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How the Gleick Crisis Is Killing The Global Warming Cause

First There Was Climategate, Now There’s Gleickgate

In 2009, shortly before the Copenhagen summit on climate change, a server at the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in the U.K. was hacked. Numerous communications from climate scientists were released to the public, and the name “Climategate” was coined to describe the ensuing controversy. The controversy involved specific comments in some of the e-mails that climate change skeptics immediately seized upon as evidence that some climate scientists were not as objective as they should be, but even worse that dissenting views were being suppressed.

When the Climategate scandal first broke, I had a feeling that the implications were going to be a lot larger than many climate change advocates believed. In fact, I included it among my Top 10 Energy Stories of 2009, writing:

Then came Climategate, which gave the skeptics even more reason to be skeptical. A number of people have suggested to me that this story will just fade away, but I don’t think so. This is one that the skeptics can rally around for years to come. The number of Americans who believe that humans are causing climate change was already on the decline, and the injection of Climategate into the issue will make it that much harder to get any meaningful legislation passed.

Some people commented that the controversy would fade away in a few weeks, but I think in hindsight my assessment was correct. Skeptics had claimed for years that much of the climate change debate was ideological, and Climategate seemingly gave them concrete evidence that this was indeed the case. (I am not making judgments one way or the other; just trying provide the context for the incident and how I felt it would be used by skeptics).


2012: Gleickgate

Now comes a situation that is — in my opinion — much worse. Last week an anonymous person leaked several documents from the Heartland Institute to a number of prominent blogs that focus on climate change. The Heartland Institute (HI) is an organization that is skeptical that climate change is being caused by humans. They are viewed with contempt among many in the climate change community, who feel like HI is funding a disinformation campaign against climate change. The media seized on one of the documents that was leaked called Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy. (PDF warning, and the document may disappear soon as HI is threatening legal action against the site that is hosting it). The document seemed to validate what many had suspected about HI, containing gems such as:

We will also pursue additional support from the Charles G. Koch Foundation. They returned as a Heartland donor in 2011 with a contribution of $200,000.

Principals and teachers are heavily biased toward the alarmist perspective. To counter this we are considering launching an effort to develop alternative materials for K-12 classrooms. We are pursuing a proposal from Dr. David Wojick to produce a global warming curriculum for K-12 schools. Dr. Wojick is a consultant with the Office of Scientific and Technical Information at the U.S. Department of Energy in the area of information and communication science. His effort will focus on providing curriculum that shows that the topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain – two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.

At present we sponsor the NIPCC to undermine the official United Nation’s IPCC reports and paid a team of writers $388,000 in 2011 to work on a series of editions of Climate Change Reconsidered.

Then there is this juicy bit, which we will get into below.

Expanded climate communications

Heartland plays an important role in climate communications, especially through our in-house experts (e.g., Taylor) through his Forbes blog and related high profile outlets, our conferences, and through coordination with external networks (such as WUWT and other groups capable of rapidly mobilizing responses to new scientific findings, news stories, or unfavorable blog posts). Efforts at places such as Forbes are especially important now that they have begun to allow high-profile climate scientists (such as Gleick) to post warmist science essays that counter our own. This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out. Efforts might also include cultivating more neutral voices with big audiences (such as Revkin at DotEarth/NYTimes, who has a well-known antipathy for some of the more extreme AGW communicators such as Romm, Trenberth, and Hansen) or Curry (who has become popular with our supporters). We have have also pledged to help raise around $90,000 in 2012 for Anthony Watts to help him create a new website to track temperature station data.

In that paragraph, WUWT would be Anthony Watts’ blog devoted to climate change skepticism, What’s Up With That?; Gleick would be Dr. Peter Gleick, a California scientist, environmental activist, lecturer on ethics and scientific integrity, and a vocal advocate of the need to combat climate change; Revkin would be Andy Revkin of the New York Times; Romm is Dr. Joe Romm; Trenberth is Dr. Kevin Trenberth; and Hansen is Dr. James Hansen.

So let’s summarize the juicy bits of the strategy document. It provides confirmation that oil companies are funding the climate change skeptics, an explicit declaration that the skeptics have an anti-science bias, and that their opposition is not rooted in science, and finally an explicit declaration that opposing voices must be suppressed. That couldn’t have been scripted any better had it been done by a pro-global warming activist who was just trying to make the opposition look really bad. Which, sadly, looks to be the case.

A couple of days ago, as evidence mounted that he was the person who leaked the documents, Peter Gleick came forward and admitted to doing so. Apparently he had pretended to be a member of HI’s board, and sent an e-mail requesting the documents. In a brief note at Huffington Post, he offered up an apology that was rather ironic on many levels:

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.

Now if that was the end of the story, I wouldn’t consider it that big of a deal. Here we have a climate scientist masquerading as an undercover agent in order to unmask the inner workings of an organization that he believes is helping to destroy the earth. It certainly looks bad, because it helps reaffirm the views of global warming skeptics that much of the angst over global warming is being driven by ideology. On the other hand Gleick’s defenders argue that he is a hero, and that he was simply engaging in the same dirty tactics as “the enemy.”

And Now For the Rest of the Story

But that isn’t the end of the story. Other than the Climate Strategy document that I excerpted from above, the documents themselves are really not that surprising. They reveal that an organization that does not believe in manmade climate change is funding people who believe the same thing. I would guess if we peeked inside the files of climate change advocacy organizations, we would find — surprise! — that they were funding people who believe in the urgency of climate change and are working to educate people on that topic. No, the really juicy bits came from the strategy document, and this is what the media seized upon. For instance, DeSmogBlog initially released the documents, and the strategy document was where they found all of the juicy bits:

Heartland Institute Exposed: Internal Documents Unmask Heart of Climate Denial Machine

The problem is that a bit of skepticism should have been in order. I mean, who writes like that? Phrases like “dissuading teachers from teaching science” or “keep opposing voices out” might be how you would imagine your evil enemies may talk, but in reality it reads like it came from a comic book caricature. It’s like a Creationist’s vision of how evolutionists think, or vice-versa.

Alas, Megan McArdle at The Atlantic — a person who strongly believes in human-caused global warming — has laid out the case that the strategy document is forged (and HI insists that this is the case):

Leaked Docs From Heartland Institute Cause a Stir—but Is One a Fake?

A few of the points she raises in that article:

1. All of the documents are high-quality PDFs generated from original electronic files . . . except for the “Climate Strategy” memo. (Hereinafter, “the memo”). That appears to have been printed out and scanned, though it may also have been faxed.

Either way, why? After they wrote up their Top Secret Here’s All the Bad Stuff We’re Gonna Do This Year memo, did the author hand it to his secretary and say “Now scan this in for the Board”? Or did he fax it across the hall to his buddy?

This seems a strange and ponderous way to go about it–especially since the other documents illustrate that the Heartland Institute has fully mastered the Print to PDF command.

It is, however, exactly what I would do if I were trying to make sure that the document had no potentially incriminating metadata in the pdf.

2. The date on the memo file is different from the other documents. And indeed, when you look at the information on the PDFs that Heartland acknowledges, almost all of them were created by printing to PDF on January 16th, the day before Heartland’s board meeting. There is a Board Directory that was created on the 25th of January, also by printing to PDF. And then there is the memo, which was created via an Epson scanner at 3:41 PM on February 13th.

That seems to be just about 24 hours before this broke on the climate blogs. The timing seems odd, and somewhat suspicious. The fact that this document, and it alone, was scanned rather than printed to PDF or emailed as a word document, is even more so.

Others have determined that the document was created in the Pacific Time Zone. That is, coincidentally, where Peter Gleick lives and works, but not where HI is located. And then this point:

5. The worldview is different. In my experience, climate skeptics see themselves as a beleaguered minority fighting for truth and justice against the powerful, and nearly monolithic, forces of the establishment. They are David, to the climate scientists’ Goliaths. This is basically what the authenticated documents sound like.

The memo, by contrast, uses more negative language about the efforts it’s describing, while trying to sound like they think it’s positive. It’s like the opposition political manifestos found in novels written by stolid ideologues; they can never quite bear (or lack the imagination) to let the villains have a good argument. Switch the names, and the memo could have been a page ripped out of State of Fear or Atlas Shrugged.

Basically, it reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.

McArdle goes on to note that the strategy document erroneously says that the Charles G. Koch Foundation had donated $200,000 toward HI’s climate change goals, when in fact they only donated $25,000, and it was for health care work. Thus, the person who forged the document made a mistake, but one that was sure to prove explosive with climate change advocates. Here was a smoking gun that showed Big Oil (the Koch brothers) was funding climate change disinformation.

Except that wasn’t the case.

On this subject, McArdle writes “Unless there’s an explanation I’m missing, that seems to clinch it–why would health care donations show up in their climate strategy report? Unless of course, it was written by someone who doesn’t know anything about facts of the donation, but does know that the Kochs make great copy.”

McArdle wrote more in a follow-up to her original article (which I encourage readers to check out):

Peter Gleick Confesses to Obtaining Heartland Documents Under False Pretenses

In the document she cites some comments by Steven Mosher — who figured out early on that Gleick was likely the person who leaked the documents — as evidence that Gleick himself authored the forged document. They include the writing style (usage of particular phrases like “anti-climate” and overuse/misuse of commas and parentheses like I am doing here) and the fact that the document originated on the West Coast. Important to note that while Gleick confessed to leaking the documents and the fact that he impersonated someone else, he has not confessed to forging the strategy document (nor has he flatly denied it). I suspect this is going to be like the Anthony Weiner confession, which amounted to days of denial and obfuscation, but finally an admission as the evidence piled up against him.

But here is where McArdle really nails it:

Gleick has done enormous damage to his cause and his own reputation, and it’s no good to say that people shouldn’t be focusing on it. If his judgement is this bad, how is his judgement on matters of science? For that matter, what about the judgement of all the others in the movement who apparently see nothing worth dwelling on in his actions?

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.

That is the issue in a nutshell, and something Gleick’s defenders don’t seem to get. They have grossly underestimated the damage this does, but they are compounding it by making excuses for him.

Conclusion: Scientists Should Know Better

Here is how I think the rest of this plays out. Gleick’s defenders will continue to defend him, albeit in diminishing numbers. Those who defend him to the end simply reinforce the views of climate skeptics that — as McArdle stated — the cause is more important than the truth. This will embolden the skeptics as never before, by simply reinforcing their views of how climate change advocates operate. They don’t have to speculate that climate science is driven by an agenda, because they will feel they have solid evidence that this is the case. Further, if Gleick confesses to the forgery as I believe he ultimately will, the defenders are going to have even more egg on their faces. And yet some will continue to defend, suggesting that HI’s tactics are so horrible that the end justifies the means. Except in this case, your chances of achieving “the end” have been made much more difficult by Gleick’s actions.

To conclude, I have stated many times that I think this debate is unnecessarily nasty and personal. People on both sides believe their cause is just, and that if the other side wins the public relations war it will be a disaster. Both sides view the other side with contempt, and throw derogatory labels around. But what always bothered me the most about the whole debate was that as someone who was trained as a scientist, you never say that the science is settled. The science may be compelling, but contrary views should not be shouted down.

If this was the way science worked, we would still all believe that ulcers were caused by stress. Dr. Barry Marshall was ridiculed for his unconventional idea that ulcers were caused by a certain strain of bacteria (after all, the science was settled), but he persevered, proved his case, and eventually won a Nobel Prize for his work. So the moral of this story is that the science is never settled, and agendas should not be allowed to get in the way of science. Scientists, of all people, should know this.


Additional Reading

From Megan McArdle

Leaked Docs From Heartland Institute Cause a Stir—but Is One a Fake?

Heartland Memo Looking Faker by the Minute (follow-up by Megan McArdle where she summarizes the evidence of forgery)

Peter Gleick Confesses to Obtaining Heartland Documents Under False Pretenses

The Most Surprising Heartland Fact: Not the Leaks, but the Leaker

From DeSmogBlog

Heartland Institute Exposed: Internal Documents Unmask Heart of Climate Denial Machine (this was the one that started it all)

It’s a bird; it’s a hockey stick; it’s a faked document!

Whistleblower Authenticates Heartland Documents

Heartland Demands DeSmogBlog Remove ”Climate Strategy” Document

Evaluation shows “Faked” Heartland Climate Strategy Memo is Authentic (they desperately want to believe the document is authentic; in my opinion they have a very low evidence threshold for declaring it to be authentic)

From Andy Revkin at the New York Times

Peter Gleick Admits to Deception in Obtaining Heartland Climate Files

More on Peter Gleick and the Heartland Files

Coverage at Watt’s Up with That

BREAKING: Gleick Confesses

And some defenses of Gleick

Hero Scientist responsible for Heartland Expose

Heartland and Hypocrisy; Gleick And The Real Climate Debate

Robert Rapier's picture

Thank Robert for the Post!

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Edward Kerr's picture
Edward Kerr on February 24, 2012


Thanks for a very informative and as usual, insightful article. What I personally find to be the most frustrating is that the stakes in this “argument” (for want of a better word) are as high as they get. If it’s true that the world is warming and that it is being caused by anthropogenic activities (producing electricity and spiriting our vehicles around) then to try to ignore that fact in order to maintain present income is, indeed, wrong. However, to stoop to criminal activities (theft and forgery) just to “prove” that your opposing opinion is right is equally as wrong.

Having said that, it also occurs to me that interests that are vested in maintaining income, as adverse to those who are looking at longer term more important issues, should be examined with greater scepticism. Apparently, the “climate gate” is hung on double hinges.

The issue of transiting away from fossil fuels must also be looked at as if the idea of “man made global climate change” never existed. Even if the planet was reverting to a glacial period the continuing dependence on a “withering asset” is just plain foolish. (especially when that asset is responsible for underpinning the lions share of our economic and sustenance activities) However imperfect, alternative methods of producing electricity and liquid fuels do exist and need to be developed as quickly as possible. (or am I alone on this issue?)

When one adds in the possibility that we may be damaging the bio-system that sustains our ability to continue living, a much greater sense of urgency rears it’s, in this case, ugly head. To me this is a painful example of the damaging polarity that exists in our public discourse in general and on this profoundly important issue too.


With best personal regards,

Edward Kerr



Daniel Lerch's picture
Daniel Lerch on February 24, 2012

A survey of peer reviewed scientific papers from 1965 to 1979 show that few papers predicted global cooling (7 in total). Significantly more papers (42 in total) predicted global warming (Peterson 2008). The large majority of climate research in the 1970s predicted the Earth would warm as a consequence of CO2.

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