Forest Scientist Simon Lewis Files Formal Complaint Against UK Sunday Times Over Dishonest Reporting On “Amazongate”

Simon Lewis, an expert on tropical forests at the University of Leeds in the UK, says the Sunday Times’ “inaccurate, misleading and distorted” story by Jonathan Leake in January left readers under the wrong impression that the 2007 IPCC AR4 report made a false claim by stating that reduced rainfall could wipe out up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest.  Lewis filed a formal complaint this week with the UK Press Complaints Commission.

Leake’s story helped to launch the “Amazongate” scandal that had the denialosphere all aflutter, and even made the rounds of many mainstream outlets.  Leake got his story idea and research from climate change denier Richard North, a blogger who has denied the link between secondhand smoke and cancer, among other ridiculous positions. The premise of “Amazongate” was ginned up by North, who alleged that the IPCC erred in its 2007 report by citing a World Wildlife Fund report that stated the impact of reduced rainfall on forest health.

The IPCC report stated:
“Up to 40% of the Amazonian forests could react drastically to even a slight reduction in precipitation; this means that the tropical vegetation, hydrology and climate system in South America could change very rapidly to another steady state, not necessarily producing gradual changes between the current and the future situation.”

In his January article, originally headlined “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim,” Leake attempted to sully the IPCC, opening his story:
“A STARTLING report by the United Nations climate watchdog that global warming might wipe out 40% of the Amazon rainforest was based on an unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise.

Leake, relying on North’s “research,” harped on the fact that the IPCC cited a World Wildlife Fund forest report rather than a primary scientific document, as it should have.  But he went further to suggest that the WWF report didn’t even include the 40% figure.  Except it did.  Apparently neither Leake nor North read the report, because on page 14, the WWF document clearly states, “Up to 40% of the Brazilian forest is extremely sensitive to small reductions in the amount of rainfall.”

While the IPCC acknowledged that it erred in citing the WWF report, the science underlying the claim is completely sound, as 19 top U.S., U.K., and Brazilian scientists, including Lewis, made clear in a recent statement: “there are multiple, consistent lines of evidence from ground-based studies published in the peer-reviewed literature that Amazon forests are, indeed, very susceptible to drought stress.”

That distortion is a key aspect of Simon Lewis’s complaint to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission. 

Lewis says in his complaint:
“The Sunday Times contention that the IPCC had made a mistake in the reporting of scientifically credible statements was then widely re-reported, in part because the Sunday Times used my expertise to lend credibility to the assertion, due in part to the concealment of my views that the statement in question was fully in line with scientific knowledge at the time the IPCC report was written.”

But that’s just the beginning of the real scandal here.  Lewis says that Leake distorted his quotes in the piece, and even accuses Leake of rewriting the story after reading a different version to Lewis over the phone when he called to check Lewis’s quotes.

Lewis’s complaint says:
“I spoke to Jonathan Leake on the afternoon of Saturday 30, a few hours before the article went to press, as he wanted to check the quotes he was using by me (checking quotes was agreed between ourselves on Friday 29 January). The entire article was read to me, and quotes by me agreed, including a statement that the science in the IPCC report was and is correct. The article was reasonable, and quotes were not out of context. Indeed I was happy enough that I agreed to assist in checking the facts for the graphic to accompany the article (I can supply the emails if necessary). Yet, following this telephone call the article was entirely and completely re-written with an entirely new focus, new quotes from me included and new (incorrect) assertions of my views. I ask the Sunday Times to disclose the version of article that was read out to me, and provide an explanation as to why the agreed correct, undistorted, un-misleading article, and specifically the quotes from me, was not published, and an entirely new version produced.

That could be a career-ending taboo for Leake if it proves to be correct, and the UK Press Complaints Commission will have its hands full investigating that and other aspects of Lewis’s complaint.

Joe Romm has more analysis and the PDF of Lewis’s entire complaint over at Climate Progress.  Check it out.