The latest ‘Africagate’ controversy and criticism over the use of ‘grey literature’ in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report does not undermine climate change science, say IPCC authors.
The latest controversy – dubbed ‘Africagate’ by climate change sceptics – relates to a statement contained in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) Africa chapter which also appears in the key Synthesis Report in the following form: “By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%”.
Sceptics have attacked it’s veracity due to it emerging from a single report which has not undergone a rigorous scientific peer review process.
It is the latest in a number of such statements in the FAR which have their roots in non-peer reviewed – termed ‘grey’ – literature which have been pulled apart on blogs openly critical of climate change science.
Others include a statement that Himalayan glacial ice will melt by 2035 and that 40% of the Amazon rainforests will be lost due to global warming.
It is fuel to the fire after the damaging ‘climategate’ leaked email saga in which hacked emails from the University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit were latched onto by climate change sceptics as evidence of collusion by scientists to manipulate data.
Director of the Climatic Research Unit, Professor Phil Jones, stepped down for a full investigation into the matter to take place, and has denied the sceptic’s claims.
Now ‘Africagate’ has put more gas in the sceptic’s tank, especially since the ‘50% less food by 2020′ statement has been repeated on the world stage by IPCC chair Rajendra Pachauri and picked up as a catchphrase by environmental NGOs
Although the IPCC as a body has not yet responded to the matter, sceptics, commenting on popular blogs, say the claim emerged from a review produced by Canadian based advocacy group the International Institute for Sustainable Development and, in terms of the statement in question, applied only to one finding in Morocco.
Sceptic Richard North, who writes on the blog EUReferendum, says the ‘50% by 2020′ claim is, “at best”, a “wild exaggeration, unsupported by any scientific research, referenced only to a report produced by a Canadian advocacy group, written by an obscure Moroccan academic who specialises in carbon trading, citing references”.
But South African IPCC lead authors, although speaking in their personal capacity, have defended both the ‘Africagate’ claim and the inclusion of grey literature in the FAR.
Contributing lead author of the FAR Africa chapter, Professor Coleen Vogel, said the contentious statement was rooted in work done by Professor in meteorology, Ali Agoumi, for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) First National Communication.
Agoumi’s research focused on Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and, said Vogel came under rigorous scrutiny by her fellow authors.
It was also debated in Brussels when the FAR was put to the almost 200 member countries, and was subject to caveats and was footnoted.
“If people are now extrapolating that (statement) and not going back to the original chapter, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
As for criticism of the inclusion of grey literature, she said a paucity of peer reviewed material relating to some parts of the world, particularly Africa, necessitated its inclusion in order to provide balanced information.
But all grey literature was noted and its sources revealed in the FAR.
In fact, said Dr Guy Midgley, IPCC coordinating lead author of the FAR chapter four on ecosystems, the inclusion of a broader literature base than what was included only in top peer reviewed journals was an injunction given by the IPCC to the authors of the fourth report.
“Some of these reports were enormously valuable”, said Midgley, who is also Chief Specialist Scientist at the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi).
“The idea was that these non-peer reviewed articles were a valuable resource, especially in the developing world”, where a “more balanced data set was required”.
In theory, this was a good injunction, but it had a rider that an extra level of rigour in the checking of sources was required.
“In our chapter we’ve had to scan and lodge every example of grey reports with the IPCC.”
This resulted in a high level of transparency, he said, as all sources could be tracked back, as well as being able to track every one of the tens of thousands of responses by author teams to reviewers’ comments.
And both Vogel and Midgley, rather than being on the defensive, expressed surprise at the length of time it has taken people to interrogate the FAR, given that it was published in 2007.
“It’s extraordinary that it’s (the interrogation of data) taken this long,” said Midgley, adding “but it’s great the report is put under this level of scrutiny.”
However, while both scientists said the identification of errors was necessary, it was equally important to recognise the accuracy contained in the vast plethora of data contained in the report’s 3000 pages.