Sunday Times retracts and apologizes for shameful and bogus Amazon story smearing IPCC

Exclusive comments from Prof. Simon Lewis whose official complaint led to this too-rare victory of science over disinformation

“I welcome the Sunday Times‘ apology for failing to accurately report my views and retract the Amazon story. As several experts told them – their story was baseless.  What I find shocking about this whole episode is that an article read out [loud] and agreed with me was then switched at the last minute to one that fit with the Times‘ editorial line that the IPCC contained a number of serious mistakes, but actually ignored the scientific facts.”

That is tropical forest researcher Simon Lewis in an email to me this morning after the Sunday Times finally retracted their bogus story and issued this too-rare apology (emphasis added):

The article “UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim” (News, Jan 31) stated that the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report had included an “unsubstantiated claim” that up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest could be sensitive to future changes in rainfall. The IPCC had referenced the claim to a report prepared for the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) by Andrew Rowell and Peter Moore, whom the article described as “green campaigners” with “little scientific expertise.” The article also stated that the authors’ research had been based on a scientific paper that dealt with the impact of human activity rather than climate change.

In fact, the IPCC’s Amazon statement is supported by peer-reviewed scientific evidence. In the case of the WWF report, the figure had, in error, not been referenced, but was based on research by the respected Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) which did relate to the impact of climate change. We also understand and accept that Mr Rowell is an experienced environmental journalist and that Dr Moore is an expert in forest management, and apologise for any suggestion to the contrary.

The article also quoted criticism of the IPCC’s use of the WWF report by Dr Simon Lewis, a Royal Society research fellow at the University of Leeds and leading specialist in tropical forest ecology. We accept that, in his quoted remarks, Dr Lewis was making the general point that both the IPCC and WWF should have cited the appropriate peer-reviewed scientific research literature. As he made clear to us at the time, including by sending us some of the research literature, Dr Lewis does not dispute the scientific basis for both the IPCC and the WWF reports’ statements on the potential vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to droughts caused by climate change.

In addition, the article stated that Dr Lewis’ concern at the IPCC’s use of reports by environmental campaign groups related to the prospect of those reports being biased in their conclusions. We accept that Dr Lewis holds no such view – rather, he was concerned that the use of non-peer-reviewed sources risks creating the perception of bias and unnecessary controversy, which is unhelpful in advancing the public’s understanding of the science of climate change. A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points. We apologise for this.

Kudos to Simon Lewis.   He fought back against the disinformers (see my March post, “Forest scientist fights back against ‘distorted’ UK article on Amazon and IPCC:  Simon Lewis files 31-page official complaint, paints devastating portrait of Sunday Times journalist Jonathan Leake”).

RealClimate has posted a scan of the print version of the apology/retracation (since the paper has been too slow in doing so) and  reports:

… the Sunday Times has removed the original article from their website (though a copy is available here)….  The retraction has now appeared.

This follows on the heels of a German paper, the Franfurter Rundschau, recently retracting a story on the ‘Africagate’ non-scandal, based on reporting from”¦.. Jonathan Leake.

Lewis notes,” The original story went far — featuring in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal, and was copied 20,000 times on the web.”  Indeed, he adds, “Ironies abound: this was an article about taking the upmost care in conveying scientific information which was itself completely wrong.”

Since this episode typifies the dreadful “Climategate coverage,”let’s briefly review the backstory.  The IPCC famously wrote:

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.

This statement in the 2007 IPCC is “basically correct but poorly written, and bizarrely referenced,” as Lewis told the BBC in January.  Indeed, the underlying science is quite strong, as made clear in a recent statement by 19 top U.S., U.K., and Brazilian scientists, including Lewis, who point out “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 didn’t stop the anti-science blogosphere and media from spinning this into another phony “gate,” as ClimateSafety explained in an excellent post, “AmazonGate: how the denial lobby and a dishonest journalist created a fake scandal.”  Anti-science Blogger Richard North spun up the story, and it was turned into “news” by anti-science reporters James Delingpole of the Telegraph and Jonathan Leake of the Times.  The Leake story explicitly ends, “Research by Richard North.

Worse, as Lewis notes, the Times “ignored interviews with two other experts, and mis-quoted me, concealing my interview comments to them that the IPCC scientific statement was defensible and backed by peer reviewed science (and concealing I sent them some of the scientific literature).” In March, Lewis filed an official complaint to the UK’s Press Complaints Commission.  The full 31-page complaint “” a CP exclusive (click here, big PDF) “” is a must-read for anyone who wants to see just how Leake and the Times operate.  Deltoid (aka Tim Lambert) has also done an excellent job writing about “Jonathan Leake’s dishonest reporting on the Amazon rainforests.”

Lewis wrote me this morning:

“The public’s understanding of science relies on scientists having frank discussions with journalists, who then responsibly report what was said. If reporting is misleading then many scientists will disengage, which will mean that the public get more opinion and less careful scientific assessments. This is extremely dangerous when we face serious environmental problems, like climate change, which require widespread scientific understanding to enable wise political responses to be formulated and enacted.”

Sadly, that tragic outcome may be precisely one of the goals of disinformers like Leake.  And it is precisely why Lewis is such a hero for fighting back.

Lewis understands, as Nature editorialized, “Scientists must now emphasize the science, while acknowledging that they are in a street fight.”  We need more scientists like him.

If you have any comments to share with Prof. Lewis, I’ll make sure he sees them.


33 Responses to Sunday Times retracts and apologizes for shameful and bogus Amazon story smearing IPCC

  1. Excellent! For some further background on Jonathan Leake:

  2. mark says:

    A Canadian scientist has taken action against “The National Post”

    From CBC:

    A prominent University of Victoria climate researcher says he’s been repeatedly defamed by the National Post and has launched a lawsuit against the national newspaper.

    Andrew Weaver has filed a statement of claim in B.C. Supreme Court, citing four articles published in the newspaper late 2009 and early 2010.

    “These articles put him in a false light,” said Weaver’s lawyer, Roger McConchie. “Attributing to [Weaver] views that he says he never held and accusing him of conduct that he says never occurred.”

    Weaver, a full professor who was part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the Nobel Prize in 2007, claims in the court documents that the National Post articles suggest he’s a corrupt scientist who promotes global warming theories so he can obtain government research grants.

    Read more:

  3. DOD says:

    In the U.S. when the anti-science (political right) wants a political street fight it goes after a journalist like this until he is fired from his job or at least relieved of the particular beat in which he wrote the false reportage. It would be good to see the Sunday Times pushed into similar sanctions against this reporter.

  4. prokaryote says:

    February 19, 2006
    Focus: The climate of fear
    Scientists used to think climate change took centuries. But evidence presented today at the world’s biggest science conference will indicate it can happen frighteningly fast. Jonathan Leake and Jonathan Milne report

    Quite why it happened is not yet clear.

    Over the years those models, now run by powerful computers, have became increasingly sophisticated and one which is run by the Met Office’s Hadley Centre is a world leader.

    Their fundamental weakness, however, is that they have always just been models. While such artificial constructions were the best that researchers could offer, the science of climate change remained controversial.

    Again, the point about such warnings is their time scale. The break-up of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets has often been discussed — but always on the understanding they would each take hundreds, more likely thousands, of years to melt. That belief is, say some scientists, looking increasingly uncertain.
    MOST scientists accept that change is under way: what remains contentious is what is causing it, how swiftly it will take place and what, if anything, can be done about it.

    Among those who remain cautious is Jason Lowe of the Hadley Centre. Although he fully agrees that climate change is happening, he is doubtful about the speed of change in Greenland. He points out that data on the rapid melting have been collected for a relatively short period and suggests that it could be due to other, short-term climate changes.

    “It is still likely that a major deglaciation of the ice sheet will take centuries to millenniums to occur,” he said. “The scale of the ice sheets is immense.”

    – A sea of uncertainty Jason A. Lowe & Jonathan M. Gregory 6 April 2010
    The climate science community needs to communicate effectively that sea level rise is likely to continue, but that the rise by the year 2100 is almost certain to be below two metres and that there is currently very little evidence to suggest that increases at the top of this range are likely. It is vital to continue to monitor sea level and its components and to develop a capability to make reliable projections. Meanwhile, as we cannot provide certainties, we must become better at explaining the uncertainties to decision-makers. These uncertainties imply a need to keep open a range of adaptation options and to be able to change the approach as the predictions become more robust

    Jason A. Lowe seems totally unaware (ignorant) of current climate science.

    IPCC: Please reanalyze ALL of your conclusions about melting ice and sea level rise

  5. prokaryote says:

    The first quote is from this article

    Ending at the “-“.

  6. Sphaerica says:

    The damage is done, while WUWT and that sort of site will never report this, and hence many people that read the original article will never even know it was retracted. This is hardly undoing the damage done, but…

    If only the Times (and others) can learn from this and use it to affect their future behavior, and avoid a repeat, or multiple repeats.

    I do hope this encourages more scientists to stand their ground, and to invest the energy in pursuing a complaint. I’m sure it’s not what most scientists want to do (they want to do science, and let the world judge them on their results), but I think on this issue, in this climate, doing so is a necessary and important distraction.

  7. MarkL says:

    Kudos to Lewis for fighting back. I hope other scientists will follow his example.

  8. I had a small win along similar lines, forcing the Murdoch-owned free Australian newspaper mX to publish a finding made against it by the Australian Press Council.

    The APC upheld my complaint over a story about the BBC website interview (frame-up) of Phil Jones. The mX story was taken by newswire from the UK Daily Mail’s dreadful “Climategate U-turn” smear, but it was edited to make it even worse.

    The APC found that mX “misrepresented and took out of context comments made by Professor Phil Jones”.

    The full APC adjudication is at

  9. mike roddy says:

    Good for Simon Lewis. I wish US scientists would do the same thing, including going after bloggers such as McIntyre, Watts, and Morano. It’s still libel and defamation.

    Prokaryote, the paleo evidence would seem to indicate rapid changes that may have been triggered by an event (such as a meteor), but are rapidly accelerated by feedbacks, including methane and plant decay. This is where we really need more work done, especially since IPCC barely touched on it. In the past, a rapid change timeline was considered to be in the neighborhood of 1000 years. We are changing at warp speed, geologically speaking.

    I wish I had the necessary links and details, something you do really well, but encourage you to look into them. I read a lot, but don’t always take notes.

    Much of this info, as with the ice link above, can be found in the archives of good old Climate Progress.

  10. Chad says:

    Ahh, Britain and their wonderful libel laws. It is time for science to fight back, in my opinion.

  11. Hi there! says:

    Hi there was a question asked earlier at FDL that apparently got lost in the shuffle. Wondering if you might give it a shot?

    (sorry to interrupt)

    “I understand that under a cap and trade scheme for pricing carbon, carbon credits will be awarded by an agency and inspectors funded by the industries trying to obtain the credits. This strikes me as very similar to the setup we have with rating agencies, banks, and mortgage backed securities. Do you see a similar conflict of interest? Aren’t the costs of these entities just going to be passed onto consumers?”

  12. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Sphaerica –

    a distraction it may be, but perhaps we’d agree that without that effort to set the record straight the science is actually pointless. Communicating the findings gives purpose to the endeavour, and it demands their defence at need.

    The failure thus far to communicate the climate jeopardy effectively can perhaps be counted in the millions of students around the world in the last few decades that have entered ecology studies in diverse forms, on the grounds that “once we get enough information to govt.s, policies will change.”

    In practice, as Dr Lewis’s staunch efforts exemplify, science has to speak to society directly, rather than, as in the past, near-exclusively to government.

    Having put down salaried denialism (in the Sunday Times !) Dr Lewis might do well to continue the task of (highly) constructive criticism of IPCC output. In one area the panel is being significantly less than forthright – specifically its acceptance and use of the idea of ‘stabilizing’ CO2 ppmv at some chosen level notably above its present value.

    While this may be a useful veil for politicians’ modesty of ambition,
    given the probable decline of global carbon sinks,
    and the time-lagged warming already ‘in the pipeline’,
    and the ongoing acceleration of the interactive feedbacks,
    and the additional forcing of the sulphate aerosols’ removal,
    there seems no scientific basis for IPCC any longer acquiescing to the feasibility of such a goal, let alone to its desirability.

    On the other hand, for the IPCC to provide the requisite ‘cross-bearing’ of an approximate date and value for a peak level of CO2e ppmv that could eventually allow the climate and society to recover stability, would set a scientific metric and a diplomatic landmark for the negotiations, and would arguably fulfill the IPCC’s primary mission.

    Therefore I wonder if Dr Lewis might be interested to consider applying his efforts to getting this strange oversight resolved ?



  13. Martin Vermeer says:


    I don’t quite agree with you. Lowe and Gregory are quite right IMO to point out that in policy making, uncertainty (i.e., a probability distribution of possible sea level rise outcomes rather than one ‘most likely’ outcome), should be taken fully into account.

    Preparing for a best case outcome (aka ‘wishful thinking’) is obviously irresponsible, but also preparing for the unlikely worst case outcome as if it were certain, is wasteful. The optimum is preparations staggered in time, leaving your options open as long as you safely can.

  14. Magnus W says:

    More research on how media handles climate change,,5710039,00.html?maca=en-rss-en-all-1573-rdf&utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=twitter

  15. mike roddy says:

    Good one, Lewis, #13. The big problem with IPCC is their wildly optimistic projections of emissions levels, already disproven by IEA data. That makes future “stabilization” unlikely, especially due to emissions in the pipeline and feedback loops, as you pointed out.

    The deniers have moved the bar, but the real dispute is whether IPCC should just keep issuing cautious reports, or whether they should recommend drastic action.

    Most people don’t realize that IPCC has been intimidated into these cautious reports, by industry lobbyists attending things such as forestry conferences, and incompetent people such as Tol and Christy being given a forum on other issues. That’s why the Stern report was much more accurate.

  16. peter whitehead says:

    I read the apology in a ‘hard copy’ of the Sunday Times – on page 2 in smaller type than usual. This should be the front page in big type.

  17. sod says:

    special thanks to lewis. this kind of “misinterpretation” of science and scientists, is the basis of the denialist approach to stop action on CO2.

    they must be stopped from using this tactic!

  18. Dana says:

    Hey it only took them 5 months to admit their error. Unfortunately most people who bought into the story will never read the retraction and apology, and will continue believing the IPCC report is riddled with errors (because that’s what they want to believe).

    I guess better late than never?

  19. prokaryote says:

    Martin Vermeer, his submission in my view clearly underestimates and cast doubt. Considering he was way off track in his 2006 quote

    “It is still likely that a major deglaciation of the ice sheet will take centuries to millenniums to occur,” he said. “The scale of the ice sheets is immense.”

    I just read uncertainty, doubt and natural variability in his remarks.

    “The recent acceleration of Greenland outlet glaciers and Antarctic ice streams may be due in part to natural variability, and it might not continue.”

    Might not continue? Uhh oh, recent science findings or tipping points are totally missing from his submission.

  20. Die Zauberflotist says:

    We have a crisis. Scientific opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of curbing CO2. Responsible governments need to take proactive steps to stop the lies being issued by the denialists and accelerate the inculcation of the seriousness of the problem to the populace. Serious consideration needs to be given to shutting down the right wing spewers of misinformation concerning climate change and the efforts of those of us who are trying to forestall runaway global warming.

  21. Bill W says:

    Sadly, the online version of the apology is behind a registration/paywall now, which will limit its dissemination. Sure, there’s a jpg at realclimate, but try to get a denier to look at anything on realclimate!

  22. Professor Braynestawm says:

    This is a great victory for Lewis but isn’t there an entire chunk of explanation missing here? Like WHY the story got changed in the first place?

    Lewis’s PCC said the initial report read to him by Leake was fine.

    Lewis wrote in his PCC complaint: “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.”

    So here’s the question. Leake has written an entire article, read it to Lewis and then, for no apparent reason, completely rewritten it – apparently of his own volition.

    What’s more he has deliberately inserted a number of errors and overstatements – something any science journalist must know is risking trouble. This makes no sense. There has to be an extra element which The Sunday Times is holding back. So the big question is: Whose decision was it to rewrite it? And who did the rewriting?

    Was it Leake? If so it sounds bizarre – any journalist would know that reading an article to a researcher then publishing something entirely different is asking for trouble. By Lewis’s account Leake went to some trouble to arrange to read the story back to him on the Saturday afternoon before publication.

    What’s notable here is that no-one has actually interviewed Leake (who actually has a long history of writing stories supporting climate change, according to the Timesonline website) .

    But there is a giant clue in the penultimate line of the ST apology where it says “A version of our article that had been checked with Dr Lewis underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of his views on these points.”

    So could the real question be not who wrote the article so much as who edited it?

    It sounds like there is a back story here that no-one is being told. Someone needs to dig a little deeper and find out what actually happened to that article in between Leake reading it to Lewis and final publication.
    (Might cross-post this – I think it’s interesting)

  23. prokaryote says:

    Gov’t scientist admits he misled public about oil sands

    A senior Alberta government scientist has apologized for attempting to discredit the authors of a report that raised “urgent” concerns about oil sands pollution.

    “(i) You did not lie (ii) You did not choose to remove data from your study,” reads a letter signed by Dr. Preston McEachern, an administrator with Alberta Environment. “The statements in my presentations that you did these things were false and I regret very much that I made these statements.”

  24. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Professor Braynestawm –

    the name you’re looking for is almost certainly that of Richard North, a nasty little slug of a shill, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of crossing swords (the annual Hay on Wye event changed its orientation in part as a result of that debate).

    A further question if North was given the final edit (and it’s his style in print) is who had the authority to do so ? Their motivation, given North’s record, was of explicit falsification. Why ?



  25. Professor Braynestawm says:

    That seems highly unlikely – Richard North is a blogger and editorialist who has links with the Sunday Telegraph, a rival paper. The Sunday Times would not have him editing its pages.

  26. Jeff Huggins says:

    “We accept that …” and “We apologize for …”

    WE ACCEPT THAT our overall coverage of climate change, and our lack of coverage, facilitate, enable, and add to confusion and misunderstanding to degrees that are (and will be) ultimately very harmful to the public’s ability to make truly informed and responsible decisions regarding the climate change and energy problems. In turn, this facilitates, enables, and ultimately adds to choices that are harmful to other species, harmful to many millions of people worldwide, destabilizing to the climate system, and ultimately harmful to future generations. It also robs our public and democracy of valid and clear information, and understanding, that the public/democracy could and should have had access to, and gained, had it not been for our journalistic choices and omissions.

    WE APOLOGIZE FOR the immense harms that our choices facilitate, enable, and sometimes add to.

    Wow . . .

    Don’t you just “love” the uses of the phrases “we accept that” and “we apologize for” as they are used (very rarely) by The Times?

    Even in their apologies and retractions, they still (apparently) do not get the magnitude of the issue (problem) with the coverage they provide to the public. Hello New York Times! Is anyone home??

    And I agree with the person who wants to hear, and read, about the WHY of all this. I would like to know WHY the last-minute changes to the article were made, WHY relevant comments were ignored, and WHY the public was given an article that people in The Times knew was misleading and downright incorrect?

    This story is not over — indeed, it has barely begun — until we know the WHY of the matter. The fact of one highly problematic story is a big problem, but the MUCH larger problem has to do with The Times’ overall approach to these things. The real story here is not over until we understand what the writer did, and why, and what the editor did, and why, and what the (whoever else was involved) did, and why, and what in The Times’ approach encouraged and led those people to do what they did, and why. It seems to me that CAP should push for answers on those matters, and The Observatory should push for answers on those matters, and the new Public Editor at The Times should push for answers on those matters as soon as the ink has signed on his contract — so his job is secure for the two-year term.

    I’d like to know — and the public deserves to know — WHY all this happened. Period.


  27. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Professor Braynestawm –

    If you look at the print version of the article, you’ll see it ends with the words
    “Research by Richard North”



  28. Maybe practices have changed somewhat in the 50 yrs since I last practiced journalism, but there are three practices which you cannot reasonably hold the reporter responsible for:

    1. The headline (it is created at the last minute during page layout, once one knows how many columns wide it can be). It is seldom checked with the reporter. Many oversimplifications (and editorializing) occur when choosing a shorter word. Just compare Wall Street Journal headlines before and after Murdoch.

    2. The editorial-desk rewrite. The editors may think the article too technical, or too lacking in folksy handles to attract the reader. It too is seldom checked with the reporter. Editors are much more “in tune” with the publisher’s world views than the reporters.

    3. Art and photos. In these days of photo bank subscriptions, and a style rule which mandates so much per page, mistakes and editorializing are common.

  29. prokaryote says:

    As Climate Scientists Battle the Press, One Receives Rare Apology From Paper

  30. Professor Braynestawm says:

    Was Jonathan Leake hung out to dry by The Sunday Times? George Monbiot, The Guardian
    “But the interesting question is how the Sunday Times messed up so badly. I spent much of yesterday trying to get some sense out of the paper, without success. But after 25 years in journalism it looks pretty obvious to me that Jonathan Leake has been wrongly blamed for this, then hung out to dry. My guess is that someone else at the paper, acting on instructions from an editor, got hold of Leake’s copy after he had submitted it, and rewrote it, drawing on North’s post, to produce a different – and more newsworthy – story. If this is correct, it suggests that Leake is carrying the can for an editor’s decision. The Sunday Times has made no public attempt to protect him: it looks to me like corporate cowardice.”

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  32. PB says:

    Should LeakeGate be HellenGate? Independent newspaper names Nick Hellen, news editor of the Sunday Times, as real author of infamous Amazon story

    “The Sunday Times ran a prominent apology last week over a story by Jonathan Leake about rewriting the UN climate panel. ….. But is Leake entirely to blame?
    News editor Nick Hellen is said to have been particularly enthusiastic about rewriting the UN story. Is that what the correction meant when it said: “A version of our article…underwent significant late editing and so did not give a fair or accurate account of Simon Lewis’s views.” ?