Southern California environment news and trends

What does Peter Gleick's Heartland Institute admission do to his role in California's water politics?

World Economic Forum/Flickr

Oakland-based Pacific Institute water and climate analyst Peter Gleick speaks during the session 'The Politics of Water' at Davos, Switzerland, in 2009.

A northern California-based water expert and climate researcher has admitted his involvement in a political and legal imbroglio concerning leaked documents from the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based nonprofit think tank that funds research as well as libertarian and conservative advocacy work.

A week ago, political strategy documents and donor lists from Heartland shed more light into the way that group challenges the vast majority of climate scientists whose research points to human involvement in a warming planet. One document lists past individual and corporate donors from whom Heartland apparently intends to extract more money this year and next. 

Oakland-based Peter Gleick, who works at the Pacific Institute, admitted on his HuffPo blog that he obtained these now-leaked documents by misrepresenting himself to Heartland. And today he apologized: 

My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts -- often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated -- to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.

Heartland Institute has said it's consulting lawyers for possible civil actions against Gleick. New York Times Dot Earth blogger Andrew Revkin has now written that Gleick's admission "has destroyed his credibility and harmed others." He continues: 

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.

Gleick doesn't just do climate change. As a water analyst, he's been an influential and vocal participant in the Golden State's debates over at least two live issues I can think of. The more regional of the two, though still a signficant one, is Cadiz: an effort to pump groundwater from an aquifer in the eastern Mojave Desert and sell it to local water agencies. Gleick's assessment: "This is cut-and-run water management: take a non-renewable resource that will last a short time, turn it for a profit, and leave a degraded landscape, mimicking the classic boom-and-bust cycles that characterized much of the mining industry in the western U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries."

The second of the two is an $11 billion-plus water bond on which Californians may vote later this year. Gleick co-authored one of the only, if not the only, comprehensive (and critical) assessments concerning what the water bond might do.

It seems worth pointing out that none of this raises questions about research Gleick has done, just the way he's behaved by fraudulently obtaining documents Heartland wanted to keep confidential. But if Gleick has to step down, take a leave of absence from the Pacific Institute, or otherwise divert his attention from California's water issues, regardless of what you think of his views, that could change the tone of statewide debates on these matters. And it dries up one wellspring of information for the policymakers, legislative analysts and legislators with whom he regularly communicated.

So will this compromise Gleick's credibility in his other realm of expertise, California water policy? It's hard to imagine any answer besides yes.

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