Friday, July 2nd 2010, 5:52 PM EDT
Challenging climate sceptics is good sport but we're in danger of forgetting the deadly serious matter at hand
Well this becomes more entertaining by the moment. Those who staked so much on the "Amazongate" story, only to see it turn round and bite them, are now digging a hole so deep that they will soon be able to witness a possible climate change scenario at first hand, as they emerge, shovels in hand, in the middle of the Great Victoria Desert.
Here's the story so far. In January the rightwing blogger Richard North claimed that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had "grossly exaggerated the effects of global warming on the Amazon rain forest". In 2007 the Panel had claimed that "up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation". Reduced rainfall could rapidly destroy the forests, which would be replaced with ecosystems "such as tropical savannahs."
North asserted that this "seems to be a complete fabrication", though see this update too. His story was picked up by hundreds of other climate change deniers, some of whom went so far as to claim that it destroyed global warming theory. It was also run by the Sunday Times, which headlined its report "UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim".
Two weeks ago the Sunday Times published a complete retraction. That, you might think, would be the end of the matter. How wrong you would be. Far from accepting that they had made a mistake, the promoters of this story now seem determined to compound it. On Sunday our old friend Christopher Booker asserted that "an exhaustive trawl through all the scientific literature on this subject by my colleague Dr Richard North (who was responsible for uncovering "Amazongate" in the first place), has been unable to find a single study which confirms the specific claim made by the IPCC's 2007 report … all observed evidence indicates that the forest is much more resilient to climate fluctuations than the alarmists would have us believe."
There is no doubt that the IPCC made a mistake. Sourcing its information on the Amazon to a report by the green group WWF rather than the substantial peer-reviewed literature on the subject, was a bizarre and silly thing to do. It is also an issue of such mind-numbing triviality, in view of the fact that the IPCC's 2007 reports extend to several thousand pages and contain tens of thousands of references, that I feel I should apologise for taking up more of your time in pursuing it. But the climate change deniers have made such a big deal of it that it cannot be ignored.
It is also true that nowhere in the peer-reviewed literature is there a specific statement that "up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation". This figure was taken from the WWF report and it shouldn't have been.
But far from "grossly exaggerating" the state of the science in 2007, as North claimed, the IPCC – because it referenced the WWF report, not the peer-reviewed literature – grossly understated it. The two foremost peer-reviewed papers on the subject at the time of the 2007 report were both published in Theoretical and Applied Climatology. The references are below. They are cited throughout the literature on Amazon dieback.
What do they tell us? That the projection in the IPCC's report falls far, far short of the predicted impacts on the Amazon.
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