Ocean acidification: yet another wobbly pillar of climate alarmism

A paper review suggests many studies are flawed, and the effect may not be negative even if it’s real

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

30 April 2016

9:00 AM

There was a breathtakingly beautiful BBC series on the Great Barrier Reef recently which my son pronounced himself almost too depressed to watch. ‘What’s the point?’ said Boy. ‘By the time I get to Australia to see it the whole bloody lot will have dissolved.’

The menace Boy was describing is ‘ocean acidification’. It’s no wonder he should find it worrying, for it has been assiduously promoted by environmentalists for more than a decade now as ‘global warming’s evil twin’. Last year, no fewer than 600 academic papers were published on the subject, so it must be serious, right?

First referenced in a peer-reviewed study in Nature in 2003, it has since been endorsed by scientists from numerous learned institutions including the Royal Society, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the IPCC. Even the great David Attenborough — presenter of the Great Barrier Reef series — has vouched for its authenticity: ‘If the temperature rises up by two degrees and the acidity by a measurable amount, lots of species of coral will die out. Quite what happens then is anybody’s guess. But it won’t be good.’

No indeed. Ocean acidification is the terrifying threat whereby all that man-made CO2 we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere may react with the sea to form a sort of giant acid bath. First it will kill off all the calcified marine life, such as shellfish, corals and plankton. Then it will destroy all the species that depend on it — causing an almighty mass extinction which will wipe out the fishing industry and turn our oceans into a barren zone of death.

Or so runs the scaremongering theory. The reality may be rather more prosaic. Ocean acidification — the evidence increasingly suggests — is a trivial, misleadingly named, and not remotely worrying phenomenon which has been hyped up beyond all measure for political, ideological and financial reasons.

Some of us have suspected this for some time. According to Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace, long one of ocean acidification theory’s fiercest critics, the term is ‘just short of propaganda’. The pH of the world’s oceans ranges between 7.5 and 8.3 — well above the acid zone (which starts below ‘neutral’ pH7) — so more correctly it should be stated that the seas are becoming slightly less alkaline. ‘Acid’ was chosen, Moore believes, because it has ‘strong negative connotations for most people’.

Matt Ridley, too, has been scathing on the topic. In The Rational Optimist he wrote, ‘Ocean acidification looks suspiciously like a back-up plan by the environmental pressure groups in case the climate fails to warm.’ I agree. That’s why I like to call it the alarmists’ Siegfried Line — their last redoubt should it prove, as looks increasingly to be the case, that the man-made global warming theory is a busted flush.

To the alarmist camp, of course, this is yet further evidence that ‘deniers’ are heartless, anti-scientific conspiracy theorists who don’t read peer-reviewed papers and couldn’t give a toss if the world’s marine life is dissolved in a pool of acid due to man’s selfishness and greed. Unfortunately for the doom-mongers, we sceptics have just received some heavy fire-support from a neutral authority.

Howard Browman, a marine scientist for 35 years, has published a review in the ICES Journal of Marine Science of all the papers published on the subject. His verdict could hardly be more damning. The methodology used by the studies was often flawed; contrary studies suggesting that ocean acidification wasn’t a threat had sometimes had difficulty finding a publisher. There was, he said, an ‘inherent bias’ in scientific journals which predisposed them to publish ‘doom and gloom stories’.

Ocean acidification theory appears to have been fatally flawed almost from the start. In 2004, two NOAA scientists, Richard Feely and Christopher Sabine, produced a chart showing a strong correlation between rising atmospheric CO2 levels and falling oceanic pH levels. But then, just over a year ago, Mike Wallace, a hydrologist with 30 years’ experience, noticed while researching his PhD that they had omitted some key information. Their chart only started in 1988 but, as Wallace knew, there were records dating back to at least 100 years before. So why had they ignored the real-world evidence in favour of computer-modelled projections?

When Wallace plotted a chart of his own, incorporating all the available data, covering the period from 1910 to the present, his results were surprising: there has been no reduction in oceanic pH levels in the last -century.

Even if the oceans were ‘acidifying’, though, it wouldn’t be a disaster for a number of reasons — as recently outlined in a paper by Patrick Moore for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. First, marine species that calcify have survived through millions of years when CO2 was at much higher levels; second, they are more than capable of adapting — even in the short term — to environmental change; third, seawater has a large buffering capacity which prevents dramatic shifts in pH; fourth, if oceans do become warmer due to ‘climate change’, the effect will be for them to ‘outgas’ CO2, not absorb more of it.

Finally, and perhaps most damningly, Moore quotes a killer analysis conducted by Craig Idso of all the studies which have been done on the effects of reduced pH levels on marine life. The impact on calcification, metabolism, growth, fertility and survival of calcifying marine species when pH is lowered up to 0.3 units (beyond what is considered a plausible reduction this century) is beneficial, not damaging. Marine life has nothing whatsoever to fear from ocean acidification.

Given all this, you might well ask why our learned institutions, government departments and media outlets have put so much effort into pretending otherwise. Why, between 2009 and 2014, did Defra spend a whopping £12.5 million on an ocean acidification research programme when the issue could have been resolved, for next to nothing, after a few hours’ basic research?

To those of us who have been studying the global warming scare in some detail, the answer is depressingly obvious. It’s because in the last decade or so, the climate change industry has become so vast and all encompassing, employing so many people, it simply cannot be allowed to fail.

According to a report last year by Climate Change Business Journal, it’s now worth an astonishing $1.5 trillion — about the same as the online shopping industry. If the scare goes away, then all bets are off, because the entire global decarbonisation business relies on it. The wind parks, the carbon sequestration projects, the solar farms, the biomass plantations — none of these green schemes make any kind of commercial sense unless you buy into the theory that anthropogenic CO2 is catastrophically warming the planet and that radical green measures, enforced by governmental regulation, must be adopted to avert it.

It’s no coincidence that the ocean acidification narrative began in the early 2000s — just as it was beginning to dawn on the climate alarmists that global temperatures weren’t going to plan. While CO2 levels were continuing to rise, temperatures weren’t. Hence the need for a fallback position — an environmental theory which would justify the massively expensive and disruptive ongoing decarbonisation programme so assiduously championed by politicians, scientists, green campaigners and anyone making money out of the renewables business. Ocean acidification fitted the bill perfectly.

Does this prove that global warming is not a problem? No it doesn’t. What it does do is lend credence to something we much-maligned sceptics have long been saying: that in many environmental fields, the science is being abused and distorted to promote a political and financial agenda. Perhaps it’s about time our supposed ‘conspiracy theories’ were taken more seriously.

Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.

Show comments