Amazongate: ‘Drastic’ changes required in IPCC report

Amazongate is only an error of improper referencing, the actual science behind the key claim is sound”. This is the message that has been hammered home repeatedly by experts involved in Amazon forest research. In their press releases, letters of complaint and blog posts, they have refused to concede something might be wrong with the report, and argued that journalists should have performed in-depth research before bringing any disrepute to the IPCC.

Even as we search high and low only to conclude that the exact claim does not appear to supported by the literature available to date, another argument has been advanced simultaneously in defence of the IPCC.  It says that the scientific evidence, the crucial pieces that go to make up this claim, bizarre though it might be, lie in many different papers. The IPCC report just brings them together – it paints an integrated picture of the trouble the Amazon region is in. So the defense of the IPCC is bi-layered. The science behind the imminent catastrophic destruction of the Amazon forests is true, and the IPCC makes a synthetic judgement to this effect. The only flaw is therefore one of citations.

The IPCC makes available its first order and second order drafts and reviewer comments. The question is: do these drafts and comments carry any indications or clues to the scientific summation and thinking process that is alleged to have taken place?

Genealogy of the IPCC Amazon rainforest ‘40%’ claim.

Let use first examine the passage in question through the drafts, in sequence.

The first order draft (FOD) text

Forty percent of the Amazonian forests could react sensibly to a slight reduction of precipitation; this could mean that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America, may change very rapidly to another steady state not necessarily producing gradual changes between the actual and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000).
(Available at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR4/FOD/Ch13_FOD.pdf, page 25, )

Reviewer Comments on the first order draft

By December of 2005, reviewer comments on the first order draft were made available to authors. This document reveals an illuminating comment from Jos Barlow, then at the University of East Anglia (yes, the UEA). Referring to the paragraph by its first line, he writes:

Forests that burn once become more vulnerable to a recurrent and more severe fire. These fire related positive feedbacks can shift relatively prisine tropical forest to bamboo dominated scrub savannahs in just 12 years (e.g. Cochrane et al. 1999, Barlow and Peres 2004. Cochrane (2001 Environment 43, 28-38) estimates that 259,000km2 of Amazonian forests are vulnerable to such a recurrent fires, which have disastrous consequences for biodiversity (Barlow and Peres 2004). Such drastic changes deserve a mention in this report.
(Available at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR4/FOD_COMMS/Ch13_FOD_comments.pdf, Page 113)

The authors’ respond that the comment is ‘accepted’.

The second order draft (SOD) text

Forty percent of the Amazonian forest could react drastically even to a slight reduction of precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America, could change very rapidly to another steady state no necessarily producing gradual changes between the actual and the future situation (Rowell and More, 2000).
(Available at http://ipcc-wg2.gov/AR4/SOD/Ch13.pdf, page 23)

The final IPCC Chapter 13 text

Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation (Rowell and Moore, 2000).

Analysis

Compare the first, second and final versions –  the significant change, really is just the addition of the word ‘drastic’. If it was indeed accepted, the authors seem to have incorporated Barlow’s suggestion about forest fires into a single muddled, exaggerated sentence about precipitation effects. In the FOD, the authors appear to use “sensibly”, to mean something that is appreciable or measurable. This, suddenly changes to ‘drastically’, in the second draft.

This is then, the change that results in the ‘oversell’ of the Amazon precipitation sensitivity. The word ‘drastic’ ratchets up the rhetorical implication of the sentence, but the same WWF reference remains cited.

More importantly, contrary to what many have suggested, it does not seem, that a statement was formulated assessing all available literature at the time. The sentence in question remained virtually unchanged through the drafts (except for the ‘drastic’ addition), it referred to the same WWF report through three different versions.

Several experts have offered a stream of citations supporting this badly written statement. If eminent scientists believe that their many references to peer-reviewed papers support this overstretched IPCC judgement – with the above facts in mind, a call must go out for the IPCC to make an official correction and rewrite the passage accordingly. just as it did with the Himalayan glaciers. In an official document of this stature, one hopes that a key passage such as this, will accurately match the literature it is supposedly substantiated by.

The IPCC claim is tri-fold: first, that a large proportion (40%) of the entire Amazon forest will be ‘affected’,  second, that the ‘reaction’ would be drastic, as in sudden, and severe, and third, that this drastic reaction’ could be caused by ‘even’ a ‘slight’ reduction of rainfall, not drought-type conditions. Making exaggerated claims and propping them up, after the fact only diminishes trust in the process. Calling for a correction would have been better than blaming journalists and bloggers, without whom, the experts and the much-vaunted IPCC peer-review did not even recognize these errors. The reviewers comments stands a testimony to this fact.

Update (27th June, ’10) : Bishop Hill points out that the Sunday Times withdrew their Jonathan Leake article without an adjudication by the PCC

Update (28th June, ’10): Icecap and Climatedepot link here; Icecap has graphs of decreasing deforestation and Amazon biomass trend

Anthony Watts links here,with an excerpt going straight to the heart of the matter

Dan Nepstad posts in the same thread, in the comments section.

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23 comments

  1. Willis Eschenbach

    Good stuff, Shub. One other change worth noting. In the first draft it says:

    … this could mean that the tropical vegetation …

    In the second draft this becomes:

    … this means that the tropical vegetation …

  2. pesadilla

    i came to your blog from your post Willis Eschenbach’s explanation of amazongate. I think you are both to be congratulated for a clear and concise explanation of this story. I feel now, that i am in a position to discuss the issue with a degree of confidence. Many thanks to you both. Keep up the objective work.

  3. twawki

    The IPCC fraud continues and the WWF and environmentalists are complicit in it. Until they argue with facts they will only end up with egg on their faces.

  4. Pete H

    There is one certainty about all this Shub, Monbiot must be wishing he had kept his mouth shut. Wonderful when a plan blows up in ones face, Dellingpole must be double up with laughter!

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  6. cbp

    There are a number of things that you and your commenters miss here.

    In regards to Willis Eschenbach first comment: the word ‘could’ has simply been moved to a later position in the sentence, a fact which your truncated quote doesn’t show. The word ‘could’ seems incorrectly placed in the first draft, which must be why it was moved in the second. The paragraph’s second sentence explains the meaning of the first sentence. The author knows what the first sentence means because he wrote it, so it is not necessary for him to say what it ‘could mean’.

    Secondly, you fail to note that the final draft was also watered down with the phrase ‘up to 40%’, rather than simply ‘40%’, which seems to be a correction made in your favour.

    Thirdly, I’m not sure if I understand the nefariousness that you imply behind the use of the word ‘drastic’. A reviewer wrote in highlighting the fact that the paragraph was too conservative in its assessment. The author chose to implement this advice by removing the rather jarring and meaningless term ‘sensible’.

    With leads me to the fourth point – I don’t think that “sensible” means “measured” (as in “restrained”) in this case. That meaning would require the author to be mentally anthropomorphizing the forest as he wrote, which I doubt he was doing. Neither do I think it means “appreciable”, whatever that would entail… Actually I’m not sure what “sensible” is supposed to mean, which is why it seems like a worthy candidate for removal in the final draft.

    I don’t disagree that the statement was badly worded and should have been better cited. Unlike the glacier paragraph however, this paragraph has received widespread support from the science community. Being badly worded is not justification at this stage, 3 years after the publication of the report, for a correction. Particularly when the call for a correction seems to be a final grasp at some political point scoring, and, like similar minor corrections, would be echoed around the denialosphere as evidence that the IPCC report has been ‘legally debunked’ or some such other exaggeration.

    Poor wording certainly doesn’t justify the bloodthirsty ‘She’s a witch!’ cries that your commenters engage in, and it certainly didn’t justify Delingpole’s rubbish.

  7. cbp

    And, preempting future comments:

    In regards to the nitpicking about the 40%, I agree that the ‘40%’ doesn’t appear to have been derived directly from peer-reviewed literature, and so technically the Sunday Times’s correction contained an error itself, but then again we wouldn’t expect the Sunday Times to be very good at getting things right, would we.

    Regardless, there does appear to be support from the scientific community that ‘up to 40%’ is a sensible figure (bearing in mind that 40% is an upper bound) and that less conservative figures have been published in the peer-reviewed literature.

  8. Shub Niggurath

    Dear cbp:
    Thanks for your observations.

    Firstly let me say that I do agree with you in broad strokes.

    Specifically, I do understand the position of the scientists/experts who face a claim of this kind published first in the Sunday Times. Admitting the error might mean playing into the hands of those who seek to discredit the IPCC report (rightly or otherwise). Supporting the IPCC statement would mean standing behind a ‘badly worded’ poorly referenced statement made three years back which would also make the IPCC and the scientists’ case weak.

    The situation is ridiculous and I wholly place the blame on the IPCC process for putting the scientists in question, in this fix. They keep harping about thousands of pages and scientists, can they not spare a few words for the Amazon, that all the nuance had to be crammed into a statement of this kind?

    Now, as a scientist involved in Amazon research (I simply assume this, you might not be too), this may be a painful thing to acknowledge – that the IPCC which is certainly a labor of love should bring about this situation, but it has happened.

    The word ‘sensible’ is certainly a bigger problem than the word ‘drastic’. Neither do I think the author meant ‘restrained’. I do believe there is a case to be made, for it to mean ‘appreciable’, as in, “after reduction of precipitation, such and such vegetation changes were observed’ or something to that effect.

    It is however, plain lazy, and unfortunate perhaps, that this eminently removable word ended up being replaced by a word ‘drastic’ for three reasons. Firstly, it introduces a quantitative angle which was previously not there, secondly it appears to have been triggered by a reviewer comment in the context of drastic changes brought about by fire which is left out.

    Thirdly the introduction of the word for one reason – presumably arising from Barlow’s comment regarding fires, – modifies and ‘upgrades’ the climatic impact meaning of the otherwise untouched same sentence referenced to the same document. What satisfactory explanation is possible here?

    To summarize, the word drastic does not seem to have entered this sentence after a matter of careful consideration of climatic-precipitation impacts at all, yet such a conclusion is actively supported.

    I would also like to point out that experts like Lewis who have been vocal in supporting the statement have at least admitted hypothetically that different interpretations are possible. They have then gone on to state that what the IPCC were talking about was obviously climatic regimes with slightly reduced rainfall (which logically will find widespread scientific support). But in this meaning, there is scope for contradiction with the claim of ‘drastic changes’. It also leads to other issues whereby there is support in the literature for the notion that climate alone will not have such a drastic impact – and this notion is not considered by the statement.

    Therefore, I cannot agree with you that the “paragraph has recieved widespread support from the science community” or just of “bad” wording. The widespread support has come mainly from certain research groups which cite the latest research, but the issue at hand is a different one.

    Amazongate had died or quietened down to its natural level, when Monbiot, the New York Times blog, RealClimate, Deltoid and Newsweek tried to capitalize on the Times retraction (on journalistic and other grounds) and imply that the IPCC was vindicated. This is the trigger. The ‘denialosphere’ did not start dancing on its own.

    Although you use terms such as ‘denialosphere’, which I would strongly suggest avoiding, these media and blog outlets are vast in their reach and funding. Compared to them, the few bloggers who re-examined the issue are miniscule that you can term us ‘denialo-marble’. My questions to suggest that all did not seem well, to a prominent AGW proponent website, were delayed for abut two days.

    I would like to point out that the Amazon issue is similar to the glacier issue in one respect. Amazongate was outed when people went looking for WWF references in the IPCC report. It is difficult to get away from that.

    I would also like to say that unlike Glaciergate and the stonewalling, with the Amazon, the researchers have been active in meeting the claims, countering them or offering explanations, even it be belatedly. Why that is so, is a matter of conjecture. But this is a positive development.

    The call for a correction will persist – I believe the scientists themselves should ask for it. Personally I do not care for a correction – I am nobody to ask for one. Others obviously have a different take. If the IPCC screwed up, there will be blowback.

    Delingpole’s observations are always spot-on, you may think it rubbish but it is rubbish that finds the right spot.

    Regards

  9. cbp

    The take away point, is that if the paragraph was clarified and reworded it would probably end up saying essentially the same thing. At this point, I think you would have to agree that unless one is particularly interested in such trivia, this is not worth much further attention. There are bigger fish to fry.

    In regards, to ‘denialsphere’: I use this term mostly to refer to trolls and commenters, plus the grossly exaggerated and maliciously false writings of non-experts such as Delingpole; bloggers such as yourself who do make an attempt to analyze and rationalize your thoughts are not necessarily included under this pejorative’s umbrella.

    However, I note that you continue to use the term ‘Amazongate’ which implies deliberate nefariousness and criminal activity. You also allow accusations of fraud to be published in your comments. These are disgusting, baseless, defamatory exaggerations of what amounts to, at worst, typos and laziness by an IPCC author summarizing the work of others (nothing in comparison to Delingpole’s article). By all means, call for more thorough processes and less emotive language, but ditch the senseless and unbecoming fraud nonsense.

  10. Shub Niggurath

    Dear cbp:
    w.r.t your comment above:

    The IPCC statement is problematic on two main counts – citation of environmental pressure group literature and a claim that is unsupported by the literature in the form that the claim has been made.

    When such issues are examined, it always boils down to words because words are what are used to make these claims. It is then disingenuous to say that it is only a matter of words and therefore trivial. Scientific accuracy is what it is, there is no bargaining.

    I’ve checked all public statements made supporting the IPCC paragraph. Not a single one reiterates what the IPCC says. The message any observer gets from this that the experts, as you rightly point out, support the general thrust of the IPCC statement, but, not the specific claim. There is no one citation in the peer-reviewed literature that can be placed instead of Rowell and Moore (2000) and lend credence to it.

    As a researcher, I understand all to well, how things get written in a report of this type. So while I share with you the frustration that such a big mountain is being made of what appears to you as a molehill of a few words, let us remember that there are people lined up to throw their weight behind each and every claim in the IPCC, to implement far-reaching policies.

    The issue is non-trivial for this reason as well

    We pay attention to issues when they are current and lie unresolved and then we move on. Contrary to what Monbiot claimed for example, the IPCC is not ‘vindicated’.

    With respect to the comments, I am afraid you have it entirely wrong. I see you calling Delingplole ideas as ‘rubbish’, but yet as I made clear, I do not think so. Does that warrant that delete or ditch your comments? Everyone gets to express their opinion.

  11. Shub Niggurath

    Yes, Amazongate is shorthand. Just as Climategate. It is a cliche – don’t try to overcook it to imply ‘criminal’ activity and such.

  12. TomFP

    I think the title of the piece is casually subsuming all warmist peccadillos under the generic term “Climategate”. In doing so it unintentionally advances the sceptical position, since a major plank of the warmist response to scientific errors has been that they are just that, innocent errors, unconnected with one another, and certainly not closely related components of a deceitful narrative.

  13. allen mcmahon

    It speaks volumes that in a Yale 360 opinion piece in April 2010 Dr P changes horses in favor of the die-back theory championed by Cox, Betts, Huntingford etc. They have merely gone from trying to justify what was an ill-considered statement to embracing what is a highly controversial hypothesis. If the IPCC had admitted the error Amazongate (I really hate gates tius gates that) it would have been forgotten within days. By embracing what is the most alarming scenario for the Amazon particularly one that flies in the face of observed climate trends in the Amazon and one that has little support outside the modeling community the IPCC manages to turn a minor embarrassment into a PR nightmare. I the IPCC needs to realistically present the science or it should be disbanded.

  14. Shub Niggurath

    That is the key.

    Why do these good scientists, after admitting several times over that the statement is poorly worded, bizarre, unreferenced etc etc, refuse to let go of it and ask the IPCC to issue a correction?

    The only conclusion is that, accidentally, this IPCC statement lends support to more alarmist scenarios and remedial measures which need the support. These remedial measures are incidentally supported by the very organization WWF, which was the source of this bizarre statement.

    Pachauri’s credibility tanked because of two things – conflict of interest questions he couldn’t answer and his abysmal handling of the Himalayan glaciers error. It is the Amazon experts this time, who seem to be determined in going down the same road.

  15. allen mcmahon

    I think that until recently there were few people who would assess and challenge IPCC findings and they now have to accept that each statement will be subject to vigorous scrutiny. This implies that they must present a balanced view of the science rather than hyping up an issue for political reasons or there reputation will be damaged beyond salvage. This applies equally to scientists in terms of their claims. For example I find it rather sad that Dan Nepstad who has made a substantial contribution to our knowledge of the Amazon developed a hypothesis for the WWF based on environmental and political considerations rather than science. For most skeptics he will be defined by Amazongate and not recognized for his scientific achievements.
    While most skeptics howl for the down-throw of the high profile scientists supporting the CAGW hypothesis they should be careful of what they wish for. Should the hypothesis collapse it is possible that funding for climate science will reduce dramatically when we continued research to better understand the factors that dramatically influence our lives. While I consider that some of the criticism leveled at some climate scientists is deserved their achievements should also be acknowledged.

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