When my wife was a student at Hillsdale College __ years ago (Nope! Not telling!), some student friends worked in a sausage factory nearby. They literally waded in hip boots in vast vats of various parts of cattle and pig carcasses headed for massive grinders. “I’ll never eat sausage again!” was their common reaction.
That’s not to say (properly cooked) sausage isn’t really safe, but it gives some idea how the saying arose that you never want to watch legislation being crafted because it’s a lot like watching sausage being made.
Well, it’s increasingly clear that you don’t want to watch Big Enviro’s propaganda being made, either. That process, too, is a lot like sausage making.
But for your safety, you just might want to get a look at it.
An article in the Australian publication Quadrant Online, “The Fishy ‘Science’ of Ocean Acidification” draws on emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Steve Milloy at JunkScience.com. It pulls back the curtain on how the New York Times worked to create a scare story titled “Our Deadened, Carbon-Soaked Seas” about ocean acidification (OA).
The Old Gray Lady’s article sounds scientific:
Over the past 200 years, the world’s seas have absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon from human activities. Currently, that’s a worldwide average of 15 pounds per person a week, enough to fill a coal train long enough to encircle the equator 13 times every year.
We can’t see this massive amount of carbon dioxide that’s going into the ocean, but it dissolves in seawater as carbonic acid, changing the water’s chemistry at a rate faster than seen for millions of years. Known as ocean acidification, this process makes it difficult for shellfish, corals and other marine organisms to grow, reproduce and build their shells and skeletons.
The numbers sound scary indeed: 150 billion metric tons; 15 pounds per person per week; a coal train that would circle the equator 13 times every year! What isn’t mentioned is the proportion of those numbers to the vastness of the oceans—which is billions of times greater.
But the real devil’s in the numbers not reported, which boil down to this, as Quadrant blogger Tony Thomas reports:
The oceans’ alkalinity (pH) varies from place to place, in a range 7.9 to 8.3 on a logarithmic scale where 14 is most alkaline (or basic), 7.0 is neutral and below 7 to zero is acidic. Climate scientists now “calculate” that the average ocean alkalinity has declined from 8.2 to 8.1 on the scale since pre-industrial times, except that the measurement error margin is several times the alleged reduction (and each of the five oceans has its own pH characteristics). pH levels at given points can also swing markedly even within the 24-hour cycle.
Note the scare quotes around “calculate.” That means the decline from 8.2 to 8.1 is an estimate from modeling, not from physical measurements.
And that “logarithmic scale”? That means a pH of 10 is 10 times more basic than one of 9; and 9 is 10 times more basic than 8; etc. A pH of 8.1 is still about 10.26 times more basic than the neutral 7, which is the dividing line between acid and basic.
This means calling a decline in pH from 8.2 to 8.1 “acidification,” meaning “becoming more acidic,” is misleading at best. Something can’t become “more acidic” unless it’s already acidic, and a solution with a pH higher than 7.0 is by definition not acidic but basic. Hydronium ions (H+), which make solutions acidic, are minisculy present but are vastly overwhelmed—by many orders of magnitude in concentration—by hydroxyl ions (OH–), which make solutions basic. (By the way, when you combine an H+ ion with an OH– ion, you get H2O, water!)
A decline in average ocean pH from 8.2 to 8.1 represents an increase in hydronium ions (H+) of about 26 percent, which sounds alarming until you realize that with a measurement margin of error several times that, and with pH levels at given points swinging markedly every day along a continuum four times as wide, it isn’t likely to be highly consequential.
But the New York Times wanted a scary story, so it did all it could to get NOAA to give it one. (You can read about my own adventures with a Times environmental reporter here.) You’d never guess it from the story that actually got printed (with Richard W. Spinrad, chief scientist of NOAA, and Ian Boyd, chief scientific adviser to UK’s Department of Environment, in the byline), but some scientists at NOAA actually resisted the pressure, at several points.
A Times editor wrote,
It’s very interesting, but in order to work for us it needs to be geared more toward the general reader. Can the authors give us more specific, descriptive images about how acidification has already affected the oceans? Is the situation akin to the acid rain phenomenon that hit North America? What can be done to counteract the problem?
Dr. Shallin Busch, of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program and Northwest Fisheries Science Center, responded:
Unfortunately, I can’t provide this information to you because it doesn’t exist. As I said in my last email, currently there are NO areas of the world that are severely degraded because of OA or even areas that we know are definitely affected by OA right now.
But the Times had heard, and wanted to report, that OA was reducing hearing capacity in clown fish (the star species in the movie Finding Nemo and therefore great propaganda!), making them more vulnerable to predators, but Dr. Chris Sabine, Director, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, replied:
I have asked everyone I can reach and nobody is aware of a study that suggests that Nemo’s hearing would be impaired by ocean acidification. I did find one article on the web that suggested the opposite. I am aware of studies indicating that Nemo would lose sense of smell or ability to detect predators and therefore would be more likely to be eaten. Perhaps you can ask the UK people to check on that sentence.
Later Busch wrote,
I think it is really important to resist the NYT editor’s impulse to say that OA is wreaking all sorts of havoc RIGHT NOW, because for ecological systems, we don’t yet have the evidence to say that. OA is a problem today because it is changing ocean chemistry so quickly. The vast majority of the biological impacts of OA will only occur under projected future chemistry conditions. Also, the study of the biological impacts of OA is so young that we don’t have any data sets that show a direct effect of OA on population health or trajectory.
There’s more of this, lots more, but the gist is that the vaunted “Newspaper of Record” couldn’t get the scientists to give it the alarming story it wanted.
So what did it do? It printed the mild story but headlined it “Our Deadened, Carbon-Soaked Seas,” illustrated it with an artist’s fanciful depiction of a fish largely dissolved by highly acidic seawater, and led with these two sentences:
Ocean and coastal waters around the world are beginning to tell a disturbing story. The seas, like a sponge, are absorbing increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so much so that the chemical balance of our oceans and coastal waters is changing and a growing threat to marine ecosystems.
Since most readers stop after the headline and lead, the job was done.
For more credible discussion of the impact of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide on ocean pH levels and marine life, see Craig Idso’s CO2, Global Warming, and Coral Reefs: Prospects for the Future. For a critique of an alarmist video on the subject, see “Acid Test: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification”—A New Propaganda Film by the National [sic; Natural] Resources Defense Council Fails the Acid Test of Real World Data, by the Science and Public Policy Institute and the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change. Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry discussed various sides of the issue in her “Ocean Acidification Discussion Thread” in 2013.
Featured image courtesy of Per Edin, Creative Commons.