Is a scientist who adopts a fake identity in order to get information from a group that actively works to discredit the science a hero or a villain? That’s the question facing the scientific community, after the Heartland Institute leaked documents scandal took a surprising turn when well-known climate scientist Peter H Gleick admitted he passed the documents to journalists.

While Australian scientists want him seen as acting alone, one told Crikey today his actions demonstrate the frustration around the mainstream media’s failure to prosecute the case on climate science.

Gleick revealed his surprising story yesterday. He was anonymously sent a Heartland climate strategy memo a few weeks ago. In order to authenticate the document, he set up a fake email address pretending to be someone who works at Heartland and convinced the institute to send him a number of confidential documents outlining major donors and scientists on the payroll. Gleick then anonymously forwarded those documents and the climate strategy memo to journalists.

The scientist called his actions “a serious lapse of my own and professional judgment and ethics”: “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 President Joseph Bast responded in a statement: “A mere apology is not enough to undo the damage.”

In his confession, Gleick also confirmed that apart from the climate strategy memo — which Heartland declared a fake from the start, and questions remain over who wrote the document and sent it to Gleick — the rest of the documents republished by DeSmogBlog and others were in exactly the form that he received them from Heartland.

Heartland began pursuing legal action against bloggers and journalists who had reported on the documents earlier this week, claiming it had been unable to verify the authenticity of all the documents.

Repercussions for Gleick’s actions came swiftly from the scientific and environment journalist community. Andrew Revkin, the Dot Earth blogger for The New York Times, wrote a scathing article on Gleick’s announcement, saying: “One way or the other, Gleick’s use of deception in pursuit of his cause after years of calling out climate deception has destroyed his credibility and harmed others.

At The Guardian, Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences and the founder of the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund, hailed Gleick’s actions: “Heartland has been subverting well-understood science for years. Peter Gleick, a scientist who is also a journalist just used the same tricks that any investigative reporter uses to uncover the truth. He is the hero and Heartland remains the villain. He will have many people lining up to support him.”

A Grist article captured the question: “Peter Gleick: hero or moral moron?

Reactions were mixed in Australia. Ken Baldwin, deputy director of the Climate Change Institute, was quick to differentiate Gleick’s actions from the science.

“Certainly he needs to be seen as having acted as an individual rather than as a scientist,” Baldwin told Crikey. “The rest of the scientific community would view his actions in that way and not in any sense as representing the broader scientific community.”

But the University of Western Australia’s Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist that studies how people process climate-related information, views Gleick’s actions as “something akin to a whistleblower”. Lewandowsky says many scientists have taken on a more journalistic role in recent years as the mainstream media’s investigative journalism departments have shrunk.

“By and large owing to cutbacks and the funding crisis there just isn’t investigative journalism and in many ways scientists are now doing that,” he said. “Some people will agree that Peter went too far, others will say ‘who cares?’ I don’t have a firm opinion either way. Certainly when it comes to the Pentagon papers, most people will view Ellsberg as a hero rather than a villain.”

Lewandowsky says the impact on the broader climate science community remains unclear. But he expects it will intensify the “war” between climate scientists and various ideologues and think tanks.

Rumours abounded before his confession that Gleick may have been the Heartland leaker. He’d been notably absent from his Twitter account and his Huffington Post blog. Jim Lakely, the communications director at Heartland, tweeted accusations about Gleick on Sunday:

“I emailed invite to @PeterGleick to Heartland climate debate. He indignantly refused. Why? Disclose ur donors, he said. Hmm. #fakegate”

“1st debate invite to @petergleick from me 1/13. Last “no,” disclose donors email 1/28. Email fraud to Heartland began 2/3. Hmm. #fakegate”

Crikey asked Lakely if he knew before Gleick’s confession whether he had been the leaker and whether Heartland had put any pressure on him to come forward. He replied: “Interesting questions … But you’ve seen our statement. Go with that. And may I suggest it’s time for Peter Gleick to answer some questions. Have you reached out to him? Can I expect some exclusive interview at your site in the near future? I’m sure he agrees with the ideological bent of your site, so he can trust you to be fair, right?”

Gleick has been contacted by Crikey but is yet to respond.