Leakegate

Jonathan Leake recently wrote a story alleging that the statement in the IPCC AR4 WG2 that up to 40% of the Amazon forest could vanish due to climate change was “bogus”. Deltoid can now reveal that Leake deliberately concealed the fact that Dan Nepstad, the author of the 1999 Nature paper cited as evidence for the claim about the vulnerability of the Amazon had replied to Leake’s query and informed him the claim was basically correct:

At the time of the IPCC [report], there was ample evidence that a large portion of the Amazon forest is very close to the lower limit of rainfall that is necessary to sustain dense forest. We published an article in 1994 in Nature in which we estimated that approximately half of the forests of the Brazilian Amazon were periodically exposed to severe drought and soil moisture depletion, especially during El Nino events.

Nepstad told me the same thing in response to my query after Leake’s story was published. He included copies of his relevant papers which confirmed what he told me. Nepstad goes into more detail here:

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.

Leake deliberately concealed the fact that error in the IPCC was a missing cite, rather than a factual error. Furthermore, despite criticizing the IPCC for allegedly relying on “green campaigners who had little scientific expertise” Leake based his story on “Research by Richard North”. Richard North is part of a right wing think tank which describes his background like this:

After a brief career in the Royal Air Force, Richard North became a local government officer and then ran his own consultancy business for two decades. He then moved into trade politics and thence to the European Parliament as research director for the group of European Democracies and Diversities. Through this professional work, Richard obtained first hand experience of the damaging effects of Brussels directives and their interpretation by UK officials on British businesses, and has gained an unrivalled insight into the workings of the European Union.

So, to Leake, lack of scientific expertise doesn’t matter if someone is telling you what you want to hear.

Leakegate is merely the latest scandal about the reporting on climate science in British newspapers and follows on the heels of Rosegate, the scandal about David Rose’s repeated misquoting of scientists.

Update: Mongabay.com comments

But Leake’s apparent dismissal of Nepstad’s data isn’t what may get him into trouble. Instead it’s his breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice which requires editors to allow “a fair opportunity for reply.” Andrew Rowell, the lead author of the WWF report who was criticized by Leake, was never contacted by the Sunday Times.

Comments

  1. #1 sod
    February 4, 2010

    in sceptic circles, people have decided to discuss the end of the IPCC.

    they talk of “massive errors” and constantly repeat, that the claims about glaciers melting and amazon forests vanishing are false.

    i fear that this will not change, even when we provide the facts…

  2. #2 cbp
    February 4, 2010

    You’ve become quite the impressive sleuth Tim.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. #3 jakerman
    February 4, 2010

    >*in sceptic circles, people have decided to discuss the end of the IPCC.*

    The weakness of the denialist case is evidenced by the fact that Leake et al need to misrepresent the the situation to build their case.

    Correct the WG2’s glacial melt botch, and you still have [retreating glaciers](http://www.grid.unep.ch/glaciers/img/5-9.jpg). Correct the Leake misrepresentaion and you have still got half of the forest area of the Amazon falling below, or very close to, the critical level of soil moisture below which trees begin to die in 1998.

  4. #4 Nick
    February 4, 2010

    How utterly unsurprising. Well done, Tim.

    Leake concocted a “quote” from background information on data availability on the UEA CRU web site and attributed it as an “admission” by UEA scientists made after and in response to the email theft. The sentence he turned into an “admission” is months older than the event it’s supposed to refer to.

    Check it yourself. Read the first six paras of his Timesonline article “Climate Change Data Dumped” 29/11/09. The sentence in quotation marks in the sixth paragraph is introduced as a “statement on its [CRUs] website” with the clear implication that it is an admission made after the hack. That sentence is the fourth sentence of the fifth paragraph of the data availability page.

    He’s a piece of work,our Jonathan.

  5. #5 cbp
    February 4, 2010

    A bit more info here: http://news.mongabay.com/2010/0204-amazongate.html

    “But Leake’s apparent dismissal of Nepstad’s data isn’t what may get him into trouble. Instead it’s his breach of the Editors’ Code of Practice which requires editors to allow “a fair opportunity for reply.” Andrew Rowell, the lead author of the WWF report who was criticized by Leake, was never contacted by the Sunday Times. “

  6. #6 Mike
    February 4, 2010

    And it just gets better and better!

    I have pointed a few pseudosceptics towards links to the horrifying display of journalistic contempt for the truth we are seeing recently (like Guldberg’s response to the article on the Great Barrier Reef in the Australian), and the silence has been deafening.

    It certainly brings blog comments to a grinding halt, or a quick change of topic!

    Journalists could easily save themselves from this trauma by some simple cross-checking, but many seem to want to leap on the denialist gravy-train at the moment.

  7. #7 Dave
    February 4, 2010

    Loving the continued parody sensationalism, but have a care – if the wind changes, you’ll stay that way.

  8. #8 Tim Lambert
    February 4, 2010

    Thanks cbp. I added an update.

  9. #9 WotWot
    February 4, 2010

    The weakness of the denialist case is evidenced by the fact that Leake et al need to misrepresent the the situation to build their case.

    A statement that can be generalised to the whole AGW denying enterprise. It is actually one of the most damning facts against them (besides the whole scientific evidence thing, of course).

  10. #10 JamesA
    February 4, 2010

    “In sceptic circles, people have decided to discuss the end of the IPCC.”

    They just don’t get it with their ‘shoot the messenger’ logic. You could take away the IPCC tomorrow but it wouldn’t make the colossal amount of published material that it’s based on magically disappear. Policymakers the world over would still need someone to come up with an objective assessment of the state of the science and it would reach exactly the same conclusions.

    Meanwhile, nominations are currently being taken for authors and editors of the upcoming fifth assessment report. The open invitation is hardly what you’d expect from the cliquey, agenda-driven think tank that the deniers like to make it out to be, but doubtless they have plenty of conspiracy theories ready to roll regarding the selection process.

  11. #11 Lars Karlsson
    February 4, 2010

    Its the same pattern all over again: as soon as the “sceptics” get some attention (hacked CRU mails, Himalayan glacier error), they make as much noise as possible about as many things as possible (“hide the decline”, “travesty” etc; “Amazon”, “climber’s magazine” etc).

  12. #12 James Haughton
    February 4, 2010

    Thanks for clearing this up Tim!

  13. #13 Philip Machanick
    February 4, 2010

    A statement that can be generalised to the whole AGW denying enterprise. It is actually one of the most damning facts against them (besides the whole scientific evidence thing, of course).

    Well, yes. Look at it this way. For 1% of the cost of “clean coal” power station ($2-billion x 1% = $20-million) the fossil fuel industry could fund a conclusive study that spiked the whole AGW theory if it were truly bogus. There would be some credibility issues with such a study given the funding source but if it was genuine good science, it would stand up.

    So why do they not do that, and instead fund crackpots and lobbyists?

    Because they’ve done it already. Not exactly in this form perhaps but big fossil fuel has a massive R&D spend with top-rate scientists in their internal labs and, given the threat to their survival, of course they would have had their research labs look into climate science – just as tobacco companies had their labs look into the threat to their industry. It would be absolutely crazy if they didn’t do this.

    So, not a huge stretch to assume big fossil fuel already knows the science is basically sound. That they are [following the tobacco strategy](http://opinion-nation.blogspot.com/2008/06/sound-science-and-climate-change-or.html) of traducing the mainstream absolutely fits.

  14. #14 (((Billy))) the Atheist
    February 4, 2010

    Slightly off topic here (though tangentially related): has anyone published (hopefully for the non-scientist (I am a public labour and industrial historian who was brought up in a science literate home)) a study looking at the tactics and strategies used by the various denialist communities including, but not limited to, evolution, global warming, peak oil, tobacco, and vaccines? Especially the commonalities of both method and funding? If it exists, can someone point me to it? If it does not exist, this would be a great opportunity for a science history writer.

    Good work, Tim. I admire your insight, research, and (most of all) your ability to deal with this day in and day out without going postal.

  15. #15 David Marjanović
    February 4, 2010

    Jonathon Leake recently wrote a story

    The link doesn’t work (404 error), so I can’t check if his parents were really ignorant enough to call him “Jonathon”…

  16. #16 David Marjanović
    February 4, 2010

    …also, I don’t have a blog. Vox.com merely forces me to pretend, and I need it to be able to comment at Pharyngula…

  17. #17 Tim Lambert
    February 4, 2010

    Ok, fine, I fixed the spelling of his name.

  18. #18 SteveF
    February 4, 2010

    The link doesn’t work (404 error), so I can’t check if his parents were really ignorant enough to call him “Jonathon”

    Why would that be ignorant? Plenty of people are called Jonathon; it’s a perfectly valid spelling.

  19. #19 TrueSceptic
    February 4, 2010

    Note that North works with Christopher Booker, one of the most shameless liars of them all.

  20. #20 TrueSceptic
    February 4, 2010

    2 cbp,

    I disagree. “Become”? Tim’s always been good at this. (Got to smarm up to the blog owner every so often. ;) )

  21. #21 Neven
    February 4, 2010

    Very interesting read, thank you.

    “We published an article in 1994 in Nature in which we estimated that approximately half of the forests of the Brazilian Amazon were periodically exposed to severe drought and soil moisture depletion, especially during El Nino events.”

    Just like with the Himalayan glaciers, I most of all wonder: How is it going in the Amazon at the moment, what with the current El Niño and so many years having gone by?

  22. #22 Hank Roberts
    February 4, 2010

    Starting point for (((Billy))):

    this search, as an example (hunt for key words and search using them)
    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&q=actics++“public+health”+tobacco

    First hit from that:
    http://www.scielosp.org/scielo.php?pid=S0042-96862000000700007&script=sci_arttext&tlng=en

    Below the hit articles click the “cited by” number shown to see citing articles, e.g. for that one

    http://scholar.google.com/scholar?cites=6590350152228365514&hl=en&as_sdt=2000

    Good question, and you’ll find plenty written on this. I hope you write up a summary/paper/article and post it.

  23. #23 t_p_hamilton
    February 4, 2010

    Billy,

    A couple of books for you:

    “Doubt is Their Product”

    “Climate Cover-up” written by PR guy James Hoggan

  24. #24 cbp
    February 4, 2010

    How many people here posted a comment on the Times Online site and are still waiting for it to be approved?

  25. #25 (((Billy))) The Atheist
    February 4, 2010

    Hank and T_P_Hamilton: Thanks. This is an area which is not within my normal study realm so I wasn’t too sure where to start. Looks good.

  26. #26 Hunter Cutting
    February 6, 2010

    Hello, great post. Just to fill in all the dots, how do you know that the Richard North Leake cites is the same North at The Bruges group?

  27. #27 Jack Lacton
    February 6, 2010

    It doesn’t matter two jots what Nepstad told you, Tim. The paper was not peer reviewed and thus should not have been relied upon by the IPCC. It’s not a matter of allowing either the WWF or Nepstad a ‘right of reply’ – their paper is simply a typical example of the lies and obfuscation that environmental activist groups undertake – because the issue is with the IPCC and not the WWF.

  28. #28 jakerman
    February 6, 2010

    >*their paper is simply a typical example of the lies and obfuscation that environmental activist groups undertake*

    What lies Jack? That half of the forest area of the Amazon was falling below, or very close to, the critical level of soil moisture below which trees begin to die in 1998? Didn’t they (WWF et al) get that correct?

    Isn’t the lie by Leake, when he deliberately concealed the fact that error in the IPCC was actually a missing cite?

  29. #29 Insert Real Name
    February 19, 2010

    On 27, at the risk of feeding a troll: the idea that all scientific work has to be peer-reviewed in order to be relied upon is another of these recent obsessions that are being thrown around with increasing desperation by the pseudo-sceptics.

    The fact is that there are plenty of non-peer-reviewed sources of scientific data & analysis (e.g. government reports, work by independant contractors, etc.) that simply need a good critical review before being legitimately incorporated into any further work–something which was done by the researcher discussed in this article.

  30. #31 grunt
    February 25, 2010

    From the justification I must assume that el nino is caused by climate change!

  31. #32 jakerman
    February 25, 2010

    >*From the justification I must assume that el nino is caused by climate change!*

    ??? Mmm, ???. WT?

    Can anyone enlighten me what this comment is refering to or what it means?

  32. #33 foram
    February 25, 2010

    jakerman, I believe grunt’s logical reasoning goes something like this:

    Glaciers are receding, especially during summer.

    From the above I must assume that climate change causes summer!

  33. #34 grunt
    February 26, 2010

    first line of article gives statement for reference purpose.
    “up to 40% of the Amazon forest could vanish due to climate change was “bogus”.”
    Next sentence counters that claim
    “and informed him the claim was basically correct:”
    Justification given in inserted reference.
    “half of the forests of the Brazilian Amazon were periodically exposed to severe drought and soil moisture depletion, especially during El Nino events.”
    From this justification, I conclude the El Nino is caused by climate change.

  34. #35 Oxford Kevin
    March 24, 2010

    The Guardian has reported that Simon Lewis another of the forest researcher has not reported Jonathan Leake to the PCC over the Amazongate story.

    [Simon Lewis complains to the PCC about Leake](http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2010/mar/24/sunday-times-ipcc-amazon-rainforest).

    Kevin

  35. #36 lord_sidcup
    March 24, 2010

    @Oxford Kevin #35

    Think you meant to type “has now reported Jonathon” – no matter as the link you provide makes it clear. Good news and I hope other scientists follow his lead and complain about [David Rose](http://scienceblogs.com/deltoid/global_warming/rosegate_1/), [Jonathan Petre](http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1250872/Climategate-U-turn-Astonishment-scientist-centre-global-warming-email-row-admits-data-organised.html), etc. etc.

Current ye@r *