20 January 2010

More Laundered Literature: A Guest Post by Ben Pile

[This is a guest post by Ben Pile.]

In September 2008, Oxfam published a report called “Climate Wrongs and Human Rights: Putting people at the heart of climate-change policy”. At our UK-based blog Climate Resistance, we were unconvinced already. Humans, by definition, cannot be 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.
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 the Climate-Resistance blog, this proved to be simply far too time-consuming, and other things were happening, such as the UK’s Climate Change Bill, which was going (being shoved) through Parliament.

We began compiling a list of the claims made by Oxfam, with the intention of asking them what their bases had been. 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 in the IPCC report 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 his study 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. (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 the report actually 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, for publication in some peer-reviewed journal. 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 2007 AR4 report, 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 often appear 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 seemingly unfounded claims about the Himalayan glaciers and the North African water shortages show, this is a misconception. Science, the media, government, NGOs and supra-national political organisations do not exist as sharply distinct institutions. They are nebulous and porous. They merge, and each influences 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 if it was discovered that the IPCC was found to be 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 to undertake such a survey, as much as we’d like to.

But would it even 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 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 far too much on the claim that “failure to act” is equivalent to producing a disaster.

The problem with much of the argument emerging from the sustainability camp of this kind is that its premise is political, not scientific. That is to say that the ‘politics is prior’ to the science. It may well be the case that the region that the IISD 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 they are at all true, the claims made in the reports from the IISD and Oxfam, and perhaps the IPCC, 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 same 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.


Craig said...

I see where it is reported that the UN has abandoned its climate deadline: http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/87479ee2-0600-11df-8c97-00144feabdc0.html

UN abandons climate change deadline

By Fiona Harvey in London and Anna Fifield in Washington

Published: January 20 2010 20:25 | Last updated: January 20 2010 20:25

The timetable to reach a global deal to tackle climate change lay in tatters on Wednesday after the UN waived the first deadline of the process laid out at last month’s fractious Copenhagen summit.

Nations agreed then to declare their emissions reduction targets by the end of this month. Developed countries would state their intended cuts by 2020: developing countries would outline how they would curb emissions growth.

But Yvo de Boer, the UN’s senior climate change official, admitted that the deadline had in effect been shelved...

Perhaps the UN is accepting mankind's impotence to alter course.

Richard Tol said...

This story must be wrong. The IPCC has just told us that there was only one error in the whole the Fourth Assessment Report. There cannot be another error, therefore.

rjtklein said...

Wow, it's the shooting season, isn't it?

In the interest of transparency, here are the links to the relevant documents (the link provided in the original post does not work):

- IPCC WG-II chapter 9: http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/wg2/en/ch9.html (the quoted text is in section 9.4.4)
- IISD report: http://www.cckn.net/pdf/north_africa.pdf

First, the post above has not correctly quoted the chapter. A minor issue perhaps, but if you are going to write in such a tone, then you might as well try to get it right yourself.

Second, the fact that the report was commissioned by IISD does not disqualify it for assessment by the IPCC. It was prepared by a Moroccan scientist, and as it says on page ii, "The opinions expressed herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Agency for International Development or IISD." (The U.S. Agency for International Development provided funding for the study).

Third, the fact that the IISD has a mission does not mean everything it publishes supports a political agenda. I'm sure Harvard University has a mission too.

Fourth, a publication such as this one can very well be considered by the IPCC as so-called "grey literature". See Annex 2 of the IPCC Procedures for the Preparation, Review, Acceptance, Adoption, Approval and Publication of IPCC Reports - http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/ipcc-principles/ipcc-principles-appendix-a.pdf.

So what you're left with is the notion that Oxfam is an advocacy organisation. Most of us knew that already. The fact that Oxfam chooses to use and interpret information published by the IPCC in a way you have issues with does not say anything about the IPCC, as explained above. That you make such a fuss about it says something about you.

Finally, in response to the first reaction to this post, have a look at the actual press conference and come to your own conclusion: http://unfccc2.meta-fusion.com/kongresse/100120_pressconference/index.php

Malcolm said...

Non-peer-reviewed, not scientific literature as used by the IPCC is just one aspect, but as has been highlighted there are others of re-interpretation, falsification, activism, self-citing, non-verification and censorship.

We can get a much better picture of the IPCC political process if the errors in these IPCC reports are specifically listed under a defined category.

Malcolm said...

A rallying call for climate alarmists by Nature


Quote: "Researchers should also emphasize that cities and countries can begin to prepare for the effects of climate change through both mitigation and adaptation, even though they do not know the exact course of the changes."

That is saying that it is perfectly okay for scientists to be activists, and it's also okay for such scientists to delibrately exaggerate the science in order to facilate change.

Step forward the Hockey Stick team, Nature exonerates all your sins.

Carry on James Hansen, you have become the very model of a modern climate scientist.

This Nature editorial is simply a Climate Rogue's Charter.

Stan said...

All I can say is "It's even worse than we thought!"

Glaciers, hurricanes, hockey sticks, malaria, extinctions..... Are we approaching that time where having worked on an IPCC assessment becomes an embarassing stain on a scientist's resume? Unless one can document objections made?

ozspeaksup said...

As an Aussie what I see here is the whole climte fiasco being used as a cover for government to implement land and water grabs on the people of my country. Peter Spencer and many others are a classic example Kyoto that useless invalid scam has been used to take land without recompense.
EPA is allowed to make and break laws as it sees fit, the whole dirty thing is a matter for shame and much anger, Those who we rely on to feed us, and those supposed starving millions to come are being blocked from feeding themselves on their own land..and this? is supposed to be sane?
The IPCC should be canned and all possible funding regained and used for REAL eforts to solve issues, creating clean water supplies for those without, making erosion control possible, and creating storages for water, in times of plenty , for those times there is none.
Corrupt and greedy fools are running our governments and ,in truth ,Killing people.

Roddy said...

I have to say I rather agree with rjtklein, but my comment would be much briefer. Oxfam is a campaigning organisation. That they cherry-pick, present, exaggerate is hardly a surprise, and anyone with any sense would read it that way.

Attack the IPCC by all means, we have all seen enough of their cart before horse processes to agree that the report is, in general, biased towards fitting to a conclusion agreed at the start.

But attacking Oxfam for highlighting sections of an IPCC report that favour their case? That's silly, surely.

And to expect Oxfam to consider mitigating strategies that the Moroccan government might like to consider should rainfall decline is also a bit silly - that's a hypothetical policy response to an event not yet happening, Oxfam can't take that into account.

Frontiers of Faith and Science said...

My bet is that each alrmist or apocalyptic claim of the IPCC will fail under reasonable scrutiny.

Dan C said...

"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 far too much on the claim that “failure to act” is equivalent to producing a disaster."

While I agree that claims of disaster are too often invoked, climate change is a risk management problem, in which precisely defining this risk is subject to a significant level of irreducible uncertainty due to both the nature of the Earth's climate as an open system (note: I am an atmospheric scientist) and the fact that we are a part of the very system that we are trying to predict. The implication is that there is no evidence that exists that can prove this risk is not real (in which case we can ignore it), just as there is no evidence that exists that can prove that the world will end in disaster with 100% probability.

In this context, then, the argument for how to respond to climate change SHOULD be that failure to act could be disasterous (again, it's a probability, not a yes/no). I wish the science could provide greater precision such that these risks could be more properly defined (and, in an ideal world, shown to be much smaller than expected), but unfortunately it cannot, so the best we can do is proceed forward into the dark with our hands waving in front of us.

Richard Tol said...

@Roddy & rtjtklein
Oxfam's advocacy is not the issue.

The issue is that the IPCC takes grey literature and magically turns it into "sound, peer-reviewed research" and "scientific consensus".

I noted that the IPCC section does not mention that average crop yields in Africa are a small fraction of the crop yields of model farms in Africa. That is, all of the future losses of climate change can be made good (and better) by the use of proven technologies today.

Now there's a job for Oxfam.

ScottGA said...

@Dan C:

The part missing is that responding to climate change could also be disastrous. What good is risk mitigation if your actions to mitigate the risk create more risk? And it's more than just a probability. It's a whole set of various probabilities for different locations around the world, probabilities for different impacts (both good and bad) of climate change, and then the probabilities on the effectiveness of each possible action that could be taken for each of these other probabilities. Then their a cost (in more ways than just money) to each of these actions or non-actions. It will take an unbiased analysis of this entire chain, to the best of our knowledge today, that shows we need to take a specific action(s) before I'll be able to get behind our blind hand waving. That ties back to the IPCC in that their reports are far from unbiased. I trust our ability to mitigate a problem once it is already occurring more than I do our ability to forecast that it will occur and stop it beforehand.

Roddy said...

Richard Tol - you're quite right. I read it too fast, and took it as at least in part a crack at Oxfam, which it was not.

Kenneth P. Green said...

You know what I love about that graphic? The reviewers get top billing, but they're the only ones who weren't given credit for the Nobel Prize. Reviewers didn't get a Nobel certificate, only the contributing authors, lead authors, and of course, the IPCC secretariat staff. Oh, and the Goracle, natch.

arajand said...

Oxfam is important because of the veneer of respectability and scientificality it wears proudly.

And the pretense to derive authority from science.

Dan C said...


I understand your concern and agree that not all forms of mitigation are automatically good, but my argument is that there will never be adequate information to define the range of probabilities that you mention. For example, climate models do a terrible job predicting changes in precipitation (which affects much of society), and this is something that will not improve much for decades, if ever. However, when people demand to see "proper" cost-benefit calculations for any mitigation plan, what they often get is Garbage In, Garbage Out, since the climate information going in--and upon which the distribution of costs, benefits and risks depends--is so uncertain.
The significance of this is that the standard cost-benefit model approach doesn't really work very well. A simple hypothetical example: one climate model forecasts significant increases in drought in the US, another model forecasts increases in floods. Does this mean it's a 50% probability of each? No, because one or both models may be entirely wrong--they do not, and cannot, represent the entire probability space (this is the irreducible uncertainty of climate change). So how can this information be credibly incorporated into a cost-benefit analysis?

Lastly, the call for totally "unbiased" analysis becomes problematic because a cost-benefit analysis is inherently biased since the cost or benefit of any given thing is a subjective value claim. This is true both of objects without a market price (e.g. a tree) and with one (e.g. a cow has a market price, but absent the cost of its externalities; moreover, in some cultures the cow is sacred). Matters of pure science such as the IPCC, though, indeed should seek to remain as unbiased as possible.

So perhaps "blind hand waving" isn't quite the right metaphor I'm looking for, but rather "walking into a large dark cave with a 1-Watt bulb". You can see a tiny bit, and you can pretend to see a lot, but in the end you still ought to step forward very carefully.

Artimus Kantanquer said...

Dr. Pielke,

I simply want you to know that there are many, many people who admire your courage and tenacity in bringing to light these skisms in climate science. It is just such people as you that are changing the old world dominance of knowledge by the cryptic elite.

I am convinced that as painful as this cleansing process may be - we will be all the better, stronger and wiser for it. Thank you for your continued strength and courage.

markbahner said...

It looks to me like we have the following sequence:

1) Oxfam references the IPCC,

2) The IPCC references Agoumi, 2003, which is located here:


3) But it looks to me like ***Agoumi 2003*** isn't the originator of the "50 percent reduction" concept. Instead, Agoumi 2003 references:

"Vulnerability studies on three North African countries (Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia) with respect to climatic
changes, performed within the framework of the UNEP-GEF Project RAB94G31: 2000–2001."

Can anyone find those studies? I'm curious as to what they actually say (as opposed to what Agoumi says they say).

John M said...

#17 Mark Bahner,

Well thanks for enticing me to waste about a half hour Googling. The Agoumi paper seems to rely on...ahem..."soft" references. I wouldn't be surprised if they are all self-references to boot.

But all was not lost. I followed the link in ref. 4,5 & 7 of the paper and that URL now appears to be "available" to anyone that takes a fancy to that combination of letters.


When I go to the link, in addition to the "this domain available" message, the second linked ad on the page is "Stinky Hockey Gear?" (!)

rjtklein said...

Mark, this refers to the following project in the GEF project database (it's a UNDP-GEF project, not UNEP-GEF): http://bit.ly/7Pvlj5 . The (scanned) project proposal (from 1994) is here: http://bit.ly/5UmrME .

However, it looks like the information in the database hasn't been updated for a while. I suspect that the interim and final reports were only available in hard copy (or at least not in a format that could be uploaded) and haven't been scanned into PDFs.

Google Scholar shows that there are a few papers that refer to or are based on the project: http://bit.ly/4phLO1

Ben Pile said...

Rjtklein has clearly been miffed by my post here.

There are two issues at play. One is the way in which material makes it into IPCC reports. The other is the way in which that material is made use of.

On the first point, there is an expectation that the IPCC will produce objective assessments. There is an assumption that a scientific process drives the IPCC’s assessment, and that it is the coming together of many minds and a wealth of research that demonstrates agreement. The citation in question struck me as having been tossed into AR4 with scant regard for any consequences, without any scrutiny, and without any corroborative literature. It clearly went on to generate dramatic headlines about droughts that will possibly affect tens of millions of people. If the IPCC cannot produce reliable and robust assessments, but can throw together N-th hand factoids, removed of any context, that have been produced by specific political agendas, then what is the point of the IPCC? Any outfit can do that. The difference is that no other outfit can claim that its product is “consensus science”.

On the second point, Rjtklein says,

“The fact that Oxfam chooses to use and interpret information published by the IPCC in a way you have issues with does not say anything about the IPCC, as explained above. That you make such a fuss about it says something about you.”

I hope that what it says about me is that I am concerned about what is happening to the development agenda and the consequences it has.

These two issues are clearly not easily delineated, because it seems that issue-advocacy organisations can produce ‘grey literature’, which is cited by the IPCC, and then cited by another issue-advocacy organisation as ‘official science’. As I said, this creates the absurd possibility that the IPCC could become a positive-feedback mechanism. What’s to stop AR5 citing Oxfam, citing IPCC AR4, citing Agoumi, who cites the seemingly non-existent references? This would not be without precedent, after all... The Himalayan glacier debacle shows how something equivalent to the party game, Chinese Whispers, turns credulous journalism into the ‘consensus science’, created by “thousands of the world’s top climate scientists”.

Ben Pile said...

@ Roddy: "But attacking Oxfam for highlighting sections of an IPCC report that favour their case? That's silly, surely."

I like to think that I've criticised Oxfam for making shabby arguments, not for some kind of procedural mistake.

People are often confused about criticism of Oxfam; they want to feed the hungry, how can they possibly be criticised? Well, Oxfam is a huge operation, which exerts a great deal of influence over the development agenda. It has stopped being a mere aid organisation, and it would be understating things to merely call it a campaigning organisation. It's effect is very political.

This is probably not the best place to discuss my views on Oxfam, but if you're interested, I have written a few posts on them at http://www.climate-resistance.org/tag/Oxfam

Ben Pile said...

@ Mark,

The unavailability of the references is the reason I stopped looking, after several days of trying. I hope that Rjtkelin is better placed to locate them that I am.

My hunch is that the IPCC cited Agoumi, because the author couldn't get to the data either, but wanted the stats, nonetheless.

Keith said...

Artimus Kantanquer,
I second that.

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