Sunday Times opens another gate

Jonathan Leake at the UK Sunday Times has been swift to hail another supposedly damaging inaccuracy in the IPCC report.  Africagate, the headline calls it.  It occurs in the Working Group II report, which deals with the question of impacts, adaptation and vulnerability. I’ve looked up the section, which is in chapter 9 of the report, looking at possible impacts in Africa. The section is headed Agriculture (page 447-448 of the chapter).  It opens with this sentence:

Results from various assessments of impacts of climate change on agriculture based on various climate models and SRES emissions scenarios indicate certain agricultural areas that may undergo negative changes.


There follows some closely referenced accounts of possible negative effects, as well as some possible positive effects. It’s in the course of the negative effects that the offending sentence is found:

In other countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003).

The Agoumi paper with which this sentence is referenced is apparently not peer-reviewed.  I’ve already pointed out in another post that it is not a requirement for IPCC authors that all references be to peer-reviewed material, and in the Working Group II and III reports it is likely that other literature will be cited as well. (Working Group III addresses mitigation possibilities.)  But not only is it not peer reviewed, it is a policy paper written in 2003 for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian think tank. Professor Agoumi is Moroccan, and his paper apparently looks at prospects for Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia.

I don’t know what sort of weight the Agoumi report should be allowed. A lengthy blog on the British Democracy Forum website, which I presume provided the material for the Sunday Times article, presents a case for doubting its reliability. I’ll suspend judgment in the meantime, since the same blog triumphantly links the matter to “Climategate”, “Glaciergate”, and “Amazongate” and suggests together they spell the demise of the IPCC and Dr Pachauri.  I’ve already said what I think of “Amazongate”, and Gareth has written on “Climategate” here and here.  Granted the Himalayan glacier reference was an error, which has been acknowledged by the IPCC.

However, even if it turns out to have been a mistake to have included the findings of the Agoumi paper in the IPCC report it hardly warrants the hyped up attention Jonathan Leake gives it in his Sunday Times article (yes, the same Jonathan Leake whose sloppy journalism I wrote about here and here).  I don’t read the IPCC reports as revealed truth and it has never occurred to me to take the Working Group II report as anything other than an outline of the kind of effects we can expect to see increasingly as global warming takes hold.  Nor does the report itself claim anything remotely approaching certitude  – words like ‘may’ and ‘could’ in the above extracts are typical of its statements.

However, bit by bit the public is being told that alarming cracks are opening up in the credibility of the IPCC report and of climate scientists generally. Even the Guardian seems to me to have flirted with the possibility in the extraordinary time and attention it has given to the email saga.   And if recent public opinion polls are anything to go by some of the public is buying it.

Trifles are being magnified at the cost of proper attention to the overwhelming reality of climate science.  The great danger threatening the human future has not gone away because journalists and others find it more interesting to focus on the pedigree of a few references or the workplace character of a small group among thousands of scientists. Journalists and their editors might ask themselves how they can justify giving so much attention to comparative trivia and allowing public attention to be diverted from the mounting threat ahead.

For those of us who accept that the threat is real and present there is no option but to keep affirming and trying to communicate the science and to hope that the ground currently being lost in public opinion can be regained and strengthened before we run out of even more time.

13 thoughts on “Sunday Times opens another gate”

  1. How about Sciencegate ? or even greengate ?

    “To have a political effect, the ‘extended peers’ of science have traditionally needed to operate largely by means of activist pressure-groups using the media to create public alarm. In this case, since the global warmers had captured the moral high ground, criticism has remained scattered and ineffective, except on the blogosphere. The position of Green activists is especially difficult, even tragic; they have been ‘extended peers’ who were co-opted into the ruling paradigm, which in retrospect can be seen as a decoy or diversion from the real, complex issues of sustainability, as shown by Mike Hulme. Now they must do some very serious re-thinking about their position and their role…”

    If you can tear yourselves away, this is Jerome Ravetz, of Oxford University “…an environmental consultant and professor of philosophy of science best known for his books challenging the assumptions of scientific objectivity…”

  2. Mikh, I tore myself away, and was unimpressed. The philosopher of science has a superior take on the findings of the working scientists. I notice he relies on some old faniliars – the hockey stick, the use of computer models, uncertainties about climate sensitivity. He also takes it as given that Climategate is a scandal exposed. He finds Roger Pielke and Mike Hulme agreeable commentators. He himself seems to take final refuge in opacity in relation to anthropogenic global warming. I could see no reason to trust the human future to his musings. Give me a blunt James Hansen any day.

  3. Mikh, you seem so interested in the unimportant sideshows, but seem to shy away from any core science. The physics and the match of model to prediction is what impresses me. The basis for my “conviction” if you like. I can spell it out in detail but so far you failed to answer questions on
    a/ what evidence would convince you otherwise (I’ve spelled mine out)
    b/ if convinced of AGW, how do you think we should proceed.

    If you cant answer b/ then I am also convinced that nothing can convince you and discussion is pointless.

  4. Mikh, the Guardian has been a favourite newspaper for me for over 50 years, but I think their judgement was well astray in deciding to devote so much effort and time to this investgation. To my mind it was never called for. In the execution it is far too ready with its judgements and I feel for the scientists who have been subjected to it. And when it is all done the author makes it clear that it in no way alters the reality of climate science. Yet his investigation is treated as revelatory of something important.

    I see the deputy editor Ian Katz has made an attempt to justify the series by writing “only by looking thoroughly under every rock can those of us pressing for action on climate change maintain with confidence that the scientific case remains sound.” Where has he been? The case has been sound for years and the evidence mounts alarmingly. The heading to his article strikes me as ridiculous: “The case for climate action must be remade from the ground upwards.” Journalists sometimes need to be reminded that their place in the scheme of things is not as arbiters.

    1. Bryan: the Guardian has been a favourite newspaper for me for over 50 years

      Only 35 in my case. I do at least one Guardian cryptic crossword a week, preferably one set by Araucaria, by some margin the finest compiler in the world (what, hyperbole, moi?)…

  5. The mysterious journalists have their in-group dynamics (!). The email theft and a bit of winter weather in the media capitals of Europe and the US has set off the UK Tele’s paranoic opiners. A bit like sharks, a bit of pink in the water will bring the rest of the media,no matter how slim the pickings. No one wants to miss out. And like frenzied sharks,they are likely to damage themselves. Most of this weeks blood in the water is from the errors the journalists have made in seeking the mistakes in AR4,though they’re yet to realise it. Katz’s time would be better spent looking into that.

  6. It’s deeply worrying that the Deputy Editor of the Guardian has gone over to the dark side. Next time I take a cab I’ll see if I can get a fatwa issued against him!

  7. Further to my comment (no 5) on Jerome Ravetz I was pleased to read this post from Joseph Romm on Climate Progress this morning. He is taking Andy Revkin on Dot Earth to task over an IPCC comment but reserves his strongest attack for Revkin’s noting of the Ravetz article as “interesting.” “pure antiscientific garbage” is Romm’s verdict, and he indicates why in his usual bracing fashion.

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