Science loses out to uninformed opinion on climate change – yet again
Ocean acidification is an inevitable consequence of increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That’s a matter of fact. We don’t know exactly what will happen to complex marine ecosystems when faced with the additional stress of falling pH, but we do know those changes are happening and that they won’t be good news.
The journalist James Delingpole disagrees. In an article for The Spectator in April 2016, he took the sceptical position that all concerns over ocean acidification are unjustified “alarmism” and that the scientific study of this non-problem is a waste of money. He concluded that the only reason that the study of ocean acidification was ever funded at all was because there was insufficient (and decreasing) evidence for global warming and it acted as a “fallback position”.
Having had the role of science coordinator for the UK Ocean Acidification research programme and being involved in relevant national and international projects for around ten years previously, I know such claims – which Delingpole presented as facts – to be false. I also spotted a range of other errors and inaccuracies in his piece.
Having first gone to The Spectator with my concerns, in late August I submitted a formal complaint to the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO). The key issues were whether or not due care had been taken to avoid publication of inaccurate information, and whether comment and conjecture had been clearly distinguished from fact.
At the end of a long and frustrating process IPSO’s final ruling was published on January 5 and it doesn’t seem we are much further forward. My complaint was rejected on the basis that the article was “clearly a comment piece” and that it was not IPSO’s role to resolve conflicting evidence for contentious issues.
Facts are sacred
Freedom of speech, and of the press, is, of course, extremely precious. Yet that freedom also brings responsibility. The Editors’ Code of Practice – which IPSO claims to uphold – requires the “highest professional standards”. Let’s remind ourselves of what this means when it comes to accuracy:
i) The press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and – where appropriate – an apology published.
That would seem clear enough. So let’s look at just one of Delingpole’s paragraphs and judge for ourselves whether these standards were met:
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.
That might look like a plausible argument based on fact. But the Feely/Sabine chart which was of concern to Wallace was published in 2006, not 2004; the chart didn’t start in 1988, but covered the period 1850-2100; and no data had been omitted, since it showed an idealised, theory-based relationship between atmospheric CO2 and ocean pH. Meanwhile the “real-world evidence” was from extremely unreliable early measurements, uncorrected for natural variability, that when combined gave physically impossible year-on-year changes in global pH. And Wallace’s analyses have not been published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. Delingpole did not contact any of the individuals mentioned to obtain first-hand accounts of the issues of concern.
Press link for more: The Conversation