On February 14, some media outlets received internal documents of the Heartland Institute, a think-tank funded in part by oil and coal companies that downplays the role of human activity in climate change. The documents contained putative evidence that Heartland was funding efforts to influence what elementary schools teach about climate science. On February 20, Peter Gleick, a nationally known expert on water resources, admitted that he had obtained the documents by posing as a Heartland board member. Gleick is president of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security, and has loudly criticized climate skeptics for misrepresenting facts or engaging in unethical behavior. Ironically, he was also chairman of the American Geophysical Union’s ethics committee, a post he simultaneously resigned.
The incident set off a firestorm of claims and counterclaims. Climate skeptics argued that scientists—particularly climate scientists—cannot be trusted. Pundits and journalists fretted that the event would undermine the credibility of climate science, and perhaps scientists in general.
Scientific American asked Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist who has been a consistently moderate voice at the center of the climate and ethics debate, to shed some light on the heated situation. At the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Schmidt has developed widely used models that assess how the oceans and atmosphere affect each other. He is also a co-founder and contributor at RealClimate.org, a Web site that aims to put climate issues in a scientific context.
Do the actions of Peter Gleick undercut climate science and scientists?
The outcry against Gleick is symptomatic of the wider issue of focusing on individuals instead of the science. This is actually a potential opportunity to focus again on real climate issues. If all we’re going to focus on is who did what, when, instead of the science, the policy, the solutions, that would be a waste of time.
How should scientists respond to this incident?
The proper response to misinformation is better information. Heartland and other groups like them just repeat the same old nonsense over and over again. You can spend your time trying to show that they are corrupt in some way, but that doesn’t help. Everybody knows there are fossil-fuel interests that are fueling these groups. It’s not news to demonstrate that. As scientists, we're supposed to be ethical, and upstanding, and we’re supposed to have truth and light on our side, and generally we do, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not human, that we’re not sometimes prone to irrationality in the heat of the moment.
Is better information enough? Will people listen?
Better information is information that people notice. It’s information that’s tailored to what people are interested in. The response to denialism is not alarmism, it’s context. I think it’s surprising how genuinely interested members of the public are in scientific subjects, and how woefully inadequately they are served by their general sources of information. There’s a huge role for scientists and journalists and educators in providing better information. We can do a lot more. The vast majority of the public doesn’t know what to think about climate change.
Is part of being a scientist, today, finding better ways to communicate your information?
Of course. But not everybody needs to be on TV. Some people are just not good at that. However, there is a whole generation of younger scientists who are thinking, “Why aren’t we talking about this stuff more?” They should be encouraged. We have a responsibility to the public to provide that information. It’s not necessarily an individual responsibility for every scientist, but the more people that do it, the more interesting that information will be, and it will give the public more entry points to the science.