Sunday Times (UK) Publishes Correction and Apology for Asserting that IPCC Amazon Statement was "Bogus"

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The Sunday Times (UK) published yesterday (20 June 2010) a correction and a apology for an article it published on 31 January 2010, UN Climate Panel Shamed by Bogus Rainforest Claim. We provide the text of that original article later in this posting.  In The Sunday Times and the IPCC: Correction, the Sunday Times said yesterday:

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 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.

The original article to which this correction refers has been removed

"This retraction hopefully indicates that after a period of some hysteria, balance and consideration is being restored to the media's reporting of climate science,” said WWF-UK’s head of climate change, Keith Allott, in a press release issued today by WWF UK ("Amazongate" evaporates as newspaper apologises for story).

“Earlier this year we witnessed a concerted attempt to discredit both the IPCC and the whole body of climate science - and too often certain media seemed to write the headline first and then construct a story to fit it," said Allott.  "The media are right to challenge and to hold all claims to account, but in this case their story was just not fair or true."

"As we said in a letter published by The Sunday Times at the time, misleading coverage in respected media outlets can serve to undermine public confidence in the credibility of climate science.  The reality is that we are running out of time to head off the huge risks that climate change poses, not just to the Amazon but to the rest of the world."

The Sunday Times correction has been widely reported and commented on (see our "Online Resources" section at the end of this post).  In Sunday Times retracts and apologizes for shameful and bogus Amazon story smearing IPCC,  Joe Romm reports in Climate Progress (20 June 2010) on the reaction from Dr. Simon Lewis who had filed a complaint against the Sunday Times with the UK’s Press Complaints Commission. 

“I welcome the Sunday Times’ apology for failing to accurately report my views and retract the Amazon story. As several experts told them – their story was baseless.  What I find shocking about this whole episode is that an article read out [loud] and agreed with me was then switched at the last minute to one that fit with the Times’ editorial line that the IPCC contained a number of serious mistakes, but actually ignored the scientific facts.”

The original article published on 31 January 2010 by the Sunday Times is as follows:

UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim

Jonathan Leake

IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri is fighting to keep his job after a barrage of criticism

A STARTLING report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said in its 2007 benchmark report that even a slight change in rainfall could see swathes of the rainforest rapidly replaced by savanna grassland.

The source for its claim was a report from WWF, an environmental pressure group, which was authored by two green activists. They had based their “research” on a study published in Nature, the science journal, which did not assess rainfall but in fact looked at the impact on the forest of human activity such as logging and burning. This weekend WWF said it was launching an internal inquiry into the study.

This is the third time in as many weeks that serious doubts have been raised over the IPCC’s conclusions on climate change. Two weeks ago, after reports in The Sunday Times, it was forced to retract a warning that climate change was likely to melt the Himalayan glaciers by 2035. That warning was also based on claims in a WWF report.

The IPCC has been put on the defensive as well over its claims that climate change may be increasing the severity and frequency of natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods.

This weekend Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, was fighting to keep his job after a barrage of criticism.

Scientists fear the controversies will be used by climate change sceptics to sway public opinion to ignore global warming — even though the fundamental science, that greenhouse gases can heat the world, remains strong.

The latest controversy originates in a report called A Global Review of Forest Fires, which WWF published in 2000. It was commissioned from Andrew Rowell, a freelance journalist and green campaigner who has worked for Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and anti-smoking organisations. The second author was Peter Moore, a campaigner and policy analyst with WWF.

In their report they suggested that “up to 40% of Brazilian rainforest was extremely sensitive to small reductions in the amount of rainfall” but made clear that this was because drier forests were more likely to catch fire.

The IPCC report picked up this reference but expanded it to cover the whole Amazon. It also suggested that a slight reduction in rainfall would kill many trees directly, not just by contributing to more fires.

It 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. 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.”

Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at Leeds University who specialises in tropical forest ecology, described the section of Rowell and Moore’s report predicting the potential destruction of large swathes of rainforest as “a mess”.

“The Nature paper is about the interactions of logging damage, fire and periodic droughts, all extremely important in understanding the vulnerability of Amazon forest to drought, but is not related to the vulnerability of these forests to reductions in rainfall,” he said.

“In my opinion the Rowell and Moore report should not have been cited; it contains no primary research data.”

WWF said it prided itself on the accuracy of its reports and was investigating the latest concerns. “We have a team of people looking at this internationally,” said Keith Allott, its climate change campaigner.

Scientists such as Lewis are demanding that the IPCC ban the use of reports from pressure groups. They fear that environmental campaign groups are bound to cherry-pick the scientific literature that confirms their beliefs and ignore the rest.

It was exactly this process that lay behind the bogus claim that the Himalayan glaciers were likely to melt by 2035 — a suggestion that got into another WWF report and was then used by the IPCC.

Georg Kaser, a glaciologist who was a lead author on the last IPCC report, said: “Groups like WWF are not scientists and they are not professionally trained to manage data. They may have good intentions but it opens the way to mistakes.”

Research by Richard North

Shortly after the article was published on 31 January 2010, WWF on 11 February 2010 issued a Statement from WWF Regarding the IPCC and the Strength of our Science. "As a science-based organization, we are strongly committed to the integrity of our research," WWF said.  With regards to its published findings on the Amazon, WWF said that that "we have determined that our statements were accurate and fully supported by several published studies."

Online Resources:

The Sunday Times and the IPCC: Correction.  Sunday Times (UK), 20 June 2010.

Sunday Times shamed by bogus Jonathan Leake story, retracts itDeltoid, 20 June 2010.

British Newspaper Apologizes to Climate ScientistNew York Times, Green blog, 20 June 2010. 

Sunday Times retracts and apologizes for shameful and bogus Amazon story smearing IPCCClimate Progress, 20 June 2010

Leakegate: A retractionRealclimate, 20 June 2010. 

Sunday Times apologises for “Amazongate” misinformationHot Topic (NZ), 21 June 2010.

Statement from WWF Regarding the IPCC and the Strength of our Science.  Statement issued by WWF-US on 11 February 2010.


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