Prominent Climate Scientist Admits to Leaking Heartland Documents

January 2012 brought an unusually warm average temperature to the planet.
January 2012 brought an unusually warm average temperature to the planet. (Image credit: NASA/JPL)

A water and climate scientist with decades of research in his field has admitted to deceiving the free-market conservative Heartland Institute into leaking confidential documents about their donors, fundraising efforts and plans to spread doubt about climate change.

Peter Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security in Oakland, Calif., issued a statement on the Huffington Post on Monday admitting to using a false name to trick Heartland into sending him the documents, which he then forwarded to climate communicators and journalists, he said.

"My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected," he stated on HuffPo.

The documents included a list of donors to the Heartland Institute as well as fundraising plans for a variety of projects, including one to create school-friendly curricula that would make a case against human-caused climate change. Climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that climate change is largely driven by humans.

Gleick's admission offers a possible explanation for one document that Heartland says is fake, a memo that purports to outline the organization's 2012 climate change communication plan. Gleick claims that someone anonymously mailed him this memo, and his quest to substantiate the information in the document is what led him to solicit the confidential documents from Heartland. The institute, however, disputes this, calling Gleick's explanation "unbelievable" in a statement on their website and suggesting that Gleick himself wrote the memo.

The admission of wrongdoing by a prominent climate scientist is likely to fuel the fires of the political debate around climate science, regardless of what the documents reveal.

"One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others," wrote climate journalist Andy Revkin on his New York Times "Dot Earth" blog, adding, "The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the 'rational public debate' that he wrote — correctly — is so desperately needed."

Others argued that Gleick's actions don't excuse Heartland's strategies.

"Our criticism of the Heartland Institute's strategy of spreading misinformation about climate science still stands," according to a statement put out by the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It is waging a cynical campaign, funded by corporate interests and anonymous individuals, to undermine the public's understanding of climate science and introduce ideology disguised as science into our children's classrooms."

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.