The Heartland Affair: A Climate Champion Cheats — and We All Lose

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Late last year, Peter Gleick — the president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security; and a respected expert on water-and-climate issues — co-authored a paper on the American Geophysical Union's (AGU) task force on scientific ethics and integrity. Gleick and his co-author Randy Townsend of the AGU wrote that advancing scientific work to create a sustainable future would only be possible if scientists had the trust of the public and policymakers. And that trust, they added, "is earned by maintaining the highest standards of scientific integrity in all that we do."

Strong words, and true ones too, but Gleick himself has failed to live up to them — and his actions have hurt not just his own professional reputation but the cause of climate science as well. Last week an anonymous person who called himself a "Heartland Insider" e-mailed six documents to 15 media and bloggers that purported to be internal memos from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian think tank that advocates highly skeptical views of climate science. The documents — which were quickly posted on sites like DeSmogBlog — contained detailed information about Heartland's internal finances, including the names of major corporate donors like Microsoft and General Motors. The documents also outlined Heartland's strategies, including efforts to promote school curricula that would cast doubt on the established scientific finding that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are dangerously warming the planet.

For advocates of climate action, the Heartland documents offered a rare glimpse into the world of the conservative power players who work to cast doubt on climate science and delay action on global warming — the same people authors Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway called the "Merchants of Doubt" in their 2010 book by the same name. For its part, the Heartland Institute claimed that the documents hadn't been leaked from inside the group but had instead been obtained by an outsider who had posed as a board member. The organization also said that at least one of the six documents — a short memo claiming to be a summary of Heartland's work on global warming — was a fake, and threatened legal action against the bloggers posting the documents.

"It doesn't matter what you believe about climate change, or if you're a liberal or a conservative," Heartland president Joseph Bast wrote in an e-mailed press statement on Feb. 20. "You ought to understand and denounce this unethical behavior."

As it turns out, Bast may have a point. On the evening of Feb. 20, Gleick revealed that he had sent the alleged Heartland memos to the climate reporters and analysts, and that he had used deception in order to obtain some of them. Writing in the Huffington Post, Gleick said that at the beginning of 2012 he had received an anonymous document in the ordinary mail that appeared to be details of the Heartland Institute's climate-program strategy. He said he did not know the source of the document, so he tried to confirm the accuracy of the information. In an effort to do so, Gleick said he "solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone's name." He said those new documents confirmed the information in the original memo, and that he made no changes to any of the documents before sending them out anonymously. "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," Gleick wrote. "Nevertheless, I deeply regret my own actions in this case."

As his apology concedes, what Gleick did was wrong. No reputable investigative reporter — certainly not one who worked at TIME — would be employed for long after obtaining insider information by lying the way Gleick did. Think of the outcry over James O'Keefe's use of sting tactics to record employees from the now defunct political group ACORN as they gave advice to a supposed pimp and prostitute (actually O'Keefe and an associate). Credibility is nonnegotiable in journalism — it's the only way we can believe what we read or watch — and if a reporter lies in the pursuit of facts, the resulting story will be much harder to believe, even if it really is true. Gleick isn't a journalist — though as a regular blogger on the Huffington Post, he may qualify in a new media sense — but he was still creating a story. You can't drink from a poisoned well.

Many climate advocates, while acknowledging that Gleick made a mistake, are calling him a heroic whistle-blower. "For his courage, his honor and for performing a selfless act of public service, [Gleick] deserves our gratitude and applause," wrote Richard Littlemore of DeSmogBlog. But the prize for which Gleick broke the rules and damaged his own credibility hardly seems worth it. The alleged memos seem to confirm that the Heartland Institute is trying to push its highly skeptical view of climate science in the public sphere, which is only surprising if you've paid exactly zero attention to the climate debate over the past decade.

If anything, the Heartland memos — which are now hard to judge because we can't be sure exactly what's real — indicate that fossil-fuel companies don't seem to be spending that much money on climate denial, at least with this group. Exxon stopped donating in 2006 — it had given $675,000 before that — while the archconservative Koch Foundation gave just $25,000 in 2011, all of it earmarked for health care research. Most of the money seems to come from individuals, including one person referred to as "the Anonymous Donor" in the memos who gave $14.26 million to Heartland over the past six years. While that's strange — there must be better uses of $14.26 million — it doesn't exactly seem like a vast right-wing conspiracy, even if one person parted with a lot of cash.

The Heartland Institute seems to be mulling its legal options for now, though in the court of karma it may simply be getting its just due. Back in 2009, when a still unknown hacker stole and posted thousands of private e-mails from climate scientists in the controversy that became known as Climategate, Heartland didn't seem too worried about the provenance of the documents. "This is new and real evidence that [climate scientists] should examine and then comment on publicly," Heartland president Bast wrote after the e-mails surfaced in 2009. That the "new and real evidence" had been hacked didn't bother Heartland any more than the fact that many of the Heartland memos were obtained deceitfully has much bothered many climate activists even after Gleick's admission.

It's easy to wonder why they should care. Climate scientists have come under attack repeatedly in recent years from skeptics who seem indifferent to the facts themselves. You can't find a Republican presidential candidate who accepts the scientific consensus on climate change; Rich Santorum earlier this month called climate science "an absolute travesty of scientific research." The journal Nature was speaking for many in the climate community when its editors wrote in 2010 that climate scientists must realize they are in a "street fight." And we all know that in a street fight, anything goes.

But that's not how it works in science — and that's what the entire climate movement is supposed to be based on. Scientific integrity isn't about having the right goals. It's about using the right methods, which is why research is policed so rigorously, and why even the hint of cheating can ruin a career. Scientists aren't perfect, and there is enormous temptation to bend the rules and massage results — which happens more often than the scientific community would like to admit. But science works because the importance of those rules is drilled into students from the moment they first step into a lab. It's why the public still trusts scientists far more than any other public figures. It's how we know what's real and what's not.

That's not how politics works, to say the least — which is one reason climate advocates have always faced such an uphill battle. It's not a fair fight, but we have to believe that over time, the truth will win out. And we won't get there by taking shortcuts.