For the past two decades, Peter Gleick has earned a reputation as a nationally known expert on water and climate issues, winning a MacArthur "genius award," penning a long list of scientific articles and testifying before Congress.
But over the past two days, the 55-year-old Berkeley resident has found himself at the center of a national maelstrom of his own making: using a false name to obtain confidential documents from a pro-industry think tank known for minimizing the risks of global warming.
The issue has riveted the environmental community and the energy industry, raising questions about whether the damage will extend past Gleick's reputation and harm scientists' efforts to convince the public that climate change is real and largely caused by humans.
Gleick, president of the nonprofit Pacific Institute, in Oakland, wasn't talking Tuesday.
But Monday, he stunned the scientific community when he admitted -- via his blog in the Huffington Post -- that he obtained confidential fundraising and strategy documents from the libertarian Heartland Institute in Chicago by using someone else's name, and distributed them on the Internet.
The Heartland Institute has cried foul, arguing Gleick stole electronic documents and should be jailed for identity theft and computer fraud. It said Gleick obtained the documents by contacting a Heartland staff member and claiming to be a Heartland board member.
Over the past 20 years the institute has received funding from Exxon Mobil, the American Petroleum Institute and others with ties to the fossil fuel industry, and has clashed with scientists and environmental groups.
"Gleick's crime was a serious one," Heartland said in a statement. "The documents he admits stealing contained personal information about Heartland staff members, donors, and allies, the release of which has violated their privacy and endangered their personal safety."
The institute also said one of the documents -- which mapped out a strategy for trying to change the way climate science is taught in schools -- is a fake.
Legal experts said Tuesday that while Gleick may have crossed an ethical line it could be difficult to prove he crossed a legal one. "The idea of a local district attorney or attorney general stepping in seems unlikely," said Stephen Ryan, an attorney with McDermott Will & Emery in Washington, D.C., who has litigated technology privacy cases.
"Private parties who are very well-heeled have recourse -- they can have at each other. It's hard to imagine a government prosecutor getting involved."
One industry expert said it could backfire for the Heartland Institute to file a civil lawsuit against Gleick because the group's leaders would be put under oath and more of their documents released in open court.
"Right now, Heartland has the higher ground," said Frank Maisano, a spokesman for Bracewell & Giuliani, a Houston law firm that lobbies on behalf of oil refineries, electric utilities and other industries. "If they choose to be overly aggressive and make this guy a martyr, it could come back to haunt them in court, or in the court of public opinion."
Many questions remained Tuesday. In his Huffington Post statement, Gleick said he had been sent the documents earlier this year by an anonymous leaker, and was trying to verify their accuracy by asking for copies from Heartland.
"I can explicitly confirm, as can the Heartland Institute, that the documents they emailed to me are identical to the documents that have been made public," Gleick wrote, adding "I deeply regret my own actions."
On Monday, Gleick canceled plans to join the board of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit organization that defends the teaching of evolution and climate change in public schools, saying he didn't want to be a distraction.
"This is a temporary setback," said NCSE Executive Director Eugenie Scott in an interview. "His abilities have not been challenged, but he has admitted to an ethical lapse."
In his defense
Last week, Gleick resigned from his role as chairman of the American Geophysical Union's Task Team on Scientific Ethics. Yet, on Tuesday, several scientific leaders rallied to his defense.
"I have enormous respect for Peter. He's been a very thoughtful and cautious and considered guy," said Donald Kennedy, the former president of Stanford University and editor of the journal Science from 2000 to 2008.
Kennedy said that while he could not comment on details of the case, he found it ironic that Gleick is being pilloried by conservatives, citing undercover stings that conservative activists have used in the past, such as to expose problems at the voter-registration group, ACORN.
Naomi Oreskes, a geologist and history professor specializing in the history of science at the UC San Diego, noted that in the 1990s, the Heartland Institute took money from the tobacco industry and mounted a campaign to claim the dangers of secondhand smoke were overblown.
Calling the group's work denying climate change "nefarious," she said she hopes that Gleick's missteps don't dissuade other scientists from speaking out.
"If you believe your work matters to the world, and you believe the climate is changing due to human activities, as virtually all scientists do, you have to communicate that to the public," she said.
Oreskes, co-author of "Merchants of Doubt," a 2010 book about industry efforts to muddy science, noted that top climate scientists have been hauled before Congress, had their emails stolen and been personally vilified by organizations funded by fossil fuel industries.
But, she said, they must remain ethical.
"It's easy to get upset, to get angry, to get frustrated," she said, "but we all know those aren't the best grounds for response."
Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.
Last name: Sounds like glick
Current job: President of the Pacific Institute, an Oakland nonprofit that studies water, climate and other issues.
Credentials: Doctorate in energy resources from UC Berkeley in 1986; MacArthur Fellowship, 2003, for his work on water resources; gained notoriety for his exhaustive research on water, publishing "The World's Water," a study of international water supplies and trends every two years.