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Climate Expert Assumed False Identity to Obtain Documents

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Fallout over internal memos that were leaked from the conservative Heartland Institute rattled the climate world again this week, when a climate researcher confessed to lying in order to obtain and distribute them.

The Heartland Institute is a Chicago-based nonprofit known for challenging climate science. (The Associated Press refers to it as one of the loudest voices denying man-made global warming.) The documents included detailed information about the group’s projects and the funding behind them. Among them, plans for a curriculum designed to teach schoolchildren the arguments against climate change. The documents also include a report called “Climate Change Reconsidered” slated to be released in sync with the United Nation’s 2013 IPCC report.

The story took an unexpected turn on Monday, when Peter Gleick, a water and climate researcher and president of the Pacific Institute, outed himself, admitting that he lied to obtain the documents. His statement can be found here and here.

He said he anonymously received the Institute’s memos in the mail and then assumed a false identity to obtain more information from Heartland, which he sent on to “journalists and experts.”

Gleick’s action, writes Andy Revkin on his New York Times Dot Earth blog, “leaves his reputation in ruins and threatens to undercut the cause he spent so much time pursuing.”

The overwhelming majority of climate scientists – 97-98 percent – say that emissions generated by humans are altering the climate, according to this study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Heartland acknowledged that some of the memos were real, but called at least one document “a total fake apparently intended to defame and discredit The Heartland Institute.”

Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press confirmed many of the details in the Heartland documents, including efforts to teach skepticism over climate change in schools. Still unresolved is whether a memo that lays out the group’s strategies on global warming is a falsification, as Heartland claims, and if so, who falsified it.

Gleick said the documents he released were identical to those that were emailed to him, and that he made “no changes or alterations of any kind” to any of the Heartland Institute documents. “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 added. He went on to apologize for a “serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics.”

Heartland called Gleick’s act a crime, suggesting that Gleick himself wrote the documents. “We hope Gleick will make a more complete confession in the next few days,” Heartland said here,” and added, “We are consulting with legal counsel to determine our next steps and plan to release a more complete statement about the situation tomorrow.”

How powerful is the Heartland Institute on this issue? This Wall Street journal column says it’s not so flush with funds, compared to some left-leaning non profits, such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and the World Wildlife Fund. Documents show that Heartland is expecting $7.7 million this year in operating revenues, compared to the NRDC’s 2011 revenues of $95.4 million in and the WWF’s $238.5 million.

But astronomer and science writer Phil Plait, who writes the Discover column, Bad Astronomy, points out that Heartland has long been a potent force in making the case against climate change, calling them cheerleaders in the so-called “Climategate” controversy.

This all distracts from the real issue, Plait goes on to say: “The Earth is warming up. This is reality, and this is overwhelmingly supported by the scientific evidence.”

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