Anatomy of a Story: Africagate

There’s a new IPCC “gate du jour” circulating in the blogosphere.  It’s called “Africagate”.

Here’s the bottom line: there is continuing debate about the effects of global warming on Africa. It’s a large continent and current research and modeling suggests that some areas will benefit from warming and increased rainfall and others will experience increased drought and loss of crop production.

What does the IPCC report state about impacts on Africa?

Here is the relevant section from the IPCC Synthesis Report :

3.3.2 Impacts on regions


􏰖 By 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%. Agricultural production, including access to food, in many African countries is projected to be severely compromised. This would further adversely affect food security and exacerbate malnutrition. {WGII 9.4, SPM}

This refers to Section 9.4 in the WGII Report, which is as follows:

Southern Africa would be likely to experience notable reductions in maize production under possible increased ENSO conditions (Stige et al., 2006).

In other 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). A recent study on South African agricultural impacts, based on three scenarios, indicates that crop net revenues will be likely to fall by as much as 90% by 2100, with small-scale farmers being the most severely affected. However, there is the possibility that adaptation could reduce these negative effects (Benhin, 2006). In Egypt, for example, climate change could decrease national production of many crops (ranging from –11% for rice to –28% for soybeans) by 2050 compared with their production under current climate conditions (Eid et al., 2006). Other agricultural activities could also be affected by climate change and variability, including changes in the onset of rain days and the variability of dry spells (e.g., Reason et al., 2005; see also Chapter 5).

But the IPCC report include the following:

However, not all changes in climate and climate variability will be negative, as agriculture and the growing seasons in certain areas (for example, parts of the Ethiopian highlands and parts of southern Africa such as Mozambique), may lengthen under climate change, due to a combination of increased temperature and rainfall changes (Thornton et al., 2006). Mild climate scenarios project further benefits across African croplands for irrigated and, especially, dryland farms.However, it is worth noting that, even under these favourable scenarios, populated regions of the Mediterranean coastline, central, western and southern Africa are expected to be adversely affected (Kurukulasuriya and Mendelsohn, 2006a).

Bishop Hill isn’t happy about the IPCC — but he does appear rather delighted in being able to continue bashing Pachuri and the IPCC AR4:

In a story running in parallel in the Sunday Times and EU Referendum, Raj Pachauri is linked directly to a new set of erroneous statements in the IPCC reports. This time it’s African rainfall they’ve been misleading us about. Since Pachauri is the author of the relevant part of the report and has repeated the claims elsewhere, he will find it harder to absolve himself of responsibility this time. Commenters noted a recent study that found that there has been a massive recent greening of the Sahel, with temperature rises leading to higher rainfall.

Here’s the Times, “Top British scientist says UN panel is losing credibility“:

The most important is a claim that global warming could cut rain-fed north African crop production by up to 50% by 2020, a remarkably short time for such a dramatic change. The claim has been quoted in speeches by Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chairman, and by Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general.

This weekend Professor Chris Field, the new lead author of the IPCC’s climate impacts team, told The Sunday Times that he could find nothing in the report to support the claim.

The citation putting a bee in EUReferendum’s bonnet is the Agoumi 2003 reference, “Vulnerability of North African Countries to Climatic Changes“.

Here’s the bee-bonnet quote:

Advocacy group origins

The IISD is the International Institute for Sustainable Development. Although it calls itself a “think tank”, it is another environmental advocacy group in the same mould as the WWF.

Established in Canada in 1990, it was the brainchild of then prime minister Brian Mulroney, intended to be “a centre which will promote internationally the concept of environmentally sustainable development.” As this hagiography makes abundantly clear, its primary concern is policy advocacy.

It is unashamedly strident in declaring its “vision” to be: “Better living for all – sustainably”. Its “mission”, set out in evangelistic tones, is: “To champion innovation, enabling societies to live sustainably.”

Horrible, I know. Tsk Tsk. Sustainability.  I never.

Former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, BTW, was a conservative and good buddy of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  🙂

Here’s a guest post by Ben Pike titled “More Laundered Literature” on Pilke Jr’s blog:

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.

Number one — the IPCC PRODUCES NO SCIENCE. They produce a summary of the science.

Number two — to ask questions is legitimate.  To spin the story, to misrepresent the facts, is to be in denialist territory. If you simply state the facts and provide your opinion, that’s fine. As I have said before, everyone has an opinion and they’re about as useful as anyone else’s opinion. I’m looking for more than opinion, and I am interested in studying “spin” and deception, obfuscation and outright lies. If you do none of the aforementioned, and I won’t call you a denier. However, if I do detect falsehood and deception, I will label people either stupid or deniers.

Here is where the 50% by 2020 comes from — a report from the Morroco government, which contains the following:

  • A decrease in cereal yields by 50% in dry years and 10% in normal years. In the two cases, the result of the projections made for cereal production in 2020 points to a deficit in comparison with the 60 million quintals security food program set by the Department of Agriculture.

Here is North:

The report from the Moroccan government is quite explicit, and seems to lend some support to Agoumi. It states that it expects by 2020, “a decrease in cereal yields by 50% in dry years and 10% in normal years.” In other words, the first of the two statements by Agoumi is reasonably close to the mark (insofar as it applies to Morocco), where he reports: “Decreasing rain-based agricultural yields with grain yields reduced by up to 50 per cent in periods of drought.”

This, though, is just one country, and the claim seems rather tenuous – an assertion unsupported by any referenced research

So, the report Agoumi cites is from a government report, and cites no peer-reviewed research to back it up. At the end of the Moroccan government report, there is a list of references from which the report is supposedly based. Both reference the Moroccan “Ministère de l’Aménagement du Territoire, de l’Urbanisme, de l’Habitat et de l’Environnement” — which I assume is the Moroccan Ministry responsible for urbanism and the environment.

Here are the two in French, about the impact of climate change on Morocco:

  • Etude des possibilités d’atténuation des gaz à effet de serre au Maroc, MATUHE, octobre 2001.
  • Etude de Vulnérabilité du Royaume du Maroc face aux impacts des changements climatiques, MATUHE, septembre 2001.

The crime here is that the IPCC relied on a report from a development advocacy group that cites the Moroccan government’s own research reports on climate change and impacts.

Here is North:

Therefore, Agoumi’s primary references – which would have qualified as acceptable for the IPCC report – offer a mixed picture from the three countries examined. At worst, we get a 10-50 percent fall in cereal yield, the greater fall occurring only in periods of drought. Alternatively, we see a 5.5-6.8 percent trimmed from what could be a doubling of yields and then, in the third country, rainfall could actually increase – possibly (but not necessarily) improving yields of rain-fed crops.

Returning now to Dr Pauchauri’s Synthesis Report and his claim that “by 2020, in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%,” the only support he has, on the basis of the primary references, is data from one country – singular, rather than plural, unsupported by peer reviewed research. And that is set against increased production in a neighbouring country – albeit slightly trimmed – while another could actually see rain-fed yields increase overall. Then, the data apply to cereal yields only, not crops in general as is implied by the IPCC.

Clearly though, “in one country, cereal yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50% during periods of drought” would not have quite the impact of the IPCC’s current claim. But using the phrasing “up to 50% reduction” is on a par with a department store reducing the price of one stock item by half and the others by considerably less, then advertising its wares as “up to 50% off”. Strictly speaking, it is not untrue, but it is sharp practice. Science, it is not.

I agree that better citations would strengthen the IPCC report.

In Summary, the IPCC report once again uses a non-peer reviewed citation — Agoumi — which in turn bases its claims on a Moroccan government report that cites its own research. Not the best. The 50% reference did refer to Morocco, not several countries.  The reference should have been more specific.

However, the section on African impacts also presents reserach that climate change, global warming, will have positive effects on some areas of the continent.

Impacts — previous, current and future — are going to be hard to assess. If we are only now studying and seeing the effects of GHG emissions increases, there won’t be much peer reviewed literature to cite. There may be more work on impacts being done by development agencies and governments, who are focusing on agriculture etc.  or international organizations studying the region. Here is where that Annex on non-peer reviewed literature comes into play.

What this does bring up again is the need for more research in this area. It also highlights how far deniers and contrarians will go to create an issue.


About Policy Lass

Exploring skeptic tales.

3 Responses to “Anatomy of a Story: Africagate”

  1. Wow.

    Susann, you made a few mistakes here but the real doozy was the conclusion where you write;

    “It also highlights how far deniers and contrarians will go to create an issue.”

    So, you think skeptics and realists should “just go along” with a report that says many north African countries will have up to 50% reduction in food production? Really?

    This claim was one of the central claims in several of Pachauri’s speeches and prominent in the Synthesis Report. This is alarmism at its worst. It is not something to be overlooked or excused. It is a cancer to be attacked and cut out.

    • Ron, please — take care with your words.

      So, you think skeptics and realists should “just go along” with a report that says many north African countries will have up to 50% reduction in food production? Really?

      You are misrepresenting.

      I said “denialists” and “contrarians”. Honest skeptics I have no beef with, but I see few around…

      The IPCC report said:

      “By 2020,in some countries, yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.

      Here is an excerpt from Pachauri’s speech at Copenhagen:

      “In Africa, by 2020, between 75 and 250 million people are projected to be exposed to water stress due to climate change, and in some countries on that continent yields from rainfed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%.”

      So, it was “some countries in Africa”, not not “many North African countries”.

      It was ““some” “could”“, not “many” “will”.

      It was “up to a 50% reduction in yields from rain-fed agriculture”, not “a 50% reduction in food production”.

      These nuances, I know, tax the frontal cortex.

      But they are important to an objective read of the pertinent sections of the report and speech.

      You should try it some time.

  2. Regarding droughts, read this: Dai et al. (J. Hydromet., 2004)

    From their paper:
    “Together, the global land areas in either very dry or very wet conditions have increased from ∼20% to 38% since 1972, with surface warming as the primary cause after the mid-1980s. These results provide observational evidence for the increasing risk of droughts as anthropogenic global warming progresses and produces both increased temperatures and increased drying.”

    “Surface air temperature increases over land, which increase the water-holding capacity of the air and thus its demand of moisture, have been a primary cause for the widespread drying during the last two–three decades.”

    There was pronounced trend towards drier conditions over most of Africa between 1950 and 2002 (see their Fig. 7). And this is only the beginning.

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