A prominent scientist who focused his work on global warming's threat to water resources has acknowledged that under false pretenses he acquired, then leaked to the press and bloggers, documents detailing contributions from donors and the 2012 budget for the Heartland Institute – a Chicago-based organization that argues that global warming poses no threat.
In a Feb. 20 blog entry on the Huffington Post website, Peter Gleick, who heads the Pacific Institute, based in Oakland, Calif., said he received an institute strategy memo earlier this year from an anonymous source. In an attempt to verify the information the memo contained, Mr. Gleick wrote, “I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name.”
The documents he received included budget allocations for climate-related projects, including the development of a K-12 curriculum on global warming.
One researcher's actions don't reflect the activities of the broader range of climate scientists, some analysts caution. But they also say that the incident could further polarize an already polarized climate-policy debate while undermining public confidence in scientists in general.
Heads of scientific organizations have decried what they see as a rising tide of anti-science in the US and are encouraging scientists “to shift into culture-warrior mode,” says Matthew Nisbet, a social scientist at American University in Washington who studies the ongoing debate over climate and energy policy.
Surveys indicate that “along with the Supreme Court and the military, science is our most trusted institution,” he says. “And climate scientists, across all demographic groups, hold high levels of trust, especially among young people of all political backgrounds.”
“Scientists are being mobilized as political combatants, which they are not trained to do, which most of them are uncomfortable doing, and which will significantly tarnish their image,” he says.
Whatever the longer-term effects might be, the Gleick affair has lit up the climate blogosphere.
Some who advocate action to combat climate change equate Gleick's actions with those of whistleblowers, who make sensitive information public despite the legal and personal risks they may face.
Others are more guarded. Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, notes that “it's wrong to obtain documents under false pretenses, just as it was wrong for hackers to have taken scientists' e-mails from the University of East Anglia” – a reference to “Climategate” in 2009.
In that case, a still-unknown individual or group took thousands of e-mails and documents – some highlighting hardball politics within the climate science community – from computers at the university's Climate Research Unit and released them to the internet.
Still, he says in a prepared statement, “Our criticism of the Heartland Institute's strategy of spreading misinformation about climate science still stands.”
For many who argue – despite the preponderance of scientific evidence otherwise – that global warming either doesn't exist, has stopped, or poses no major threat, Gleick's admission is another indication of how far some scientists will go to pursue a liberal agenda that puts more power in the hands of government.
For its part, the Heartland Institute followed up on Gleick's admission with a statement from its president, Joseph Blast, that in part noted the organization was awaiting a “more complete confession.” Mr. Blast called the anonymous document a “forged memo,” noting that “many independent commentators already have concluded the memo was most likely written by Gleick.”
Whatever the truth about the memo, the incident shouldn't be interpreted as a case of one bad egg spoiling the carton, suggests Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist at the University of Colorado at Boulder who has written extensively on the climate issue.
The Gleick affair, which he dubs a personal tragedy for the beleaguered researcher, puts a spotlight on “a subset of a community,” he says, one that “has lost its way." He adds, "You saw some of that in the East Anglia e-mails – the idea that [some researchers] can play by their own rules.”
In Climategate, for instance, some emails showed researchers playing hardball in trying prevent the publication of studies or criticisms from skeptical colleagues. Here, the incident involves someone who may have run afoul of the US legal system, Dr. Pielke says.
In any case, he says, the climate debate more generally has long since shifted from science and toward economic and energy policy.
Dr. Nisbet encourages researchers to forgo blogs – essentially echo chambers for the like-minded – and focus their outreach efforts on local communities, fostering discussions about climate choices and solutions rather than engage in rhetorical food fights.
The Heartland Institute documents first popped up on blogs Feb. 14. Initially, the institute said it couldn't verify the documents' authenticity because its president was on the road. But as people began to scrutinize the strategy memo, suspicions grew that it was a fake.
Skeptics of its authenticity ranged from bloggers who analyzed similarities in the writing quirks between the strategy memo and Gleick's writings, to Megan McArdle, senior editor at the Atlantic, who has put herself on record as holding that global warming is a serious problem.
Ms. McArdle's analysis appeared on the Atlantic's blog Feb. 16.
By the end of that day, Gleick – elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006 – had resigned as head of a scientific-ethics task force at the American Geophysical Union. The AGU publicly acknowledged Gleick's departure today in a statement, expressing its disappointment at his behavior.
In addition to publishing his explanation and apology on the Huffington Post Monday, he also resigned as an incoming member of the board of directors for the National Center for Science Education.
A spokesman for the Pacific Institute, reached Tuesday, said that Gleick's statement on the Huffington Post's website is the only response he'll have to the incident for now.