The UK’s Sunday Times recently retracted claims made in an article published last January by Jonathan Leake, a writer who is no stranger of climate-change-denying controversy. Leake’s claims, says the times retraction, that non-peer-reviewed data based on unscientific sources influenced the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Assessment Report regarding climactic impacts on the Amazon Rainforest – what Leake characterized at the time as “Amazongate – were completely false. What the retraction doesn’t say is that Leake knew it wasn’t accurate when he submitted it for publication.
Leake’s article (now purged from the Times archive, but still available – with no mention of the retraction *See Update Below* – on the website of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an AGW denialist organization) claimed that IPCC statements about the vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest from climate change was “unsubstantiated” and based on “gray journalism” reports from environmental activist with “little scientific experience.”
None of those statements were true, making the whole basis of Leake’s article, with its inflammatory “bogus” headline, entirely false. As numerous sources have corroborated, any error surrounding the statement (pdf) in the IPCC report was not factual, but only of a missing or incomplete citation. Knowing this, Leake chose to submit his article without correction anyway.
The pot calling the kettle black
Leake bases the very same article in which he attacks the IPCC for relying on “green campaigners with little scientific experience” on – as is clearly stated in the article – “research by Richard North.” North is part of The Bruges Group, a right-wing think tank housing a veritable who’s-who of regularly debunked climate denialists, among which his own expertise on climate science is listed (or not).
Deeply partisan and dogmatic , North is a right-wing idealogue who sees science as a nuisance, with little understanding or interest in its underlying principles and process. It is a world of divisive politics for North, not of science. Misinformation that serves the cause is justified.
Is Mr. Leake thus guilty of the same thing of which he (falsely) accuses others? It appears so.
Whatever problems the IPCC may have, the sensational fabrications Leake pumps out ultimately serve no one. His shoddy journalism is too easily found out, and nothing but more divisiveness is won.
As Simon Lewis, whose official complaint led to the Times retraction told Joe Romm of ClimateProgress:
The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said. If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments. This is extremely dangerous when we face serious environmental problems, like climate change, which require widespread scientific understanding to enable wise political responses to be formulated and enacted.”
There is a curious lack of irony in the work of Jonathan Leake that makes the whole affair almost humorous, in a dark sort of way. But no retraction, or series of retractions, will completely undo the damage done by sloppy journalism emblemized by LeakeGate.
Additional sources and further reading:
RealClimate: IPCC errors: facts and spin
Deltoid on Scienceblogs: Sunday times shamed by bogus Jonathan Leake story, retracts it
* Update: Since my inquiry to the Global Warming Policy Foundation about the lack of any mention of the Times retraction, the Foundation’s director, Dr. Benny Peiser, has informed me the retraction has been added on their website.
Text of Times 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.