Peter Gleick began his scheme with a carefully thought-out plan. Early on a Friday morning, at just past 8:30, he punched 45 words into the screen of a Gmail account that over the next two weeks would elicit nine documents from the Heartland Institute.
The account's address carried the name of a Heartland board member whom Gleick would impersonate in five different emails as a string of messages passed back and forth between him and the organization of climate change skeptics from Jan. 27 to Feb. 10. Four days later, he ignited a firestorm around Heartland's internal climate plans that included signs of preparing a high-school science curriculum.
But to accomplish that, Gleick had to assume a new identity. The initial email to Heartland did not request board agendas, or detailed minutes from its internal meetings, or the budget documents marked confidential that would arrive later.
He opened with a modest request to the Heartland staffer who received his message: Put this "personal" email address onto the board mailing list.
"Do not delete my [redacted] address -- just add this one as a duplicate," Gleick wrote, according to screen shots of his messages released by Heartland on Friday. "And send a reply here, confirming?"
He signed the message with the board member's name, which has been redacted throughout the chain of emails. And he provided his title: "Heartland Institute Board Member."
Gleick's impersonation, which he admitted to in an apologetic blog posting on The Huffington Post last week, appears to have never been challenged by two Heartland employees with whom he traded messages.
A leave of absence
But the reverberations continue to grow as Gleick sees the connections he established with leading institutions fade. The latest toll came late Friday, when The Guardian newspaper reported that Gleick is taking a "temporary short-term leave of absence" from the Pacific Institute, which he founded in 1987.
"My first priority is to protect the institute's ongoing mission and work," Gleick, a water expert, wrote in a letter to the board, according to The Guardian. "I believe such a leave would allow the institute staff to continue to refocus on its work, while permitting the Board to conduct a full and fair review and determine an appropriate course of action."
The controversy has also affected Heartland by revealing secret donors whose identities normally remain hidden. One of the most controversial revelations is the group's plan to develop school curriculum that sows doubt about the validity of climate change.
Heartland has made previous efforts to increase skepticism among youth. It sent teaching materials to 11,250 schools in Canada in 2008, including a 10-minute video named "Unstoppable Solar Cycles: The Real Story of Greenland." The video says scientists are deeply divided about the "notion that climate change is mostly the result of human activities," according to a news article by United Press International.
In 2009, Heartland sent 13,600 copies of "The Skeptic's Handbook" to public school board presidents throughout the United States. The 16-page pamphlet provides talking points to help skeptics win debates with climate believers.
One of the pamphlet's assertions says, "The sun won't put out more light just because we put out more carbon."
The news that Gleick was behind the Heartland incident came roughly a month after the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) announced the scientist would join its board of directors as it launched a new effort to promote climate change education.
Sequel to the fight over teaching evolution?
The Oakland, Calif.-based nonprofit has since accepted Gleick's offer to withdraw from its board, but it's moving forward full-speed with plans to defend the teaching of climate change science in public schools -- much as it has long provided resources and legal aid to teachers who present lessons on evolution.
"The thing we were discovering in the last year or so is that we were starting to get calls from teachers who were getting push-back on teaching climate change, the same way they were with evolution," said NCSE spokesman Robert Luhn.
But climate change may prove to be a trickier topic for several reasons, he said. Evolution is generally taught in biology classes, but climate change touches on aspects of chemistry, biology, physics and economics.
And while legal skirmishes over teaching evolution have drawn on long-established legal concepts, especially the separation of church and state, climate change is more a political issue, Luhn said.
"We don't have the same sort of legal cudgels to swing," he said.
At the same time, government resources for climate change education are in flux, said Mark McCaffrey, NCSE's director for programs and policy.
2nd message triggers data windfall
In recent years, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation have provided grants for climate change education efforts -- like the new Web portal developed by the other NCSE, the National Council for Science and the Environment, with $1.6 million from NSF -- but that federal money is "drying up," McCaffrey said.
During his impersonation, Gleick didn't ask for the Heartland documents that would reveal -- unbeknownst to him -- the curriculum plan until near the end of his charade.
After he established his fake identity, Gleick let five days pass before contacting Heartland again, under the guise of asking for updates to the board's schedule. It was in this brief email, on Feb. 2, that he made his first request for internal papers. He wanted recent board minutes and the package of documents that the members had reviewed.
A Heartland employee responded the next day with the board's agenda from its Jan. 17 meeting, but not the detailed documents Gleick was looking for. So one day later, on a Saturday afternoon, the climate scientist asked again for the minutes and the handouts that board members received at the January meeting.
They came two days later. The bundle of six attachments included two especially sensitive documents titled "2012 Heartland Budget" and "2012 Fundraising Plan."
On Feb. 8, two days after Gleick received the windfall, he sent his final message as a Heartland board member. He had one last request, the "most up-to-date" contact list for board members, with their phone numbers and email addresses. It arrived on Feb. 10.
The final words he said to Heartland were "many thanks."
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