Earlier this year the Sunday Times published a piece by Jonathan Leake claiming that a claim in the 2007 IPCC report about the sensitivity of the Amazon rainforest to changes in precipitation had been invented by environmental activists at the WWF who sought to alarm the public about non-existent dangers which they sought to attribute to anthropogenic climate change.
At the time the piece, based on research by Richard North, was widely criticised on places like Deltoid for failing to report that the WWF report was in fact based on peer reviewed scientific research, and for misrepresenting Dr Simon Lewis’s comments that the IPCC should have referenced the original works rather than the WWF report, claiming that Lewis disputed the scientific basis of both the IPCC and WWF reports.
At the time Lewis tried to comment on the Times website to clarify that his position on the issue had been misrepresented by Leake, so the Times duly deleted his comment. He wrote to the newspaper, and heard nothing back. So he took his complaint to the Press Complaints Commission. In response the Sunday Times has issued the following retraction.
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.
As Tim Lambert points out however, Leake’s bogus story soon was doing the rounds on both the climate change denialist blogosphere , and also in other right wing newspapers such as Rupert Murdoch’s Australian and the Daily Mail. It seems highly unlikely that these secondary authors who relied on Leake’s falsified story will all be publishing similar retractions, and consequently much of the impact that the story had as being a widely publicised example of the IPCC allegedly using alarmist predictions from non-scientific sources will likely remain despite the factual basis of the story turning out to be untrue.
This seems a good example of how making entirely baseless accusations can essentially tarnish the work of honest researchers; it is far easier to make unfounded accusations, and then to get these accusations widely reprinted and disseminated by people whose ideological preconceptions the claims resonate with, than it is for those on the wrong end of bogus reporting to clear their names and set the record straight. The affective impact of headlines proclaiming that ACC is a myth invented by environmental activists to create redistributive taxes is somewhat stronger than a retraction of the article some four and half months after the event. And as the retraction only covers the place it originated from, The Times, and excludes the plethora of places the untrue assertions were republished, it’s doubtful whether many of those who read those claims will end up reading the retraction. While climate change blogs such as Deltoid, RealClimate and DeSmogBlog have covered the story, as have eco-activists in the (mainly left-wing sections of the) mainstream media such as George Monbiot and Roy Greenslade, it is highly doubtful that these commentators will have the same audience that was reached by the original Times article, and its spin offs in places such as the Mail, the Australian and climate change denial blogs.