Subterfuge vs. propaganda in global warming debate
Environmental advocate Peter Gleick's admission that he obtained
Heartland Institute documents, including its plan to fight global
warming policies, has the wrong side answering questions.
February 29, 2012
Peter Gleick is about the last person you'd expect to put
himself in the position to be labeled a thief, a faker, and a
The recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant in 2003, as
co-founder and president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute
he's been one of our most sober and thoughtful environmental
advocates and an indispensable voice for rational water policy
in California and nationwide. I've seen him withstand a most
obnoxious and fatuous interrogation by a brain-dead congressman
with absolute equanimity.
So it was rather a surprise to read his recent confession to having
obtained, by subterfuge, a sheaf of internal documents belonging
to the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, a nest of global
warming deniers and corporate anti-regulators, and making them
public. The documents include a memo
outlining Heartland's plan to fight global warming policies,
which the organization says is a forgery, and papers detailing
its 2012 budget and fundraising plans, whose
authenticity Heartland doesn't dispute.
It's a sign of the emotions wrapped up in the global warming
debate that Gleick should be apologizing for his actions today
while the Heartland Institute stakes out the moral high ground.
Gleick has thrown himself at the mercy of the court of public
opinion — he explained his action partially by his frustration
with "often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated" attacks on
climate science and scientists and has stepped down, at least
temporarily, from the Pacific Institute.
But it's Heartland, which has tagged Gleick with the epithets
above, that should be answering for its nearly three-decade
history of corporate shilldom. In that time it has fought health
and safety regulations on tobacco (with the financial assistance
of Philip Morris), attacked evidence about acid rain as "flimflam" and the case
against DDT as "scientific
fraud." The theme of its 2009 environmental conference was "Global
Warming: Was It Ever Really a Crisis?"
Over the years its backers have included Exxon Mobil and the
foundations of the Koch family and Richard Mellon Scaife. Its
current agenda encompasses lobbying against insurance
regulation, with funding from such insurance industry pillars as
State Farm; cable and Internet regulation (support from Comcast,
Time Warner Cable, and other such companies); and healthcare
reform (contributors have included Pfizer and Eli Lilly). It
identifies its mission as promoting "free-market solutions to
social and economic problems." You are free to interpret this
theme as getting government off the backs of the people, so that
big business can saddle up.
Global warming is one of those issues in which the natural
complexity of the underlying science is exploited by
well-funded, commercially self-interested obfuscators such as
the oil and gas industry, the latters' goal being to discredit
in the public mind what are in fact robust scientific
conclusions. There can be few fields where more is at stake,
given the likely impact on all of us of documented climate
So let's take a look at what light is shed on the global warming
debate by l'affaire Gleick.
To begin with, Gleick's disclosures have cornered Heartland into
committing an act of spectacular hypocrisy. Ever since personal
emails among climate scientists were abstracted from computers
at Britain's University of East Anglia and made public in 2009
and 2011, Heartland has celebrated the breach, contending that
the emails show the scientists conspiring to hide or
misrepresent doubts about global warming. Yet the institute
labels the release of its own internal documents "a
flagrant violation of ethics."
Heartland tries to paper over this contradiction by tying the
email releases to "a whistle-blower inside the University of
East Anglia." The problem is that no one has ever identified the
leaker, whether a whistle-blower or otherwise.
The school says its computers were hacked, and a police
investigation is continuing in Britain. When I asked Heartland
to defend its characterization, its spokesman remarked on the
length of the police investigation and the absence of any
charges or a confession. "If that doesn't point strongly to a
legitimate internal whistle-blower, I don't know what does," he
wrote me. Is this typical of the logical consistency of all
The claim that the leaked emails showed scientists conspiring or
misrepresenting their findings has been refuted by numerous
official investigations, including a British parliamentary inquiry.
The study by climate expert Michael Mann that was the topic of
many of the emails, and which documented a sharp rise in global
temperature in recent decades, was scrutinized in 2006 by the
National Academy of Sciences, which endorsed its basic findings
and the broader scientific consensus that the global warmth of
the late 20th century was unprecedented over the previous
millennium. In a nutshell, there's no scientific controversy
that global warming exists and that human activities are
irrefutably a leading cause of it.
That brings us back to the Heartland documents. It would be
tragic if Gleick's effectiveness as an environmental advocate
were sacrificed for what is, in truth, a meager haul. "There's
not that much in the documents that we didn't already know or
suspect," says Naomi Oreskes, a historian of science at UC San
Diego and coauthor of "Merchants of Doubt,"
a 2010 book documenting the efforts of Heartland and other
sources to undermine scientific findings on environmental
Much of the outrage over the Heartland documents has focused on
their disclosure of the organization's plan to produce a
grade-school curriculum casting doubt on the scientific
consensus on global warming. A Heartland spokesman defended this
project to me as an effort "to put more science into public
schools, not less."
Yet criticizing Heartland for this strikes me as a waste of
time. Propaganda is what Heartland does for a living; our
obloquy should be reserved for any school board ignorant enough
to accept a science curriculum from an industry-funded advocacy
Gleick's greatest gift to Heartland may be that the controversy
has made it appear more relevant to the global warming debate
than it really is. The documents themselves show Heartland
struggling to raise money from conservative donors.
Heartland's biggest donor, an anonymous contributor whose
millions have sometimes represented as much as 63% of its annual
revenue, has advanced smaller amounts every year since 2008,
falling below $1 million in 2011. (This is according to the
fundraising document, the authenticity of which the institute
doesn't dispute.) Heartland hopes to jack that up to $1.25
million this year, but it's unclear from its internal documents
whether that number represents the donor's firm commitment or
Heartland's wishful thinking. This year, for the first time,
Heartland will mount a direct mail fundraising campaign, but the
internal documents show that the campaign will cost more than
$500,000 and operate at a loss for at least the first year.
The institute's total revenue has been dwindling since 2008,
falling from $7.8 million that year to $4.6 million in 2011,
according to annual tax returns it files publicly and to its
internal budget document. The documents say Heartland plans to
restore revenue all the way to $7.7 million this year, but they
forecast success in its fundraising with a childlike optimism
that makes your average high school pep rally sound like the
The ethics of Gleick's actions are a subject properly left to
his organization's board and his God, not the sinners who have
publicly weighed in on the matter, pro or con. If there's
lasting damage from this episode, it comes from giving Oreskes'
"merchants of doubt" another means of distracting policymakers
from basing their work on firm scientific evidence rather than
Heartland-style malarkey. To paraphrase the late novelist William
Gaddis, obfuscation is "the one weapon stupidity's got
against intelligence." The last thing the world needed was to
give stupidity an opportunity to reload.