In the field of climate science, when someone — especially skeptics — did something ethically questionable or misrepresented facts, scientist Peter Gleick was usually among the first and loudest to cry foul. He chaired a prominent scientific society's ethics committee. He created an award for what he considered lies about global warming.
Now Gleick admits that he posed as a board member to get and then distribute to the media sensitive documents from a conservative think tank that is a leader in questioning mainstream climate change science.
And ethicists are criticizing the man who took others to task for what they say was stepping way over the ethical line. The think tank, the Chicago-based Heartland Institute, said it is considering legal action against him.
Gleick, who won a MacArthur genius award and is co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, was chairman of the American Geophysical Union's ethics committee. He also had a column at Forbes.com where he criticized climate skeptics and trumpeted the resignation of a scientific journal editor who published a disputed study. He admitted Monday night that he solicited and leaked the Heartland documents, writing in a blog post on The Huffington Post.
Gleick resigned from the chairmanship of the ethics panel last week.
"What a mess," said Mark Frankel, head of scientific responsibility for the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's leading scientific society, which also had Gleick as a panel member on some committees. "It's compounded by the fact that he was chairman of the ethics committee of a professional society. ... It's an ethical morass that he finds himself in."
And Gleick's actions cast unwarranted doubt on the work of other scientists, Frankel said.
Last week, someone identifying himself as "Heartland insider" sent 15 media members and others six documents, purportedly from Heartland. They included a fundraising document, a budget and a two-page "climate strategy." They showed the think tank receiving millions of dollars — more than $14 million over six years from one anonymous man — in big contributions with plans to teach school children to question mainstream climate science. It also showed funding of scientists who are climate-change skeptics.
Heartland said the two-page strategy document was a fake and the others were stolen. The Associated Press, which received the documents along with other news organizations, was able to verify the accuracy of several of the most sensational parts with the individuals named. The documents caused a stir, mirroring the hacking of climate scientists' emails two years earlier from a British research center.
"My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts — often anonymous well-funded and coordinated — to attack climate science and scientists," Gleick wrote. "Nevertheless, I deeply regret my own actions in this case."
Not good enough, Heartland president Joseph Bast said in a press release: "It has caused major and permanent damage to the reputations of The Heartland Institute and many of the scientists, policy experts and organizations we work with."
The issue is about deception and there are only a few things that could possibly warrant that — and embarrassing Heartland isn't one of them, said Dani Elliott, who teaches ethics at the University of South Florida.
The geophysical union, a scientific society, said in a statement that Gleick's actions are "inconsistent with our organization's values."
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