Identity of 'DenialGate' Whistleblower Revealed. Is He a Hero or a Huckster?

Word Economic Forum via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Peter Gleick, an outspoken water and climate researcher, has admitted that he used a false identity to nab the Heartland Institute documents. Now, the question is, is he a noble whistleblower or an ethically-challenged huckster?

In a post put up on the Huffington Post today, Gleick issues his confession, and explains why he sought out the documents:

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 and 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.

Obviously, Heartland is howling. Their president Joseph L Bast released a statement today saying, "Gleick's crime was a serious one. The documents he admits stealing contained personal information about Heartland staff members, donors, and allies, the release of which has violated their privacy and endangered their personal safety."

Endangered whose personal safety? And how? That hyperbolic volley was to be expected. What's less predictable is the fierce debate that has immediately sprung up between journalists, scientists, bloggers, and greens over the moral component of his actions. DeSmogBlog and some leading climate scientists have commended Gleick's deeds as important, heroic whistleblowing.

Scott Mandia, a climate scientist, told the Guardian that "Peter Gleick, a scientist who is also a journalist just used the same tricks that any investigative reporter uses to uncover the truth. He is the hero and Heartland remains the villain. He will have many people lining up to support him."

Andy Revkin, the New York Times' climate opinion blogger, begs to differ:

Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others. (Some of the released documents contain information about Heartland employees that has no bearing on the climate fight.) That is his personal tragedy and shame

Grist has a good roundup of more responses here.

And now for my contribution to the opinion-strewn maelstrom, for which everyone is no doubt awaiting with bated breath. I think it's unfortunate indeed that this act was carried out by a scientist who works in the climate sphere. Because of that mere fact, the actual documents, and the important insight they provide into institutionalized efforts to propagate climate change denial, may recede into the background. This story may oscillate again towards climate scientists vs. skeptics, with all the usual tropes trotted out, along with renewed venom. And the more the narrative devolves towards he-said-she-saidism, the more science loses out.

Tags: Global Climate Change

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