Africagate: A miracle just happened

The sequence of events is sometimes forgotten; it is wilfully obscured at other times. You might stumble across IPCC damage-control maneuvers saying  “the IPCC Himalayan glacier error was the only mistake, it was just a typo, buried somewhere deep in a 3000 page report”.

When such excuses made its appearance, Richard North showed in characteristic fashion that exaggerations such as Africagate were present in the summary for policymakers (SPM) and the synthesis reports (SYR). Ben Pile broke the story first. But North showed that IPCC chairman RK Pachauri was tugging at heartstrings about ‘Africa’ and its plight, repeatedly, in drumming up climate policy action.

IPCC Summary for Policymakers African crop yields assessment

Section on Africa -IPCC Synthesis report

The various ‘Gate-exposed IPCC errors were not just stray occurrences. Ill-founded exaggerations were found to make their way to the highest pedestals – the IPCC SPM and synthesis reports.

As we have seen before, there is an interesting backstory that developed after North broke the story in full detail. German journalist Irene Meichsner picked up on ‘Africagate’, publishing a full-length story in the newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau. At the time RealClimateer Stefan Rahmstorf was getting increasingly ticked off at the drubbing the consensus was enduring from the IPCC exposés. His point of IPCC defense? ‘The IPCC based its claim on sound science, and described it specifically: only some African countries were to be affected. Its critics make it as though it claimed otherwise.’

Rahmstorf wrote to the editorial board of the newspaper with his grievances, advocating the same kind of thing he does on his Realclimate website (deleting stuff):

I would therefore ask you to publish a correction to the [Meichsner article] or withdraw it completely.

The Frankfurter Rundschau, as though seeking comfort in conformity with the Sunday Times’ action on Amazongate, withdrew the article completely. It published an explanation that must be read to understand the utter simple-mindedness of some who are writing on climate issues in Germany. Rahmstorf no doubt, was overjoyed. He steadily catalogued headlines by news outlets who bought his version of the story on his blog. They ‘quoted me’ – he wrote in one of his updates. How could a single blogger have so much influence over the climate debate? – he had ranted about North on his blog earlier. But now Rahmstorf had gotten back – newspaper editors listened to him. Even the New York Times ran a story. They had listened to Simon Lewis, another scientist, over the Amazongate affair. The climate ‘street fight’ was in full swing and the scientists it seemed were winning.

That Moroccan author Agoumi Ali had penned a review and not conducted an actual study, that her article was based on computer model projections for just three African countries, that two of these models actually projected crop yield increases, that the work was funded through the UNFCCC which is the parent organization of the very IPCC assessing her evidence, that it was not published in the peer-reviewed literature (which was a big thing those days remember), that the crop yield decreases were for droughts, and that vast uncertainties remained on scientists’ ability to predict droughts in Africa –  did not bother Rahmstorf much.

Now here is where the miracle occurs. Rahmstorf in his zeal to protect the IPCC wrote two inflammatory blog posts. The journalist Irene Meichsner did not take it lying down. She sued (yes, you heard that right). That is the first miracle.  A Cologne court heard arguments and ruled in her favour and reprimanded the newspaper for withdrawing the article. That is the second miracle. Rahmstorf has been ordered to pay Meichsner 511.58 euros ‘plus interest and two-thirds of the cost of the legal dispute’.

In the aftermath a quite-extraordinary article has appeared in the WPK Quarterly website. Titled: Ideology and Climate Change: How to silence journalists, it takes a long hard look at the whole Rahmstorf-Meichsner story. The author’s conclusions are worth taking in:

This particular case deserves special attention first of all because a freelance journalist has successfully defended herself against the malice a renowned scientist poured on her. It may motivate other journalists not to put up with absolutely everything in disputes over the quality of their work but to defend themselves, even if this involves an enormous effort.

The notion that one can deal with media coverage of science in the role of the scientific expert merely by invoking a true-false category would be widely agreed upon. However, this particular case illustrates that scientists have to negotiate difficult terrain, which may hold risks for their own credibility.

The article ventures into territory your correspondent is quite familiar with the Amazongate story. Why did the Frankfurter Rundschau abruptly withdraw the story, just as the Sunday Times did with Jonathan Leake’s Amazon article? (emphasis mine)

Nonetheless, it is astonishing that the FR should so demonstratively and publicly distance itself from its own article. In this case, a brief correction would certainly have sufficed. As it is, one cannot fail to get the impression that a daily newspaper is employing a grand gesture to disassociate itself from its own critical article at the behest of a renowned scientist without having verified the objections raised by the scientist first. The readers get the impression that the editors consider the article to be false because the facts are not correct. Thus in addition to the mistake in the heading, the editors make a second, and from my point of view, much more serious error: it is not the facts themselves that are the problem, but how they are interpreted. It is strange that the FR seems to have made no effort to defend the core information in its own article against a poorly substantiated criticism.

Der Speigel was equally mystified as well. They got no answer from the newspaper:

Why the “FR” acted thus, remains open. Upon request by SPIEGEL ONLINE, the main editorial office did not respond.

Rahmstorf has long known to be involved in similar actions. He seems to specialize in writing to department heads complaining of their subordinates’ skeptical actions. This 2007 article (titled: The ruthless methods of climatologist Rahmstorf) contains a fairly long list of his moves.

With the Climategate emails I and II, one can see how a small coterie of activist-scientists concerned themselves with climate issues  in the media, using every available opportunity and venue to directly influence it. Journalists, not trained in the science appear to get a sense of empowerment being on talking terms with these scientists, emailing them for feedback, direction and a sense of approval. Interacting closely with such members, the scientists seem to develop a sense of entitlement, that they and only they can dictate the contours and course of the climate debate in its broadest terms. It seems they forget, that journalists are independent actors too, who may actually dig into their claims and peer behind the curtain. When it does happen all hell breaks loose.

‘RealClimate author found guilty in court’. I like the sound of that.

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3 comments

  1. SayNoToFearmongers

    ‘RealClimate author found guilty in court’

    It won’t be the last time we read this.

  2. Pingback: Vysychání Sahary a Sahelu – mýtus a skutečnost « AntiMELOUN
  3. flyingtigercomics

    Reblogged this on Flying Tiger Comics and commented:
    Rahmstorf has long known to be involved in similar actions. He seems to specialize in writing to department heads complaining of their subordinates’ skeptical actions. This 2007 article (titled: The ruthless methods of climatologist Rahmstorf) contains a fairly long list of his moves.