Scientist admits he leaked internal documents from climate-skeptic group

A researcher who advocates for battling global warming has admitted to using deceptive tactics to obtain internal strategy and budget documents from the Heartland Institute, a free-market group that rejects mainstream climate science.

Peter Gleick, president of the California-based Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, also said in a blog post Monday night that he made no changes or alterations to the documents.

The Heartland Institute calls a strategy memo circulated last week a fake, and has said separate documents obtained from the group might have been altered.

Gleick, admitting a “serious lapse” of judgment and ethics, wrote in the Huffington Post that he used someone else’s name to obtain the documents and circulate them among a group of journalists and advocates in mid-February.

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Gleick said he anonymously received a Heartland Institute strategy document in the mail early this year. In an effort to confirm the accuracy of the document, Gleick admits that he “solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name.”

“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,” Gleick wrote.

“Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected,” he adds.

The Heartland Institute has slammed websites that have published the documents, which include information about donors and staff.

The group says an internal probe shows that the “2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” memo was a fake and did not come from the group, and has sent letters demanding removal of the documents to several sites, alleging “there is no right to defamatory speech.”

The memo included plans for spending at least $100,000 on developing a K-12 curriculum to counter "alarmist" materials in schools, as well as plans for funding for high-profile climate skeptics and other strategy information.

Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast, in a statement Monday night, said the wide circulation and discussion of the document in newspapers, blogs and elsewhere 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.”

However, in addition to the climate strategy document that Heartland has called fake, a separate fundraising strategy document includes the curriculum plan.

Gleick’s blog post notes that “materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget.”

The Heartland Institute on Monday accused Gleick of a “serious” crime in obtaining documents from the group.

“The documents he admits stealing contained personal information about Heartland staff members, donors and allies, the release of which has violated their privacy and endangered their personal safety,” said Bast on Monday night.

Bast, in the statement, said, “A mere apology is not enough to undo the damage," adding that the group is consulting with its legal counsel to determine its next steps.

“In his statement, Gleick claims he committed this crime because he believed the Heartland Institute was preventing a 'rational debate' from taking place over global warming,” Bast said. “This is unbelievable. Heartland has repeatedly asked for real debate on this important topic.”

Chris Lehane, a veteran Democratic communications strategist who was press secretary for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign, is working with Gleick pro-bono on the matter. Gleick’s attorney is John Keker, whose clients include former Tour de France champion Lance Armstrong.

Richard Littlemore of the DeSmog Blog, one of the websites that first published the documents last week, defended Gleick on Monday.

“Whistleblowers — and that's the role Gleick has played in this instance –— deserve respect for having the courage to make important truths known to the public at large,” he wrote on the website.

Gleick’s admission of deceptively obtaining internal Heartland Institute documents has quickly touched off speculation and debate about the repercussions of his actions.

Andrew Revkin, who writes the influential Dot Earth blog on The New York Times’s website, said in a post Monday night that Gleick has harmed efforts to battle climate change.

“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,” Revkin writes.

The admission could roil climate change battles on Capitol Hill. “We are watching these developments closely,” said Matt Dempsey, an aide to Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a prominent climate skeptic.

Gleick, an expert on water issues who uses his blog posts to battle climate skeptics, was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2006. He graduated from Yale University and received a Ph.D. from the University of California-Berkeley.

The Heartland Institute is a Chicago-based nonprofit that seeks to “discover, develop and promote free-market solutions to social and economic problems” on the environment, healthcare, education and other issues.

It holds conferences and publishes work challenging the consensus view among scientists that the earth is warming dangerously and human activities such as burning fossil fuels are a major cause.

—This post was updated at 10:32 a.m.