Is Peter Gleick a Climate Hero?

Is Peter Gleick a 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 MacArthur 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 blog post (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 who 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 documents 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.