Confessions of a climate gate-opener

Richard Black
Former environment correspondent

image copyrightOther
image captionPeter Gleick apologised for a "serious lapse of judgement and ethics"

I don't normally do requests, as they say - but I've a lot of messages via emails, blog comments and Twitter asking for a follow-up post on the Heartland Institute, and am happy to oblige.

Many thanks for all your messages - nice to know one's thoughts are in such demand!

So what's happened since last week's post, flagging up and analysing the contents of documents obtained through subterfuge from the leading US climate sceptic lobby group?

First, we saw a request from the institute that all media organisations who'd covered the story should take their articles down and issue retractions, with a vague threat of legal action.

As far as I can see, few complied - and why would they?

As the old saying goes, "news is something that someone somewhere doesn't want you to know" - and here was information about a significant player in climate politics that it certainly didn't want you to have.

In saying one of the documents was a fake, the institute also signified that the rest were genuine.

Then on Tuesday, the perpetrator came forward and 'fessed up. Scientist Peter Gleick, head of the Pacific Institute and a moderately well-known commentator on such matters, spilled the beans in the Huffington Post and proffered an apology.

"In a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else's name," he wrote.

"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."

Part of the lack of transparency he raised concerns funding.

The documents told us the identity of many Heartland donors, but not the identity of the "Anonymous Donor" who has given the organisation about $8m in the last four years, by far the major share of its finance for climate work.

By co-incidence, the UK's Information Rights Tribunal, which adjudicates on Freedom of Information-type issues, chose the same day to issue its ruling that the Charity Commission does not have to reveal who donated the initial £50,000 to set up the Global Warming Policy Foundation (GWPF), the leading UK lobby group.

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image captionLord Lawson's GWPF does not have to reveal its "seed donor", a tribunal ruled

In her judgement, Judge Alison McKenna said the GWPF wasn't influential enough for disclosure to be merited.

So where does all of this leave us?

I am very wary of drawing parallels between the so-called "ClimateGate" issue of 2009 and the so-called "DenierGate" issue of the Heartland Institute, because they are very different.

But one thing they do have in common is that each is really a combination of two stories: who lifted the documents, and what the documents tell us.

And in both, it's necessary to analyse the strands separately.

With the Heartland case, we knew last week that someone had obtained the documents by the back door - "stolen", to use the institute's word.

Now, we know who; and that's as far as it goes.

Peter Gleick's admission may tell us something about Peter Gleick. And various commentators have piled in, notably the New York Times' Andy Revkin who says the issue "leaves his reputation in ruins".

But it doesn't tell us anything about the Heartland Institute; that story lies in the documents themselves.

Let me briefly deal with a couple of the points you've been raising in your messages.

Firstly, what's wrong with the Heartland Institute preparing curriculum material for use in schools, you've asked. "Green groups do it all the time," is the allegation.

I don't know how things are in the US; but in the UK, I'm told, that certainly isn't the case. Science teachers I know are very well hooked into the web, where authoritative information on climate change isn't exactly hard to find.

As a parent and a citizen, if teachers use non-standard curriculum material, the main thing I would be worried about is accuracy.

Climate change glossary
Select a term to learn more:
Action that helps cope with the effects of climate change - for example construction of barriers to protect against rising sea levels, or conversion to crops capable of surviving high temperatures and drought.

The examples given in the Heartland proposal are not encouraging in this regard.

The proposed modules would, for example, state that "whether humans are changing the climate is a major scientific controversy" and that "natural emissions [of CO2] are 20 times higher than human emissions".

The first is just wrong. It may be a public debate; but within science, the question is how much, not whether.

In the second case, natural absorption is not mentioned and it's the difference between the two - net emissions - that is the crucial fact.

Al Gore was called out (including here on the BBC) on inconveniently extending the truth in his movie, and I hope environmental groups would be too if they did the same; so Heartland and its supporters ought to expect to be called on this as well.

The second issue I've been asked about is whether writing about the Heartland documents was ethical journalism.

This is an area with lots of shades of grey. But one of the essential questions to ask is whether revealing and discussing this kind of information is in the public interest.

Perhaps the best recent UK example is the Daily Telegraph's long-running series of articles revealing serial abuses of the expenses system by MPs.

The material was certainly lifted from the owners without their permission, and bought by the newspaper group.

image copyrightAFP
image captionSome argue sceptics' distortion of science will damage people in poor countries

But I don't know of anyone who argues it was unethical; revealing the information was clearly in the public interest, it changed practices in Parliament, and eventually resulted in prosecutions of people who'd broken the rules.

Never again will an MP try to charge the public purse for digging a moat or building a house for his ducks.

Is revealing the funding and tactics of influential groups engaged on a policy issue such as climate change not also in the public interest?

Some scientists argue it's so much in the public interest that a change of rules is in order.

One example is the open letter released on Monday by the Climate and Health Council asking that climate sceptic lobby groups reveal all their funding.

"We view the systematic sowing of unjustified doubt about mainstream international climate science as confusing at best, and inhumane at worst," they write.

It's a difficult request. Firstly, how do you define a "climate sceptic" group? Secondly, we're dealing with multiple countries, hence multiple sets of rules.

And most fundamentally, arguing against legislation of any kind is perfectly legitimate in open societies.

Nevertheless, the rationale behind the argument is clear. Heartland acknowledges it ramps its climate work up and down depending on how much money it receives from a single donor - but we have no idea who he is, beyond his gender.

GWPF and other organisations may have similar donor relationships - we don't know, because generally, they won't tell us.

That's one reason why some commentators from the environmental community are hoping Heartland does begin a legal case, because in US law the pre-trial process of discovery means the plaintiff would probably have to release lots of other documents that it currently keeps private - including, potentially, the identity of Anonymous Donor.

Perhaps, though, the most revealing documents in this whole affair do not lie in the tranche obtained by Dr Gleick.

One is the email exchange Heartland chief Joe Bast had with Gary Wamsley, a 71-year-old war veteran who took exception to institute's tactics. Follow-up pieces on the same site are also interesting.

The second is the piece Mr Bast posted on his own site lambasting a New York Times article on the leaked documents.

It's a must read.