Richard North’s problem with reality: or, how a climate change denier trashes his own professional reputation

Now that the full debunking of the “Amazongate” episode has hit the mainstream, it has been instructive to see how the story’s originator has been responding. The wild claims of blogger, climate denier and sometime collaborator with Christopher Booker Richard North originally found their way onto the pages of the Times – after a brief stopover on far-right conspiracy theorist James Delingpole’s Telegraph–hosted blog. North claimed that the scientists behind the IPCC’s second 2007 report had made unfounded statements about the Amazon – in particular on its sensitivity to declining rainfall and potentially grim outlook – an accusation that was debunked by experts in the relevant field almost as soon as it was published. Following a complaint by Dr Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds, who was quoted in the Times’ article, the paper has been forced to publish a retraction.

Yet now that this fake scandal has been exposed, including in an important account by the Guardian’s George Monbiot, North has – perhaps unsurprisingly – been pouring scorn all over that paper’s comment pages. More significantly, after Monbiot noted North’s well-deserved reputation as an “egregious fabulist” “nearly all of” whose “concocted” “stories” (and Booker’s) “fall apart on the briefest examination”, North proceeded to threaten Monbiot and the Guardian with libel action. North referred to “all references to myself” in Monbiot’s blog post “as being libellous and highly damaging”.

Certainly the audacity of North’s double-standards alone here is fairly remarkable. Elsewhere on his blog, he not only berates environmentalists for their censorious tendencies (“These big girls’ blouses can dish it out but when it comes to dealing with disagreement … [a]lways they have to be in control of the message”) but attacks WWF as “an organisation which is turning lying into an art form”. Clearly, if North’s litigious standards were redirected back towards him, he would find himself in serious trouble.

But more importantly, in the tradition of unintentional self-satire in which he has become a master, North appears to have been endeavouring to confirm every one of Monbiot’s accusations even in his comments on the blog post in question. Virtually every one of these – which culminate in his legal threat – produces a flat-out falsehood, painfully embarrassing error or egregious misrepresentation.

Perhaps this sounds like an exaggeration. So in case readers are inclined to be sceptical, let us take a few examples.

Did the IPCC predict that 40% of the Amazon will be decimated?

Falsehood (in North’s 15th comment):

“the IPCC [made] a cataclysmic prediction about 40 percent of the biggest rainforest on the planet.”

Falsehood (in North’s 19th comment):

“And, unless I got it terribly wrong, it was the IPCC saying that the 40% of the Amazon basin was going belly-up.”

Needless to say, North got it terribly wrong. The first sentence of the statement made by the IPCC was the following:

“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation”.

The statement made is purely hypothetical. Clearly, the IPCC was doing no more here than outlining a major sensitivity and therefore serious risk to up to 40% of the Amazon in response to small changes in precipitation.

Does the IPCC identify climate change as the cause of this hypothetical “slight reduction in rainfall”?

Falsehood (in North’s 13th comment):

“the IPCC statement … misidentif[ies] climate change (as in its “slight reduction in rainfall”) as the proximate cause of the forest decline.”

The relevant IPCC statement actually makes no mention of climate change: it is purely hypothetical, and does not in and of itself identify any proximate cause of any forest decline.

Was the claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 a “deliberate mistake”?

Falsehood (in North’s 12th comment):

“It is vital to the IPCC which has build its Maginot Line on “Glaciergate”, conceding one mistake and only one mistake (not that it was a mistake — it was deliberate).”

To date there has been no evidence that the IPCC “deliberately” made the mistake about the date Himalayan glaciers could disappear – a mistake it has acknowledged and corrected.

Was the claim about the Amazon’s sensitivity backed up by the peer-reviewed scientific literature?

Falsehood (in North’s 11th comment):

“this is not “science” talking, but money talking. And what does “money” say? .… er

““Well chaps, we can’s [sic] actually find any peer-reviewed stuff that says “40 percent of the Amazon forest may be drastically altered by even a slight drop in precitation” … so we’ll fudge it …”

Falsehood (in North’s 11th comment):

“But what about [scientific paper] Nepstad 2004? “New rainfall data showed that half of the forest area of the Amazon Basin had either fallen below, or was very close to, the critical level of soil moisture below which trees begin to die” [a quotation from Nepstad’s own clarificatory statement when the original “Amazongate” story broke]. Are we referring to a “slight drop in precipitation”? … Er … no. Scratch Nepstad 2005 [sic] … irrelevant.

So can we “actually find any peer-reviewed stuff that says “40 percent of the Amazon forest may be drastically altered by even a slight drop in precitation””? “Are we referring to a “slight drop in precipitation”?” Er, well yes we are, and yes we can. In their 2004 paper in Global Change Biology, Tropical forest expert Dan Nepstad and his team are explicit:

“This study points to the widespread effect of drought on Amazon forests, and the vulnerability of Amazon forests to small declines in rainfall or increases in ET [evapo-transpiration]. Rainfall and ET are nearly equal across the Amazon during most years, with total rainfall falling below ET during years of severe drought. Such droughts may become more common if ENSO [El-Nino] events continue to be frequent and severe, if rainfall is inhibited by deforestation or smoke, and if warming trends continue. Increases in ET of only 15% or similar reductions in rainfall can lead to severe soil moisture deficits over roughly half of the Amazon (Fig. 9).

The increase in forest flammability associated with severe drought poses one of the greatest threats to the ecological integrity of Amazon forests.

Not only does the peer-reviewed scientific literature support the IPCC’s claim – that “[u]p to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation” – directly, then, but it actually surpasses it. Roughly half the Amazon is of course a great deal more than “up to 40%” (though note that a range of possibilities is implied in both cases). Is Nepstad’s 2004 paper “irrelevant”? Hardly.

Did the IPCC’s statement on the sensitivity of the Amazon exaggerate?

Falsehood (in North’s 13th comment):

“the IPCC statement is … a major overstatement of the case …”

The IPCC’s departure from the peer-reviewed scientific record normally causes all manner of vociferous complaint from North. Yet as we have seen, Nepstad’s peer-reviewed 2004 paper states that “roughly half of the Amazon” could suffer “severe soil moisture deficits” in response to even small rainfall reductions; stresses “the vulnerability of Amazon forests to small declines in rainfall”; and states that “[t]he increase in forest flammability associated with severe drought poses one of the greatest threats to the ecological integrity of Amazon forests.” The IPCC, on the other hand, suggests that “[u]p to 40% of the Amazonian forests” could “react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation”. Exaggeration? Not exactly.

Is the IPCC’s statement in its entirety supported by the peer-reviewed scientific literature?

Falsehood (in North’s 4th comment):

“Certainly, in the context, of the IPCC statement, [sic] its supporters have not yet been able to offer any single paper or combination of papers which supports the statement in its entirely.”

We have already seen that the peer-reviewed literature supports the IPCC’s first claim here, about the Amazon’s sensitivity to small reductions in rainfall. What of the statements that follow, then? The IPCC goes on to state that:

“this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation”.

Could this claim possibly be supported by a “single paper or combination of papers”? Well, er, yes. As Simon Lewis of the University of Leeds notes in a 2006 paper in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society:

“There are critical thresholds of water availability below which tropical forests cannot persist and are replaced by savanna systems.”

Lewis further lists among his “four plausible routes” for the future of the Amazon “widespread forest collapse via drought, and widespread forest collapse via fire”. As he goes on:

“A warming and drying world leading to the loss of half of the world’s largest tract of tropical forest, and accelerated climate change is, therefore, a plausible scenario requiring urgent attention.”

Could such a collapse happen rapidly in the Amazon? Some of the key evidence on this question is provided in a 2004 paper in Theoretical and Applied Climatology by the Hadley Centre’s Peter Cox and his team. As these authors state, in one global climate model run:

“the extreme warming and drying eventually lead to abrupt reductions in the forest fraction”.

As they continue in commentary on modelled projections:

““When the forest fraction begins to drop (from about 2040 onwards) C4 grasses initially expand to occupy some of the vacant lands. However, the relentless warming and drying make conditions unfavourable even for this plant functional type, and the Amazon box ends as predominantly bare-soil (area fraction >0.5) by 2100it seems clear that the HadCM3LC [climate model-derived projections of] climate change in Amazonia would lead to rainforest loss (perhaps via increased fire frequency), and therefore drastic land-cover change.

The precipitous collapse of the Amazon rainforest produced by one such model run is captured in a graph Cox and colleagues include in their paper – made more conservative in that it “ignore[s] both direct anthropogenic deforestation and also natural fire disturbance”:

This “alarming loss of the Amazonian rainforest”, Cox and his colleagues write, “would have catastrophic impacts on the biodiversity and “ecosystem services” of Amazonia, similar to those anticipated under the most extreme scenarios of direct human deforestation”.

Did the IPCC make an erroneous, unfounded statement?

Falsehood (in North’s 11th comment):

“So what [evidence] have we got? Nothing … rien … nada … SFA.”

Falsehood (in North’s 14th comment):

“the IPCC allegation is still unfounded.”

Falsehood (in North’s 13th comment):

“the IPCC statement … is also wrong”

Falsehood (in North’s 13th comment):

“The only way, therefore, to fix Amazongate is for the IPCC to do the decent thing and admit it is wrong.”

Falsehood (in North’s 12th comment):

““Amazongate”, however, “lives” because the IPCC got it wrong … made an unfounded assertion and has since been trying to cover up …”

Yet, as can easily be demonstrated, judging by the peer-reviewed scientific evidence readily available at the time, the IPCC did not “get it wrong” or make an “unfounded” statement. North, on the other hand, did – repeatedly and unrepentantly.

That a published writer should issue this many blatant falsehoods in a comment thread is pretty extraordinary. To do so and then to threaten legal action on the basis that references to oneself as an “egregious fabulist” whose concocted stories “almost all … fall apart on the briefest examination” are “libellous and highly damaging” is … well, frankly suspicious. We are inevitably tempted to the conclusion that Richard North is an ingenious satirical creation – a kind of Dave Spart for the UKIP fanbase.

The bungling continues

North’s criticisms here are fairly easily rebutted with reference to the peer-reviewed scientific literature. It should be stressed, though, that none of these papers claims to provide a perfect, crystal ball-style vision of the future. Rather, they build on rough projections based on our current knowledge – in all its varying degrees of provisionality, approximation and incompleteness. Sometimes this will involve looking for lessons from similar examples in biological history. In other cases it will involve feeding the observed dynamics of complex systems into powerful computerised models. Such models are not just guesswork – they can generally be projected back into the past as well as the future, allowing us at least a rough test of their accuracy through direct comparison with our observations. The evidence assembled will produce a variety of results and scenarios among scientists and in the scientific literature, from the ultra-conservative to the utterly cataclysmic. What none of them provides – or claims to provide – is absolute certainty.

Yet when Monbiot presented some of the scientific data North had ignored – including Cox’s 2004 paper and another alarming paper on potential future scenarios for the Amazon from Theoretical and Applied Climatology by Richard Betts and his team – in a further post, North’s response proved extraordinary.

North claimed that the papers’ “application of GCM [global climate models] and coupled climate models to the Amazon … has been questioned by Oyama and Nobre (2003) and Merengo [sic] 2006” – another pair of scientific papers, from Geophysical Research Letters and the Revista Brasileira de Meteorologia respectively. It took another commenter to inquire how – in the first case – a 2003 paper could possibly have criticised two papers published in 2004. North replied: “Well, that’s how things often work … the Cox et al work wasn’t particuarly new …” There is a half-truth dangling here, as the 2004 paper followed an earlier, 2000 Nature paper by the same authors. Yet as a brief look at the citations confirms, neither Cox’s 2004 paper, Betts’ 2004 paper, nor any other paper by either of these authors is referenced by Oyama and Nobre.

As for Jose Marengo’s paper, what scathing criticism does this make of global climate models? Here’s what it has to say (in a slightly broken English translation) in its abstract:

“… more complex models and representations on the dynamics of vegetation on regional climate have allowed to more realistic simulations of climate change due to changes in land use and in the concentration of greenhouse gases on the recent years.

Devastating stuff. But it gets worse. North’s sole reason for citing Marengo is an attempt to rebut Cox and Betts’ papers on the Amazon. Here’s what Marengo has to say specifically about these two papers:

“New developments in physical parameterizations, including more sophisticated and complex schemes for clouds and the dynamics of the vegetation have provided new insights on possible future climates in Amazonia as consequence of global warming (Cox et al. 2000, 2004, Betts et al. 2004).”

Witness the blistering, evidence-based rebuttal of Richard North. A paper that does not reference – and was even published before – those North disputes; and another whose evaluation of these papers is explicitly positive.

Given all this, you might wonder what on earth North is talking about. Why does he cite either paper at all? He gives us a brief clue in a further comment on Marengo’s paper:

“What struck me was the observation that: “Even though we know now more than we knew 20 years ago, still there are some uncertainties in the tendencies of climate and water resources during the 20th Century.” That and his discussion of “significant uncertainties” tends [sic] to act as a counterbalance to the apparent certitude offered by some modellers.”

Which begs the – frankly exasperated – question: what “apparent certitude”? A search of the 2004 Cox paper for the term “certainty” produces 8 results. Of these, all 8 are expressions of uncertainty. Nepstad’s 2004 paper yields 2 results, both expressions of uncertainty. Betts’ paper yields a starker picture: 28 results, 27 relevant (1 using “certain” in a different sense) of which all 27 are references to uncertainties in predictions and areas of understanding. Any “apparent certitude” can only be a result either of failing to read the papers in question, or of a painfully exacting, wilful misreading of their contents.

The implications for journalism

All this may seem rather like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, albeit a very persistent nut. Yet one of the most profoundly disturbing conclusions to be drawn from the “Amazongate” episode is that North’s claims are in no way assured the utter obscurity they so richly deserve. They find their way onto the Telegraph’s blogs and comment pages, frequently via North’s collaborator Christopher Booker. Last week, Booker was at it again, accusing the IPCC of making a “wildly alarmist claim it cannot justify”; stating that “it seems clearer than ever that there is no good evidence” to support the IPCC; that “other papers in support of their claim [were cited] – but none of these provided any support for the specific claim about the impact of climate change made by the IPCC”; and that it “seems to be [un]true” that “the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence”. In this case, they found their way onto the pages of Times, in a murky episode that may have involved top-down editorial changes to an article producing grossly distorted reportage.

Moreover, this is part of a wider disturbing picture. Editorial pressure to go after climate scientists has been applied in newsrooms since February (a claim that comes via a reliable inside source). Elsewhere in Murdoch outlets, top-down pressure is known to have distorted and distended reporting on climate change. For any journalists managing to survive this institutional firestorm intact and considering using North as a source of material in future, I hope his performance here will give them pause. Try as he may to defend it with legal threats, nothing has been more fatal to North’s “professional reputation” than the man’s own shocking record of falsehood and misrepresentation.

  • Jack Savage

    Talk about using a sledgehammer to crack many strawman nuts.
    Simple fact is that the IPCC were sloppy in the extreme in this matter in their anxiety to make sure their report contained something in it to represent a major threat to the Amazonian rain forest.
    I have no doubt with a bit of effort they could have found some respectable research on which to base an alarm but they could not even be bothered.
    All your nit-picking of minutiae and huffing and puffing cannot change that.

    • Tim Holmes

      Where are the “strawman nuts”, exactly? I actually cited North repeatedly and in exacting detail, to make sure that none of this was a straw man. And for a very good reason — namely his record of legal threats.

      As for a bit sloppy — sure, the IPCC’s unpaid reviewers may have failed to check this one reference among thousands, presumably because they were aware the statement was basically right. If that was what North was arguing, then maybe he’d have a case. It wasn’t. Hence the lack of “straw men”. Do you see?

      As for “their anxiety …” and “could not even be bothered”, this remains your own, entirely speculative — and entirely unsubstantiated — account. You’re welcome to it, but I don’t see what relevance it has to the truth.

  • Timdot
    • Tim Holmes

      Yeah, he says it was too conservative. With regard to the “up to 40%” part — and the failure to talk about some of the worst-case scenarios — I would agree. Nevertheless, Nepstad (2004) talks about “roughly” half of the Amazon. Given such a degree of roughness, there’s really not much to quibble with about the IPCC’s statement.

  • Rick Bradford

    Tim, you’re whistling, but the dog’s out of range — almost everyone has conceded that the IPCC tried to firm up a conclusion that wasn’t justified. Better to concede this and concentrate on those areas where IPCC is solid.

    • Tim Holmes

      +Has+ almost everyone conceded this? And even if they had, what would that prove in and of itself? In other words, where’s the +evidence+ that “the IPCC tried to firm up a conclusion that wasn’t justified”?

      Take your time …

  • allen mcmahon

    Tim,
    The jig is up and no amount of bluster will change that. The IPCC got it wrong, a simple admission would have ended it months ago.

    • Tim Holmes

      Well thank you Allen, but I feel obliged to remind you that assertion is not evidence.

  • andyg

    Nicely deconstructed (and hey, look, random froth already). What would happen, I wonder, if North just got modded down as a troll? After all, his statements are false and inflammatory.

  • Lazarus

    “North proceeded to threaten Monbiot and the Guardian with libel action.”

    I have just noticed that the link you use here goes to North posting as ‘spacedout’ and if you look at posts above you will see ‘spacedout’ defending Richard North!

    Hardly ethical and somewhat egotistical to pretend to be someone else supporting your self.

  • Mac

    Even the WWF now concede that the IPCC claim was wrong.

    The Amazon rainforest faces real threats from logging, fire and storms, but not from extended droughts and certainly not from slight changes in precipitation.

    • Tim Holmes

      Really? Where do they say that? And what does that actually change?

  • Jack Savage

    “Even the WWF now concede that the IPCC claim was wrong.”

    Not exactly,but an article in the Toronto Sun http://​www​.torontosun​.com/​n​e​w​s​/​c​a​n​a​d​a​/​2​0​1​0​/​0​7​/​1​2​/​1​4​6​9​0​7​9​6​.​h​tml claims (are they lying?) that the WWF have said they cannot be responsible for how the IPCC uses it’s data. I suppose you could say that is open to interpretation but that seems a pretty clear indication of embarassment to me.

    What does it change? Nothing. It has always been the case that the IPCC’s claim that up to 40% of the Amazonian rainforest was going to turn into savannah suddenly if there was a small change in rainfall was unsubstantiated.
    Personally, I do not really see what the fuss about this is. This would have all gone away but now if the world’s warmists had fessed up to this. Instead, through desperate wriggling, they have painted themselves more and more into a corner, revealing not so much the sloppiness of the IPCC (it is after all only one claim in a huge report) but the defensiveness and anti-science attitudes of its defenders such as Tim Holmes.

    • Tim Holmes

      Well, that Toronto Sun(!) article is an abominable piece of journalism. Who knows what the WWF statement was in its entirety? Even then, +it doesn’t say what mac, above, claims they say+. Now you’re repeating one of the exact misrepresentations of the IPCC — “the IPCC’s claim that up to 40% of the Amazonian rainforest was going to turn into savannah suddenly if there was a small change in rainfall” — that I’ve tackled above. It’s extraordinary. And you accuse +me+ of “anti-science attitudes”?

      And you “do not really see what the fuss about this is”? Well, you’re not alone, frankly. Don’t get me wrong, failing to check the reference was a sloppy mistake, but given that it was one basically accurate claim among thousands of pages it’s difficult to imagine a less significant issue.

  • http://oxfordkevin.carbonclimate.org Oxford Kevin

    Hi Tim, with all these comments not one of them seems to have bothered trying to challenge any of the specific examples of where you cited North and where he was wrong. You are also absolutely right when pointing out Monbiot stating that the literature was saying up to 50% of the Amazon was at risk. So this is just another example of the IPCC being conservative in its interpretation of the literature, it is as if the IPCC is trying to play down the possible impacts of AGW.

  • Jack Savage

    You guys.….so earnest and yet so wrong. You may split hairs for as long as you wish. I am quite willing to concede that the IPCC’s alarmism does not for one moment have any effect on whether the planet is heading for catastrophe or not.
    You , on the other hand , will never concede anything. You never for one moment think you could be wrong, do you? That is what makes us very very different.

    • Tim Holmes

      Since you are so readily able to concede when you are wrong, here’s a good place to start: your reference to “the IPCC’s claim that up to 40% of the Amazonian rainforest was going to turn into savannah suddenly if there was a small change in rainfall”. It is the work of a moment to establish that the IPCC +made no such claim+. If your self-critical standards are what you claim they are, you are obliged to retract this. If you do not, we can probably make some inferences about how far you apply those standards in reality.

  • Jack Savage

    “Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000). It is more
    probable that forests will be replaced by ecosystems that have more resistance to multiple stresses caused by temperature increase, droughts and fires, such as tropical savannas.”

    Any policymaker reading this (without the benefit of your copious footnotes ) would (and indeed ought to) see it as a serious and immediate threat, apparently backed up by peer-reviewed science. But it was’nt. That is all I am trying to say.
    If you tell me the IPCC is blameless then I guess we will have to agree to differ. This argument is not going anywhere.
    Goodbye and let the (correctly referenced) science prevail!

    • Tim Holmes

      You’re quite right that it’s going nowhere, although I’m not sure I can claim to take any credit for that. You’re right that the IPCC identifies a serious threat, although deriving an +immediate+ threat from the statement it makes is also questionable.

      In any case, regardless of what you were “trying to say”, what you in fact +did say+ was:

      “It has always been the case that the IPCC’s claim that up to 40% of the Amazonian rainforest was going to turn into savannah suddenly if there was a small change in rainfall was unsubstantiated.”

      This is not what the IPCC actually said. No big deal, perhaps, but pretty remarkable given that this entire blog post addressed itself precisely to the question of what the IPCC did and did not say here. But again, your professed readiness to concede error will undoubtedly be leading you to ‘fess up and retract sometime soon, rather than prevaricating as you currently are.

  • Jack Savage

    Just thought I would come back here to see how this white hot discussion was progressing.
    Fortunately, it appears that no one is that fussed about reading your forensic analysis about how insane Richard North is.
    In ten years time sites like this will just be a bad dream.

  • Jon Jon

    Also interesting to see that Moonbat’s libelous writing wasn’t quoted in your “analysis”. “An inconvenient ttuth” perhaps?

    What also put most readers off I presume is your tendency to dribble when caracterising people sceptic of your climate religion..

    Jon Jon