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Bee Editorial: Rogue Tactics Undermine the Climate Crusade

Feb 23, 2012

Sacramento Bee

As big industries ramp up their campaign to discredit the science of global climate change, researchers who've helped document the threats posed by rising greenhouse gases have paid a steep price.

Some have had their emails stolen. Others have come under attack from industry-funded groups. Still others have been summoned to appear before hostile congressional committees.

Amid this organized campaign of intimidation and dishonesty, it is understandable that some might want to fight back with similar tactics.

Understandable, but not acceptable. If climate scientists and their advocates use deceit in the cause of truth, they will only set back their cause. Sadly, one already has.

Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank, has admitted using a false name to obtain internal documents from a pro-industry group in Chicago, the Heartland Institute. Gleick then fed the documents – which reveal individual donors to Heartland and the group's plan to use public schools in a campaign to discredit climate science – to bloggers and Internet sites. Heartland has also accused Gleick of forging one of the Heartland documents, which Gleick has denied.

Gleick, recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genius award" and a prolific blogger and writer (including op-eds on water issues for The Bee in 2009 and 2011), apologized three days ago on the Huffington Post for his actions.

"My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts – often anonymous, well-funded and coordinated – to attack climate science and scientists …" he wrote in his post.

Sorry, Mr. Gleick, but frustration isn't justification for acts that are dishonest and potentially illegal. Moreover, by misrepresenting himself, Gleick has handed red meat to the attack dogs who so frustrate him. He has also taken himself out of an ongoing political debate that so badly needs strong, credible voices.

"Gleick has admitted to an act that leaves his reputation in ruins and threatens to undercut the cause he spent so much time pursuing," wrote the New York Times' Andrew C. Revkin in his Dot Earth blog. Not surprisingly, Gleick has resigned as chairman of the American Geophysical Union's task force on scientific ethics, and the San Francisco Chronicle has dropped him from its "City Brights" blog.

For its part, the Heartland Institute is reviewing its options, and may file suit against Gleick. The recipient of funds from Exxon, the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and others who profit from fossil fuels, this group certainly has deep pockets to go after an activist scientist. But if they do, they will open themselves up to a legal discovery process that could reveal even darker details about Heartland than have already come forward.

A better option is for Heartland's leaders to engage in some introspection. For decades, this group has taken money from industry to discredit science on health threats of secondhand smoke and, now, global climate change.

In 2009, unknown thieves stole emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit which then were widely distributed and taken out of context to suggest the scientists were engaged in fraud. Did Heartland express outrage about theft of an institute's internal communications then? No, this think tank and other groups trumpeted the emails as evidence of scientific misconduct, even though the scientists were later cleared.

The saddest part of this whole affair is that it plays into the hands of those who seek to spew a smokescreen around the real issue – the documented changing of our climate, oceans and ecosystems, largely because of greenhouse gas emissions that are building in the atmosphere from burning of fossil fuels.

Instead of coming together to consider reasonable policies to reduce those emissions and transition to cleaner fuels and technologies, groups like the Heartland Institute are determined to poison the debate, and overzealous advocates like Gleick are helping them to concoct the poison.

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