Sunday, March 14, 2010

Ocean acidification: Why the climate change deniers don't want to talk about it

Most people know that the release of carbon dioxide into the air from human sources has contributed to rising global temperatures and massive increases in the rate of melting of the ice at the poles and on Greenland. One of the major consequences they may not know about is the acidification of the oceans.

The chemistry is quite straightforward. It's the same process that occurs when bottled water is carbonated. Most of the carbon dioxide simply dissolves in the water. But some of it reacts with the water to form carbonic acid. And, that's what's happening in the world's oceans as humans release more and more carbon dioxide into the air.

Climate change deniers love to dispute climate modeling, to talk about short-term weather phenomena, and to pick on minor citation errors in official reports. But, they don't like to talk about ocean acidification for three interrelated reasons. First, humans have indisputably been dumping exponentially increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from the beginning of the industrial revolution, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels. Second, the oceans have absorbed about one-third of this carbon dioxide which then forms carbonic acid. This reduces the pH of the water in an acidic direction. Third, scientists have documented through direct observation the changes in ocean species, both large and microscopic, that have resulted from this increased acidity.

What the scientists are finding is troubling. First, the entire food chain of the ocean could be short-circuited. Second, ocean acidification in combination with other human impacts on the ocean could result in mass extinctions. Third, no one knows how such changes might affect life on land which is by no means isolated from the ocean.

Among those who accept the science of climate change, there are some who believe we can engineer our way out of the problem. One proposal calls for putting small reflective particles into the atmosphere to block a portion of the sunlight falling on the earth. But a recent study revealed that this would have little or no effect on the continuing acidification of the oceans.

Even though 1) the mechanism for ocean acidification is well-established, 2) the source of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and consequently in the ocean is traceable to man-made causes, and 3) the effects are already being observed--they are no mere projections--the climate change deniers will no doubt tell us that ocean acidification is nothing to worry about. Of course, we must remember that they are in the pay of or under the influence of propaganda put out by the fossil fuel interests, interests that spend millions on disinformation and zero on ocean research.

These same climate change deniers insure their houses against fire, their cars against accident and their bodies against illness. But they want us to play Russian roulette with the oceans and the climate. They cannot possibly know how the future will turn out. But even if climate change were not an issue, the peril associated with the acidification of the oceans by itself would justify immediate and drastic action to curb carbon dioxide emissions.

It is hard to imagine a case weaker than that made by the deniers against the science of human-caused global climate change. But there is one, the nonexistent case against the reality of human-caused ocean acidification. So, it's no wonder the climate change deniers don't want to talk about it.


Christopher_and said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

According to a this report at RealClimate:

The oceans had a higher acidity in the past than today. The question that they raise is whether the speed of the change is faster today, thus limiting the time of ocean life to adapt.

Given that fossil fuels have peaked now, less carbon will be released in future, so I'm not sure it will be as serious a problem as you suggest. I had thought that nitrate based fertilizers were a bigger problem as regards causing acidification, but you haven't mentioned it here. Any thoughts on that?

The bigger problem I think is over fishing, a prime example of the tragedy of the commons.

I don't know how managing the ocean can realistically be achieved, given the vested interests at play. I've seen this myself a lot in Thailand, the beach I used to go to was stripped of shellfish by temporary workers, brought there to build five star hotels. The Japanese and Chinese seem to be finishing off most of the remaining big fish. Hopefully though nitrate fertilizers could be banned relatively easily.


Kurt Cobb said...


You point to many important ways in which we are inflicting terrible damage on the ocean, and that is why I linked the Scripps report in the post which looks at the totality of the damage. I tend to agree with you that there will not be nearly as much fossil fuel coming out of the ground as the IPCC projects. We are nevertheless in terrible trouble based on what we've already burned and will surely burn in the future when it comes to climate change.

I think you are not reading the RealClimate piece you cite the way I am. The pH of the ocean millions of years ago was about the same as today even though the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were much, much higher. But you correctly state that the ocean had lots of time to gradually use its buffering chemistry to adapt to this higher level which didn't come on all at once. And, you are also correct that it is the rate of change that is all important. That is what threatens the ocean when it comes to acidification.

amadi_construction said...

Great article.
How can these scientists predict the climate in 40 years time, when there is so much that is unknown ? Surely they should base any assumptions on things that can be measured, such as a rise in sea levels. After all, surface temperatures go up and down, but the rise in sea levels reflects both melting ice and thermal expansion.

mattbg said...

In other words, if it's not "warming" anymore then rebrand it "climate change", and if the "climate change" part looks like it won't work out then move onto plan C -- ocean acidification. The co-ordination of this line of argument is so transparent -- it is coming from all corners.

The idea that there is "consensus" or that things are as certain as you say is simply wrong. And I'm not talking about people that flatly deny, either, which just errs in the opposite direction. And I will provide you an example: a Canadian-hosted discussion between an MIT meteorologist and Canadian research chair wherein detailed discussion of climate models occurs. They also discuss acidification:

There are just too many variables. For example, who knows whether changing ocean pH will increase the effect of certain pollutants in the ocean while reducing the effect of others that are now prominent? This is certainly an issue in swimming pool maintenance, where pH correlates with how effective chlorine becomes in keeping the water clean.

What is your doomsday scenario in the case of ocean acidification? What horrific effect might occur if we don't contain it? If you are pro-life for life's own sake, does this extend to abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty, or only to non-human ocean creatures?

Russian roulette with the oceans and climate? What about Russian roulette with the world economy? Who will pay for the required changes?

If you have no faith in our ability to engineer our way out of this problem, what is your answer? To simply shut down industry? In that case, doesn't it stand to reason that world population will start going up again once developing and developed nations fall backward?

But maybe that is not a bad thing. Carbon emissions did not increase in proportion with world population growth over the last 60 years -- CO2 growth was far lower than was population growth.

An irresistable nitpick:

This reduces the pH of the water in an acidic direction.

How can you reduce the pH of the oceans in a non-acidic direction? :)

Kurt Cobb said...


Are you sure you aren't working for the fossil fuel companies because your arguments are that incoherent? And, yet you do inadvertently speak the truth saying "there are just too many variables." You pretend that our vast uncontrolled experiments on the oceans and the climate will turn out benign and yet you admit that there are just too many variables to know what will happen. You pretend to know the future well enough to predict a wonderful outcome for all of us if we continue with business as usual. And, you do all of this in face of evidence everywhere that indicates there are major problems already occurring. Yes, it's possible to ignore the evidence and to wish that the world were different than it is so that you can assuage your own fear or justify continuing to live as you do. That's fine with me.

As for your devotion to Richard Linzen whose interview you link to, Linzen, although a bona fide atmospheric scientist, has already discredited himself by continuing to tout his theory that increasing cloud cover will offset global warming. NASA tested his theories using satellite monitoring not available when Linzen proposed his ideas. The data simply doesn't support his theory and the scientific community no longer believes it is a viable one.

Besides, Linzen when asked what his main concern about climate change was said it was a socialist takeover of our lives. He has likened the environmental movement to Nazism. He has been an expert witness for the Western Fuels Association, a coal oriented utility trade group. He's been on the board of the George Marshall Institute and continues his association with them. The institute has made it its mission to oppose any climate change legislation on ideological, not scientific grounds. There you have it. His concern is not for the health of the planet. It's all based on a social and political agenda. It's fine with me for scientists to have social and political views. But let's not confuse them with science.

I can only conclude, Matt, that you are either a dupe of the propaganda put out by the fossil fuel industry and its allies or that you are working for them as a troll on sites such as mine.

mattbg said...


Why does it surprise you that someone with a given perspective on climate change would associate themselves with organizations that have a similar perspective or compatible goals? That is what you repeatedly do on this blog.

If the anti-carbon measures were cost-free then I'd be OK with them, but they're not cost-free. They will be expensive. At a time when the world economy is fragile, I don't know we can afford it. And I think this would be the position of many. Is that difficult to understand, or do you simply not care?

Since it will be expensive and we have diminished funds available to pay for it, it will therefore be funded via taxation. This means that more money will go toward questionable regulation and less will be available for people to make individual decisions. This veers toward socialism. Again, I don't see why this is difficult to understand.

There is a belief out there held by some that the dejected people in the West who were walking around with their heads hung in despair after the USSR collapsed have since moved onto the environmental movement as their main cause and I'm not sure that's completely inaccurate.

You didn't answer my question about your life agenda, and it's relevant because it speaks to intellectual honesty. If you are in favour of life for life's sake, do you therefore oppose abortion, euthanasia, and the death penalty? Otherwise, why advocate life for life's sake? If the oceans acidify, so what?

I don't have a devotion to Richard Lindzen. In fact, I only just heard the debate last night. But why not refute his arguments instead of making ad hominem criticisms? The fact that he had a hypothesis and it was refuted simply means that he is a scientist. Didn't you study the scientific method in school? You come up with a hypothesis and test it. If you can't make it fit, you either move on or modify your hypothesis and test again. It's not expected that every hypothesis will be correct. And the idea that scientists can move in lock-step agreement with each other as the "consensus" meme keeps trying to suggest is pretty stupid.

I think that one of the concerns many people have is that once the IPCC gets off on their tangent, they will never stop -- even if the data one day refuted the validity of the objective they were trying to achieve. In that, we would forever be paying for something that was not a problem simply to prop up the careers of some European politicans.

Both of the participants in the debate I linked to talk about ocean acidification and both agree that it's not necessarily or conclusively a bad thing. Both of them are scientists with expertise on models.

They also discuss the idea that the planet may well send more heat out into space the more it heats up, and that the degree of heat loss may not be a constant. And wasn't there a recent study that supported this line of questioning? Maybe that's why you have now moved on to ocean acidification.

To be honest, the thing that interested me most about that forum is that it was a debate -- that they were actually discussing details about the issue. It is so hard to come by because the people aligned with your point-of-view so rarely debate the issue seriously. And, guess what? The panel appeared on a publicly-funded TV station in Canada, moderated by someone with a very good reputation for fairness in this country.

It's a joke to call me an oil industry employee. I am just someone with a different opinion than yours. Propaganda is used by both sides.

Kurt Cobb said...


Clearly you don't understand ecology. Otherwise you would know that we humans depend on the proper workings of the atmosphere, the oceans, the whole ecosphere for our survival. If you are unconcerned about the life of the ecosphere, then you are unconcerned about the lives of humans. It's that simple. We live in a complex biogeochemical system. Without that system we would not exist or be able to continue living. This is basic ecology and I'm surprised you don't know that. But apparently you don't.

You are correct about the scientific method. What you chose to ignore in my comments was that Lindzen continues to advance his discredited theory. He's not moving on to the next hypothesis the way that a good scientist would.

No, I'm not surprised that Lindzen consorts with the fossil fuel interests. My point is that he has abandon scientific discourse and inquiry. We cannot rely on his scientific pronouncements because he no longer practices the scientific method. He is merely a propagandist. He keeps recycling a discredited theory, discredited by actual observations and measurements.

You are clearly in Lindzen's camp. You are concerned about socialism and you have conflated, in your case, communism with environmentalism, an interesting leap since the communists you cite in the Soviet Union weren't the least bit concerned about the environment.

I didn't say you were an oil industry employee. I still not convinced that you are something other than a troll who has been asked or hired by interests affiliated with the fossil fuel interests to comment on blogs like mine.

If you are libertarian, which it seems that you are, then that explains why you have no concern for the environment. Libertarians believe we do not need to regulate human behavior, except in very narrow categories: fraud, violent aggression, contracts, enforcement of private property rights. But libertarians don't live in the real world. They are utopians and cornucopians. The sweep of history warns us against utopians. Libertarians believe that left alone individuals will act in the best interests of society and the planet. Libertarians are cornucopians in that they believe the earth can provide humans room for unlimited exponential growth in population and resource use. All the scientific evidence says otherwise. But, of course, scientific evidence can never persuade people who have a fixed ideology.

Truth is, Matt, we're not going to persuade each other. In fact, I've found nothing in your comments but the usual claptrap used by fossil fuel interests. If you made arguments that were your own instead of theirs and if you were open to persuasion, perhaps we could have a useful dialogue. I have such dialogues all the time with people who disagree with me and I find that an honest exchange of ideas often enlightens me and persuades me to change my views.

In our case I don't think that is ever going to happen. I'm not sure why you want to continue to post comments here unless you've been hired or persuaded to do so.

mattbg said...


OK, then. I won't add much further except to address the environmentalist-communist issue.

The first clue is that it's not about the environment.

In religious wars, it's often not about religion but about "us vs. them" and wanting to stick it to someone else, with religion being used as the justification to go to war.

Commnunism was in a very abstract sense about using the state to control human behaviour in an absolute sense, and to make the government the centre of an individual's life above and beyond friends and family.

It is reasonable to me to think that the same people who would have been drawn to communism because of a bent that gave them a lust to use state apparatus to tell people what to do, and to make the state the centre of someone's lives, would not easily give up this bent just because the only example of functioning communism had collapsed.

With climate change theory, you not only have the opportunity to tell people what to do via excessive environmental regulation and control their behaviour via carbon taxation, but you also have the opportunity to put the planet ahead of your friends and family as the entity to which you have ultimate loyalty to.

That is the link.

Some of my thoughts come from having heard arguments that I found convincing. Others come from arguments that I had begun to formulate myself and then heard articulated well by someone else. As a non-scientist, my thoughts do not come from the data but from secondary sources -- are yours any different?

I have learned from and found interesting things to read on your blog in the past. On climate change, you are shrill.

I continue to post comments here because I don't find it very useful to post comments in places where everyone is in agreement. One of the problems with this whole issue is that the majority of discussion is taking place in that fashion and each side just ends up becoming more extreme.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mr. Cobb! We need more information like this to combat the industry funded doubt monger disinformation campaign.

I'd like to invite any Canadians who read this excellent article, and are concerned about Climate Change, to join the following Facebook group.

Climate Action Now (Canada)


There's also a US group but it's just been launched (we need good members to get it rolling):

Climate Action Now (USA)

ashok said...

Most scientists agree that global warming is taking place and that it is man made. However most persons assume that man made here means increasing carbon emissions. The carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere is less that 450 ppm. Even the simplest sccientific calculations will show that this is just not suficient to cause global warming. A much more likely cause is deforestation. Forests produce cooling efects in various ways.

Even if we were to accept that carbon emissions are the cause of global warming then too we need more forests because trees and forests are carbon sinks.

In fact for healthy plant growth we need larger amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and a higer amount in the oceans for green growth that sustains ocean life

Kurt Cobb said...


You are just plain wrong about carbon dioxide emissions not being one of the causes of global warming. It is well established that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas that traps heat in the atmosphere. And, while carbon dioxide by itself would create negligible warming at current concentrations, it is the feedbacks it and other greenhouse gases create that amplify the warming effects many fold. For example, climate change deniers are fond of saying that water vapor is the major greenhouse gas. That's true. But water vapor is a feedback, not a forcing in climatology. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide warm the atmosphere which then causes more water evaporation and thus a higher concentration of water vapor in the air. That water vapor, of course, traps heat and thus greatly magnifies the original warming effect of the forcing mechanism, i. e., other greenhouse gases. And, that is why we characterize water vapor as a feedback mechanism in climate change. Water vapor doesn't just jump up into the atmosphere one day. It has to be forced there by higher temperatures caused by the heat trapping action of other greenhouse gases.

mattbg said...


Water vapor is a transition phase, right? It eventually forms clouds. Clouds may have a cooling effect. This seems to be a moot issue that depends on aerosol content.

What do the models say about aerosols? Don't they assume aerosols to be responsible for divergence from the models, even though they don't really know? In other words, if the results don't fit what they expect then they attribute it to aerosols.

More aerosols = more clouds = more reflection of solar energy back into space. And increased aerosols can be attributed to human activity.

So, yes, water vapor is a feedback. But it could ultimately be a healing one.

This is by no means the whole argument, but it is a factor. Or do you disagree?

Kurt Cobb said...


It's clear to me that you don't understand basic climate science. Frankly, it's a waste of my time to refute on this blog the disinformation put out by the fossil fuel lobby. From here on out I'm not going to do so. If you want to understand climate science, there are many excellent resources starting with the IPCC report. I can also recommend John Houghton's fabulous book, "Global Warming," and a superb monograph on the history of global warming called "The Discovery of Global Warming," which when you read it leads you to the inescapable conclusion that we have consistently underestimated the trajectory of global warming throughout history. I predict that you will read none of these because I do not believe you are genuinely interested in understanding climate science. You seem only interested in posting polemical disinformation. Fortunately, the Internet is a wonderful place that allows everyone to have their say. I suggest that you post your views on climate science on your own blog or on industry sponsored forums.

mattbg said...


We have a problem.

You (and many who think like you) are not willing to discuss, claiming it is a decided matter and that it is beyond debate, but there are a number of outstanding questions that matter to most people. They are also basic scientific concerns:

1. How much must we cut CO2 emissions, and what will the effect on world climate be after doing so?

2. What must be done in terms of personal sacrifice to achieve these cuts? Are we talking about a few small changes, or large, fundamental ones?

3. Given that these changes cost money, what effect will curbing CO2 emissions have on the economy, and how will we deal with it?

Unless you answer these questions, they will remain in the back of peoples' minds. You can only create a diversion with tap-dancing for so long. At some point, there has to be substance.

If you are found to have been deceptive either deliberately or by omission, the blowback will come with a vengeance and it will take generations for the movement to be trusted again. That is history.

As for your accusation that I am spreading disinformation with respect to my comments about aerosols, you can get the information from NASA if that is your trusted source:

And it's a basic fact that water vapor rises and forms clouds -- it is a gas that cools and either freezes or becomes suspended after it has risen. This is not difficult. It is also a fact that certain types of clouds reflect solar energy, and that more water vapour may lead to more clouds.

Despite your repeated insinuations, I have no association whatsoever with the oil industry or any other energy lobby or company, or any other thinktank or lobby group and I am acting completely on my own.

Kurt Cobb said...


Please be advised that this will be my last comment in response to basic climate science. Hereafter, I will apply my announced comments policy.

You have raised three legitimate and important policy questions. I encourage you to post your views on these questions on your own blog. I'm going to address issues I think are important and interesting on my blog. You are, of course, free to discuss whatever you like on your blog. I am not primarily concerned with climate change policy except in general terms, i. e., I think something needs to be done right away and I think it needs to be drastic. I am keenly interested in the disinformation tactics of the fossil fuel lobby, and that's been my focus in writing about climate change. I'll accept your statement that you have no association with the fossil fuel lobby. Unfortunately, you are completely under the spell of their propaganda. You claim to be open-minded, but you have been nothing but polemical.

As for your statements about clouds, you are simply recycling Robert Lindzen's (mentioned in my comments above) discredited theories, theories discredited by the same NASA researchers you reference. How did NASA researchers determine the viability of Lindzen's thesis? They did actual measurements using the Earth Observatory and other means. You take one sliver of information, misinterpret its significance, and then pretend that you've brought down the whole of climate science. No sale!

Finally, as I have foretold. So-called climate change deniers don't want to talk about ocean acidification because it is indisputable.

Gail said...

A very excellent post, Kurt Cobb, I look forward to reading more.

For you or readers who are interested in ocean acidification, this beautifully filmed video explains the consequences very well:

I linked to it on my blog which is about an even more taboo climate change topic - the collapse of the terrestrial ecosystem. I can sort of see how people might ignore coral bleaching and fish population crashes, because unless you are snorkeling it's just something you read about.

But the death of trees is happening in plain sight and yet most people appear to be completely unaware.

Where I live on the east coast of the US, for the past two years trees have been breaking apart, losing leaves, needles and branches, falling over with rotted trunks. Their bark is splitting and falling to the ground, their sap is bleeding out through holes, and the "sharks that smell blood in the water" such as insects, disease and fungus are swarming in.

Scientists have proven in experiments that ozone - produced from the "other" greenhouse gases, nitrogen oxide, sulphur dioxide, and aldehydes from burning fossil and biofuels - interferes with the ability of foliage to photosynthesize and make chlorophyll. It's killing vegetation and will shortly lead to massive crop failures.

Planting trees to reduce global warming as one of your readers suggested won't do any good if we don't stop polluting the air.

Anonymous said...

Yep, just wanted to agree with it. Deny CC all you like but acidification of the oceans has the potential to be catastrophic for the human species or even an extinction event. FF haven't peaked from a CO2 intensity POV. We now go to lower grades of all FF that are intrinsically more CO2 intensive.