A small boat is trapped in a pond near Santarem, Brazil, after water levels of the Amazon river fell by some two metres. Photograph: Daniel Beltra/Greenpeace
A leading scientist has made an official complaint to the Press Complaints Commission over an "inaccurate, misleading and distorted" newspaper story about a supposed mistake made by the UN's panel on global warming.
Simon Lewis, an expert on tropical forests at the University of Leeds, says the story, published by the Sunday Times in January, is wrong and should be corrected.
He says the story is misleading because it gives the impression that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made a false claim in its 2007 report that reduced rainfall could wipe out up to 40% of the Amazon rainforest. The Sunday Times story was widely followed up across the world, and, in the wake of the discovery of a high-profile blunder by the IPCC over the likely melting of Himalayan glaciers, helped fuel claims that the IPCC was flawed and its conclusions unreliable.
Lewis said: "There is currently a war of disinformation about climate change-related science, and my complaint can hopefully let journalists in the front line of this war know that there are potential repercussions if they publish misleading stories. The public deserve careful and accurate science reporting."
The Sunday Times piece was originally headlined "UN climate panel shamed by bogus rainforest claim", though this was later changed on the website version. It said the 40% destruction figure was based on an "unsubstantiated claim by green campaigners who had little scientific expertise".
The IPCC report attributed the claim to a report from campaign group WWF, which contained no reference to back the statement.
Lewis said he was contacted by the Sunday Times before the article was published and told them the IPCC's statement was "poorly written and bizarrely referenced, but basically correct". He added that "there is a wealth of scientific evidence suggesting that the Amazon is vulnerable to reductions in rainfall". He also sent the newspaper several scientific papers that supported the claim, but were not cited by that section of the IPCC report.
Lewis says in his PCC complaint (PDF, published by ClimateProgress.org) that he told The Sunday Times "the IPCC statement itself was scientifically defensible and correct, merely that [it used] the incorrect reference... To state otherwise is to materially mislead the reader."
Lewis also complains that the Sunday Times used several quotes from him in the piece to support the assertion that the IPCC report had made a false claim. "Despite repeatedly stating to the Sunday Times that there is no problem with the sentence in the IPCC report, except the reference."
Lewis said he made the PCC complaint, which runs to 31 pages, only after other attempts to raise his concerns failed. A letter to the Sunday Times, he says, was not acknowledged or printed, and a comment he posted on its website was deleted.
"As a professional scientist I have to clear this mess up, it's important to protect my reputation in terms of providing accurate scientific information to the public."
The Sunday Times said it that printed two letters in response to the article. It said it was "currently dealing with Simon Lewis's complaint and hope to resolve the issue".