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The Peter Gleick Incident: All Heat and No Light

Will the unethical release of documents from the controversial Heartland Institute undermine climate science? We ask climate scientist Gavin Schmidt



Courtesy of World Economic Forum on Flickr

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.

Does a scientist run the risk of being seen as an advocate if he or she speaks on unresolved topics?
When people try to pretend that they are unsullied by advocacy when they are talking in public, that’s nonsense. Everyone is advocating for something, whether it is improved literacy, more funding, more attention or specific policies.

Was Peter Gleick acting as an advocate in this case?
I have no insight into why he did what he did. I just know that it wasn’t a good idea.

Some scientists say climate change has gone beyond science and has become a political and ideological debate. Deniers are well funded and politically motivated. Don’t scientists have to get into the trenches, too—to counteract those efforts?

Well, if you jump into the trenches you’ll just get covered in mud. Mixing it up in emotional situations doesn’t help anything. But finding different ways to explain what the science says, where it’s uncertain, where the credibility comes from—all of those are sensible things do to.

So what are the best ways to convince the public about scientists’ insights? Social media?
Social media, right now, is just serving tribalism. You can poke at people, make fun of them. All that does is rile people up and cause them to do stupid things. It doesn’t help public understanding; as a mechanism for wider public engagement, social media is a complete disaster, quite frankly.

What do you recommend instead?
I recommend talking to people. I recommend going to high schools. I recommend going to church groups. I recommend talking to local journalists. I recommend having open data. I recommend making videos and documentaries and t-shirts. Addressing climate change is not going to be achieved by poking people with quick little emotional bursts of 140 characters. It requires rational thought and planning. 

Do you think the focus on personalities affects how people perceive climate science?

If you went out on the street right now and you asked people, “Hey, have you heard about this Peter Gleick climate thing?”, even in my educated neighborhood where everybody is working at Columbia University or Barnard College none of them would know anything about it. So are we getting worked up about this? Yes. Does it affect the larger discourse? No. Inside baseball becomes outside baseball for a brief moment.

Does this incident reflect an imbalance between information and disinformation?
The bigger issue is that the public doesn’t understand how science works. The role of scientists as communicators is to explain how it works. But we [scientists and the media] are reinforcing, every day, [the notion] that scientists just go around discovering things, and then it’s done. The way scientific information is mediated through journalism also reinforces “Scientists know stuff. They’ve got the answer.” Then when a critic comes along and says, “Well, this is contested science, there is uncertainty,” the public wonders, “Why aren’t the scientists telling me that?”

Look at how the CERN thing is panning out. All the headlines said: “Oh my God, neutrinos go faster than light.” And then, “Oh no, controversy. They don’t. The machinery was wonky.” There’s a real narrative there about how science is done, but the public isn’t getting that story.

To some extent we [scientists] are our own worst enemies. We believe that science has a higher claim to truth-seeking than dogma or political opinion. So we take advantage of the fact that people think science is more certain than it is, to convey how clever we are and how interesting our work is.

So what, ultimately, does this incident with Peter Gleick and Heartland mean for the climate debate say, a month from now, a year from now?
Nothing. Has it affected [the public’s] sensitivity to climate issues? No. Has it affected our political ability to fund renewable energy and reduce emissions? No.

Editor's note: Peter Gleick has written several times for Scientific American. He addressed freshwater use in “Solutions to Environmental Threats” in April 2010, co-authored a Forum column "The Coming Mega Drought" in January 2012, and wrote the article “Making Every Drop Count” in February 2001.  

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