"Amazongate" evaporates as newspaper apologises for story

Posted on 21 June 2010    
Certified Amazonian rainforest
© Edward Parker, WWF
London, UK:   A key element of the concerted attack on climate science earlier this year collapsed yesterday, with The Sunday Times apologizing for and withdrawing an article alleging that estimates of climate change risks to the Amazon were based on an “unsubstantiated claim” in a WWF report.

The apology, coming almost five months after the article was published, followed complaints to the UK Press Complaints Commission from leading tropical forest ecologist Dr Simon Lewis, who was interviewed for the article and WWF report authors Andy Rowell and Dr Peter Moore.

The Sunday Times accepted that assessments of risk to the Amazon in both the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report and a WWF/International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) report on forest fires were not unsubstantiated, but based on peer-reviewed science.

The article did not give a “fair or accurate account” of the views of Dr Lewis and was inconsistent with the research literature he had provided.

Nor were the authors of the 2000 WWF/IUCN global report on forest fires “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise”. The paper said “We also now understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary”.

"This retraction hopefully indicates that after a period of some hysteria, balance and consideration is being restored to the media's reporting of climate science,” said WWF-UK’s head of climate change, Keith Allott.

“Earlier this year we witnessed a concerted attempt to discredit both the IPCC and the whole body of climate science - and too often certain media seemed to write the headline first and then construct a story to fit it. The media are right to challenge and to hold all claims to account, but in this case their story was just not fair or true."

"As we said in a letter published by The Sunday Times at the time, misleading coverage in respected media outlets can serve to undermine public confidence in the credibility of climate science.

“The reality is that we are running out of time to head off the huge risks that climate change poses, not just to the Amazon but to the rest of the world."

Recent Stanford University research found a majority of US and UK citizens solidly behind action on climate change, with views little affected by the now rapidly unraveling spate of attacks on climate science.

The correction published by the Sunday Times reads:

The Sunday Times and the IPCC: Correction

The article "UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim" (News,
Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
(IPCC) report had included an "unsubstantiated claim" that up to 40% of
the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall.
The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for WWF by Andrew
Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as "green
campaigners" with "little scientific expertise." The article also stated
that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that
dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed
scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in
error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected
Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the
impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell
is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an
expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by
Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of
Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that,
in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both
the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed
scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time,
including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does
not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’
statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to
droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use
of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of
those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis
holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of
non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and
unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s
understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article
that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing
and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these
points. We apologise for this.

The original article to which this correction refers has been removed

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© Edward Parker, WWF Enlarge

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