This is a big post in two parts. The first is our take on the current story about the Himalayan glaciers. The second is a similar case of non-scientific research being passed off as ‘science’.
A story in the Sunday Times demonstrates the murky nature of the process by which ‘scientific facts’ become established in the climate debate.
Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world’s glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.
In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC’s 2007 report.
The No Scientist has, in recent years, become something of an organ of the environmental movement, abandoning cool, rational, empirical scientific detachment for high moral tones, shrill alarmist stories, and a rather one-sided treatment of both the politics and science of the climate debate. No surprises here – we’ve covered the NS’s appalling commentary in many previous posts. What is interesting is how the partiality of science journalists exists as part of its own positive-feedback mechanism, such that oversight turns into ‘scientific fact’. So how does a journalist’s credulousness actually produce ‘consensus science’?
The original article by the celebrated New Scientist environmental correspondent, Fred Pearce was published in 1999. It reported that,
“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating,” says Syed Hasnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, the chief author of the ICSI report. A typical example is the Gangorti glacier at the head of the River Ganges, which is retreating at a rate of 30 metres per year. Hasnain’s four-year study indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.”
In 2005, the WWF, published its report, An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China. It cited Pearce’s article.
The New Scientist magazine carried the article “Flooded Out – Retreating glaciers spell disaster for valley communities” in their 5 June 1999 issue. It quoted Professor Syed Hasnain, then Chairman of the International Commission for Snow and Ice’s (ICSI) Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology, who said most of the glaciers in the Himalayan region “will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming”. The article also predicted that freshwater flow in rivers across South Asia will “eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages”.
In 2007, the IPCC cites the WWF
Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 km2 by the year 2035 (WWF, 2005).
This process is what we have called, ‘Chinese Whispers’, after the party game of the same name. Ambiguity, caveats, and uncertainty get removed from scientific research through citation, especially across discipline areas, and when passed between the social and material sciences. Certainty is amplified; the context of scientific research is lost, rendering it meaningless. Why is the IPCC citing the WWF as a source of scientific data, when first, the WWF is neither a scientific, nor a research organisation, but has a specific agenda, and second, when it has the work of an entire working group (WGI) dedicated to providing the ‘scientific basis’, to call upon?
The Times quotes Pearce,
The IPCC’s reliance on Hasnain’s 1999 interview has been highlighted by Fred Pearce, the journalist who carried out the original interview for the New Scientist. Pearce said he rang Hasnain in India in 1999 after spotting his claims in an Indian magazine. Pearce said: “Hasnain told me then that he was bringing a report containing those numbers to Britain. The report had not been peer reviewed or formally published in a scientific journal and it had no formal status so I reported his work on that basis.”
So Pearce apparently found the claims sufficiently interesting, even though they appeared to have no basis in science. Pearce continues:
“Since then I have obtained a copy and it does not say what Hasnain said. In other words it does not mention 2035 as a date by which any Himalayan glaciers will melt. However, he did make clear that his comments related only to part of the Himalayan glaciers. not the whole massif.”
It is not clear when, since 1999, Pearce found a copy of Hasnain’s report. We haven’t found any attempt to address his mistake. Reflecting on the error in a recent edition of the New Scientist, Pearce says,
Despite the 10-year-old New Scientist report being the only source, the claim found its way into the IPCC fourth assessment report published in 2007. Moreover the claim was extrapolated to include all glaciers in the Himalayas.
Writing on the BBC’s website, Indian Journalist, Pallava Bagla, points out that the IPCC reproduced the error,
The IPCC relied on three documents to arrive at 2035 as the “outer year” for shrinkage of glaciers.
They are: a 2005 World Wide Fund for Nature report on glaciers; a 1996 Unesco document on hydrology; and a 1999 news report in New Scientist.
Incidentally, none of these documents have been reviewed by peer professionals, which is what the IPCC is mandated to be doing.
Since Pearce’s mistake in 1999, he has written many books on the climate issue.
- Last Generation – How Nature Will Take Her Revenge for Climate Change
- When the Rivers Run Dry: What Happens When Our Water Runs Out?
- Confessions of an Eco Sinner: Travels to Find Where My Stuff Comes from
- The Coming Population Crash: And Our Planet’s Surprising Future
- With Speed and Violence : Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change
- The Big Green Book
- Earth Then and Now: Potent Visual Evidence of Our Changing World
- Fragile Earth: Views of a Changing World
- Deep Jungle: Journey to the Heart of the Rainforest
- Keepers of the Spring: Reclaiming Our Water in an Age of Globalization
- Regis: Regional Climate Change Impact and Response Studies in East Anglia and North West England
- Turning Up the Heat
Before his 1999 article, he penned,
- Ian and Fred’s Big Green Book
- Green Warriors: The People and the Politics behind the Environmental Revolution.
- ADVENTURES AT THE ZOO
- Turning Up The Heat – Our Perilous Future In The Global Greenhouse
- Dammed, the:Rivers, Dams and the Coming World Water Crisis
- Acid Rain (Penguin Special)
- Turning Up the Heat: Our Perilous Future in the Global Greenhouse
- Global Warming
- Watershed: Collapse of Britain’s Water Supply
- Greenprint for Action
- Climate and Man: From the Ice Ages to the Global Greenhouse
- Climate change impacts in the UK
It is inconceivable that as prolific a writer on the climate as Pearce can be unaware of the influence of his error. It is more than obvious that Pearce has a political agenda that exists prior to ‘the science’ he reports. This prior-ness is something we have emphasised here on Climate Resistance as fundamental to understanding the phenomenon of environmentalism: the disaster scenario is the premise of environmental politics, not the conclusion of environmental science. Once this premise is accepted, so to speak, a priori, the conclusion becomes a given; the ‘science’ is almost immaterial, it merely gives numbers to what is already given.
It does not stretch the imagination, then, to suggest that Pearce was happy to overlook the lack of scientific foundations in Hasnain’s 1999 report, and happy for the error to be amplified, and reproduced firstly by the WWF, and then by the IPCC.
Happy that is, until now. The 11 January New Scientist article, which carries his name, speaks about himself as “a journalist”, as though he had nothing to do with it.
However, the lead author of the IPCC chapter, Indian glaciologist Murari Lal, told New Scientist he “outright rejected” the notion that the IPCC was off the mark on Himalayan glaciers. “The IPCC authors did exactly what was expected from them,” he says.“We relied rather heavily on grey [not peer-reviewed] literature, including the WWF report,” Lal says. “The error, if any, lies with Dr Hasnain’s assertion and not with the IPCC authors.”
But Hasnain rejects that. He blames the IPCC for misusing a remark he made to a journalist. “The magic number of 2035 has not [been] mentioned in any research papers written by me, as no peer-reviewed journal will accept speculative figures,” he told New Scientist.
It might have been more appropriate for Pearce to use the word “me”, and accept his role in this brouhaha.
But for the moment, at least he seems to be thinking about the process he is a small part of. His latest article demonstrates the rifts that are emerging in the wake of the affair.
Glaciologists are this week arguing over how a highly contentious claim about the speed at which glaciers are melting came to be included in the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Glaciologists, it seems, are now at odds with IPCC chairman Rajendra Pachauri.
The IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, has hit back, denouncing the Indian government report as “voodoo science” lacking peer review.
Yet, clearly, following the words of Lal, about using non-peer-reviewed literature, Pachauri, on behalf of the IPCC has some serious questions to answer that are not answered by hand waving with statements about ‘voodoo science’.
One of the most frequent criticisms of climate sceptics is that their arguments lack foundation in peer-reviewed scientific literature. Yet here we see that in fact, one of the central claims made in the case for political action to mitigate climate change, had only a speculative basis in science.
This all reminds us of a story we were working on a while ago. In Septmber 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”. We were unconvinced already. Humans are by definition not at the heart of any eco-centric view of the world. Moreover, the climate issue has been adopted by one-time development agencies to instead emphasise not developing as the most ‘progressive’ course of action for the world’s poorest people.
In failing to tackle global warming with urgency, rich countries are effectively violating the human rights of millions of the world’s poorest people. Continued excessive greenhouse-gas emissions primarily from industrialised nations are – with scientific certainty – creating floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability. The result is failed harvests, disappearing islands, destroyed homes, water scarcity, and deepening health crises, which are undermining millions of peoples’ rights to life, security, food, water, health, shelter, and culture. Such rights violations could never truly be remedied in courts of law. Human-rights principles must be put at the heart of international climate change policy making now, in order to stop this irreversible damage to humanity’s future.
In our view, Oxfam had given up on the very concept of industrial and economic development as fundamental conditions of political development. Thus poorly conceived ideas about “human rights” had been married with climate change alarmism, to produce a chimera that expressed even greater intellectual poverty than its parents. We began looking at the claims made in the report, and tried to establish where they had come from. For a part-time, unfunded project such as Climate Resistance, this proved to be simply far too time-consuming, and other things were happening, such as the UK’s Climate Change Bill was being put (shoved) through Parliament.
We began compiling a list of the claims made by Oxfam, with the intention of asking them to show what their basis for them was. For instance, in the quote above, Oxfam say that scientific certainty exists about the relationship between the carbon emissions of industrialised countries and floods, droughts, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and seasonal unpredictability that they have, allegedly, produced. We didn’t think that this was an appropriate emphasis of “scientific certainty”. Where had it come from?
What attracted our attention most, however, was this claim
According to the IPCC, climate change could halve yields from rain-fed crops in parts of Africa as early as 2020, and put 50 million more people worldwide at risk of hunger. [Pg. 2]
We looked to see if it was true. All we could find was this.
In other [African] countries, additional risks that could be exacerbated by climate change include greater erosion, deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture of up to 50% during the 2000-2020 period, and reductions in crop growth period (Agoumi, 2003). [IPCC WGII, Page 448. 9.4.4]
Oxfam cite the IPCC, but the citation belongs to Agoumi. The IPCC reference the paper properly:
Agoumi, A., 2003: Vulnerability of North African countries to climatic changes: adaptation and implementation strategies for climatic change. Developing Perspectives on Climate Change: Issues and Analysis from Developing Countries and Countries with Economies in Transition. IISD/Climate Change Knowledge Network, 14 pp. http://www.cckn.net//pdf/north_africa.pdf.
There is only limited discussion of “deficiencies in yields from rain-fed agriculture” in that paper, and its focus is not ‘some’ African countries, but just three: Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. It is not climate research. It is a discussion about the possible effects of climate change. All that it says in relation to the IPCC quote, is that,
Studies on the future of vital agriculture in the region have shown the following risks, which are linked to climate change:
- greater erosion, leading to widespread soil degradation;
- deficient yields from rain-based agriculture of up to 50 per cent during the 2000–2020 period;
- reduced crop growth period;
Most interestingly, the study was not simply produced by some academic working in some academic department. Instead, it was published by The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD). According to the report itself,
The International Institute for Sustainable Development contributes to sustainable development by advancing policy recommendations on international trade and investment, economic policy, climate change, measurement and indicators, and natural resource management. By using Internet communications, we report on international negotiations and broker knowledge gained through collaborative projects with global partners, resulting in more rigorous research, capacity building in developing countries and better dialogue between North and South.
Oxfam takes its authority from the IPCC. The IPCC report seemingly takes its authority from a bullet point in a paper published by an organisation with a declared political interest in the sustainability agenda that was the brainchild of former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in 1988. (Take note: Conservatives are often behind the advance of the sustainability agenda, in spite of claims that it’s a left-wing phenomenon).
That the IPCC is citing non-peer-reviewed, non-scientific research from quasi governmental semi-independent sustainability advocacy organisations must say something about the dearth of scientific or empirical research. The paper in question barely provides any references for its own claims, yet by virtue of merely appearing in the IPCC’s reports, a single study, put together by a single researcher, becomes “consensus science”.
The situation is simply insane. The IPCC are cited as producers of official science, yet they appear often to take as many liberties with the sources they cite, as those who cite the IPCC – such as Oxfam – go on to do. To ask questions about this process is to stand against ‘the consensus’, to be a ‘denier’, and to be willingly jeopardising the future of millions of people, and inviting the end of the world.
The popular view of the climate debate and politics is that the IPCC and scientists produce the science, which politicians and policymakers respond to, encouraged by NGOs, all reported on by journalists. But as the case of the glacier and North African water studies show, this is a misconception. Science, the media, government, and supra-national political organisations do not exist as sharply distinct institutions. They are nebulous and porous. They merge, and each influence the interpretation and substance of the next iteration of their own product. The distinction between science and politics breaks down in the miasma.
If this process could be mapped, it would be no surprise to us if it was discovered that the IPCC was be found citing itself through citing NGOs and Quasi-NGOs, and other non-peer-reviewed, not scientific literature. This is the real climate feedback mechanism. Sadly, we have no time and no resources for such a survey, as much as we’d like to.
But would it be necessary to ‘debunk’ the IPCC in this way? Maybe not. We can deal with the arguments on their own terms, after all. We have argued here on Climate Resistance that whatever the evidence or strength of the science with respect to the claim that “climate change is happening”, the political argument about how to respond to climate change depends too heavily on the notion that “failure to act” is equivalent to producing a disaster.
To re-iterate our fundamental point, the problem with much of the argument emerging from the sustainability camp – as the report cited by the IPCC who are cited by Oxfam surely is – is that its premise is political, not scientific. That is to say again than the ‘politics is prior’ to the science. It may well be the case that the region that the study focussed on faces increased droughts, and that, historically, agricultural output in those regions vary as rainfall varies, and that rainfall is declining. But this is not the whole story.
If indeed, they are at all true, the claims made in the report, the IPCC and Oxfam, are only significant if we assume that mankind is impotent to address the water problems they describe. But the North African region covered by the study has a coast, lots of sunshine, and a lot of land. Indeed, the area is being considered for a huge solar-energy project that could power much of Europe and the region, and so its water problems could be answered by the development of large-scale desalination infrastructure. The only problem is capital. So it is somewhat ironic that the lack of capital available to provide such a project with momentum is not the subject of Oxfam’s report.