Tuesday, February 21, 2012

When Two Wrongs Expose the (extreme) Right: Peter Gleick and the Heartland Institute

I am an environmental law and policy academic, not a climate scientist. But I do believe in the overall integrity of the peer-review academic publishing process, the scientific method, and the corresponding inability of thousands of scientists across the world to coordinate a global conspiracy or hoax on climate change science. So when the Wall Street Journal editorial dismissing climate change emerged in January, I waited eagerly for a credible, climate science colleague-in-arms to make a reasoned explanation of its lack of credibility. Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and president of the Pacific Institute, did just that, along with numerous others. In fact, Gleick has been at the forefront of the battle against climate change misinformation, directly engaging critics making unfounded assertions on a regular basis - a task that I have found quite tiring and emotionally taxing at times. So for that I applaud him. 

Even so, last night Gleick admitted that he moved from the forefront of this battle and across enemy lines, in the form of a covert operative adopting - as operatives so often do - the tactics of those he opposes. In short, Gleick used deceit to obtain the now infamous Heartland Institute's internal documents mapping out their climate change denial campaign. As described by 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 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.

I will not comment on the substance or implications of the materials; others have and are doing so. 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.

Peter Gleick's actions have no doubt unearthed some important and useful information about the uphill battle that truth generally, and climate science specifically, faces against ideologues bent on spreading misinformation. Indeed, we do need a "rational public debate" - I would be the first to applaud peer-reviewed, verified scientific research demonstrating that some unforeseen feedback loop will occur over the next 100 years that will unexpectedly mitigate current projections of climate change. But that is an altogether different matter than groups intentionally and purposefully spreading unfounded and baseless information out of political ideology. This is the first wrong.

But the second wrong is Gleick's actions. As with the debate on torture, it is difficult to convince the "opposition" that we are on the side of truth, freedom, and peace if we insist on engaging in the same tactics they use to "achieve" those objectives. Similarly, it is difficult to maintain credibility - or it at least gives the "opposition" a foothold for claiming a lack of credibility - when deception and fraud are used to expose the deceitful and fraudulent tactics of others.

Ultimately, the wrongs here, though exposing the tactics of the extreme right in the climate change "debate," do not provide the correct blueprint for engaging in this battle. Though it is important that the Heartland Institute's tactics are exposed, I am unsettled at how it came about. For other perspectives on both sides of the question see herehere, here, and here. I would, however, be interested in the perspective of others as to when getting to the truth is "worth" a short-term loss of ethical and moral responsibility. Perhaps this is not a situation analogous to torturing enemy combatants to create a world where vicious regimes no longer engage in crimes against humanity (and obviously I am not equating the severity of the crimes here to torture, only highlighting circumstances where we decry the tactics of others while engaging in similar tactics). Perhaps there is a strong case that it is more like telling your spoiled, irresponsible child (as some of these think tanks and presidential candidates [Santorum] seem to be) that you are going out of town until Sunday, only to purposefully crash their unauthorized party on Saturday. But even Gleick acknowledges that his actions did not further the trust and willingness of the climate change fringe to engage in a rational debate, and indeed it likely has done more damage. Is this, however, a small price to pay for larger truths to be advanced a bit further and for steps to be taken toward responsible attempts to avert future global harms? When do two wrongs make a right in the environmental context? In the end, I do not think this was a compelling case for it.

- Blake Hudson


| Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference When Two Wrongs Expose the (extreme) Right: Peter Gleick and the Heartland Institute:


The Heartland Institute has repeatedly asked those who believe in AGW to speak at its seminars, or to debate the issue of climate change, with no success. The one climate change advocate that agreed to speak at a HI event was treated courteously and respectfully, so fear of intimidation certainly can't be the reason.

The real reason they don't want to speak is that they are advocating an unsupportable position. Climate change advocates have an ever-increasing need to ratchet up the specter of global warming in order to maintain funding and public attention, with the result that they are increasingly seen by the public as Chicken Littles. They have conceded the moderate center of the debate - the idea that GHGs can increase warming, but how much or whether it's a bad or good thing is unclear - to the skeptic camp. If they want to win back the center, the AGW crowd needs to be able to make its case in public, in the hurly-burly of debate. But they won't do that, and therefore shouldn't be heard to complain that no one is listening to them.

Posted by: Dave Yaussy | Feb 22, 2012 6:25:41 AM

Post a comment