Why Environmentalist Peter Gleick Was Wrong In Attacking the Anti-Environmental Heartland Institute

When Peter Gleick — an American scientist working on issues related to the environment, and scientific ethics and integrity — effectively admitted that he had used unethical means to obtain documents that purported to show the strategy and the funding structure of the libertarian, climate change-denying Heartland Institute, there were many across the environmental movement with their head in their hands. What he did was wrong.

It was wrong. Not, perhaps, in the way that many have put it, such as Heartland’s President Joseph Best when he stated publicly that “it was an outrageous violation of ethics and the law." It was wrong in that his action managed to allow an organization that participates in contemptible activity to suddenly, somehow, occupy some sort of moral high ground.

Let us be clear on what the Heartland Institute does in the realm of climate science. As is their legal right, they systematically attempt to undermine the growing (some may say fully established) consensus that anthropogenic carbon emissions cause (or at the very least exacerbate) global warming.

They twist arguments, pounce on perceived inconsistencies, and fund climate change deniers to ensure that the argument over climate change continues, and the argument for concerted legislative efforts to reduce America's emissions is undermined. On top of this, they have attempted to introduce a module on the “uncertainties” around global warming into the classrooms of 6-12 year-olds. The organization is at best irresponsible, at worst profoundly immoral.

Peter Gleick claims that he posed as a member of Heartland’s board in order to verify a document that had been sent to him anonymously. He took action to try and make what Heartland was doing public knowledge, a defensible act. However, it has to be said that this is exactly what the climate change science movement can least afford to be seen to be doing if their mission to prove the link between man-made emissions and irreversible and catastrophic climate change is to be successful.

The climate science movement has to be pure as mountain spring water. Many if not most understand Gleick’s frustrations with the tactics and hypocrisy of the denial movement, but taking them on at their own game is not the way to go. The statements put out by scientists such as Gleick must be irreproachable in their integrity. All he has done has undermined himself, the Pacific Institute which he served so well for so long, and the climate change movement.

What the science needs is a calm and calculated focus on the data, which will do its own work eventually, although time is running out. A global consensus is close, and the strategies to confront the problem are being formed. History will judge organizations such as Heartland to have been short-sighted and immoral. That Peter Gleick managed to make them look and act like victims is difficult to comprehend. The need for purity of action is a valuable lesson to learn for those who try to make the Heartlands of this world see sense.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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Tom Ferguson

Tom holds an MA in Politics from the University of Edinburgh, focusing primarily on the Political Economy of Asia and China in particular and now works at an environmental consultancy in London. In the two years since he joined, Tom has specialised in sustainability strategy, business case formulation, and policy issues, and was his company's representative at the UNFCCC COP16 meeting in Cancun.

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