The New York Times headline on February 16, 2012, read as follows: “Leak Offers Glimpse of Campaign Against Climate Science.” The story appeared to present a shocking indictment of the mores and sinister practices of the so-called climate-denial lobby. According to documents allegedly leaked from a Chicago-based free-market think tank called the Heartland Institute, climate skeptics were not only lavishly funded by moneyed polluters like Koch Industries, but also were engaged in a devious strategy to discourage the teaching of science in schools.
The story was widely, gleefully disseminated by environmental activists and the liberal media. It was soon given the nickname “Deniergate,” because it was seen as a conservative scandal to rival or surpass “Climategate,” the 2009 exposure of e-mails in which climate scientists discussed among themselves the severe problems with global-warming data they were trumpeting at the same time.
On February 20, the Heartland Institute issued a statement claiming the documents had not been leaked but stolen through a form of identity theft known as phishing, and that one of them appeared to have been forged, complete with spurious letterhead—which, if true, would be a felony. This suspicion was shared by the skeptical website Watts Up With That?, which noted similarities in the suspect document with the writing style of a climate activist named Peter Gleick.
After scoffing, Gleick—a noted environmentalist, writer, and campaigner who had chaired an American Geophysical Union task force on “scientific ethics and integrity”—admitted on February 20 to having tricked the documents out of Heartland but denied having been involved in any forgery.
Although some who share his beliefs defended Gleick as a “hero” whose underhanded behavior was amply justified by the nobility of his cause, the story of his deception and his own war against truth is far more ambiguous. Instead of confirming all the climate alarmists’ most damning claims about the “climate denial” lobby, Gleick’s campaign of deception seemed to suggest the precise opposite: Climate skeptics were in fact considerably less well funded than climate alarmists—and possessed of a great deal more integrity.
The topic of climate change is controversial and uncertain—two key points that are effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.” Of all the phrases among the documents supposedly leaked from the Heartland Institute, that one (on a document headed “Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Strategy”) was by far the most incriminating. It was also the one that should most immediately have roused the suspicions of the left-liberal blogs and newspapers that so credulously repeated it. As Megan McArdle noted of the phrase on the website of the Atlantic: “Basically, it reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.”
Climate skeptics pride themselves in private and in public on being supporters of hard science. The idea that, even in their most unguarded moments, they would plot how best to dissuade “teachers from teaching science” is the kind of crime of which only their most fevered enemies could imagine them being willfully, knowingly, unrepentantly guilty.
Among those willing to overlook this rather glaring warning sign were the Canada-based climate activist blog DeSmogBlog, which broke the story in a post entitled “Heartland Institute Exposed: Internal Documents Unmask Heart of Climate Denial Machine,” and the UK-based Guardian (“Leak exposes how Heartland Institute works to undermine climate science”).
According to the spokesman for an environmental organization quoted in the Guardian, the story was an event of major significance. “It’s a rare glimpse behind the wall of a key climate denial organization,” said Kert Davies, director of research at Greenpeace. “It’s more than just a gotcha to have these documents. It shows there is a coordinated effort to have an alternative reality on the climate science in order to have an impact on the policy.”
Why were so many climate activists and their supporters in the mainstream media so determined to believe an unsubstantiated story? The short answer is Climategate. The e-mail cache leaked from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia exposed the private correspondence of the climate scientists at the very heart of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN organization described by President Obama as the “gold standard” of international climate science.
What the leaked e-mails revealed was that, in private, these scientists were considerably less certain about the threat of man-made global warming than they claimed in their reports. They were also caught out bullying dissenting scientists (even to the point of trying to shut down journals that published them, or having them fired from their universities), cherry-picking data, illegally breaching Freedom of Information requests, abusing the scientific method, losing vital data, and twisting evidence. Phrases such as “hide the decline” and “the fact is we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty that we can’t” did little to encourage faith in the supposed scientific “consensus” on the existence of Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming.
How, though, to counter these damaging revelations? In the short term, the global warming camp dealt with the problem using appeals to authority (“98 percent of the world’s climate scientists say…”), a series of official whitewash inquiries (all of which found the Climategate scientists not guilty of any malfeasance), and flat-out denial that dubious-sounding Climategate phrases (like “Mike’s Nature Trick,” referring to a scientist knowingly plotting data incorrectly on a graph to make a climate-change point) meant anything remotely sinister.
But these strategies could not obscure the central lessons learned from Climategate—chiefly that global warming, all the evidence showed, had ceased in 1998, even as man-made carbon emissions had continued to rise, and that climate-change scientists knew it. Could this perhaps mean, as the skeptics had long argued, that the connection between carbon dioxide and “climate change” had been grossly exaggerated?
Clearly the global warming lobby needed a counterargument. And since hard scientific evidence couldn’t bolster their case—Richard Lindzen, professor of atmospheric physics at MIT, has noted that there is simply no evidence, only scary-looking computer projections that do not jibe with real-world data—they would have to find more oblique means of discrediting their opponents.
Enter Peter Gleick, who holds a Ph.D. in environmental science from University of California, Berkeley. Besides being a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship for his work on water resources, Gleick was also founder and director of the Californian environmental education and research center, the Pacific Institute.
Through his articles and blogs for the Huffington Post, Forbes, and the Wall Street Journal, the 56-year-old Gleick (pronounced “Glick”) had established himself as a scourge of climate “denialism.” In one post for Forbes, he lambasted “pundits who spread climate misinformation,” accusing them of “scurrilous deceptions and falsehoods” and “false claims.” On the Huffington Post, he contrasted the low moral standards of “climate deniers, who promulgate error after error” with that of “real scientists” who check their facts and admit their mistakes. His high-minded stance led to his appointment as chairman of the American Geophysical Union’s “task force on scientific ethics and integrity” with the job of investigating allegations of “possible misconduct by AGU members.”
It is not clear what drove a man so ostentatiously principled to dabble in “scurrilous deceptions and falsehoods” himself. But the reason may lie in an online row conducted on Forbes’s blog pages in January with the Heartland Institute’s James Taylor. Gleick had accused “deniers” of being “anti-science”; Taylor had responded with copious examples to suggest that it was, in fact, warmists like Gleick who were truly denying scientific evidence. Gleick wrote, “I don’t normally respond to the posts by James Taylor—reading them makes my head explode.” Gleick went on to demand to know the sources of Heartland’s funding; Taylor replied that in the past such information had been used by “environmental activists and other extremist groups” to “launch a campaign of personal harassment against Heartland Institute donors.”
The Heartland Institute is tiny by the standards of combatants in the climate-change arena. Its annual budget of $4.7 million is dwarfed, to put it mildly, by the Sierra Club’s $84.8 million and the World Wildlife Fund’s $177.7 million. But it has long punched above its weight. Besides hosting an annual conference for (mostly) climate-skeptical scientists, its team of in-house experts—led by geographer Craig Idso, marine geologist Robert Carter, and rocket scientist S. Fred Singer—has published the most thoroughgoing demolition of the IPCC “consensus” in a hefty report called “Climate Change Reconsidered.”
Under pressure, Gleick finally confessed on his Huffington Post blog that there had been no “Heartland insider” who had released these documents, and that he had done it. The reason for this “serious lapse” of his “own professional judgment and ethics,” Gleick explained, was that in January he had received an “anonymous document” containing information about Heartland’s funders and about “the Institute’s apparent efforts to muddy public understanding about climate science and policy.” In order to establish the veracity of these claims, he had therefore “solicited and received additional materials” from Heartland by posing under “someone else’s name.” He denied having made “changes or alterations of any kind” to the documents.
The last, carefully worded claim may have been technically accurate, to help Gleick avoid fraud charges, but it hardly allayed suspicions as to the authorship of the forged “Confidential Memo.” Gleick had been fingered as the likely author of the fake by Steven Mosher, a Watts Up With That? contributor, due to the telltale use of favored Gleick words such as “anti-climate.” Whether innocent of the forgery or not, Gleick felt sufficiently chastened first to resign from the AGU ethics committee and later to ask the board of the Pacific Institute to grant him a “temporary short-term leave of absence” from his position as director.
For many commentators, Gleick’s contrition was unnecessary. The Daily Kos blog hailed him as a “hero scientist” who “at considerable risk to his career and personal reputation” had exposed the “Heartland agenda to spread misinformation and lies.” In the Guardian, James Garvey (author of The Ethics of Climate Change) argued that Gleick’s “lies” were potentially justified in that “what Heartland is doing is harmful because it gets in the way of public consensus and action.” In the Los Angeles Times, Gleick’s actions were excused as being “directly from the denialists’ playbook,” no more reprehensible than the [Climategate] “hack attack at the University of East Anglia.” According to Scientific American, “Gleick’s lie was clearly moral because he was defending a cause that he passionately views as righteous.”
But what, in the end, had Gleick’s supposed bravery—now the subject of an FBI investigation and a Heartland Institute lawsuit—actually achieved for his cause? What in his supposedly shocking exposé of the “Climate Denial Machine” was in any way damaging or surprising? Not much, if anything. The only seriously damning revelation—that Heartland was conspiring to dissuade teachers from teaching science—had turned out to be fraudulent. So, too, had another claim regarding a donation to Heartland by the supposedly sinister Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation: The gift was a modest $25,000 and had been specifically earmarked for health-care research, not climate skepticism. As for the disclosure that Heartland employed Idso, Carter, and Singer (the “Climate Change Reconsidered” lead authors) on its payroll: This was indeed true, but where exactly was the offense?
It appears that Gleick hoisted himself on his own petard. Far from bolstering his own cause, he had given ammunition to skeptics by helping them publicize points they had been arguing for years—that compared with warmists, climate skeptics are pitifully underfunded; that they are not scoring solid points in the climate debate because they’re rich or devious but because they have facts on their side.
The Australian blogger JoNova was the first to put a figure on the funding discrepancy. In March 2010, she calculated that U.S. government spending on “climate research and technology” alone was about 3,500 times more than the money spent on climate skepticism. Similar rules apply in spending on environmental advocacy. As blogger Ben Pile noted, Greenpeace has often vilified the (free market) Competitive Enterprise Institute for having received $2 million in donations from Exxon between 1998 and 2005. Yet between 1994 and 2005, total donations to Greenpeace amounted to more than $2 billion.
For many years, it has been a vital part of the environmental movement’s propaganda narrative that the debate over global warming represents a David-and-Goliath struggle: on one side, so the story goes, an all-powerful, Big-Oil-funded denial machine; on the other, a handful of bravely outspoken environmentalists and persecuted scientists whose only desire is to speak the truth.
Warmist scientist Michael Mann once dramatically claimed: “It’s literally like a Marine in battle against a Cub Scout when it comes to the scientists defending themselves. We’re not PR experts like they are, we’re not lawyers and lobbyists like they are. We’re scientists trained to do science.” But as the Gleick scandal has only served to emphasize, the truth is very nearly the opposite. It seems there was and is nothing remotely scandalous in Heartland’s behavior. On the contrary, it has tried to reach out to its opponents: Gleick, like many warmists, had been invited to present the alternative view at a Heartland conference (with a $5,000 check going to the charity of his choice). He turned them down, apparently for ideological reasons.
Perhaps the very worst thing of all from a warmist’s perspective is that the Koch brothers—the philanthropically minded libertarian co-founders of the Cato Institute who have become the bêtes noires of the American left over the past three years—have been given a rare opportunity to demonstrate the wild injustice of the ideological assaults on them. In an open letter to the New York Times, the foundation’s director, Tonya Mullins, noted that “not one of the five Times reporters” who had covered the story had “even attempted to contact us for input or reaction.” She added, “One might expect the Times to have some chagrin about its reporting that was based on material obtained by fraud, motivated by an ulterior ideological agenda, and suspect in its authenticity.”
In future years, the Gleick case will surely come to be regarded as a textbook example of how not to run a negative guerilla PR operation. Gleick’s initial deception and smearing might just about have been excused as the aberrant behavior of one bad apple. But what has transformed the incident from an embarrassing, localized error of judgment into a more far-reaching disaster has been the extraordinary response of Gleick’s warmist sympathizers. The moment when so many of them came out shamelessly in favor of lying, stealing, cheating, and smearing may prove to be a turning point—a reverse in the climate wars as momentous as Climategate, if not more so.