No scandal behind these gates

Feature story - 5 February, 2010
Since December there has been a glut of stories challenging the science of climate change as represented by the IPCC. Should we be concerned? Only about climate change.

Arctic sea ice: still melting.

Lately there's been a rash of stories all ending with the word "gate" and all questioning the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change -- the IPCC. Here's our handy guide to the truth behind the gates, but first -- why are they all called 'gate' anyway?

The "Watergate" scandal of the early 1970s brought down US President Nixon, and was so named because it began with a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, Washington DC. After Nixon's resignation the conservative columnist and former Nixon speechwriter William Safire began attaching the word ''gate'' to all kinds of subjects.

The tactic worked, and pretty soon you could make anything sound like a scandal by adding the word "gate". Why did he do it? Partly to make his former boss's crimes look less serious and partly to make the small stories he was writing about look bigger than they were.

That is exactly what's been going on in the last two months. The recipe is simple. Take a small story, add the word "gate", a dash of alarmism, and pinch of exaggeration and voila, instant scandal. Oh, and repeat as frequently as you can!

Here's the breakdown on what's been happening.


Hackergate began with the release onto the internet of around one thousand e-mails and three thousand documents from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, home to some well respected climate scientists. With a thousand e-mails to choose from, a handful of sentences were selected to try and make the case that something dodgy was going on.

This video spells out quite nicely how much substance there was to that.



Hackergate was followed by Himalayagate. In its Fourth Assessment Report, published in 2007, the IPCC reported that Himalayan Glaciers could be gone as soon as 2035. That claim turned out to be incorrect, and not to have been based on a scientific study. The IPCC subsequently withdrew the claim, it was an error, not a lie.

This doesn't mean the glaciers aren't retreating, just that the rate of retreat isn't as high as the IPCC stated. On the graph below from the World Glacier Monitoring Service the red bars are years where, on average, the world's glaciers shrank, blue are years where they grew. Are the world's glaciers in trouble? It's an easy question. Is there more red or blue on the graph below?



Following Himalayagate we had Amazongate. Here the charge was that the footnote to the claim that 40% of the Amazon could die off was wrong. Not that the claim was wrong, just that the footnote was wrong. And it was. The report  the footnote pointed to didn't back up the claim directly itself. But  another scientific paper did [1]. Since then two more papers [2, 3] have confirmed the case.

That's bad footnoting, but it's not bad science, and that's all there was to it.

The Mini Ice Age Story

If you live in Northern Europe, or North East America you've had a cold start to 2010. And since that's where a lot of journalists live several of them have taken the opportunity to join up the collection of 'gates' with the cold weather to claim that there's a mini ice age coming. If that sounds a little hysterical to you, well, you'd be right.

The story didn't really run in Australia though, because they're suffering from near record high summer temperatures. The West coast of Canada didn't pick it up either, because things are so warm that they're having to move snow by hand to make sure the Winter Olympics can go ahead as planned. Meanwhile in the high Arctic the weather seems warmer than usual. Indeed, it's the warm Arctic that's causing the current cold weather in Europe.

Most newspapers provide their journalists with access to the internet. Why so few of them used it when compiling their 'mini ice age' stories is something we may never know.

So what drives this debate?

From reading the mainstream media, you might think there's a battle of opinion going on in the scientific community. Nothing could be further from the truth. The scientific consensus represented by the IPCC's reports is robust. Scientists who are sceptical about 'anthropogenic global warming' (AGW) are so thin on the ground, for instance, that the BBC's environmental analyst, Roger Harrabin, e-mailed a climate-denier blog on 3 February, for help in finding one! He wrote, "I am trying to talk to UK scientists in current academic posts who are sceptical about AGW. I'm struggling to find anyone..."

Another inaccurate claim recently going around was that the IPCC's conclusion that coral reef degradation is linked to climate change was solely based on a report by Greenpeace. In fact, the IPCC's findings are solidly underpinned by peer-reviewed science.

This is a recurring story over the past 20 years of the IPCC. Attacks against the IPCC have originated from hired guns of the fossil fuel industry or disgruntled individuals.

What this means for the IPCC

The IPCC scientific assessment is a rigorous and robust process, probably the biggest ever organised scientific endeavour, with thousands of scientists in many different research institutes around the world, backed up with masses of data. It is also a human endeavour and therefore not perfect.

The assessment report in question is 3,000 pages long, and so far two years of effort by the world's denialists and journalists have found, well, one bad footnote. The story about the Himalayas was pointed out by a scientist - just the way it was supposed to be, and since we, like many others, relied on the IPCC report and repeated it we're now correcting it across our websites. If you spot any examples we've missed, let us know.

Greenpeace has, and continues to have confidence in the IPCC. There is no more reliable guide to the world's climate science than the IPCC reports.

It has been reported in the Times that the Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven, has called for the resignation of the IPCC chair, Dr Rejendra Pachauri. His comments were taken from a much longer conversation with the Times journalist at a reception and do not reflect the full conversation. Greenpeace is not calling for Pachuari to resign.

The science is clear, climate change is real, is happening now, and is caused by people. The solution is still in our hands, with clean energy, smart use of our power, and forest protection. If you want to be part of that solution, become a climate defender today.

[1] Cox, P. M., Betts, R. A., Jones, C. D., Spall, S. A. & Totterdell, I. J. 2000 Acceleration of global warming due to carbon-cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model. Nature 408, 184-187[2] Towards quantifying uncertainty in predictions of Amazon 'dieback' Chris Huntingford et al Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 2008 363, 1857-1864[3] Drought Sensitivity of the Amazon Rainforest Oliver L. Phillips et al Science 323, 1344 (2009);

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