Phil Williamson responds to “Ocean acidification: yet another wobbly pillar of climate alarmism” by James Delingpole, published in The Spectator 30 April 2016

Citation: Williamson, P. (2016) Two views of ocean acidification: which is fatally flawed? [online] Plymouth, The Marine Biological Association, [Accessed 23 Aug 2016]  

Original article online at:


James Delingpole considers that ocean acidification is a scare story that is not only ‘fatally flawed’ but also grossly over-hyped by climate alarmists, for political reasons.  To give credibility to these views, information and quotes are given from four scientists (Patrick Moore, Mike Wallace, Matt Ridley and Craig Idso).  However, those sources are unreliable: none has relevant marine expertise, and the evidence they provide is either inaccurate or incorrect.  Three other scientists (Howard Browman, Richard Feely and Christopher Sabine) who do have direct research experience are either mis-quoted or their competence is dismissed.  The wider scientific literature is not considered.  Overall, Delingpole’s arguments are based on exaggeration, false dichotomy, deliberate selectivity and bravado assertion: almost everything that could be factually wrong, is wrong.  Specific errors, with other comments, are identified below for each paragraph of the original text.  Example references are also given, as links; many other supporting sources could also be cited.

Detailed comments

Delingpole’s article text given first, in italics, followed by Williamson’s comments.  Paragraph numbering added by Williamson.  Links within Delingpole text were not originally included, but have been added where the specific references are unambiguous.

1. [Article]  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.’

[Comments]  Concern regarding the future of the Great Barrier Reef is fully justified – but not because the corals will soon dissolve.  Instead, bleaching (loss of algae from the coral) is the most important current threat, due to unusually high seawater temperatures.  Satellite surveys and field observations by the Australian government and independent researchers indicated that 20-50% (and locally up to 90%) of northern areas of the reef was affected by bleachingin late 2015/early 2016.  Individual corals may recover from bleaching if high temperature events are short-lived; however, if the bleaching is permanent, the corals die. Population recovery, through re-colonisation and re-growth, typically takes 10-15 years.

2.  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?

Whilst the dead skeletons of coldwater corals (occurring in deep water, including around the UK) are at increasing risk of dissolving, a key effect of ocean acidification on warm-water corals is slower growth.  Current growth rates are around 10% lower than they were before human activities increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and reef development ceases at pH below 7.7, the projected end of the century level for high emission scenarios.  Before then, it is near-certain there will be more frequent bleaching, due to further warming, together with even slower re-growth and population recovery due to ocean acidification.  The cumulative effects of temperature changeocean acidification and other stressors jeopardises the longterm survival of coral reef structures.  The socio-economic consequences of reef loss are substantive, relating to coastal protection and fisheries, as well as tourism.

The scientific literature on ocean acidification covers much more than effects on corals.  Collectively it provides the factual evidence that enables the seriousness of ocean acidification to be dispassionately assessed; for example, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changeand the Convention on Biological Diversity.

3.  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.’

More than 150 scientific articles on ocean acidification were published before 2003.  Between 1989 and 2003, these averaged 9 per year, including geological, chemical and biological studies. The 2003 Nature study did, however, stimulate wider scientific and political interest in the topic area.

‘Endorsed’ implies approval (for ocean acidification).  It would seem more appropriate to say that many scientists and institutions have recognised that ocean acidification is occurring, is an issue of concern, and is worthy of detailed investigation.

4.  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.

What is the source of these statements?  They have not been made by scientists studying ocean acidification, nor (as far as I am aware) by environmental NGOs.  But maybe by sensation-seeking journalists? Or are they satirical exaggerations by Delingpole?  If – as it seems – they are deliberate mis-representations for polemic effect, the ‘climate alarmism’ of the title is spurious.  The rest of the article then has questionable credibility, whilst becoming logically fallacious.

5.  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.

The alternative to ‘scaremongering theory’ is not to dismiss ocean acidification as nothing at all to worry about.  That assertion is equally incorrect, providing a false dichotomy ‒ that is not increasingly supported by factual evidence, as discussed below.

6.  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’.

Patrick Moore’s linkage with Greenpeace is controversial: the organisation does not recognise him as a co-founder although Moore continues to make that claim.  What is indisputable is that Moore has only very limited, if any, expertise in marine science.

The term ocean acidification is scientifically correct: it is used for technical reasons, not for any connotations it might or might not have for non-scientists.  Thus ‘acidification’ is the process of decreasing pH (increasing acidity), wherever on the pH scale that occurs.  In the same way, ‘warming’ is the process of increasing temperature, wherever that occurs – including rather cold parts of the world, e.g. polar regions.

The range of pH naturally occurring in the ocean is much wider than stated.  Values as low as pH 5.4 – undoubtedly acid – have been recorded at deep sea vents (that do support life, adapted to such conditions).

7.  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.

Matt Ridley also has only limited, if any, expertise in marine science.  An opinion article he wrote in The Times in 2010 on ocean acidification contained many errors.  What he shares with Moore (and Delingpole) is climate scepticism, with an unscientific approach to evidence evaluation.

The sceptical view that man-made global warming is a ‘busted flush’ does not look increasingly to be the case; instead it is increasingly hard to challenge in a rational way the accumulating evidence of human influence on the climate.  In addition to the extremely thorough IPCC analyses of such issues, recent climate record-breaking is incontestable. For example: 2015 was the warmest year on record (mean surface temperature 1⁰C higher than in pre-industrial times), and that year included the lowest ever winter ice cover in the Arctic.  2016 is on course to beat those records – all months so far have been seasonally warmer than ever beforewith July 2016 being the hottest single month.  Whilst there has been a significant contribution from the 2015-16 El Niño, that ended earlier this year – and the increase in total ocean heat content has been inexorable since 1970.

8.  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.

Who exactly is the ‘alarmist camp’?  The failure to identify the source of these assertions is telling.  If, as seems likely, they are imaginary and provided for rhetorical purposes, Delingpole is a double extremist ‒ arguing against himself.

9.  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’.

Browman’s articledoes not claim to be a ‘review of all the papers published on the subject’; it is an Introduction to a Special Issue.  Has Delingpole read it, or just the imbalanced and inaccurate accounts of it that were in the media (e.g. The Times, 1 March 2016), as challenged by Browman?

The words ‘flawed’, ‘inherent bias’ and ‘doom and gloom’ do not appear in Browman’s article.  Whilst its text does state “studies that report no effect of OA [ocean acidification] are typically more difficult to publish”, those words are preceded by a crucial qualifier: “As is true across all of science”.

Furthermore, Browman does consider ocean acidification to be a serious problem, warranting research attention: “Although I call for a more sceptical scrutiny and balanced interpretation of the body of research on OA, it must be emphasized that OA is happening and it will have effects on some marine organisms and ecosystem processes.”

10.  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?

The ‘Feeley and Sabine chart’ criticised by Wallace was not included in their seminal 2004 paper, but was first published in 2008 (authorship Richard Feely, Victoria Fabry and John Guinotte, giving data credit to Pieter Tans and David Karl).  Mike Wallace’s hydrological expertise is in groundwater pollution, particularly minewater management.  He has not published any peer-reviewed papers on ocean acidification, nor marine chemistry.  By contrast, Richard Feely and Christopher Sabine are both oceanographers; their combined total is around 70 years of relevant experience, with around 500 relevant publications.

There are three very good reasons, all relating to data quality, why the additional pH measurements identified by Wallace have not been included in NOAA-led analyses.  First, the sensors used until around 1988 were not sufficiently precise to reliably detect changes of ~0.002 pH units per year; second, associated information on sensor calibration was lacking; and third, there was uncertainty whether or not temperature corrections had been made.

Furthermore, measurements of many other environmental factors (and considerable statistical skill) are needed to determine a ‘global average’ in ocean pH from a limited number of water samples randomly collected at different times of year from different places at different water depths.  The importance of other factors affecting ocean acidification data has only recently been recognised, thereby enabling data to be combined from different sources.

11.  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.

Wallace’s chart does not show any significant trend in global pH because the data he used are not appropriate for such analysis, for the reasons given above.  It is a scientific impossibility for global pH to have changed as shown on Wallace’s chart: from below 7.8 in the 1920s to nearly 8.4 by 1940, and then back to 7.8 by 1960.  There are, however, very thorough, peer-reviewed studies that identify the location-specific decrease of pH in near-surface waters since 1990, as collated by the World Meteorological Organisation.

12.  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.

Moore’s FCPP paper has not been subject to expert scrutiny.  If it had been, its scientific naivety and ‘cherry-picking’ approach would have precluded its publication in a reputable journal.  The four conclusions re-presented by Delingpole are either incorrect or only partly true.  Whilst a full response is not appropriate here, the fact that some marine species (with either short generation times or high fecundity) may be able to adapt to environmental change does not mean that all can.  Thus there is high risk that ‘nuisance’ species (e.g. jellyfish) are those that will be favoured in future.

It is indisputable that many species of seafloor calcifiers became extinct at previous times of naturally-high CO2, with much slower rate of atmospheric change.  Yes, ocean buffering is a real effect – but it takes tens of thousands of years, whereas current ocean acidification is occurring on a decadal to century timescale.  With regard to the interaction of warming and ocean acidification, the temperature change in CO2 solubility is fully taken account of in ocean geochemical models: the only circumstances where net global ocean uptake would change to net global out-gassing would involve ‘negative emissions’ of CO2, requiring the large net removal of the gas from the  atmosphere.

13.  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.

Idso’s ‘killer analysis’ is online, as an ‘Ocean Acidification Database’ without named authorship.  What is killed is any remaining scientific credibility.  There are three crucial flaws in the information provided.  First, taking the presented data at face value, positive effects for winning species do not cancel out negative effects for losers. Instead, ecological disruption will result from effects on food-webs and competitive interactions. An economic analogy can be made: if a change in government policy results in a third of the working population doubling their income, but two-thirds halving their income, the overall effect is not ‘no change’ ‒ even though average income is unaffected.

Second, increased metabolism is not a ‘benefit’ but a stress response, equivalent to raised temperature during human illness. Greater food intake (that may not necessarily be possible) is required for increased metabolism to be sustained, with reduced longterm chances of survival by diverting energy from reproduction to other metabolic processes.  Third, the statistical analyses are invalid, being based on linear rather than proportional scaling.

Combining results from different studies has to be done with great care.  Nevertheless, such meta-analyses have been properly carried out for ocean acidification, for example those by Kroeker et al. and  Wittman & Pörtner.  Those syntheses are relatively easy to find, being frequently cited (unlike Idso’s) by others.  However, the meta-analyses carried out by ocean acidification experts do take account of taxonomic differences in responses, and reach very different conclusions from those given by Moore.  Why were those additional analyses not mentioned by Delingpole? Such omission of evidence either demonstrates ignorance, or wilful distortion, with the latter being a much more serious form of bias than the publication issues discussed by Browman.

It is incorrect to say that a pH reduction of 0.3 units is beyond what is considered a plausible reduction this century: a slightly greater decrease, of 0.35, is projected to result from IPCC’s ‘business as usual’ scenario (RCP 8.6) for the surface ocean. Whilst it is very much hoped that scenario will not be realised, its avoidance will need emission reductions and de-carbonisation (actions considered unnecessary by Delingpole, see below).

14.  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?

The £12.5 million funding for the UK Ocean Acidification research programme (UKOA) was mostly provided by the Natural Environment Research Council.  Defra’s co-support was around £1 million, with a similar contribution from the Department of Energy & Climate Change (DECC, now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Industrial Strategy).

The descriptor ‘whopping’ and the disparaging comments on the (un)importance of UKOA outputs do not reflect the range and impacts of the new knowledge that has been delivered.  The programme involved experimental and modelling studies; fieldwork in UK and European seas, the Arctic Ocean and the Southern Ocean; analyses of the impacts of a natural ocean acidification event 56 million years ago; and partnerships with stakeholders and international colleagues.  UKOA has already resulted in over 250 peer-reviewed publications, and has had policy influence at UK, European and UN levels.

UKOA’s total spend over five years was much the same as the amount currently spent every two hours by the Ministry of Defence, or the cost of a top-of-the-range flat in central London, or a 16 m length of the proposed Crossrail 2; it was less than half the amount spent every year on research and partnerships by Coca Cola.

15.  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.

16.  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.

The quoted cost of the ‘climate change industry’ includes the global effort directed at improving the efficiency of energy, transport and buildings, as well as actions more explicitly related to climate change (e.g. climate-related insurance).

In considering ‘commercial sense’, the comparison to the online shopping industry seems irrelevant.  More appropriate comparisons would be either to the $5.3 trillion pa currently spent in global energy subsidies, primarily in support of fossil fuel industry, or to the longterm cost of inaction.  Estimates of the latter vary according to the discounting rate applied; using public-sector discounting, assets at risk are valued at $43 trillion – without any valuation of non-market environmental services.

17. 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.

The increased attention given to ocean acidification in the early 2000s by scientists, funding agencies and governments was for scientific reasons, relating to measurements and studies carried out in the 1990s.  It was then recognised that ocean acidification posed an additional, previously neglected, risk arising from increasing atmospheric CO2.  Furthermore, ocean acidification was already having significant economic consequences for the US aquaculture industry. The conspiratorial linkages surmised by Delingpole are imaginary.

18.  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.

There undoubtedly has been inappropriate manipulation of science to promote specific agendas.  But by whom?  On the basis of the incomplete and incorrect information presented by Delingpole, his own article provides much more impressive evidence for scientific abuse and distortion than anything communicated by ocean acidification researchers.

Statement of interests

Dr Phillip Williamson is employed by the Natural Environment Research Council, with around half his time since 2010 as Science Coordinator of the UK Ocean Acidification research programme.  He has worked on the planning and implementation of global change research programmes since the mid-1980s, with a research background covering both terrestrial and marine ecology.