Back in 2010, I had a look at an Oxfam report which claimed that,
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.
But it was not the IPCC which had said it:
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]
As I pointed out, Agoummi 2003 was not what it seemed…
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;
… and worse still,
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).
[...]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”.
This was in the wake of ‘Glaciergate’, of course — the discovery that ‘grey literature’ had been included in IPCC reports, which are supposed to be produced by ‘science’. I later wrote a guest post for Roger Pielke Jr’s blog.
When I wrote the post, I was pretty harsh with science journalist, Fred Pearce, who had been involved in the Glaciergate story. My chief criticism of environmentalists — especially environmental journalists — is that they are unable to reflect on their mistakes. But Pearce seems more able than most. In the New Scientist today, Pearce writes,
Climate scientists are likely to face charges of putting politics before science, following two controversial decisions by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, earlier this month.
The IPCC decided for the first time to impose strict geographical quotas on the scientists who author its major assessment reports. There will also be a push to increase the representation of women among its authors.
Controversially, it also voted to increase the role in those assessments of “grey literature”: publications not subject to peer review. Using such material in the last assessment is what led to the “glaciergate” scandal in 2010, when the report was found to have vastly overestimated the rate at which Himalayan glaciers are losing ice.
The issue of grey literature persists, then. But what really caught my eye was this…
Grey literature was responsible for several embarrassing errors in the 2007 report. These included the false claim that the Himalayas could be ice-free within 30 years and the assertion that African farmers could suffer yield losses of up to 50 per cent by 2020 because of climate change. The latter claim was formally corrected at this month’s Geneva meeting.
I wondered what the IPCC had done to remedy the problem I had found. This is the result:
Based on the IPCC Protocol for Addressing Possible Errors in IPCC Assessment Reports (approved at IPCC-XXXIII held in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates), substantive changes to past Synthesis Reports must be submitted to the Panel for approval, prior to posting; the Panel may delegate the approval step to the Executive Committee.
IPCC received a request for a change to two passages of the AR4 Synthesis Report dealing with projected impacts on yields of North African rainfed agriculture. The request was submitted by Drs. Pachauri, Parry, Canziani, van Ypersele, Barros, and Field.
Because the change was requested by the individuals responsible for the decision on action (the IPCC Chairman and the Co-chairs of the relevant working group), the request should move to Section 3, Step 5A of the Error Protocol.
The text in question is in the Synthesis Report (Table SPM.2. on page 11 and 3.3.2 on page 50). Both passages read: “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.” The problem with this passage is that it drops all mention of a role for climate variability, creating the impression that IPCC is projecting that climate change alone could cause agricultural yields to drop by 50% by 2020. In the background reference and in the WGII report, it is clear that this projected impact reflects the combined effects of climate change and variability.
Based on extensive discussions involving the WGII Co-chairs from the AR4, these statements provide such an incomplete message that most readers will interpret them incorrectly. This problem does not affect the text in the WGII report or the WGII SPM, where the role of climate variability is prominent.
Based on section three of the error correction protocol, the IPCC Chairman and the WGII Co-chairs from the AR4 and the AR5 propose a straightforward correction to the two statements in the Synthesis Report.
The text of the correction is as follows.
1) AR4 SYR SPM, page 11, Table SPM.2., line 3: After 50%, insert “, as a consequence of climate variability and change”
2) AR4 SYR, p 50, column 1, line 20: After 50%, insert “, as a consequence of climate variability and change” In both places, the changed statements will now read, “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rainfed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%, “, as a consequence of climate variability and change.”
The inserted wording matches, as closely as possible, the wording in the WGII SPM.
Acting on behalf of the IPCC Chairman, as well as the Co-chairs of WGII from the AR4, the Cochairs of WGII request panel approval of these two changes to the AR4 Synthesis Report.
It’s not clear to me from this whether the changes will also be made to mentions of Agoumi 2003 in the other parts of the WGII report, or are limited to the Synthesis Report and Summary for Policymakers. Either way, however, it hardly seems sufficient to merely add a caveat. The issue is that the original literature is grey, doesn’t seem to be supported by other studies, was extremely limited in its scope, was highly speculative, and was produced by a sustainability advocacy organisation. Shouldn’t it just have been removed entirely, rather than embedded in another layer of caveats?
The 50% crop failure ‘meme’, as they do, ‘went viral’ in early 2007. It was brought to the attention of the IPCC in 2010. It’s not until now — mid 2012 — that the IPCC has responded to an error that should not have been in its reports in the first place. It would be impossible to measure the impact of this one problem, which has been reproduced, with many others, in many reports that aim to urge political action on climate change. And to point out the problems with the IPCC that led to the questionable claim achieving such prominence, or to seek to challenge the claim is to identify oneself as a ‘denier‘, and to draw questions asking what qualifications we have to speak about the IPCC’s reports — seemingly the work of ‘thousands of the world’s best scientists’.
The IPCC gets the criticism it deserves. If it can’t cope with the problem of grey literature, and will be including more of it, as Pearce suggests may be the case, maybe it should just admit to being political, not a scientific organisation. After all, as Pearce explains, the new emphasis on ‘grey literature’ is intended to make it more ‘inclusive':
Krug told New Scientist this would correct an imbalance in the assessments as it is harder for people in developing countries to get research findings into the major peer-reviewed journals. [...] Richard Klein, an IPCC stalwart from the Stockholm Resilience Institute in Sweden, told New Scientist this was mostly a formalisation of current practices. “Membership has always been based on expertise, geographical balance and gender.”
So it doesn’t matter if total waffle is produced by unheard of academics, on the instruction of Western NGOs and advocacy organisations… The next IPCC report will produce politically correct science, which must surely be nearly as good as ‘truth’. So will this let Greenpeace smuggle its agenda into AR5, on the basis of ‘positive discrimination’? We’ll have to wait and see.
Meanwhile, however, I’m wondering if any critics of environmentalism from universities in developing economies will be allowed to the party. I think the thought experiment is revealing enough… It didn’t happen here. This must be what is meant by ‘grey literature’ — it is to be produced by black people, but according to a distinctly white agenda, dictated by wealthy green NGOs.