Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Gleick: Loose talk still costs lives.
I can’t help but feel Peter Gleick would have been better prepared if he had read a couple of John Le Carré books before venturing into the world of amateur espionage. If he had read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, for example – a chilling tale in which the British ‘Gentlemen’ spies were hoist on the petard of their own amateurism – perhaps he might have realised that covert actions are not for the faint-hearted, nor for those afflicted with an inappropriate sense of conscience (and who inevitably end up as cannon-fodder).
(For those of you who missed it, the story is this: Peter Gleick, a climate scientist, pretended to be someone else in order to trick right-wing propaganda organisation the Heartland Institute into passing to him documents revealing how they are funded, aspects of their scurrilous agenda, and to name scientists they pay to spread disinformation about climate change. A few days after he leaked the information anonymously, Gleick suffered an attack of conscience and “confessed”).
There are no ethics in the spying game, and the application of a post-digression moral perspective is as foolish, and destructive, as the excuses are feeble. In this respect, Gleick could have learned a lot from his enemy, but he evidently failed to appreciate that he was blundering into a morass I have referred to elsewhere as the ‘Bomber Harris’ problem.
We are in a war: Those of us engaged with the subject of climate change are combatants, willing or not. We are obliged to take sides, for this is a highly polarised conflict, conflating any number of issues – political, social, material, spiritual, economic, environmental etc. – and so high do the stakes appear to be, it is hardly surprising that any number of methods, some plainly dishonest, are being deployed in order to ‘win’ the argument (as if the sounder ideology will, in some way, bring influence to bear on what science discovers, or how the climate reacts).
We are in a war: Nobody on my side wanted it, but we got it anyway. Personally, I wanted science to focus on finding out what the environmental problems are, while laypeople debated how to adapt our social and economic infrastructure to ameliorate the problem. Despite Heartland or the mewling Childe Monckton, the science is clear-cut and pretty unequivocal. Conversely, solutions are as mutable and various as stars in the sky: so complex is the problem, so far reaching are its effects, that we need many, many solutions. I will agree with some, disagree with others; that is simply the way of things, but acceptable compromise is a necessary component of social structure, reached by discussion and debate. Except, that is, when meaningful discussion is drowned out by the baying of contrarians, in which case confusion reigns and meaningful action thwarted.
Which brings us to Heartland, confusion being its stock in trade. Of course somebody was footing the bill. Of course some scientists were being paid to act as lobbyists. Of course there were perverse ideas being put about; inevitably, some few will go too far in any war, carried away with righteous fervour, bloodlust or simply the desire to ‘win’ at all costs. At all costs.
Arthur “Bomber” Harris, he of the aphorism “They sowed the wind and now they are going to reap the whirlwind”, was an Air Marshal before being appointed Commander-in-Chief of Bomber Command in February 1942. His first task was to rebuild, at great speed, the antiquated arm of the RAF, modelled notably on German methods of offensive bombing used in Spain and which Harris admired. Put simply, Harris used the revitalised Bomber Command to wage indiscriminate war on all things German; military, industrial and – crucially – civilian. Thus, in a crude but accurate analysis, many felt that there was no longer any moral distance between our behaviour and that of the enemy (although it should be noted that this was hypocritical nonsense in so many ways, considering how we acted in our colonial pomp; our concentration camps pre-dated the German versions by three-quarters of a century).
The moral dilemma is clear enough, despite the atavistic notion of chivalry at its heart. There is, however, a key question embedded in the story: can you beat the other side without using methods you believe to be despicable, immoral or inhumane? Can you defeat a gun-wielding opponent with a bow and arrow? Can lies and propaganda be defeated by the truth?
War is an all-encompassing enterprise; there is no institution that does not contribute in some way to the fight, through active or passive involvement. Not only must force of arms be met with an equal force, equally armed; it is also the case that propaganda must be met with equally effective materials. And this is where science, and poor old Peter Gleick, get into trouble, for there is one other requirement, consistent with the Harris principle; one’s moral standards cannot be allowed to become a significant impediment. If our ethics preclude options that we regard as moral transgressions, to fight in the front line of such a war requires us to re-write our moral code to mirror that of our enemies, demands of us that we adopt different and – arguably – lower standards.
Now we are at war with ourselves.
There’s an awful lot of moral posturing in the climate debate, as there is in pretty much on every subject. The propaganda war being fought over climate change does have one interesting and unique character; the choice of battleground. The contrarians have decided, foolishly in my opinion, to fight us over the science. This is a poor choice of ground, relentlessly unyielding, unflattering, incorruptible. Reports on science may be falsified; the measurable results however can only be concealed, not influenced, and certainly not, given enough time, changed. If the temperatures continue to go up, no amount of bluster will conceal the fact. If they don’t continue to go up, no amount of re-interpretation of scientific enquiries will disguise the predictive failure of the theory that said it would. That’s science for you, and to engage in a battle over the results of scientific enquiry seems a poor choice when there are some truly meaty issues we could fight over, like green taxes and energy supplies, and how we can expect global economic growth based on practices that simultaneously limit growth by unhinging the climate.
The main problem facing those who want to gainsay science is that unless you can come up with better science, there is no way to attack the empirical evidence directly; rhetoric cannot disprove science. Climate contrarians have no substantial body of evidence to support their position. They have no alternative but to make this a propaganda war, in which the rules of engagement eschew any notion of truth or honour, of fidelity to fact or intellectual rigour. Theirs is an assault on people, on motive, on ideology – real or suspected – and to wage this war they will evidently do and say pretty much anything. For them, the means clearly justifies the ends; a more amoral proposition you would be hard put to name.
The methodology is blatant; sow discord, dissent and doubt. No lie is too big, no smear too dirty, no tactic too extreme. And all the while, the rhetoric of the climate contrarians puts emphasis on victimhood, on deceit, on conspiracy and mendacious misrepresentation, a clever projection that few contrarians care to observe when the core message appears so comforting.
How then do you fight this war? Are the odds not tipped heavily against those whose methods embody some notion of morality? How do we react when we feel – correctly – that to fail in our duty as honest brokers is to fail our broader purpose, to betray the ethical principles of truth and honesty we fight for, and on which science depends? And do we really want to be like them?
Peter Gleick decided he would fight fire with fire. He obtained documents from Heartland by pretending to be someone else, and in doing so volunteered to fight in a murky war for which it turns out he was quite unsuited. He abandoned his moral high ground, and in doing so obtained some good intelligence. For a few days, the damage done was to Heartland and it was not inconsiderable. It was effective and –frankly –rather useful; I for one was not displeased. I cared less about how the information was obtained, caring more about its authenticity. Clearly too, some of the information was worth knowing, like the ‘scientists’ on the Heartland payroll whose edicts and testimony could be reviewed in a new and harsher light.
Then Gleick was overcome by remorse, or fear of discovery, or something else. Whichever way you view it, he lost his nerve. His subsequent confession was, from the perspective of this propaganda war, both pathetic and thoroughly counter-productive. By confessing, he allowed his enemies to change the story and seize the initiative. Now, we’re no longer on the attack, discussing the corruption of the public discourse by vested interests – which is what we should be talking about – but back in a defensive crouch forced on us all by the embarrassing mea culpa of a man who, having waded into this fight, lacked the resolve to finish what he started.
His motives I find worthy, making his confession all the more stupid. There is no way to recapture the moral high ground through contrition, no matter how heartfelt. There is no undoing what is done. Having taken the first step, having decided to fight fire with fire, what Gleick needed was a bit of backbone, some nerve, and a sturdier commitment to the cause for which he ‘abandoned’ his principles. His was a minor transgression when compared with the venal behaviour of – say – the phone-hacking journalists working for Murdoch titles, whose motives were little more than base financial or professional self-interest. Gleick throwing a wet blanket over the proceedings achieved nothing except to undo whatever propaganda benefit we gained by the exposure of Heartland’s methods and agenda. In fact, considering the whole affair, more damage was done to the cause than for it, not by the modest deception (pretending to be someone else in order to acquire the material), but by the hand-wringing and garment rending that followed.
It wasn’t Gleick’s little deceit – he stood to gain nothing, sought no financial or personal advantage, merely wanted to expose Heartland – that did the damage. The damage was done by his failure of nerve. He made the moral sacrifice, but his guilt and confession rendered the sacrifice pointless and snatched a defeat right out of the jaws of victory. The net result of this little farrago is that climate science is now worse off, because now the other side have “proof” that we are deceitful, and our methods are just like theirs, and we’re going to have the accusations shoved up where our TSI* is the lowest for many years to come. Gleick’s good intentions led him to the place all good intentions end up, leading to a conclusion that is self-evident.
Scientists should stick to science, stick to the truth of science, and make no attempt to emulate the methods or co-opt the moral vacuum of the enemy. Realistically, I don’t think we have the stomach for it, and perhaps that’s a good thing, even if all it leaves us with in the end is a fucked-up planet and dignity in defeat. That’s not too high a price to pay for our ethics, is it?
Or is it?
(* TSI = Total Solar Irradiance)