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Berkeley-based scientist admits to ethics violations

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FEBRUARY 24, 2012

A prominent Berkeley-based scientist and environmental activist admitted to serious ethical violations in attempting to verify internal documents from an anti-global warming organization.

In a Huffington Post blog post published Monday, Peter Gleick, co-founder and president of the environmental protection organization the Pacific Institute and a recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, admitted to assuming a false identity in order to obtain internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a libertarian group that seeks to cast doubt on global warming.

Gleick, a UC Berkeley alumnus, has since resigned from his post as chair of the American Geophysical Union’s Task Team on Scientific Ethics, even as a number of environmental scientists publicly rallied to support him.

In his admission, Gleick said that at the beginning of February an anonymous person emailed him documents from the institute that, among other things, allegedly detailed plans from the organization to “muddy public understanding about climate science and policy.”

“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,” he wrote. “Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case.”

After gaining access to the documents, Gleick anonymously forwarded them to a number of journalists and climate change experts in an attempt to reveal Heartland’s questionable intents. Among other things, the documents allegedly reveal that one of the institute’s top priorities is funding efforts to change what schools teach about climate and environmental science.

The Heartland Institute lashed back forcefully, promising legal recourse and insisting that the documents are false.

“The so-called ‘2012 Heartland Climate Strategy’ memo is a complete fraud,” said Jim Lakely, director of communications at the institute, in an email. “It was not produced by any staffer at The Heartland Institute, nor anyone associated with The Heartland Institute.”

In attempting to verify the documents, Gleick impersonated a member of the institute’s board and obtained access to internal documents from the organization, which, he wrote, “confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget.”

Lakely said in the email that the organization “is exploring all legal options” and has “been engaging in conversations with the FBI from the beginning.”

Even as the scandal gains national attention, Gavin Schmidt, a climatologist and climate modeler at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said he does not think it will make much of a difference.

“One person’s failings and misjudgments don’t change anything,” he said.

Schmidt said the Heartland Institute has a “terrible reputation” within the science community.

“They repackage the same old nonsense over and over again and try to get people to pay attention,” he said.

Sara Grossman covers research and ideas.

FEBRUARY 26, 2012