US libertarian think-tank the Heartland Institute has been at the forefront of climate change denialist activities for some time. It has a history of lobbying in support of causes even when (or, more accurately, especially when) those causes run counter to established scientific knowledge.
The Institute has been in the news recently as a result of an embarrassing leak. The leak provides evidence that the Institute is actively promoting its anti-science agenda and is targetting schools. The think-tank has spent considerable sums trying to push onto teachers the idea that the topic of climate change is controversial and that they should instead “teach the controversy”.
The leaks have revealed that the Institute receives millions of dollars from various US donors, including alcohol and tobacco companies, pharmaceutical companies, General Motors, and a range of wealthy individuals that include the oil billionaire Koch brothers. One anonymous donor has contributed millions of dollars to the organisation.
Of more relevance to New Zealand is the fact that the Institute has been funding local denialist groups.
A controversy has erupted after respected climate scientist Peter Gleick admitted he was responsible for the leak. Critics have accused him of acting unethically, because he used a false name to obtain the information. He is also accused of forging one of the documents, a claim that is being hotly debated.
Gleick's defenders have pointed out that his wrongdoing pales in comparison to the insidious way in which the Institute has sought to poison public debate on climate change. There is also a double standard at play, because many of the people now maligning Gleick over his "fraud" were more than happy to throw in the faces of the climate scientists information illegally hacked from the University of East Anglia servers a couple of years ago.
In any event, it appears that the authenticity of only one leaked document is under a cloud. The others appear genuine.
All those things aside, it is difficult to see how the theft of documents helps the cause of climate scientists already struggling to convince a sceptical public that they might know more about science than the corporate lobbyists and oil company executives opposing them. If forgery has been involved it would make their task even harder.
Still, climate change believers are not one hive-mind, and the misguided actions of one scientist do not suddenly render invalid the masses of research and data available that shows that the Earth is warming. Nor do they show that scientists cannot be trusted. The horror and indignation being expressed by Gleick's fellow scientists over his actions demonstrate just how badly he has erred.
Outrage over the leak has spread to New Zealand. Blogger David Farrar has been active recently in denouncing environmental groups and their tactics, and earlier this week he took a swipe at Gleick's "dirty tricks". Farrar's post is unbalanced and provides a distorted view of the issue, as it fails to mention the genuine debate over the document's authenticity, and fails to mention that the other documents appear genuine. One cannot help but see the irony in Farrar's failure to "teach the controversy".
Farrar also conflates climate scientists with the political left when he writes in his post "What is it with the left in the US and forged memos".
While there's nothing to suggest Farrar's a paid shill for the climate denial movement, it's fairly clear where his sympathies lie. Danyl Mclauchlin has suggested Farrar has been writing posts attacking the environmental movement because he has seen the National Party's internal polling, but I suspect Farrar just likes to write about the stuff that interests him. He is clearly interested in attacking at every opportunity environmentalists and climate scientists. If he has ever written posts openly attacking the tactics of the denialists then I have certainly never read them, although I would be happy for someone to post a link showing otherwise.
It is all rather depressing. I would not tell a brain surgeon how he/she should go about operating on me, nor would I tell a Formula One driver how he should handle his car. And yet for no explicable reason a vast number of people who are most definitely not climate scientists, and who in many cases aren't any form of scientist at all, seem perfectly happy to tell the scientists that they are fundamentally wrong on matters of science.