A video mapping of global warming shown to the press at a January event in… (Rungroj Yongrit / EPA )
Reporting from Washington — A noted California scientist and environmental activist has admitted that he assumed a false identity to obtain and distribute internal documents from a libertarian group that questions climate change.
In a statement published on the Huffington Post, Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute and a MacArthur "genius" grant recipient, revealed his role in disseminating a batch of recent fundraising and board meeting documents last week from the Heartland Institute in Chicago. The documents offered a glimpse into an organization active in combating assertions about the severity of climate change.
Gleick apologized for his actions, and said his judgment was clouded by his "frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists … and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved."
But Gleick's admission is sure to further intensify an already bitter debate between those who accept the scientific consensus on climate change and those who doubt it, and further deepen the uncertainty of many Americans about which side is right.
"This is going to stick," said Kert Davies, director of research for Greenpeace USA. "For those people who don't believe climate change is real or think that it's part of some U.N. conspiracy to control their lives, this will reinforce that view. Those who don't believe that, who think there is a massive conspiracy by corporate and conservative interests to muddy the science, on that side Peter Gleick is a hero for his temerity to do this."
He added, "Somewhere in the middle, it could confuse people and confuse the climate debate for some time to come."
In a statement, the Heartland Institute repeatedly referred to Gleick's actions as a crime and said they were consulting legal counsel. Emails to Heartland and Gleick about whether Heartland had taken further legal action went unanswered.
"A mere apology is not enough to undo the damage," said Heartland President Joseph Bast. "In his statement, Gleick claims he committed this crime because he believed the Heartland Institute was preventing a 'rational debate' from taking place over global warming. This is unbelievable. Heartland has repeatedly asked for real debate on this important topic."
As the documents circulated last week, Heartland asserted that one of them, titled "2012 Heartland Climate Strategy," is a forgery. In his statement, Gleick said the chain of events began early this year when he received the purported strategy document from an anonymous sender. The disputed document mentions efforts by Heartland to make sure that Gleick's voice in particular is kept out of high-profile publications such as Forbes, where Gleick sometimes blogs.
Hoping to confirm the accuracy of the information in the strategy document, Gleick called Heartland and "in a serious lapse of my own professional judgment and ethics," he said, "solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name."
Heartland said last week that someone got the documents by calling their Chicago headquarters and posing as a board member seeking information.
Heartland has not said whether any of the documents it unwittingly released were altered, and Gleick said he did not change any of the material he got. But several of the key points the purported strategy document makes are backed up in the material Gleick obtained from Heartland. Most notably, in a fundraising document, Heartland identifies one of its priorities as reshaping the discussion of climate change in K-12 classrooms.