Electronic civil disobedience: Peter Gleick, brave whistleblower or unethical scoundrel?

“…As hackers become politicized and as activists become computerized, we are going to see an increase in the number of cyber-activists who engage in what will become more widely known as Electronic Civil Disobedience. The same principals of traditional civil disobedience, like trespass and blockage, will still be applied, but more and more these acts will take place in electronic or digital form. The primary site for Electronic Civil Disobedience will be in cyberspace.” – Stefan Wry, On Electronic Civil Disobedience 

“…Electronic civil disobedience can include web site defacements, redirects, denial-of-service attacks, information theft and data leaks, illegal web site parodies, virtual sit-ins, and virtual sabotage. It is distinct from other kinds of hacktivism in that the perpetrator openly reveals his identity. Virtual actions rarely succeed in completely shutting down their targets, but they often generate significant media attention.” – Wikipedia, Civil Disobedience 

I awoke this morning to read the news that climate scientist Peter Gleick had admitted his role in leaking the Heartland Institute documents:

Given the potential impact, however, 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 professional judgment and ethics, I solicited and received additional materials directly from the Heartland Institute under someone else’s name. The materials the Heartland Institute sent to me confirmed many of the facts in the original document, including especially their 2012 fundraising strategy and budget. I forwarded, anonymously, the documents I had received to a set of journalists and experts working on climate issues. I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public. I made no changes or alterations of any kind to any of the Heartland Institute documents or to the original anonymous communication.

Having obtained the documents, Gleick has revealed both his identity and role.

Responses are polarised along “party” lines of those that deny climate change, and those that accept the science. Here is a selection of some of the responses:

Phil Plait over at Bad Astronomy picks up on Heartland’s hypocrisy:

However, there are things we do indeed know. One is that the Heartland Institute has a long history of climate change denial. Another is that they were huge cheerleaders of the manufactured Climategate nonsense, involving stolen emails from real scientists, but threatened to sue bloggers when their own documents were exposed in this very similar way. This reaction by Heartland is very telling, in my opinion.

Gareth over at Hot Topic:

Nevertheless, Gleick should not have done what he did. However valuable the public service he performed in exposing the reality of Heartland’s climate lobbying and the roots of its funding — and that information is hugely important to any “rational discussion” of why, more than 20 years after the problem was first identified, the USA and the world remains unable to take meaningful action on emissions reductions — the means he chose were not those we would expect from a respected senior scientist.

However this plays out in the longer term, it’s clear that Peter Gleick played the role of whistleblower, bringing the attention of the world to the nefarious activities of a well-funded right wing lobby group with mysterious “anonymous donors” and zero accountability for their actions. It’s a job that any worthwhile investigative journalist would have loved to have done — and which should have been done long ago.

And Revkin over at Dot.Earth is scathing of Gleick:

One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others. (Some of the released documents contain information about Heartland employees that has no bearing on the climate fight.) That is his personal tragedy and shame (and I’m sure devastating for his colleagues, friends and family).

The broader tragedy is that his decision to go to such extremes in his fight with Heartland has greatly set back any prospects of the country having the “rational public debate” that he wrote — correctly — is so desperately needed.

Michael Tobis over at Planet 3.0 is supportive of Gleick, and critical of Revkin’s stance:

Peter didn’t manage to cover his tracks very well, possibly leading to trouble for him, which is unfortunate. (I don’t want to speculate on the details and their legal implications. This will presumably be soap opera fodder for some time.)

But to suggest that this sets the rational public debate back…? I fail to see it.

Let’s talk about how ill-informed but self-important super-wealthy people with pet obsessions distort the public conversation, and to add insult to injury, deduct the expenses from their taxable income.

If Peter’s acts stimulate that awareness, they will have served the greater good and moved the possibility of rational debate uncolored by oligarchs and their paid minions forward. In my opinion, you should be defending him for taking personal risks in the pursuit of what, in the end, was a journalistic endeavor.

Stephen Stromberg at the Washington Post thinks the incident hurts climate science:

Peter Gleick violated a principle rule of the global-warming debate: Climate scientists must be better than their opponents.

Gleick, the president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, admitted Monday night that he dishonestly obtained fundraising and strategy documents from the Heartland Institute, an obnoxious anti-climate science think tank. In the process, he’s done more to discredit himself and his work than he has to expose cynicism and collusion among global-warming deniers.

It’s very tempting for scientists and their allies to employ to tactics of their over-aggressive critics. Yet the global warming camp must make an affirmative case for ambitious action on carbon emissions. Critics need only poke holes in the scientists’ arguments, or, as is so often the case in global warming debates, merely insist they’ve done so. Manipulation and perfidy work much better for the deniers.

Of course, the denial blogs have exploded with indignation. “Sceptical” blogger and recipient of Heartland funds Anthony Watts threatens legal action:

For the record Dr. Gleick, I am not “anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated” as you suggest. And you have damaged me and my business. I suspect I’ll be seeing you in court to protect my rights, along with many others, sir.

There is much to digest and discuss in this latest “scandal”.

P.Z Myers has written an incisive post, titled “No sympathy for the devil“:

How about if we focus on the content of the leaked documents instead? They do reveal a deep truth: that the Heartland Institute is a propaganda organization with great support from right-wing political organizations and individuals, and that their mission is to parcel out money to disinformation agents like Anthony Watts and Fred Singer, who sow unfounded doubt and confusion about real science. And they plan to poison American education.

The Gleick affair raises vital questions about the climate change debate, the role of think tanks and how scientists engage the public.

How do we view the actions of Gleick?

  • Do we claim them as a form of electronic civil disobedience?
  • Do we castigate him for perpetrating an illegal act that reflects poorly on those advocating action on climate change?

We’ve entered an era when the disclosure of information can shape political discourse: this is the age of Wikileaks, Climategate, Denialgate and the actions of Anonymous and Lulzec.


Stephen Lewandowsky discusses the ethics of Gleick’s actions:

“…Gleick has apologised for his use of subterfuge. His actions have violated the confidentiality of a think tank but they have also given the public a glimpse into the inner workings of the climate denial machine.

Had he not done so, no one’s confidentiality would have been violated, but then the public would have been kept guessing about the internal workings of one of the world’s most notorious serial impersonators of science. The Heartland Institute takes pride in its chimerical pseudo-“scientific” conferences and it is allied with “scientific” work that denies that mercury is poisonous.

In the real world, mercury is poisonous. In the real world, the number of weather-related natural disasters has tripled in the last 30 years, and the World Health Organization estimates that 150,000 people are already dying annually from the effects of climate change. In reality, many of the IPCC’s 2007 predictions have been found to be overly conservative rather than alarmist. And the latest IPCC report has reiterated the risks we are facing in the all-too-near future if we delay action on climate change.

Revealing to the public the active, vicious, and well-funded campaign of denial that seeks to delay action against climate change likely constitutes a classic public good.

It is a matter of personal moral judgment whether that public good justifies Gleick’s sting operation to obtain those revelations.”

24 thoughts on “Electronic civil disobedience: Peter Gleick, brave whistleblower or unethical scoundrel?

  1. Geoff Brown says:

    Not a noce man! He has been disowned and removed from the board of the National Center for Science Education.


  2. I love the irony of the pious accusing Gleick of deception when the whistleblower being criticised has in one fell swoop exposed the Heartland Institute, a mob specifically set up to deceive the public. It also exposes the initial claim that one of the documents was fake, as a blatant lie.

    Even more telling is that Gleick had the courage to out himself.

    If Gleick’s critics are seriously suggesting his behaviour is more questionable than the intentional bastardry that has been carried out by the Heartland Institute, over decades, then his critics need a serious reality check.

    Geoff: “He has been disowned and removed from the board of the National Center for Science Education.”

    In your dreams. A check at the NCSE website clearly explains what Gleick did, and the response of the NCSE, he voluntarily stood down, pity you didn’t read it:

    “As part of NCSE’s expansion to defend the teaching of climate science, Gleick had agreed to join NCSE’s board of directors. On the same day as he posted his statement, however, he apologized to NCSE for his behavior with regard to the Heartland Institute documents and offered to withdraw from the board, on which he was scheduled to begin serving as of February 25, 2012. His offer was accepted.”

    “Gleick obtained and disseminated these documents without the knowledge of anyone here,” NCSE’s executive director Eugenie C. Scott commented, “and we do not condone his doing so.” But, she added, “they show that NCSE was right to broaden its scope to include the teaching of climate science. There really are coordinated attempts to undermine the teaching of climate science, and NCSE is needed to help to thwart them.”

    It says a lot about you that you only ever post links from denialist outfits. So much for your objectivity.

  3. Dan Moutal says:

    I am not sure the term whistleblower is appropriate. That term usually means someone from inside the institution is the one doing the leak.

    • Watching the Deniers says:

      True… I’m taking my cure form DeSmogBlog’s use of the term:


      “…Whistleblowers – and that’s the role Gleick has played in this instance – deserve respect for having the courage to make important truths known to the public at large. Without condoning or promoting an act of dishonesty, it’s fair to say that Gleick took a significant personal risk – and by standing and taking responsibility for his actions, he has shown himself willing to pay the price. For his courage, his honor, and for performing a selfless act of public service, he deserves our gratitude and applause.”

      However I’m undecided on what term is appropriate here, hence the question mark in the title of the post.

      Those supportive may call Gleick’s actions a form of activism, while others will condemn his actions.

      I’m still working out my stance and thoughts on the issue, and will post in due course.

      • Ray says:

        Good grief, how far are you willing to go defending something or someone caught in such an obviously illegal act? Do you really want to condone the theft of information through deciet? Your bank records? Medical records?

        A whistlblower opperates from the inside. This fraud is no differant than Nigerians requesting your account numbers.

        In your fervor to support the AWG agenda are you really willing to forgo civil laws?

        Obviously….and that is very sad and very frightning.

      • john byatt says:

        Ray you need to try to follow the plot,

        the whistleblower “heartland insider” sent the documents to peter,

        peter sought to authenticate them by posing,

        peter did not steal the documents they were sent to him, see external whistleblowing.

        The tax ramifications for heartland strategy document would require to claim they were forged whether forged or not.

        great to see this continuing in the press, more publicity the better

    • Martin Vermeer says:

      That seems to be a popular misconception (shared by me), corrected here:


      • Dan Moutal says:

        Interesting. If Wikipedia mentions it then it must be true:)

        It doesn’t get much mention so it doesn’t seem like external whistleblowers are very common. Which might be the reason for the misconception

      • john byatt says:

        Internal and external whisleblowers are one and the same, both are within the organisation

        internal .. reports to management
        external.. reports to police or newspapers,

        well that was my reading,

        so who is the whistleblower here?

        the person that provided peter with the documents, The person that heartland wants to get out of the picture .

      • Dan Moutal says:

        So I was right all along:)

        The person who mailed the original memo might be a whistleblower, if the memo is legitimate and that person worked at Heartland.

      • john byatt says:

        “Heartland insider”

        yep, a whistleblower by name

  4. leigh says:

    He wrote a fake document and apparently not very convincingly. See Meghan Mccardle at The Atlantic Mag

  5. Another teaching moment has presented itself. The question that remains to be answered is will the cost of what Mr. Gleick did be worth it? It is a question that Revkin, Kloor, Appell, McCardle and others have already asked and offer an opinion on. I haven’t any answer to that question yet as I am waiting to determine if further costs are involved..

    So far the most astonishing thing for me is the disparity in intelligence and reasoning skills demonstrated at the various blogs as this affair unfolded. One person in particular, I came across, provided a brilliant display of forensic detective work and figured out on 2012/02/15, that the main document was fake and by 2012/02/16 that Gleick was involved. By 2012/02/17 a few bloggers sent emails to Gleick asking him if he was the identity thief. At that point it was game over and Gleick had no choice because he knew any attempt at a cover up his tracks would only compound his mistakes. While Gleick is a brilliant researcher he turned out to be a very poor player in the game of espionage and would do well to keep his day job if he is able.

  6. rpauli says:

    I like the 2009 post of Easterbrook’s “Daddy, what did YOU do in the climate wars?” (only 3 paragraphs long – pasted below – see the original for important links )


    “When my children grow up, the world they live in is likely be very different from ours. There’s a small chance that humanity will rapidly come to its senses, start massive program of emissions reductions, and avoid the worst climate change scenarios. The Hadley Centre gives us about a 50/50 chance if carbon emissions peak by 2015, and then fall steadily at a rate of 3% per year (They are currently rising by nearly 3% per year). If we manage to pull this off, and also win the 50/50 bet, our children and grandchildren will ask us how the hell we managed it.”

    “If we can’t stop emissions growth in the next five years, things look much more grim. Perhaps the simplest way to explain it is the picture painted by the New Scientist: How to survive the coming century: a world that is 4°C warmer, 90% of the human population wiped out, the rest relocated to dense cities in Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. Uninhabitable deserts across the subtropics. Virtually no life in the oceans. And that’s the good part. The New Scientist article glosses over the climate wars that are almost certain if large parts of the world become uninhabitable. If they survive, our children will demand to know what the hell we were doing: we knew it was coming, we knew how bad it would be, and still we did almost nothing to prevent it”.

    “When my kids ask me these questions in decades to come, I need to be ready with an answer. I’d like to say that I did everything I could possibly do. I’d like to say that what I did was effective. And I’d like to be able to say that I made a difference.”

  7. Ray says:

    On the other hand Mr. Rpauli it might be wise to dissasscociate yourself from anything to do with global warming, this has become one great big fiasco. Mr. Glieck just finished off any remaining credibility CAWG had.

    All thats left is fading inertia and fools…..oh, and Al Gore trying to salvage his carbon investments.

  8. john byatt says:

    Desmog blog stand by their man

    A line-by-line evaluation of the Climate Strategy memo, which the Heartland Institute has repeatedly denounced as a “fake” shows no “obvious and gross misstatements of fact,” as Heartland has alleged. On the contrary, the Climate Strategy document is corroborated by Heartland’s own material and/or by its allies and employees.

    It also uses phrases, language and, in many cases, whole sentences that were taken directly from Heartland’s own material. Only someone who had previous access to all of that material could have prepared the Climate Strategy in its current form.

    In all the circumstances – taking into account Peter Gleick’s explanation of the origin of the Heartland documents, and in direct contradiction of Heartland’s stated position – DeSmogBlog has concluded that the Climate Strategy memo is authentic.

  9. john byatt says:

    Representative Raúl M. Grijalva today called for a full Natural Resources Committee hearing to probe whether Indur Goklany, a Senior Advisor at the U.S. Interior Department, improperly received payments from the Heartland Institute while collecting a paycheck from U.S. taxpayers.

    Rep. Grijalva, the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, urged his fellow Congressmen to hold a hearing as early as next week to determine whether Goklany “received money he was promised by the Heartland Institute for writing a chapter in a book focused on climate policy in apparent violation of federal rules, among other issues.”

    This is just the first of what should and will likely be many hearings into the facts revealed in the ‘Denialgate’ leaked Heartland Institute documents.

    Heartland’s leaked 2012 Proposed Budget document indicates that it plans to pay Goklany $1,000 per month this year to write a chapter on “Economics and Policy” for a report by the Heartland-funded NIPCC. Greenpeace notes in its letter to DOI Secretary Ken Salazar today that federal employees are warned not to take payments from outside organizations, particularly for “teaching, speaking and writing that relates to [their] official duties.”

    Read more: Congressman Calls For Hearing Into Heartland Institute Payments to Federal

  10. john byatt says:

    This is an extract from an invitation to a heartland associated conference of climate change , it clearly shows that the information in the strategy document
    is consistent with their aims which they deny,

    idiots sent the invitation to Gavin

    Dates and Logistics
    The International Conference on Climate Change will take place at the Marriott Marquis
    Times Square Hotel, 1535 Broadway, in the Theater District of Midtown Manhattan.
    The purpose of the conference is to generate international media attention to the fact that
    many scientists believe forecasts of rapid warming and catastrophic events are not supported
    by sound science, and that expensive campaigns to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are not
    necessary or cost-effective

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