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Leakegate: A retraction

Filed under: — gavin @ 20 June 2010

Back in February, we commented on the fact-free IPCC-related media frenzy in the UK which involved plentiful confusion, the making up of quotes and misrepresenting the facts. Well, a number of people have pursued the newspapers concerned and Simon Lewis at least filed a complaint (pdf) with the relevant press oversight body. In response, the Sunday Times (UK) has today retracted a story by Jonathan Leake on a supposed ‘Amazongate’ and published the following apology:

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

Note that the Sunday Times has removed the original article from their website (though a copy is available here), and the retraction does not appear to have ever been posted online. Here is a scan of the print version just in case there is any doubt about its existence. (Update: the retraction has now appeared).

This follows on the heels of a German paper, the Frankfurter Rundschau, recently retracting a story on the ‘Africagate’ non-scandal, based on reporting from….. Jonathan Leake.

It is an open question as to what impact these retractions and apologies have, but just as with technical comments on nonsense articles appearing a year after the damage was done, setting the record straight is a important for those people who will be looking at this at a later date, and gives some hope that the media can be held (a little) accountable for what they publish.

167 Responses to “Leakegate: A retraction”

  1. 151
    oneuniverse says:

    The findings of the following paper do not agree with the IPCC’s statement (quoted in #75):

    Mahli et al. 2009, PNAS, “Exploring the likelihood and mechanism of a climate-change-induced dieback of the Amazon rainforest”

  2. 152
    oneuniverse says:

    CM #118, Cox et al. and Betts et al. take that into account, iirc. Please also note that their models project between 8-12K warming by 2100, which is at the high end of the consensus expected range.

  3. 153
    PhilC says:

    #59 comment by dhogaza -21 June 2010

    Regarding Dr. Nepstad’s papers, which are apparently the original basis for the IPCC’s “40% of the Amazon rainforest is at risk from small changes in precipitation…”

    “What Nepstad Himself Says”(http://www.whrc.org/resources/essays/pdf/2010-02-Nepstad_Amazon.pdf)- Dr. Nepstad cites publications from 1994 through 2007, which make estimates of from 15% to up to 50% of the rainforest, depending on assumptions of varying degrees, as possbily near the critcal threshold. This appears to be souind scientific work of the effects of drought on the rainforest, but, once again, it is a short term(~15 years) trend that the IPCC used to determine that long term climatic change(AGW) was causing.

    As the scientists here at Real Climate have so ably pointed out, short term trends are not climate change. In this case the IPCC was certainly wrong in using Dr. Nepstad’s research into the effects of drought on the Amazon rain forest to imply that the drought was caused by man-made CO2 release.

  4. 154
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Here’s what the IPCC report actually said:

    ‘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

    Emphasis mine, to help the hysterically blind.

    Notice, the statement does not say the Amazon had already experienced drought due to global warming. What it was doing was using Nepstad’s research on past drought as a cue to what might happen if the Amazon experienced a drought in the future.

    The cite was incorrect, the research intended to support the statement was correct:

    Nepstad:

    “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 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.

    In sum, the IPCC statement on the Amazon was correct. The report that is cited in support of the IPCC statement (Rowell and Moore 2000) omitted some citations in support of the 40% value statement.

    Senior Scientist Daniel Nepstad endorses the correctness of the IPCC’s (AR4) statement on Amazon forest susceptibility to rainfall reduction:

    But all of us already know this, impressionist and realist alike. Impressionists are disappointed to see their school of work deprecated so they’d like us to continue entertaining their illusions.

    The IPCC has something like a “four nines” reliability record on cites so it’s no wonder the impressionists are eager to keep this work on exhibit, even though it turns out to be a cheap and inauthentic derivative.

  5. 155
    oneuniverse says:

    Doug Bostrom #154 : “What it was doing was using Nepstad’s research on past drought as a cue to what might happen if the Amazon experienced a drought in the future.”

    No, the IPCC’s statement said that the Amazon rainforest could “react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation”, which, while unquantified, seems to preclude a drought, due to the use of the word “slight”.

  6. 156
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Did you notice, oneuniverse? I used the word “drought”, incorrectly, not the IPCC, as you point out, thank you. Meanwhile the IPCC’s conclusions are in concordance w/Nepstad’s findings on the sensitivity of the forest to precipitation.

    Don’t be so desperately hungry. This is issue is stripped, gnaw on something else.

  7. 157
    Brian Dodge says:

    Regarding IQ, I just happened across an interesting online article – http://www.scientificamerican.com/blog/post.cfm?id=one-reason-why-humans-are-special-a-2010-06-22

    “In fact, frequency of erotic fantasies correlates positively with intelligence. ”

    Well? Anybody wanna, er, touch this subject?

  8. 158

    Er, maybe with a ten foot pole…

  9. 159
    Geoff Wexler says:

    BBC tries to do its job i.e. report? How will it manage?
    (after many months silence)

    The transmission, or a similar one, mentioned in #38 or a similar one, has been announced again. Panorama BBC1 8.30 PM (UK time)

    “Tom Heap tries to get to the bottom of climate change and global warming”

    Jeremy Vine presents.

  10. 160
    PhilC says:

    #159

    First off, Nepstad’s research shows that the Amazon was undergoing severe distress from 1994-2004 or so. So this is clearly a short term trend.
    Nepstad:
    “Our 1999 article (Nepstad et al. 1999) estimated that 630,000 km2 of forests were severely drought stressed in 1998, as 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. “(emphasis added)

    So why is the IPCC making a vacuous statement like:
    ” 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 ”

    This is very carefully couched(witness all the ‘could’s) that cannot be interpreted to really mean anything. However it does strongly imply that the Amazon basin is in great danger from drought, but does it in a way that can always fall back on “well, we did say COULD react” when the damage does not come to pass. It is a politically designed statement based on a short term trend in Amazonian precipitation. Real Climate scientists don’t depend on short term trends.

  11. 161
    CBGB says:

    Nepstad’s 2007 paper at http://bibapp.mbl.edu/works/2660 says “A severe, four-year drought episode was simulated” but the referenced comment in the IPCC statement says “extremely sensitive to small reductions in the amount of rainfall”. Is a 60% reduction in rainfall considered a small reduction?

  12. 162
    Doug Bostrom says:

    CBGB says: 28 June 2010 at 5:16 PM

    Nepstad, blah-blah, IPCC, blah-blah.

    Once again, because you’re so voraciously hungry, here’s your food:

    Nepstad:

    “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 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.”

    Nepstad still speaking here:

    “In sum, the IPCC statement on the Amazon was correct. The report that is cited in support of the IPCC statement (Rowell and Moore 2000) omitted some citations in support of the 40% value statement. “

    Got it? Still hungry? Go ask Nepstad for a treat and maybe he’ll grace you with yet another reiteration of what you can’t seem to gag down.

    Senior Scientist Daniel Nepstad endorses the correctness of the IPCC’s (AR4) statement on Amazon forest susceptibility to rainfall reduction

  13. 163
    oneuniverse says:

    Doug Bostrom, you thanked me (albeit rudely) for correcting your mistake in #155 but you didn’t then follow through the consequences of your error (also Nepstad’s error) :

    The papers that Nepstad mentions to support his contention that the IPCC statement was correct are insufficient, as they concern drought scenarious, not scenarious with “slight reductions in precipitation”. The same is true for the modelling scenarios mentioned earlier (Cox et al., Betts et al.).

  14. 164
    oneuniverse says:

    Doug Bostrom: “yet another reiteration of what you can’t seem to gag down”

    Reiterated mistakes shouldn’t be “gagged down”, but rejected as errors to be corrected.
    Anyway, thank you CM for having a civil and open conversation – fantastic contrast to input of folks like Bostrom, Martin Vermeer and dhogaza.

  15. 165
    Doug Bostrom says:

    Oneuniverse, Nepstad knows what he’s talking about with regard to how the Amazon forest responds to variations in rainfall, you and I do not. I choose to defer to Nepstad’s years of training and practice in a discipline involving a myriad of details of which you and I are essentially ignorant. Nepstad, drawing on his expertise and incidentally the publications intended by the IPCC as authoritative on this subject: “In sum, the IPCC statement on the Amazon was correct.”

    Are arrogant and uninformed speculations a form of rudeness? I think so.

  16. 166
    CM says:

    Oneuniverse #164,
    thanks, but I’m not comfortable being used as a foil for dhogaza, Doug, and Martin. I nearly always enjoy their comments and have learned much from them. They are good at seeing the forest for the trees, and correspondingly impatient with fixating on a small side issue that was already done to death in this forum and elsewhere back when it was actually news, nearly half a year ago. This is more often the hallmark of the mindless drive-by hecklers than of someone who comes here for intelligent conversation, as I think you do.

    #152:
    > their models project between 8-12K warming by 2100, which is at the
    > high end of the consensus expected range.

    Looking at Betts (citing Cox 2000) that’s 8K over land, 5K in the global mean. Again, that includes an Amazon carbon feedback other models don’t have. High end, yes, but hardly over the top.

  17. 167
    Doc Savage Fan says:

    Here’s an interesting twist to events:

    http://www.mpg.de/english/illustrationsDocumentation/documentation/pressReleases/2010/pressRelease201007041/index.html
    Max Planck Society Press Release – July 6, 2010

    “Some earlier investigations at the ecosystem level resulted in threefold to fourfold accelerations, which would enhance the greenhouse effect. It was not possible to reconcile these data with global models and atmospheric measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations and their seasonal variations, however. “We can now settle obvious contradictions between experimental and theoretical studies,” says Miguel Mahecha, who played a crucial role in coordinating and evaluating the new measurements on ecosystem respiration. His colleague Markus Reichstein adds: “Particularly alarmist scenarios for the feedback between global warming and ecosystem respiration thus prove to be unrealistic.”

    “We were surprised to find that the primary production in the tropics is not so strongly dependent on the amount of rain,” says Markus Reichstein. “Here, too, we therefore need to critically scrutinize the forecasts of some climate models which predict the Amazon will die as the world gets drier.”

    “The study shows very clearly that we do not yet have a good understanding of the global biogeochemichal cycles and their importance for long-term developments.”