheless, when he first distributed the documents, he did not inform the recipients that he could not vouch for the authenticity of one of the documents, nor did he note that it contained errors — errors that could be found by consulting the other documents.

    Second, on ClimateGate, we do not know whether the ClimateGate e-mails were stolen or released by an insider. While nothing in the release undermines the basic case that humans are influencing the climate, there was plenty in the released material that showed unethical and illegal behavior, including willful efforts to avoid compliance with the UK’s FOI law. As one of the subsequent investigations found, the FOI law was violated. The only reason no action was taken was because the relevant statute of limitations had lapsed.

    The reason these events have a lasting impact is that the average person, who does not have time to get themselves up to speed on climate science, sees how people behave and ask “Is this how someone would act if the facts were on their side?” Would such a person resist FOI requests and try to spike articles in peer-reviewed journals? (as the ClimateGate e-mails revealed) Would such a person refuse to engage in public debate and then engage in fraudulent behavior to obtain confidential information (and perhaps even falsify a document)?

    FWIW, I believe in climate change and that we should do reasonable things to address it, and have sought to convince others who share my libertarian leanings of the same. These sorts of incidents make that harder to do, largely because they trigger tribal instincts. because of Peter Gleick, Heartland is likely to have a larger influence on climate policy than if he had left them alone.

    JHA

  5. Thanks for the comments, Jonathan and Jim. A quick response. Jonathan I don’t agree that the reason climategate has a lasting effect on the average person is because they’re too busy to focus on the real issues so they use the behavior of scientists in England as a proxy for what they should actually believe. I think climategate has a lasting effect because vested interests opposed to action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions –and their surrogates — spend enormous amounts of money and effort to keep the story in the news and to shape the story to be focused not on finding out whether someone illegally hacked the emails but on trying to persuade people that the defensive behavior of the scientists means that the science itself is suspect. It’s worth questioning why scientists feel that they need to play defense until you listen to folks like Michael Mann, who has repeatedly had his entire academic career subject to Congressional investigation/supboena and to an investigation by the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia simply because he’s the lead author of an article in which the famous hockey stick graph was first published. You might also check out William Nordhaus’s new article in the New York Review of Books correcting the record about the Wall Street Journal 16’s distortion of his research (and Nordhaus is hardly a flaming warmist, as the bloggers like to call those who believe in climate change). So for me, I find it more than a little ironic and more than a little troubling that the “moral outrage” about Gleick’s behavior coming from the denialist blogosphere never manifested itself in calls from the same quarters for an an investigation into the leaks of the East Anglia emails. I wish Gleick hadn’t done what he’s done. But more than anything I hope his actions don’t result in yet more skepticism among the American public about what is happening to our planet.

  6. Thanks for the comments, Jonathan and Jim. A quick response. Jonathan I don’t agree that the reason climategate has a lasting effect on the average person is because they’re too busy to focus on the real issues so they use the behavior of scientists in England as a proxy for what they should actually believe. I think climategate has a lasting effect because vested interests opposed to action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions –and their surrogates — spend enormous amounts of money and effort to keep the story in the news and to shape the story to be focused not on finding out whether someone illegally hacked the emails but on trying to persuade people that the defensive behavior of the scientists means that the science itself is suspect. It’s worth questioning why scientists feel that they need to play defense until you listen to folks like Michael Mann, who has repeatedly had his entire academic career subject to Congressional investigation/supboena and to an investigation by the Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia simply because he’s the lead author of an article in which the famous hockey stick graph was first published. You might also check out William Nordhaus’s new article in the New York Review of Books correcting the record about the Wall Street Journal 16’s distortion of his research (and Nordhaus is hardly a flaming warmist, as the bloggers like to call those who believe in climate change). So for me, I find it more than a little ironic and more than a little troubling that the “moral outrage” about Gleick’s behavior coming from the denialist blogosphere never manifested itself in calls from the same quarters for an an investigation into the leaks of the East Anglia emails. I wish Gleick hadn’t done what he’s done. But more than anything I hope his actions don’t result in yet more skepticism among the American public about what is happening to our planet.

  7. Professor Adler said:
    “…Is this how someone would act if the facts were on their side?…”

    Glieck is merely a microcosm of the whole climate claptrap circus, and now he is nothing more than a fading reminder of days gone by. The so-called “scandal” surrounding Glieck is the new normal for a defunct political movement which is now trying to come to grips with the hard reality that it cannot save humanity and has become irrelevant. As a consolation, perhaps we can now turn our attention to the old unsolved problem of diapers in landfills and maybe do something useful. Don’t despair because it’s never too late to change our direction in life and do the right thing. Have a good day.

  8. Professor Adler said:
    “…Is this how someone would act if the facts were on their side?…”

    Glieck is merely a microcosm of the whole climate claptrap circus, and now he is nothing more than a fading reminder of days gone by. The so-called “scandal” surrounding Glieck is the new normal for a defunct political movement which is now trying to come to grips with the hard reality that it cannot save humanity and has become irrelevant. As a consolation, perhaps we can now turn our attention to the old unsolved problem of diapers in landfills and maybe do something useful. Don’t despair because it’s never too late to change our direction in life and do the right thing. Have a good day.

  9. Ann —

    Whatever sums of money are spent by those opposing action on climate, it is simply not true that they outspend what is spent on the other side. The Sierra Club alone got over $20 million for climate-related work from the natural gas industry. That’s several times more than the entire budget of the Heartland Institute, and it spends only a small part of its budget on climate. At the Foundation level, the disparity in funding is even greater — e.g. the Hewlett Foundation’s recent $100 million gift to a climate group. And if we really want to focus on the money, we’ll have to include federal funding of climate science too. And if we want to look at corporate money, sure the coal folks spend lots, but so do folks on the other side — tons of utility money went into pushing Waxman-Markey. At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue climate skepticism persists due to the money, or that vested interests are all that stand in the way of enacting sensible climate policies (and I saw this as someone who supports, among other things, eliminating all fossil fuel energy subsidies and imposing a revenue-neutral carbon tax).

    And as for the treatment of Michael Mann, both sides have done this sort of thing going back years. To take a single example, as a Senator Al Gore threatened scientists with a loss of federal funding for their research because they raised questions about climate change. And in the ClimateGate e-mails we saw several examples of scientists (including Mann) trying to blackball those who were raising questions — scientists who, in Mann’s words, were not “helping the cause.” There are no angels here.

    JHA

  10. Ann —

    Whatever sums of money are spent by those opposing action on climate, it is simply not true that they outspend what is spent on the other side. The Sierra Club alone got over $20 million for climate-related work from the natural gas industry. That’s several times more than the entire budget of the Heartland Institute, and it spends only a small part of its budget on climate. At the Foundation level, the disparity in funding is even greater — e.g. the Hewlett Foundation’s recent $100 million gift to a climate group. And if we really want to focus on the money, we’ll have to include federal funding of climate science too. And if we want to look at corporate money, sure the coal folks spend lots, but so do folks on the other side — tons of utility money went into pushing Waxman-Markey. At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue climate skepticism persists due to the money, or that vested interests are all that stand in the way of enacting sensible climate policies (and I saw this as someone who supports, among other things, eliminating all fossil fuel energy subsidies and imposing a revenue-neutral carbon tax).

    And as for the treatment of Michael Mann, both sides have done this sort of thing going back years. To take a single example, as a Senator Al Gore threatened scientists with a loss of federal funding for their research because they raised questions about climate change. And in the ClimateGate e-mails we saw several examples of scientists (including Mann) trying to blackball those who were raising questions — scientists who, in Mann’s words, were not “helping the cause.” There are no angels here.

    JHA

  11. Really? You’re comparing scientists attempting to study the most complex environmental problem ever to face the planet with industry funded shills engaged in an effort to discredit not only the science surrounding climate change but the scientists themselves? That’s a bit like comparing the tobacco companies with public health researchers studying the links between cancer and smoking. I’m not buying it. And comparing money used to research the science and policy of mitigation and adaptation with efforts to undermine responsible and reasonable reactions to enormous risk is simply a false dichotomy. There are angels here. And there are definitely devils. I have no difficulty discerning the difference.

  12. Really? You’re comparing scientists attempting to study the most complex environmental problem ever to face the planet with industry funded shills engaged in an effort to discredit not only the science surrounding climate change but the scientists themselves? That’s a bit like comparing the tobacco companies with public health researchers studying the links between cancer and smoking. I’m not buying it. And comparing money used to research the science and policy of mitigation and adaptation with efforts to undermine responsible and reasonable reactions to enormous risk is simply a false dichotomy. There are angels here. And there are definitely devils. I have no difficulty discerning the difference.

  13. Ann —

    Your comment shows that you don’t have much knowledge of the people involved or their motivations, which also means you won’t have much luck reaching or convincing folks on the other side.

    On the funding side, I am comparing money spent on policy with money spent on policy, activists with activists, those trying to advance one view of policy with those trying to advance another, and scientists on one side with scientists on the other. The folks at the various skeptic-aligned think tanks and the skeptic scientists may be misguided, but they are no less sincere in their beliefs, and many of them have made tremendous financial and professional sacrifices to stay true to their views. They may be wrong, but they’re not dishonest. Neither side has a monopoly on truth-telling, as we’ve seen, from faked polar photos and errors in Gore’s slide show to mistakes in the IPCC. Further, as any full review of the ClimateGate e-mails shows, there have been efforts to “discredit” scientists on both sides — and not simply because of funding sources but because certain people ask the wrong questions or don’t sufficiently “support the cause.” Indeed, Mann himself participated in such efforts.

    The broader point is that so long as you believe that those who disagree with you are necessarily dishonest or evil, you won’t convince them — and you won’t convince those who find them to be credible. There are many people who are more afraid of climate change policy than they are of climate change. Unless such concerns are forthrightly addressed, there will be minimal policy progress on this issue.

    JHA

  14. Ann —

    Your comment shows that you don’t have much knowledge of the people involved or their motivations, which also means you won’t have much luck reaching or convincing folks on the other side.

    On the funding side, I am comparing money spent on policy with money spent on policy, activists with activists, those trying to advance one view of policy with those trying to advance another, and scientists on one side with scientists on the other. The folks at the various skeptic-aligned think tanks and the skeptic scientists may be misguided, but they are no less sincere in their beliefs, and many of them have made tremendous financial and professional sacrifices to stay true to their views. They may be wrong, but they’re not dishonest. Neither side has a monopoly on truth-telling, as we’ve seen, from faked polar photos and errors in Gore’s slide show to mistakes in the IPCC. Further, as any full review of the ClimateGate e-mails shows, there have been efforts to “discredit” scientists on both sides — and not simply because of funding sources but because certain people ask the wrong questions or don’t sufficiently “support the cause.” Indeed, Mann himself participated in such efforts.

    The broader point is that so long as you believe that those who disagree with you are necessarily dishonest or evil, you won’t convince them — and you won’t convince those who find them to be credible. There are many people who are more afraid of climate change policy than they are of climate change. Unless such concerns are forthrightly addressed, there will be minimal policy progress on this issue.

    JHA

  15. Professor Adler said:

    “…There are many people who are more afraid of climate change policy than they are of climate change…”

    Thank you Professor for your keen insight and righteous reasoning. There are many of us who have no fear of climate change but we are very concerned about the adverse consequences of contemporary climate change policy. None of these policy “solutions” would have any measurable effect on climate whatsoever. Climate policy is fraught with ulterior motives.

  16. Professor Adler said:

    “…There are many people who are more afraid of climate change policy than they are of climate change…”

    Thank you Professor for your keen insight and righteous reasoning. There are many of us who have no fear of climate change but we are very concerned about the adverse consequences of contemporary climate change policy. None of these policy “solutions” would have any measurable effect on climate whatsoever. Climate policy is fraught with ulterior motives.

  17. For what its worth, I agree with Mr. Adler’s points about funding. If there is a meaningful difference in financial support for one side of the issue, I’d argue that the skeptics run second. Groups like Sierra Club and the NRDC are among the “richest” NGOs around.

    Oh yeah… and a LOT of federal funding has gone to policy support since Obama entered office. I’m not arguing whether mad BarryBucks should go to climate policy, but you can’t really argue that there is a huge sum of money spent through EPA and our international cooperation that can’t be just overlooked.

    As an aside…

    I had a chance to go to the first day of oral arguments for Coalition for RR suit in DC last week. I was intrigued to learn that after cooperating with EPA during the motor vehicle rule process, the auto industry addressed the court to give unified support to the endangerment finding and tailpipe standards.

    Apparently Detroit has embraced an advantage that the utility industry would be wise to consider: in these industries where long-term projection is everything, regulatory certainty can be extremely valuable.

    If the various interests come to the table and work together they can make progress that addresses environmental concerns and benefits regulated industries, ergo the economy. If this can somehow happen (I won’t hold my breath), it could ease the legitimate “fear” people may have of climate policy.

    All the best

  18. For what its worth, I agree with Mr. Adler’s points about funding. If there is a meaningful difference in financial support for one side of the issue, I’d argue that the skeptics run second. Groups like Sierra Club and the NRDC are among the “richest” NGOs around.

    Oh yeah… and a LOT of federal funding has gone to policy support since Obama entered office. I’m not arguing whether mad BarryBucks should go to climate policy, but you can’t really argue that there is a huge sum of money spent through EPA and our international cooperation that can’t be just overlooked.

    As an aside…

    I had a chance to go to the first day of oral arguments for Coalition for RR suit in DC last week. I was intrigued to learn that after cooperating with EPA during the motor vehicle rule process, the auto industry addressed the court to give unified support to the endangerment finding and tailpipe standards.

    Apparently Detroit has embraced an advantage that the utility industry would be wise to consider: in these industries where long-term projection is everything, regulatory certainty can be extremely valuable.

    If the various interests come to the table and work together they can make progress that addresses environmental concerns and benefits regulated industries, ergo the economy. If this can somehow happen (I won’t hold my breath), it could ease the legitimate “fear” people may have of climate policy.

    All the best

  19. I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to figure out with any reliability which side spends more pushing their agendas. How, eg, does one quantify Fox News’ monetary value in this regard? I don’t know but I am sure it is much more effective than Sierra Club’s $20M. A better way to think about effectiveness is this. Typically, when I google almost any GW issue, I have to wade through page after page of denial sites before coming to a site presenting the actual science. Of course, when you search in Google Scholar the contrast is striking in the other direction. Few people use Scholar, but many use plain Google, especially and including journalists who then think they are bending over backwards to present the anti-denial side at all, given the paucity of sites in the google-sphere.

  20. I think it’s a fool’s errand to try to figure out with any reliability which side spends more pushing their agendas. How, eg, does one quantify Fox News’ monetary value in this regard? I don’t know but I am sure it is much more effective than Sierra Club’s $20M. A better way to think about effectiveness is this. Typically, when I google almost any GW issue, I have to wade through page after page of denial sites before coming to a site presenting the actual science. Of course, when you search in Google Scholar the contrast is striking in the other direction. Few people use Scholar, but many use plain Google, especially and including journalists who then think they are bending over backwards to present the anti-denial side at all, given the paucity of sites in the google-sphere.

  21. To take a single example, as a Senator Al Gore threatened scientists with a loss of federal funding for their research because they raised questions about climate change.

    That’s a new one to me. Anyone have particulars or citations? This would have had to have been prior to 1993.

  22. To take a single example, as a Senator Al Gore threatened scientists with a loss of federal funding for their research because they raised questions about climate change.

    That’s a new one to me. Anyone have particulars or citations? This would have had to have been prior to 1993.

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Ann Carlson

Ann Carlson is the Shirley Shapiro Professor of Environmental Law and the co-Faculty Director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School…

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