Why the climate skeptics are winning
Too many of their opponents are intellectual thugs.

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Peter Gleick lectures at SkeptiCalCon in Berkeley, CA on May 29, 2011.

Article Highlights

  • #Climate skeptics are winning because too many of their opponents are intellectual thugs

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  • Reflection on the root of @HeartlandInst episode points to why the climate campaign is out of (greenhouse) gas

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  • The #climate change fight doesn’t even rise to the level of David and Goliath

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The forlorn and increasingly desperate climate campaign achieved a new level of ineptitude last week when what had looked like a minor embarrassment for one of its critics​—​the Chicago-based Heartland Institute​—​turned out to be a full-fledged catastrophe for itself. A moment’s reflection on the root of this episode points to why the climate campaign is out of (greenhouse) gas.

In an obvious attempt to inflict a symmetrical Climategate-style scandal on the skeptic community, someone representing himself as a Heartland Institute insider “leaked” internal documents for Heartland’s most recent board of directors meeting to a fringe environmental blog, along with a photocopy of a supposed Heartland “strategy memo” outlining a plan to disseminate a public school curriculum aimed at “dissuading teachers from teaching science.”

This ham-handed phrase (one of many) should have been a tipoff to treat the document dump with some .  .  . skepticism (a trait that has gone missing from much of the climate science community). But more than a few environmental blogs and mainstream news outlets ran with the story of how this “leak” exposed the nefarious “antiscience” Neanderthals of Heartland and their fossil fuel paymasters. But the strategy memo is a fake, probably created because the genuine internal documents are fairly ho-hum. It seems the climate campaign is now taking its tactics from Dan “fake but accurate” Rather.

"The serial ineptitude of the climate campaign shows that a tiny David doesn’t need to throw a rock against a Goliath who swings his mighty club and only hits himself square in the forehead." - Steven F. HaywardWhy Heartland? And how did the “leaker” get his hands on authentic Heartland board materials that are obviously the source for the faked strategy memo? The Heartland Institute sponsors the most significant annual gathering of climate skeptics, usually in New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C.—a conference that attracts hundreds of scientists and activists from around the globe, including most of the top skeptical scientists, such as MIT’s Richard Lindzen, Yale’s Robert Mendelsohn, and career EPA official Alan Carlin. By assembling a critical mass of serious dissenting opinion, the Heartland conference dispels the favorite climate campaign talking point that there’s virtually no one of repute, and no arguments of merit, outside the -so-called consensus of imminent climate catastrophe. 

The Heartland conferences have been too big for the media to ignore completely, though coverage has been spare and grudging. The conferences are also a morale booster for skeptics, who tend to be isolated and relentlessly assailed in their scattered outposts. It is worth adding that Heartland has always extended invitations to the leading “mainstream” figures to speak or debate at the conference, including Al Gore, NASA’s James Hansen, and senior officials from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (Heartland typically receives no response from such figures.)

The most likely instigator of an anti-Heartland provocation would be someone from among the political activists of the environmental movement, such as the merry pranksters of Greenpeace, who have been known to paw through the garbage cans of climate skeptics looking for evidence of payoffs from the fossil fuel industry (which, contrary to left-wing paranoia, has tended rather to be a generous funder of the climate catastrophe campaign). But shortly after the document dump, Ross Kaminsky, an unpaid senior fellow and former Heartland board member now with the American Spectator, noticed something odd in the digital fingerprint of the “strategy memo.” It had been scanned on an Epson printer/scanner on Monday, February 13, on the West Coast (not in the Midwest, where Heartland is located), just one day before the entire document dump appeared online for the first time. Like the famous little detail of when and how Alger Hiss disposed of his old Ford, this date and location will turn out to be a key piece of evidence unraveling the full story, some of which still remains shrouded.

So how did the official Heartland documents get out? Someone claiming to be a board member emailed an unsuspecting Heartland staffer, asking that a set of board documents be sent to a new email address. This act may have violated California and Illinois criminal statutes prohibiting false representation, and perhaps some federal statutes pertaining to wire fraud as well.

Kaminsky and a second blogger, Steven Mosher, piled up the anomalies: The leaked board documents were not scanned but were original software-produced documents, which moreover have a time stamp from Heartland’s Central time zone. Hence the “strategy memo,” if authentic, would have had to be obtained by some other channel. These and other clues led both Kaminsky and Mosher to go public with the accusation that the most likely perpetrator was Peter Gleick, a semi-prominent environmental scientist in Oakland, California. 

Gleick is known chiefly for his work on water issues, for which he enjoys a deserved reputation for his data-driven research (though he gets the remedies wrong). He has been as well a peripheral but aggressive figure in the climate wars, notable for the angry and politicized tone of his participation. Gleick is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and was, until two weeks ago, the chairman of an American Geophysical Union task force on scientific -ethics. He’s also a columnist for Forbesmagazine’s website and a recipient of one of those MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants that typically go to the trendy and politically correct.

Making a direct accusation as Kaminsky and Mosher did is a strong and potentially libelous move, and the green blogosphere closed ranks quickly around Gleick. One poster wrote: “I hope that Mr. Kaminsky will be prepared [to] fully retract and apologize to Dr. Gleick once he is ruled out as the possible culprit.” But then the other shoe dropped: Gleick confessed on Monday, February 20, that he was the person who had deceived Heartland into emailing their board documents. Gleick claimed, though, that he had received the phony strategy memo anonymously early in the year by mail. He explained in a column for the Huffington Post: “I attempted to confirm the accuracy of the information in this document. In an effort to do so, and 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.”

Gleick’s story doesn’t add up, given that many of the details in the phony “strategy memo” could only have been composed by someone with prior access to the complete board materials that Gleick says he subsequently sought out. So far Gleick is the only person known to have had access to the Heartland internal board documents. And he has not been forthcoming about the details of the phony memo. Was there a postmark? Did he keep the envelope and the original document that he scanned? Why does he think he was singled out to receive this information, rather than a reporter? The only thing missing right now to make Gleick’s story weaker is an old Woodstock typewriter.

Then there is the content of the memo itself, which tellingly is written in the first person but bears no one’s name as an author. One is supposed to presume it came from Heartland’s president, Joe Bast, but it is not quite his style. Megan McArdle of the Atlantic sums it up nicely: “It reads like it was written from the secret villain lair in a Batman comic. By an intern.” Numerous observers have pointed to items in the memo that are strikingly inauthentic or alien to the conservative think tank world, but one in particular strikes me​—​a curious passage about the need for “expanded communication”:

Efforts at places such as Forbes are especially important now that they have begun to allow high-profile climate scientists (such as Gleick) to post warmist science essays that counter our own. This influential audience has usually been reliably anti-climate and it is important to keep opposing voices out. Efforts might also include cultivating more neutral voices with big audiences (such as [Andrew] Revkin at Dot­Earth/NYTimes, who has a well-known antipathy for some of the more extreme AGW [anthropogenic global warming] communicators .  .  .

As curious as the reference to Gleick and Forbes is (Gleick shares space at Forbes with Heartland’s James Taylor, which is another interesting circumstance), the reference to Andy Revkin is more intriguing. Revkin is a New York Times science blogger who reports climate issues fairly straight up, though his own sympathies are with the climate campaign. Perhaps because he is basically sympathetic, Revkin’s occasional departures from the party line have been a source of annoyance for more ardent climate campaigners; one of the emails from the first cache of leaked Climategate documents in 2009 complained that Revkin wasn’t “reliable,” and University of Illinois climate alarmist Michael Schlesinger threatened Revkin directly with the “big cutoff” if he didn’t mend his ways. Was the language in the phony Heartland memo another attempt to try to shame Revkin into falling in line by suggesting he’s not hostile enough towards climate skeptics?

After Gleick’s semi-confession, Revkin wrote for the Times that “Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others,” and that his actions “surely will sustain suspicion that he created the summary [strategy memo].” 

Gleick looks set to be spending a good chunk of his MacArthur genius prize winnings on lawyers; he’s retained the same criminal attorney that Andrew Fastow of Enron used for his defense against fraud charges. And Gleick has hired Clinton/Gore crisis manager Chris Lehane. Heartland, for its part, has set up a legal defense fund to pursue a civil case against Gleick, presenting the ultimate irony: -Gleick’s attack may well help Heartland raise more money.

More than a few observers have asked why anyone should trust Gleick’s scientific judgment if his judgment about how to deal with climate skeptics is so bad. -Gleick’s defense of his motives would be laughable if it weren’t so pathetic: “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.” 

Let’s take these in order. Anony-mous? True, Heartland’s board documents reveal seven-figure contributions for their climate work from one “anonymous donor,” but environmental organizations take in many multiples of Heartland’s total budget in anonymous donations washed through the left-wing Tides Foundation. The Environmental Defense Fund thanks 141 anonymous donors in one recent report. “Well-funded”? Heartland’s total budget for all its issues, which include health care, education, and technology policy, is around $4.4 million, an amount that would disappear into a single line item in the budget for the Natural Resources Defense Council ($99 million in revenues in 2010). Last year, theWall Street Journal reports, the World Wildlife Fund spent $68.5 million just on “public education.” 

The dog that didn’t bark for the climateers in this story is the great disappointment that Heartland receives only a tiny amount of funding from fossil fuel sources​—​and none from ExxonMobil, still thebête noire of the climateers. Meanwhile, it was revealed this week that natural gas mogul T. Boone Pickens had given $453,000 to the left-wing Center for American Progress for its “clean energy” projects, and Chesapeake Energy gave the Sierra Club over $25 million (anonymously until it leaked out) for the Club’s anti-coal ad campaign. Turns out the greens take in much more money from fossil fuel interests than the skeptics do.

Finally, “coordinated”? Few public policy efforts have ever had the massive institutional and financial coordination that the climate change cause enjoys. That tiny Heartland, with but a single annual conference and a few phone-book-sized reports summarizing the skeptical case, can derange the climate campaign so thoroughly is an indicator of the weakness and thorough politicization of climate alarmism. 

The Gleick episode exposes again a movement that disdains arguing with its critics, choosing demonization over persuasion and debate. A confident movement would face and crush its critics if its case were unassailable, as it claims. The climate change fight doesn’t even rise to the level of David and Goliath. Heartland is more like a David fighting a hundred Goliaths. Yet the serial ineptitude of the climate campaign shows that a tiny David doesn’t need to throw a rock against a Goliath who swings his mighty club and only hits himself square in the forehead.

 

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About the Author

 

Steven F.
Hayward
  • Steven F. Hayward was previously the F.K. Weyerhaeuser Fellow at AEI. He is the author of the Almanac of Environmental Trends, and the author of many books on environmental topics. He has written biographies of Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and of Winston Churchill, and the upcoming book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Presidents. He contributed to AEI's Energy and Environment Outlook series. 

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