Sunday Times opens another gate

By Bryan Walker 09/02/2010

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The Agoumi paper with which this sentence is referenced is apparently not peer-reviewed.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  But not only is it not peer reviewed, it is a policy paper written in 2003 for the International Institute for Sustainable Development, a Canadian think tank.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.