Peter Gleick is not just any scientist. He got his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley and won a MacArthur "genius" award. He is also an outspoken proponent of scientific evidence that humans are responsible for climate change.
And earlier this week, he confessed that he had lied to obtain internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a group that questions to what extent climate change is caused by humans.
Gleick's deception has shaken the science community. Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute, whose funders and policies were described in the documents, is planning legal action.
What Gleick admits to is this: He got a document from an anonymous source that appeared to come from the Heartland Institute. Gleick then called the institute using an assumed name. He asked for and received more documents. Then he sent them — anonymously — to bloggers and journalists.
The documents allegedly detailed Heartland's funding and strategies, including efforts to hire someone to write school curricula questioning mainstream scientific views on climate warming.
Gleick this week wrote in the Huffington Post that he suffered a "serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics" due to his "frustration" with attacks on climate science from places like Heartland.
Scientists are shocked. "This is a tragedy on so many levels," says Michael McPhaden, who runs the American Geophysical Union. "For Peter Gleick, it's going to be a personal tragedy. For AGU, it's very unfortunate. Situations like this damage our credibility. And that really hurts."
The AGU, like most mainstream scientific groups, endorses the evidence for man-made climate change. And Gleick ran their task force on scientific ethics until he resigned last week.
"People will look at this and say, 'Ah, you know, another conspiracy in the climate community.' Of course, we all know that's smoke and mirrors. But it does hurt our ability to communicate more broadly about the reality of climate change," says McPhaden.
Roger Pielke Jr., a climate policy analyst at the University of Colorado, wouldn't go that far. "For most people it's very much inside baseball," he says. "It's a dispute among people and organizations that are really outside the public eye."
Pielke adds, however, that like some climate scientists, Gleick lost his cool over attacks on their research.
"My view is that some folks in the science community have gotten so hung up on the fact that some individuals and groups don't share their views, that it has become an all-out war over ideas." Pielke says what was a scientific issue has now been conscripted into the politically driven "culture war," with climate scientists and environmental groups on one side, and those who distrust and disbelieve them on the other, with little crossover.
Gleick works at the Pacific Institute in California. So far, he's not speaking publicly. A spokesman for Gleick says Gleick knows his judgment was bad but is glad to see Heartland's sources of income and political strategy out in the open. Those sources include several foundations associated with conservative political and social causes.
But Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at the University of California, San Diego, says maybe that's not such a big deal. "The documents that were released last week essentially affirm what we already knew," she says. "And [the deception] was not necessary because this information is actually available through entirely appropriate means." In fact, Oreskes has documented ties between climate skeptics and their funders in her book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming.
Oreskes says Gleick's actions don't diminish the validity of decades of climate research, nor do they reflect the ethics of scientists who do it. "Thousands and thousands of people are working on this issue, and this is one man," she says.
At the Heartland Institute, President Joseph Bast says some of the internal documents reveal sensitive information about Heartland donors and staff members. "That kind of invasion of privacy is taken really seriously," Bast says. "It has no place in this debate. I mean, what kind of ethical code allows for the invasion of privacy of individuals like that?"
Bast says one of the documents that Gleick circulated, a two-page "strategy" that casts Heartland in the worst light, is a forgery. He says an internal investigation shows that "that document did not originate in this organization. There's no trace of that document anywhere in a Heartland office computer."
Bast points out that some of the institute's donors specifically ask for anonymity, which has now been breached, not only by Gleick but by websites that have displayed the documents.
And he disagrees with those who say Gleick's behavior is atypical, claiming he's typical of people in the climate community who refuse to engage in debate with Heartland.
"Gleick is not an exception. He's a role model for people on their side," Bast says.
Bast says the institute plans to pursue criminal and civil action against Gleick and possibly others involved in circulating the documents.