“AmazonGate”: how the denial lobby and a dishonest journalist created a fake scandal

Anyone following the recent string of articles in the mainstream press attacking the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) may have entertained a sneaking suspicion that the hidden hand of the climate denial lobby was at work behind many of them. That suspicion, it turns out, is exactly right – the fingerprints of the deniers are all over several of the key stories.

This latest feeding frenzy kicked off when one erroneous claim – that Himalayan glaciers were “very likely” to disappear by 2035 – was found to have slipped through the net, the IPCC’s extensive review process having failed to weed it out prior to publication. The claim was included on page 493 of the IPCC’s second 1000-page Working Group report on “Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability” (WGII). The reference given was to a WWF report – part of the non-peer-reviewed “grey literature” that makes up a periphery of the material in the second Working Group’s report.

Marginal as it may have been, for the media this isolated error appears to have opened the floodgates. A hysterical flurry of activity followed, as the denial lobby began trawling through the IPCC report for anything else that might look bad – particularly anything referencing the grey literature. The results of this search were then fed to elements of the press, who eagerly snatched them up – uncritically repeating many of their claims in the process.

Blogger Richard North was the originator of one such story. North is a climate change denier who has worked with the Telegraph’s Christopher Booker on a number of publications, including most recently Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. In the words of sceptical writer Richard Wilson, the book is a “surrealist masterpiece”, claiming to debunk “the dangers of passive smoking, white asbestos, eating BSE-infected beef, CO2 emissions, leaded petrol, dioxins, and high-speed car driving”. Examining the book’s commentary on climate change, one atmosphere physicist noted that its “references are very selective and misrepresentative”; another concluded: “[t]hese people have added two and two and got five”. The book misrepresents and even reverses the findings of published scientific literature, and includes a fabricated interview with a Cambridge astrophysicist that had long since been retracted. As the Guardian’s Robin McKie puts it in his review of the book, Booker and North “accuse other journalists of ‘unthinking credulity’ but commit egregious errors that would shame a junior reporter.”

Christopher Booker, North’s co-writer on the book, has himself claimed that white asbestos is “chemically identical to talcum powder”, receiving repeated condemnations from the UK’s Health and Safety Executive for his “misinformed” and “substantially misleading” articles on the subject. He has also denied the link between passive smoking and lung cancer, between BSE and CJD in humans, and, astonishingly, claimed that proponents of Darwinian evolutionary theory “rest their case on nothing more than blind faith and unexamined a priori assumptions”.

One might have expected such corners of crankery to be passed over by most mainstream journalists, or at least left to fester on the Telegraph’s comment pages. But these sources are not only being read – they are finding their “research” used as the foundation for major news stories.

Bogus claims and the threat to the Amazon

On January 25th, North published a post on his blog in which he dredged up one suspicious-looking claim made by the IPCC. On page 596, the second Working Group report had stated that “40% of the Amazon forests could react drastically to even a slight change in precipitation”, potentially being replaced by “ecosystems that have more resistance to multiple stresses caused by temperature increase, droughts and fires, such as tropical savannas”. Again, the reference given was to a WWF report – in this case a Global Review of Forest Fires by a policy analyst, Dr PF Moore, and a journalist and campaigner, Andy Rowell. Apparently unable to find the information given by the IPCC in WWF’s report, North wrote:

“The assertions attributed to them, that “up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation” is nowhere to be found in their report. … Nor elsewhere can we find any other reference to 40 percent of the Amazon being affected by even slight reductions in precipitation.”

Yet the fourteenth page of WWF’s report had stated exactly that. “Up to 40% of the Brazilian forest is extremely sensitive to small reductions in the amount of rainfall”, the report noted.

Nevertheless, North went to town, declaring the unearthing of “Amazongate”. He accused the IPCC of making “false predictions on the Amazon rain forests”; of producing “a complete fabrication”; stated that “the IPCC has grossly exaggerated the effects of global warming on the Amazon rain forest”; that it “wanted to hype up crisis” by “making an assertion unsupported by the “science” it holds as so important”.

The allegation was quickly repeated by a sympathetic blogger on the fringes of the mainstream media, James Delingpole of the Telegraph – himself a frenetic climate change denier and far-right conspiracy theorist (he has recently stated that mainstream climate scientists “are part of a global conspiracy to expand” the state – apparently on the basis of no evidence whatsoever). Delingpole eagerly posted the story on his blog, declaring “AGW [man-made global warming] theory is toast.”

A few days later, the story found its way onto the news pages of the Times, via reporter Jonathan Leake. “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim”, the story’s headline declared, its first paragraph telling readers the IPCC’s statement on the Amazon was “based on an unsubstantiated claim”. The last line of the article leaves us in no doubt as to its source: “Research by Richard North”.

But it soon emerged that the claim was far from bogus. If anything, in fact, the 40% estimate may have been understated. Simon Lewis, a researcher into tropical forests at the University of Leeds, was quoted by Leake as criticizing WWF’s report. Yet Lewis had already informed Leake that the IPCC’s statement got it right. As BBC journalist Roger Harrabin quoted Lewis:

“The IPCC statement is basically correct but poorly written, and bizarrely referenced.

“It is very well known that in Amazonia, tropical forests exist when there is more than about 1.5 metres of rain a year, below that the system tends to ‘flip’ to savannah.

“Indeed, some leading models of future climate change impacts show a die-off of more than 40% Amazon forests, due to projected decreases in rainfall.

“The most extreme die-back model predicted that a new type of drought should begin to impact Amazonia, and in 2005 it happened for the first time: a drought associated with Atlantic, not Pacific sea surface temperatures.

“The effect on the forest was massive tree mortality, and the remaining Amazon forests changed from absorbing nearly two billion tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere a year, to being a massive source of over three billion tonnes.”

As Lewis made clear in correspondence, the problem was not with the accuracy of the IPCC’s statement, which reflected the peer-reviewed scientific literature – but with the reference that had been attributed to it. The issue had in fact already been dealt with in the report of Working Group I (on “The Physical Science Basis” of climate change), which had got the references right. Did Leake’s article accurately reflect Lewis’ views? “Absolutely not.”

Lewis, it turns out, had sent both Leake and Harrabin the same email. But while Harrabin had included Lewis’s comments on the IPCC’s accuracy in his BBC piece, Leake simply ignored them. Instead, he seems to have invented his own, more congenial version of reality. “4000-page report makes insignificant referencing error” is admittedly a rather less powerful headline – even if it does possess the distinct advantage of being true.

More astonishingly, as science blogger Eli Kintisch revealed, Leake had been told exactly the same thing by Dan Nepstad – author of a 1999 Nature paper cited by WWF, and others that back up the IPCC on the Amazon – two days before his story was published. As Nepstad had written to Leake:

At the time of the IPCC [report], there was ample evidence that a large portion of the Amazon forest is very close to the lower limit of rainfall that is necessary to sustain dense forest. We published an article in 1994 in Nature in which we estimated that approximately half of the forests of the Brazilian Amazon were periodically exposed to severe drought and soil moisture depletion, especially during El Nino events.”

As Nepstad later wrote in a public statement on the affair:

The IPCC statement on the Amazon is correct, but the citations listed in the Rowell and Moore report were incomplete. (The authors of this report interviewed several researchers, including the author of this note, and had originally cited the IPAM website where the statement was made that 30 to 40% of the forests of the Amazon were susceptible to small changes in rainfall). Our 1999 article (Nepstad et al. 1999) estimated that 630,000 km2 of forests were severely drought stressed in 1998, as [WWF authors] Rowell and Moore correctly state, but this forest area is only 15% of the total area of forest in the Brazilian Amazon. In another article published in Nature, in 1994, we used less conservative assumptions to estimate that approximately half of the forests of the Amazon depleted large portions of their available soil moisture during seasonal or episodic drought (Nepstad et al. 1994). After the Rowell and Moore report was released in 2000, and prior to the publication of the IPCC AR4, new evidence of the full extent of severe drought in the Amazon was available. In 2004, we estimated 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 in 1998. This estimate incorporated new rainfall data and results from an experimental reduction of rainfall in an Amazon forest that we had conducted with funding from the US National Science Foundation (Nepstad et al. 2004). Field evidence of the soil moisture critical threshold is presented in Nepstad et al. 2007.”

To give him some credit, Leake’s “bogus” headline has now been changed – though his “unsubstantiated” accusation remains. Meanwhile, things have gone full circle: the story is being cited in its original form on the website of climate deniers – and mining industry front-group – the Global Warming Policy Foundation, replete with the added credibility its status as a Times story gives it.

While it is wholly unsurprising that the denial lobby should be attempting to push baseless and misleading stories to the press, what is surprising is the press’s willingness to swallow them. In this case, two experts in the relevant field told a Times journalist explicitly that, in spite of a minor referencing error, the IPCC had got its facts right. That journalist simply ignored them. Instead, he deliberately put out the opposite line – one fed to him by a prominent climate change denier – as fact. The implications are deeply disturbing, not only for our prospects of tackling climate change, but for basic standards of honesty and integrity in journalism.

More to follow …

22 Responses

  1. Andy Russell

    Worrying stuff. There was an equally disturbing story in the Independent on 10th Feb about a fake “alarmist” quote that has been wrongly attributed to John Houghton. It seems to be one of these Zombie arguments that no matter how ofter they are shot down, they get right back up again regardless!

    Reply
  2. Reasonable

    Each side of this debate are guilty of exaggerations. It is important for all readers to get a proper source. I still however have great reservations about AGW.

    Reply
  3. John O'Sullivan

    lol! You people are the real ‘deniers’ – and at least 4 weeks behind the stack of ‘gate’ revelations. Please read my latest article proving that the crooks at GHCN falsified the raw data of the world’s second oldest uninterrupted climate record in the Czech Republic. Yes, folks, we now have ‘Czechgate’ – try waffling this baby away….

    http://www.climategate.com/czechgate-climate-scientists-dump-worlds-second-oldest-cold-climate-record/comment-page-1#comment-4559

    Reply
  4. John Monro

    Thanks for that review, I got to this page via Real Climate. Well worth reading, and well put together.

    You comment “While it is wholly unsurprising that the denial lobby should be attempting to push baseless and misleading stories to the press, what is surprising is the press’s willingness to swallow them”

    I don’t agree – and even your comment about “swallowing” all this rubbish underplays what is happening. Throughout the world, including here in New Zealand, the mainstream press and media have been one of the worst offenders in pushing a global warming denialist agenda. They are past masters at the misuse of the principle of “balance” with which they seek to disguise their active participation in this so-called “debate”. Without the cooperation of a complicit media, these denialilsts would never have had the traction they now have.

    I am not a believer in conspiracy theories, when either human stupidity or self-interest will explains surprising things adequately on their own. But conspiracy or not, the media’s role in casting doubt on valid science, not just once or twice, but as a matter of policy throughout the years, is one of the wonders of our age. It’s impossible for a normal compassionate and thinking human to understand the motives of those behind this attempt to usurp sound judgement and a care for our future, but there is in all powerful and ruling cliques, and that is what the press now is, this deep and pathological attachment to the staus quo, and a deep and abinding hatred of those that attempt to undermine it. That the status quo could be taking us to disaster is not a subject for discussion or understanding. I imagine much the same happened in the press in Europe before the First World War.

    Reply
  5. jim388

    But there was no research referenced linking climate change to a reduction in rainfall in the Amazon; the referenced research, if you tracked it back, was talking about how logging, agriculture, and fire were increasing the risk of drought damage in 40% of the forest.

    Reply
    • Achim Schmitz

      The point is not wherefore the dryness occurs but what happens IF it occurs. Dryness of the Amazon rainforests seems to be coincidental with excecss rain in the northern half of Australia and the lack of rain in the southern half of Australia. Simultaneously there seems to be a worryig number of reports of excess rain in the southern parts of South America.

      In Europe floods have been raging with unprecdented regularity, whilst in California fires are raging regularly due to repeated and lengthy droughts.

      Before we start quibbling about what is happening where, let’s consider the fact that sea levels are in fact rising. That the ocean of the world react (in human terms) very slowly to changes in climate, should give any thinking person pause for thought. If they are reflecting the effects of climate change, shouldn’t we be doing something about it?

      Just a thought.

      Reply
  6. Vinny Burgoo

    Tim Holmes: ‘The issue had in fact already been dealt with in the report of Working Group I (on “The Physical Science Basis” of climate change), which had got the references right.’

    Where, please? I can’t find any estimate in WG1 of the area of Amazon forest that is or will be vulnerable to burning or dieback because of water-stress. The sole Nepstad paper referenced in WG1 dealt with vulnerability to fire but the referencing text used it in support of general, unquantified discussions of carbon sinks.

    Whether or not WG1 dealt with the issue, it’s clear from the work of Nepstad and others that logging is the main threat to the Amazon forests, not only directly but by reducing rainfall. More severe and frequent GHG-driven regional droughts might play a larger role in the future but as the areas most vulnerable to drought are those that are being most heavily logged (Nepstad 2004), it’s questionable whether the most vulnerable forests will still be standing by the time the droughts get worse.

    That’s my imperfect understanding, anyway. Happy to be corrected.

    Reply
    • Achim Schmitz

      That is a valid point and I haven’t had time to scour up any stats. The thing is that even the “not so vulnerrable” regions are going to be affected by human induced global warming to some extent. Anyone got any figures?

      Reply
  7. Amory B. Lovins

    When I lived in the UK 1967-81, this sort of abusive practice could be taken to the Press Council, which would investigate complaints of improper journalism and, if they proved valid, censure the newspaper and/or reporter. It would be worth checking whether that avenue remains open. Unfortunately I don’t think we have such a press ombudsman in the United States.

    Reply
  8. Copraphagist

    There is still no evidence to support the 40% claim

    If there is, in the peer reviewed literature, then please show it.

    Given that the WWF are set to make up to $60 billion on the REDD programme in the Amazon, it is a fairly major conflict of interest.

    The “deniers” are having a field day here…..

    Reply
  9. Tim H

    The deniers are indeed having a field day, as they always do, despite the absence of evidence to support their case. Unfortunately for them, there is an abundance of peer-reviewed scientific literature that backs up the IPCC on this. Indeed as I’ve suggested above, if anything the 40% claim is a significant understatement. Will be posting on this in the near future – watch this space.

    Reply

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