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We Play by Different Rules: The Heartland Leak

By: Jeremy Houser

An interesting and unfortunate subplot (which is threatening to become the main plot) to the Heartland leaks is the authenticity of the documents, and how they were acquired. By his own (belated) admission, the leaker was well-known climate scientist Peter Gleick, who (according to his statement) sent deceptive emails to the Heartland Institute in an attempt to determine the veracity of a document he had received from an anonymous source. In return, he received the rest of the leaked materials, eight documents related to budgets and fundraising strategy. What Gleick did was unethical (although he has apologized, unlike the person or group who stole emails in the “Climategate” scandal), but the information he collected is no less valid because of how it was obtained.
What has legitimately confused the matter, though, is that one of the documents that Gleick leaked – the original paper from the anonymous source – is almost certainly a fake, and a fairly obvious one at that, containing over-the-top language such as “effort will focus on providing curriculum . . . effective at dissuading teachers from teaching science.” All of the other documents are almost surely authentic, as determined by follow-up press interviews with Heartland officials and their donors; further, Heartland has acknowledged that they sent the documents, though they have refused to officially confirm or deny their accuracy (other than the fake one).
Mainstream press coverage of the story is now split between reporting on the information revealed by the legitimate documents and the controversy surrounding the leak. Compounding the confusion, some pro-climate-science websites (yes, at this point we really do have climate-skeptic-skeptic groups) are failing to – without equivocation – acknowledge that the first document is a fake. The most important of these is the original recipient and host of the documents, DeSmogBlog, who continue to deny that the document is most likely fraudulent, and continue to host it at the top of the list.
The failure to acknowledge when one has made a mistake is one difference between Gleick’s actions and DeSmogBlog’s ongoing behavior. The other is that, through distraction, the blog’s stubbornness has weakened the impact that the leaked documents could have had. Further, it was completely unnecessary; the faked document contains no important facts beyond what the real ones show, it just casts everything in a more salacious light.
What the Heartland story clearly demonstrates is that climate scientists and advocates can’t effectively use the same tactics as the deniers. Even though the emails stolen in the “Climategate” story ending up being innocuous, it was spun as a scandal in the first wave of news coverage and continues to serve as a talking point for denialists. It works because their goal is not to build a coherent case, but to sow suspicion and doubt among a large segment of the public that is undecided, and generally uninterested in climate science. When the credibility of both sides is questionable, when the public believes that, ultimately, climate change is a political issue to be decided by rhetoric and money, the “skeptics” win by default. It’s not fair, but that’s the way it is.