Climate ‘scandals’: Why it’s a storm in a teacup and why the media should be apologising

Today the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) confirmed record levels of decline in Arctic Sea Ice.

So it’s particularly ironic that this conclusion should come on the same day that everybody in the media is fussing about whether or not a handful – of several thousand climate scientists worldwide – may or may not have followed the correct protocols on freedom of information in relation making available their years of research. (In the face of harassment from a denial machine, we should add.)

Needless to say, the scientific evidence of warming is not in doubt as none of the supposed ‘scandals’ undermines any of the actual science.

Indeed, as Left Foot Forward has previously highlighted, even Lawson and Peiser – two of Britain’s most prolific climate sceptics – have acknowledged to Parliament, “This is nothing to do with the basic science, that’s not the issue.”

So to remind you of what is at issue, we’ve summarised (as Realclimate did in more detail some time ago) the main “scandals” of the last few months below.

We should add that not all of the below are within the remit of the Muir Russell inquiry, but we’ve put them all here to really highlight the triviality of the charges in the grand scheme of things … and at the bottom of this blogpost you’ll find news of the latest two ‘climate scandal’ stories to be retracted this week. Time for the media to apologise we’d say …

“Glacier-gate.”

The so-called “glacier-gate” story was about a claim in the findings of Chapter 10 of Working Group II of the 2007 IPCC report. This was an assertion that 80% of the Himalayan glaciers could melt and be gone by 2035.

The IPCC referenced this to a report from the global conservation group, WWF. It later emerged that the evidence for the glacier claim in fact stemmed originally from a speculative comment made by an Indian scientist, Syed Hasnain, in New Scientist magazine in 1999. It was therefore incorrectly referenced.

However, the line in question from the IPCC report was actually just one sentence in nearly 3000 pages, and it was not repeated in the summary of the report produced for policy makers. Equally, it received very little media coverage at the time that IPCC report was originally published. However, it was erroneous. Since most respected glaciologists do not expect Himalayan glaciers would melt until way beyond 2035 it shouldn’t have slipped through the IPCC review process. However, the 2035 claim was not the proper IPCC projection of future glacier decline, which remains valid and can be found in Volume 1 of the IPCC’s report with 45 pages of explanation.

The mistake was spotted and highlighted, not by climate denier activists seeking to sow seeds of doubt about climate science, but by climate scientists themselves. Equally, whilst the glacier claim exaggerates the impact of climate change, other parts of the same IPCC report can be said to underplay the risks posed by the rapid shifts occurring in our climate.

“Amazon-gate.”

So-called “Amazon-gate” was a completely fake scandal, which originated on the website of a well known climate denier, Richard North.

At the centre of this allegation against the IPCC is a line from page 596 of their second Working Group report, which stated that “40% of the Amazon forests could react drastically to even a slight change in precipitation”, potentially being replaced by “ecosystems that have more resistance to multiple stresses caused by temperature increase, droughts and fires, such as tropical savannas.”

The IPCC referenced this claim to a report from the conservation group, WWF. In fact, it originated from a 1999 Nature Paper by scientist, Dan Nepstad. In other words, there was a referencing error.

And that’s all.

Yet climate denier blogger, Richard North, accused the IPCC of making “false predictions on the Amazon rain forests,” of producing “a complete fabrication,” and stated that “the IPCC has grossly exaggerated the effects of global warming on the Amazon rain forest.” Some days later, North’s blog post was picked up by The Sunday Times, which ran a story headlined: UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim.

In fact, that claim was far from “bogus.” The problem was not with the accuracy of the IPCC’s statement, which reflected the peer-reviewed scientific literature – but with the reference that had been attributed to it. (In fact Working Group I of the IPCC repeated the claim but used the correct reference.) A leading tropical forests scientist from Leeds University, Dr. Simon Lewis, who was quoted in the newspaper story, made a complaint against the Sunday Times for misrepresenting his views in their article, which he described as “distorted.” The PCC upheld the complaint, the Sunday Times admitted “the story was flawed” and they have since retracted it.

Sea level in the Netherlands

The Working Group II report of the IPCC states that “The Netherlands is an example of a country highly susceptible to both sea-level rise and river flooding because 55% of its territory is below sea level”. This sentence was provided by a Dutch government agency – the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, which has now published a correction stating that the sentence should have read “55 per cent of the Netherlands is at risk of flooding; 26 per cent of the country is below sea level, and 29 per cent is susceptible to river flooding.”

In fact, the IPCC noted that there are several definitions of the area below sea level. The Dutch Ministry of Transport uses the figure 60% (below high water level during storms), while others use 30% (below mean sea level). Needless to say, the actual number mentioned in the report has no bearing on any IPCC conclusions and has nothing to do with climate science, and it is questionable whether it should even be counted as an IPCC error.

Still the Dutch government launched its own investigation in response to the media hysteria and this week concluded by endorsing the IPCC’s findings.

“Climate-gate”

In November 2009, hackers stole several years’ worth of emails between climate scientists from the server of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia, in an event that was dubbed “climate-gate” by those wanting to sow seeds of doubt about the science of climate change and slow down the transition towards a clean energy economy.

Climate deniers seized upon certain sentences in the emails to try and change public perceptions of climate scientists and their work. In particular they pointed to one line of one email in particular. Scientist Phil Jones, in discussing the presentation of temperature reconstructions, stated:

“I’ve just completed Mike’s Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years (ie from 1981 onwards) and from 1961 for Keith’s to hide the decline.” (emphasis added)

The phrase has been widely spun by self-proclaimed “sceptics” as an effort to prevent the truth getting out that global temperatures had stopped rising. In fact it wasn’t anything of the sort. At the time the email was written in 1999, the world had just experienced the hottest year on record, and a run of record warm years in the warmest decade of the century.

Instead, the decline referred to was an apparent decline in temperatures shown in analysis of tree rings. Tree rings have historically correlated well with changes in temperature, but that relationship has broken down in the past half century. The reasons are still debated among scientists. The “trick” was a graphic device used by Mann in a 1998 paper in Nature to merge tree ring data from earlier times with thermometer data for recent decades, which Mann explained in his paper. Jones was merely repeating it in another paper. It was certainly not clandestine data manipulation, and nor was it a trick to hide global cooling.

Also of note, The Daily Telegraph this week retracted another story that turned out to be bogus about Pachauri’s links to industry. This followed a German newspaper’s report into so-called ‘Africagate’ – which also turned out to be bogus and was retracted. This in turn followed the Sunday Times’ retraction of the ‘Amazongate’ story.

UPDATE 15.49:

World leading climate scientists tell Guardian:

“This was a shameful chapter in the history of news reporting, and a lesson for those who are concerned about fair and honest communication with the public.” Professor Mann says, “We’re currently witnessing the warmest temperatures ever globally, and are in the midst of a record-setting heat wave in the US associated with the warmest early summer temperatures ever.”

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