American media are still missing in action on the controversy currently embroiling the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In addition to the criticisms related to glaciers and natural disasters, the IPCC came under fire last week for a statement in its 2007 report that said 40 percent of the Amazon is vulnerable to even a small change in rainfall.
“The source for its claim,” according to a succinct explanation in The Sunday Times, “was a report from WWF, an environmental pressure group, which was authored by two green activists. They had based their ‘research’ on a study published in Nature, the science journal, which did not assess rainfall but in fact looked at the impact on the forest of human activity such as logging and burning. This weekend WWF said it was launching an internal inquiry into the study.”
Having read the 1999 study published in Nature, that seems like a fairly accurate description of the situation. However, the Sunday Telegraph reported that when it contacted the study’s authors, “they expressed surprise that their research was not cited directly but said the IPCC had accurately represented their work.” If that is indeed the case, elaboration is needed—because the focus of their study is most definitely logging and burning, not rainfall.
On the other hand, much as the error related to Himalayan glaciers does not mean there is no reason to worry about them, this blunder related to the Amazon does not mean there is no reason to worry about the rainforest.
As BBC environment analyst Roger Harrabin noted in a Friday blog post, citing WWF’s report on the Amazon was a “blunder perhaps, but maybe of a different kind, because there is indeed plenty of published science warning about drought in the Amazon.”
Simon Lewis, a geographer from Leeds University who studies human impact on tropical forests, intimated to Harrabin (and was more explicit with The Sunday Times) that the IPCC should not have cited the WWF report. On the other hand, Lewis said, “It is very well known that in Amazonia, tropical forests exist when there is more than about 1.5 metres of rain a year, below that the system tends to ‘flip’ to savannah.”
This is exactly why the American media needs to get the lead out and start paying attention to this story. The IPCC is undergoing a major crisis in public confidence (on Monday, The Independent—yet another British paper covering this story—reported that the British government has officially voiced its concerns about the IPCC to the panel’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri) and, because the disparate areas of climate science are so complicated, it has been altogether too easy for some critics to throw good science out with the bad.
The BBC’s Harrabin had another post on Monday reflecting on the challenges journalists have faced in telling the IPCC story:
Commenting on climate change for the popular media is a miserable business - especially when it involves attempting to convey subtle and complex information whilst being interviewed live…
What we need is a new discourse which acknowledges the majority view on climate science, accepts uncertainties and encourages debate among scientists over their observations of the world - a debate framed in the language of risk and uncertainty in which economics and societal values play a central role.
Will we see such a debate? Don’t bet on it. There is more fun to be had for some journalists when combatants are throwing bricks at each other. The pity is that it’s public understanding of climate change that’s being damaged, and maybe the planet as well.
I couldn’t have written it better myself.
[Update: Harrabin posted another excellent column on Wednesday, exploring (and questioning) various proposals to reform the IPCC. Suggestions have included replacing its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, including more skeptical viewpoints in its next report, creating more full-time positions on the panel, altering the timing of its reports, and changing its guidelines for the use of “grey literature” (non-peer-reviewed information) among others. Appropriately, Harrabin advised caution on all these matters, warning that some changes could make the panel worse. In particular, he expressed doubts that the “manhunt” for Pachauri would “produce a better system of climate science.”]Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.