Climategate Turnabout

In 2010 and 2011 the climate science community was rocked by the release of e-mails from the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit showing that climate scientists can be just as petty, political and (at times) unethical as any other group.  To this day, it has not been determined who obtained the e-mail files and posted them online.

Last week, another potentially explosive trove of climate-related private documents was released on the web, in this case a set of documents prepared for a board meeting of the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank based in Chicago that sponsors the Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change and other efforts designed to downplay the threat posed by anthropogentic climate change and discourage the adoption of climate change policies.  Among the documents was a “Climate Strategy” memorandum purporting to outline Heartland’s secret efforts to, among other things, suppress “warmist” views and discourage the teaching of climate science in schools.  Someone calling himself “Heartland Insider” distributed these documents to several progressive bloggers who promptly posted the materials on the web.

Other than the “Climate Strategy” memo, the documents were relatively pedestrian — revealing but not earth-shattering.  If anything, these documents suggested that the Heartland Institute’s efforts — and those of climate skeptics generally — are less well-funded than some suspect (and certainly less well-funded than major environmentalist groups).  Yet almost immediately, questions were raised about the memo’s authenticity.  The content and tone of the memorandum were a bit off, and it contained subtle errors of the sort someone on the inside would have been unlikely to make.  Megan McArdle dissected the memo here and here, while others identified evidence the memo had a different provenance than the other purloined materials.  Heartland, for its part, declared the memo a fake (while also making threats and going on the warpath against anyone who dared post the purloined documents).  Meanwhile, speculation swirled about the memo’s actual author.

Yesterday, a big part of the mystery was solved when a climate scientist, Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute, came forward as the source of the documents, but not as the author of the suspicious memo.  Wrote Gleick:

At the beginning of 2012, I received an anonymous document in the mail describing what appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute’s climate program strategy. It contained information about their funders and the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy. I do not know the source of that original document but assumed it was sent to me because of my past exchanges with Heartland and because I was named in it.

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 and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name. The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.

This is just incredible (and not only because Gleick was chairing a working group on scientific integrity at the time of his actions). McArdle, again, is all over this.

The very, very best thing that one can say about this is that this would be an absolutely astonishing lapse of judgement for someone in their mid-twenties, and is truly flabbergasting coming from a research institute head in his mid-fifties. Let’s walk through the thought process:

You receive an anonymous memo in the mail purporting to be the secret climate strategy of the Heartland Institute. It is not printed on Heartland Institute letterhead, has no information identifying the supposed author or audience, contains weird locutions more typical of Heartland’s opponents than of climate skeptics, and appears to have been written in a somewhat slapdash fashion. Do you:

A. Throw it in the trash

B. Reach out to like-minded friends to see how you might go about confirming its provenance

C. Tell no one, but risk a wire-fraud conviction, the destruction of your career, and a serious PR blow to your movement by impersonating a Heartland board member in order to obtain confidential documents.

As a journalist, I am in fact the semi-frequent recipient of documents promising amazing scoops, and depending on the circumstances, my answer is always “A” or “B”, never “C”.

In this case, however, we are to believe that Gleick was so overcome with his rage at the Heartland Institute that he chose option “C” and, upon receiving additional documents from Heartland, sent the whole package of materials around without ever doing any investigation of his own as to the authenticity of the “Climate Strategy” memo. It’s hard to believe, but it’s also hard to believe that Gleick himself would have forged the document (as many suspected even before he came forward). Is there a third alternative?

In any event, Gleick’s actions will have serious repurcussions. From the NYT‘s Andrew Revkin:

Another question, of course, is who wrote the climate strategy document that Gleick now says was mailed to him. His admitted acts of deception in acquiring the cache of authentic Heartland documents surely will sustain suspicion that he created the summary, which Heartland’s leadership insists is fake.

One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others. (Some of the released documents contain information about Heartland employees that has no bearing on the climate fight.) That is his personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family).

The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the “rational public debate” that he wrote — correctly — is so desperately needed.

Others have reached similar conclusions, but the feelings are not universal.

Much of the clmate science community seems unable to condemn Gleick’s conduct (see, e.g. here), just as some environmentalist groups and climate activists have a hard time acknowledging the frequent exaggeration or “sexing up” of climate studies to accentuate the threat posed by climate change. (And I say this as someone who believes climate change is a problem and supports appropriate policies to address the threat.)

McArdle again:

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.


UPDATE: Here is how the NYT initially covered the document release, and here is Heartland’s response. Here is the NYT‘s coverage of Gleick’s confession.  David Appell also has an interview with AGU President Michael McPhaden on the controversy and its likely impact on climate science, and Judith Curry reflects on “Gleick’s ‘Integrity’.”

Heartland’s effort to force bloggers and others to take down the purloined documents seems like bluster to me.  Unless they were to try and assert copyright, I don’t think they have much legal recourse.  They may, however, be able to go after Gleick for his deception.  Gleick seems aware of this possibility, as he has retained a lawyer (and a “crisis manager’) on this matter.

Speculation about the provenance of the faked memo continues, and some are challenging Gleick to provide evidence for his account.  Others are offering coffee mugs.  Are t-shirts next?