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A prominent environmental scientist has admitted that he lied to obtain internal documents. They came from a group called the Heartland Institute, which questions climate change. This deception has shaken the science community. Meanwhile, the Heartland Institute is planning legal action.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has more on the controversy.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Peter Gleick is not just any scientist. He got his doctorate at the University of California at Berkeley, and won a MacArthur Genius Award. He is also an outspoken proponent of scientific evidence that humans are causing climate change.

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 detailed Heartland's funding and strategies, including efforts to write school curricula that questions climate warming.

Gleick, this week, admitted to a serious lapse of judgment due to his frustration with attacks on climate science from places like Heartland.

Scientists are shocked. Michael McPhaden runs the American Geophysical Union.

DR. MICHAEL MCPHADEN: This is a tragedy on so many levels. For Peter Gleick, it's going to be a personal tragedy. For AGU, it is very unfortunate. Situations like this damage our credibility and that really hurts.

JOYCE: The AGU, like most mainstream scientific groups, endorses the evidence of climate change. And Gleick ran their task force on scientific ethics until he resigned last week.

MCPHADEN: People will look at this and say, ah, you know, another conspiracy in the climate community. And, 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.

JOYCE: Roger Pielke, Jr. wouldn't go that far. Pielke is a climate policy analyst at the University of Colorado.

PROFESSOR ROGER PIELKE, JR.: For most people it's very much "Inside Baseball." It's a dispute among people and organizations that are really outside the public eye.

JOYCE: Pielke adds, however, that like some climate scientists, Gleick lost his cool over attacks on climate research.

PIELKE: 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.

JOYCE: Gleick works at the Pacific Institute in California. So far, he's not speaking publicly. A colleague says Gleick knows his judgment was bad but is glad to expose Heartland's sources of income and political strategies.

But Naomi Oreskes, who's a historian of science at the University of California, San Diego, says maybe that's not such a big deal.

PROFESSOR NAOMI ORESKES: The documents that were released last week essentially affirm what we already knew. And it was not necessary because this information is actually available through entirely appropriate means.

JOYCE: Oreskes says Gleick's actions don't reflect on decades of climate research or the scientists who do it.

ORESKES: Thousands and thousands of people are working on this issue, and this is one man.

JOYCE: At the Heartland Institute, president Joseph Bast says the documents reveal sensitive information about Heartland donors and staff members.

JOSEPH BAST: That kind of invasion of privacy is taken really seriously. It has no place in this debate. I mean, what kind of ethical code allows for the invasion of the privacy of individuals like that?

JOYCE: Bast says one of the documents that Gleick circulated, the one that casts Heartland in the worst light, is a forgery.

BAST: That that document did not originate in this organization. There's no trace of that document anywhere in a Heartland office computer.

JOYCE: Bast says the institute plans to pursue criminal and civil action against Gleick and possibly others involved in circulating the documents.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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