09 January 2011

Pinocchio Strikes Again! Mistruths about Ocean Acidification

Our local climate change denialist greeted the new year with a column in a local paper (which I won't read anymore, but this one jumped out at me when I was starting a fire while housesitting at a friend's house) saying that ocean acidification is "absolutely rubbish."

Instead of publishing my response locally, I'm going to place it here, with the hope that it will get wider notice.

Tim Ball is such a pain in the climate change #!% that he has my husband and me arguing over which of his mistruths to spend time responding to (something we vowed today never to let happen again).

So here is my response to his innocent-sounding column, "What is Ocean Acidification?". I should point out that he opens with this quote from Marie Curie:
"Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood."
Ball then starts this way: "Scare tactics to create fear," and finishes up with "The entire story is scientific rubbish and part of the ongoing exploitation of fear and lack of understanding Marie Curie identified." Methinks perhaps he was describing his own column!
My Letter to the Editor
I have been a fervent watcher of Tim Ball's dangerous climate change denialist antics over the last few years. He never fails to amaze and entertain me with his ability to knowingly (he is not a stupid man) make so many mistakes in such contorted ways while trouncing on the work of so many scientists. Other readers, however, may have become somewhat confused about ocean acidification after reading his December 31, 2010 column so, with your permission, I would like to clarify a few things.
If ocean acidification (OA) had been invented by governments or climate change activists, then perhaps Ball's statement that OA is "[s]care tactics to create fear" would be correct. However, ocean acidification is a phenomenon that has been observed and is now being studied by scientists, especially those in biogeochemistry and marine biology. (Ball's PhD-level dissertation on 18th- and 19th-century climatic change in north central Canada was in geography, not biology, geology, chemistry or physics.)
Increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is being absorbed by the oceans, making seawater (as Ball fastidiously points out) less alkaline (which, in scientific terms, including medicine and food science, is called "more acidic"). As scientists working with Ocean Carbon & Biogeochemistry (OCB, the program that Ball cited) point out, "The word 'acidification' refers to lowering pH from any starting point to any end point on the pH scale…. even though seawater's pH is greater than 7.0 (and therefore considered 'basic' in terms of the pH scale), increasing atmospheric CO2 levels are still raising the ocean's acidity and lowering its pH. In comparison, this language is similar to the words we use when we talk about temperature. If the air temperature moves from -40°C to -29°C, it is still cold, but we call it 'warming.'"
Unfortunately, marine creatures that have evolved over the eons within a limited pH range don't care what language we use if their habitat has become inhospitable to them. This is what is happening to many marine organisms; coral reefs have become the canary in the oceans. As an expert on weather patterns in the Hudson Bay area of Canada, perhaps Ball just doesn't care about coral reefs. But the Convention on Biological Diversity gives a sense of how important they are: coral reefs provide work for 100 million people, are worth US$30 billion annually (tourism and fishing), buffer coastlines from ocean storms and surges, and contain about 25% of marine species even though they cover only 0.2% of the sea floor, ensuring marine biodiversity (http://www.cbd.int/doc/bioday/2009/banners/cbd-ibd-banners-5-en.pdf). (And as something that could really turn around and bite us in the butt, corals absorb CO2 to make their shells, so if CO2-absorbing corals die, where will all that extra carbon end up? I dunno, just a question.)
Near the end of his column on OA, Ball plagiarizes (or perhaps it was simply a typesetting error) from the Ocean Acidification Network, which is made up of the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, UNESCO - Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and the International Geosphere - Biosphere Programme. In a form of "cherry picking" made infamous by climate change denialists of many ilks, Ball picked one sentence out of an explanatory paragraph, fixed a spelling mistake, did not offer its context, and then twisted its intent to support his hypothesis that it's all "rubbish." Here's the original: 
"The ocean absorbs approximately one-fourth of the CO2 added to the atmosphere from human activities each year, greatly reducing the impact of this greenhouse gas on climate. When CO2 dissolves in seawater, carbonic acid is formed. This phenomenon, called ocean acidification, is decreasing the ability of many marine organisms to build their shells and skeletal structure. Field studies suggest that impacts of acidification on some major marine calcifiers may already be detectable, and naturally high-CO2 marine environments exhibit major shifts in marine ecosystems following trends expected from laboratory experiments. Yet the full impact of ocean acidification and how these impacts may propogate [sic] through marine ecosystems and affect fisheries remains largely unknown."
Their Ocean Acidification Summary for Policymakers 2009 states: "Sixty-five million years ago, ocean acidification was linked to mass extinctions of calcareous marine organisms, an integral part of the marine food web. At that time, coral reefs disappear from the geologic record and it took millions of years for coral reefs to recover. Today's human-induced acidification represents a rare event in the geological history of our planet."
When Ball offers up charts of CO2 levels over the last 600 million years, this is when his denialism becomes truly creepy — and disingenuous. CO2 is at its highest in 800,000 years, but surely Ball realizes that the problem isn't CO2 per se, or even global warming per se, but the fact that Homo sapiens, only about 200,000 years old, has evolved over the last 10,000 years of stable climate into an agricultural species. Our survival now depends on food growing (versus foraging, scavenging and hunting), which is threatened by climate disruption (floods, droughts, heat waves). If we're threatening the food chain in the oceans as well, then it is definitely not "exploitation of fear" we need to be afraid of.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?