More sophistry from The Australian on coral reef science in wake of Great Barrier Reef bleaching

Lizard071 - May 2016
Bleached and algae covered coral at Lizard Island, Great Barrier Reef, May 2016: Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

If you’ve been reading The Australian recently, you might think that coral reef science is in some kind of crisis.

The Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper has been attempting to spin the worst coral bleaching event in the reef’s recorded history as a beat-up by environmentalists and high-profile scientists.

It isn’t.

The latest instalment came earlier today from the newspaper’s environment editor Graham Lloyd, under the print headline “The bleaching of parts of the reef is dividing the scientific world” and online under the headline “Great barrier battleground over coral bleaching.”

Lloyd seems to be trying to construct a narrative that the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef and the subsequent death of about a quarter of all the corals has opened some sort of schism among scientists.

The bleaching, writes Lloyd, has “unleashed long-simmering tensions over the quality of reef research.”

This is, in my view, bollocks [sorry kids].

Lloyd includes three individuals to back up his claims. They have two things in common.

One is that none of them are anywhere close to being actual experts in coral biology.

The second thing Lloyd’s “experts” all have in common is a broad rejection of the science linking dangerous human-caused climate change to fossil fuel burning, something Lloyd does not mention.

Let’s look for a minute at who Lloyd quotes to back up his narrative.

First there is Prof Judith Curry, of Georgia Tech University, who has no peer-reviewed publications at all in relation to coral reefs.

Having a solid body of peer-reviewed research behind you in the relevant scientific field should be the pre-requisite for assigning “expertise”.

Curry is a favourite among climate science deniers for her view that human-caused climate change is a beat up.

Then there is the curious inclusion of Jim Steele, of San Francisco State University. According to that university’s website, Steele is “emeritus” – which means he is retired.

I cannot find a publication listing for Steele, but this biography suggests expertise in biology and, in particular, birds. In 2013, Steele released a book claiming that climate change was natural and not being caused by humans.

Then there is James Cook University’s Prof Peter Ridd, who is not a coral biologist. He has published work on how sediments and waters move around coral reefs, but I am told he has no expertise on the biology of corals.

Lloyd again neglects to mention Ridd’s work on projects to support the construction of fossil fuel export facilities along the Queensland coastline close to the reef.

Nether does he mention Ridd’s tendency towards climate science denialism.

Lloyd does get quotes from one actual expert on coral bleaching – arguably one of the the world’s foremost authorities on the issue, Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of the University of Queensland.

Lloyd includes a discussion of Hoegh-Guldberg’s seminal 1999 paper on coral bleaching which warned that “present and future increases in sea temperature are likely to have severe effects on the world’s coral reefs within 20 – 30 years”.

Hoegh-Guldberg is currently at the International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii with a couple of thousand other reef and coral experts. He has read the story in The Australian, and told me:

What is curious for me is that Graham Lloyd chose to speak with Ridd, Curry and Steele, and not the scores of coral experts that are available in Australia and elsewhere.

When you look into the background of each individual, you find that Peter Ridd is a sedimentologist, Judith Curry a climatologist, and Jim Steele – a bird enthusiast who works in the Sierra Nevada – which at last count appears to be a long way from a coral reef.

I don’t think there is a single scientist at this meeting who will support the position taken by sedimentologist Peter Ridd or, for that matter, Curry and Steele.  That is pretty telling.

Not exactly your most qualified experts. None of them has published in the peer-reviewed literature on coral bleaching – they are simply not experts.

But in my view, not only did Lloyd choose people who were “simply not experts” but he also missed some key facts and nuance in his scrambled narrative.

For example, Lloyd looks at the issue of calcification rates of corals saying that “one paper claims there has been a 15 per cent decline in calcification rate between 1990 and 2005.”

Lloyd is referring to this 2009 Science paper by Dr Glenn De’ath, of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

You can see if you follow that link that this paper was corrected by the authors in 2013, to show that calcification rates had actually dropped by a likely 11.4 per cent, rather than 14.1 per cent, as had originally been estimated (not 15 per cent, as Lloyd had written).

Lloyd cites “quality assurance work” carried out by Ridd (and published in the journal Marine Geology) that claimed to have found “two major flaws” in the 2009 De’ath et al paper. One of those flaws had been addressed in the correction, which Lloyd had not mentioned.

Neither had Lloyd mentioned that De’ath et al had actually responded to Ridd’s paper in the same Marine Geology journal and explained why they thought his criticisms were not valid.

Lloyd also raises the issue of historical coral bleaching, writing that “there is certainly documented evidence of earlier bleaching” than prior to 1980.

He cites a paper (actually a book chapter) from retired AIMS scientist Ray Berkelmans which pointed out that British scientists visiting the reef in 1929 witnessed bleaching.

But does this Berkelmans paper show that this 1929 event was evidence of “reef-wide bleaching” as Lloyd claims?

I asked Berkelmans, who retired from AIMS in March 2015. He told me:

We should not draw any conclusions from that 1929 event. We just don’t know how wide-spread it was. This was one observation at Low Isles – we don’t know if it was a patch of reef, if it was lo tide or just confined to the reef flat.

So does Berkelmans think his work, cited in The Australian, is evidence that mass coral bleaching is not a modern day phenomenon driven by global warming?

“No,” he said.

“There are of course early reports of bleaching – there was one in the US in the late 1890s. But we certainly know that since the 80s we are seeing many, many more [episodes of bleaching] and they are widespread and include widespread losses of coral.”

So the point is this.

Nobody has claimed that some corals have not occasionally bleached when under local stresses, such as high water temperatures or high pollution levels (Hoegh-Guldberg points to this 1993 paper to illustrate this).

The issue at hand is whether there has been mass coral bleaching happening simultaneously across not only the Great Barrier Reef, but across multiple ocean basins around the globe, and that this is a new phenomena. The answer to that, from all genuine experts, seems to be yes.

So is there debate in the scientific literature about the precise nature of coral bleaching and the multiple and interweaving factors that contribute to it? Of course there is.

But does this mean that the current bleaching event has opened up some kind of schism among marine scientists that is distinct from the everyday cut and thrust of science? No.



Were historical pictures of reef degradation really misused, as The Australian newspaper claimed?

Coral death at Lizard island after the 2016 mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef: Credit XL Catlin Seaview Survey
Coral death at Lizard island after the 2016 mass bleaching event on the Great Barrier Reef: Credit XL Catlin Seaview Survey

The Australian published a convoluted story this weekend about the Great Barrier Reef and the claims of a scientist over some old pictures.

Remembering for a minute the reef has just gone through its worst bleaching event on record leading to the death of a quarter of the corals – a huge and historic deal that will impact the reef for the rest of our lifetimes.

I’ve written a few stories about that recently – including this piece looking at a recent dodgy editorial in The Australian.

But anyway, over the weekend The Australian published a story about Professor Peter Ridd, of James Cook University, who had apparently been disciplined for criticising colleagues and the the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority (GBRMPA) for using some old pictures of reef near Stone Island to show how coral cover had declined over time.

According to Graham Lloyd, The Australian’s environment editor, Ridd said the pictures – from between 1890 and 2012 – didn’t show for sure the reefs were declining. Scientists needed to be more sceptical, he said.

For kicking up a stink, Ridd was reportedly almost fired.

The Australian also reported that Ridd had sent scientists out to check on the reef in question – valiantly displaying the kind of scientific skepticism that was so lacking in others. Some areas were OK, The Australian said.

But the story seems to me to be built on two supremely flaky arguments. Continue reading “Were historical pictures of reef degradation really misused, as The Australian newspaper claimed?”


How the 2016 coral bleaching unfolded on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

dhd14dayleg-n-20160330 (1)There’s some genuine anxiety and anger among coral scientists in Australia right now, as the Great Barrier Reef suffers probably its worst coral bleaching event in recorded history.

I’ve written about that on my Planet Oz Guardian blog, where I tried to explain the clear link between fossil fuel burning, global warming and bleaching.

The bleaching event coincides with record warm sea surface temperatures (SST) for the summer just gone.

When SST go above a long term average for too long, this causes a stress reaction in the corals.  There’s a separation between the coral skeleton and the algae that gives the animal all that amazing colour (and also gives it the nutrient it needs to survive).

Just like in many other parts of the world, SST have been on the rise.

The Burea of Meteorology’s ReefTemp site sorts the SST data to give an indication of the risk of coral bleaching – a measure known as Degree Heating Days (one DHD is one degree above the long-term average temperature for one day).

I’ve made a GIF of the recent readings off the Coral Sea. The picture tells its own story, as you see the thermal stress on the corals build from the end of February to the end of March.

2016 great barrier reef bleaching

For a technical explanation of the data, go here.


A few notes about Mark Steyn – the climate science denier and ABC Q&A guest

mark steynMark Steyn, the climate science denier and conservative commentator, has just arrived in Australia for a tour.

Tonight he’s appearing on the ABC’s Q&A program, where his biography describes him as a “leading Canadian human rights activist” as well as other things.

But the ABC doesn’t mention that Steyn’s presence in Australia is entirely down to the Institute of Public Affairs – the “free market” thinktank that hides its funders but has made its views on human-caused climate change perfectly clear for the last 25 years or so.

They reckon it’s all bunk.

So anyway, Steyn’s ABC profile should really mention the IPA and it’s curious that it doesn’t.

So what might be engaging Mark Steyn during his trip down under? Well, as a free market evangelist, you’d think Steyn would frown upon the use of inefficient tax breaks.

Except, that is, when they’re helping to fund his libel defence back in the US. Steyn is being sued by Professor Michael Mann – of hockey stick fame – after describing his work as fraudulent and making comparisons to a pedophilia.

When the IPA was raising money to help publish its latest climate science denial book, it reminded potential supporters that any cash they handed over was tax deductible.

The IPA said the book would cost about $175,000 to produce. Mark Steyn authored a chapter.

As I wrote on DeSmogBlog, some months later, the book turned up for sale on Steyn’s website, where he flogs mugs, CDs and books to help him pay his legal bills.

The sale, Steyn wrote, would hep him “push back against the climate mullahs.”

Now the IPA’s book was being published by “Stockade Books” – a venture owned by Steyn. I hope Steyn remembers to thank the Australian Tax Office while he’s here.

In the book, Steyn attacks a group of researchers who got stuck in the Antarctic in Christmas 2013. He has claimed that the researchers thought the ice in the Antarctic was melting, which made for a beautiful irony when their ship got hemmed in by ice.

Except, the researchers did know the ice in Antarctica was growing as they had expressly pointed out before they left. In fact, the phenomena was part of their field of study.

In December 2015, Steyn gave “evidence” to a US Senate science subcommittee, chaired by climate science denier Ted Cruz. Cruz opened proceedings recounting the same Antarctic story – also getting it entirely wrong, as I wrote the other day on The Guardian.

In his testimony, Steyn complained that climate science deniers were being victimised and pushed out, forgetting for a minute that he is sometimes a host on Fox News, where of course climate science deniers are part of the furniture.

“In shoring up this cartoon climatology, the alarmism industry is now calling on courts and legislatures to torment their opponents,” wrote Steyn.

He gave the example of Swedish scientist Lennart Bengtsson, who got some push back a couple of years ago from colleagues after he fleetingly decided to affiliate himself with the Global Warming Policy Foundation – the contrarian think tank and now official lobbying organisation chaired by Lord Nigel Lawson, the chancellor of the exchequer in Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Steyn also defended Dr Willie Soon, an aeronautical engineer based at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Soon’s career over the last decade has been almost entirely funded by fossil fuel interests. Soon also claims CO2 from burning fossil fuels is good for the planet.

I’ve argued that Soon’s work is easier understood if you see it as PR fodder for the fossil fuel industry, rather than serious academic work.

Steyn wrote that after Soon had managed to get a paper published in a journal attacking climate models, the reaction of the “climate mullahs” was swift.

“The Big Climate heavies did not attempt to refute the paper, but instead embarked on a campaign to get him fired from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics,” he wrote.

Steyn is spinning a false narrative here, because in fact Soon’s paper, which he co-authored with Lord Christopher Monckton, was refuted through the appropriate channel – a paper published in the same journal four months before Steyn’s testimony.

In a further attempt at painting climate scientists as reactionaries, he points to one group that had written to President Obama to encourage him to look at the country’s racketeering laws as an option to pursue oil giant Exxon for its years of funding climate science denial.

But here’s another part of the story that Steyn misses out. There’s a precedent for the use of these laws in the US.

They are the same laws that were used to pursue tobacco companies for that industries campaign to deny the science linking their deadly products to health concerns.

What’s more, the use of these laws was not even the idea of the scientists in question. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse had been suggesting it months before in a widely reported series of statements.

Then to close his written testimony, Steyn referenced a paper written by scientists at the federally funded National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The paper concluded that a reported slowdown in warming at the Earth’s surface had actually been a data anomaly.

Steyn claimed that the scientists involved had been fiddling the data.

But after spending several breathless pages accusing the establishment of hounding poor old climate science deniers, he then forgot to mention how the NOAA scientists had then been hounded by Republican politicians with requests for correspondence and data (the data was already out there).

Not only did Republican politicians target the scientists, but a conservative group known as “Judicial Watch” also weighed in with legal action to try and force the release of internal NOAA documents.

So why is Mark Steyn appearing on Q&A again?

Well, hopefully it’s not for his singing.

Pic credit: Flickr/Mark Blevis


Remarkable chart shows how “carbon dioxide is good” if you take cash from Exxon or the Kochs

What difference does influential corporate cash make to the arguments that climate science denial groups make in public?

This was a question that Yale University’s Dr Justin Farrell tried to answer in an exhaustive piece of research published late last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Farrell’s paper – Corporate funding and ideological polarization about climate change – contained this remarkable chart, which I missed at the time but reckon it deserves a bit more daylight.

CO2 is good So what’s it all about?

From previous academic papers and his own research, Farrell had compiled a list of 164 organisations that were part of the “climate counter-movement”.

The list includes US groups like the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, Cato Institute, Heartland Institute, together with a few non-US groups including the UK’s Global Warming Policy Foundation and Australia’s Institute of Public Affairs.

Then Farrell looked at which of these organisations had received money from either oil giant Exxon Mobil or from groups linked to the Koch brothers – the billionaire owners of the oil, gas and petrochemical conglomerate Koch Industries.

“Donations from these corporate benefactors signals entry into a powerful network of influence,” wrote Farrell.

Farrell found that 84 of those 164 organisations were part of that “powerful network” having taken funding from Exxon, the Kochs, or from both.

Then Farrell compiled a huge dataset of “every text about climate change produced by every organization between 1993 and 2013” – that’s 40,785 texts with more than 39 million words.

Thankfully Farrell didn’t have to read all that bilge. Instead, he used some clever and sophisticated algorithms and computer content analysis to do it for him.

With this dataset and method, Farrell looked at how often these 164 organisations covered particular issues.

Did the organisations that took cash from the Kochs or Exxon behave differently to those that were not funded as part of that “powerful network of influence”?

Two arguments in particular seemed to stand out. Organisations that took that influential funding were far more likely to use that disingenuous climate science denialist talking point that CO2 is good for the planet. That’s the chart above.

Another favourite contrarian talking point – that climate change was just part of a natural long term cycle rather than being driven by humans – was also more popular among the Exxon/Koch group. Here’s what that looked like.

Climate chnage is just long term cycle Now of course, it’s possible that the corporate funding was not influencing the specific talking points that the organisations were using. Perhaps the fact that they liked to say “CO2 is good” simply made them attractive to funders like Exxon? That could be so, although Farrell tested other favourite subjects too.

For example, funding appeared to make no difference to the timing and frequency of attacks on former US vice president and climate change campaigner Al Gore. Nor did it make much of a difference to arguments about cap and trade laws.

In a separate study published in the journal Nature Climate Change, Farrell looked at how the 164 different groups were networked together.

In that study – Network structure and influence of the climate change counter-movement – Farrell found that organisations were more powerful in the network if they had financial ties to Exxon and/or the Koch brothers.

In this chart below, the green dots are organisations with funding from at least one of those two corporate players. The red dots don’t get Koch or Exxon money.

ncc farrell

Koch or Exxon cash seems to help place an organisation closer to the epicenter of the climate science denial movement.

But if you do take their money, then it seems you also have to be willing to deny the science linking carbon dioxide to dangerous climate change.



What Exxon Knew About Climate Science

We’ve know for a long time that oil giant Exxon was a key funder of the climate science denial movement in the United States.

Not as widely known was how, in the 1970s and early 80s, Exxon’s own scientists were warning of the dangers of burning fossil fuels.  They even carried out their own modeling and experiments.

Inside Climate News and the LA Times have both had major investigative stories on this.

Here’s an excellent YouTube primer on this story from Peter Sinclair.


The faulty science of the Climate Hustle documentary

One of the United States’ most visible climate science denialists, Marc Morano, has a new movie coming out that he claims will “rock the climate debate”.  It won’t.

What it will do, though, is apparently rehash some old climate science denial talking points.

Hiding away on the website of the documentary’s producers was a segment destined for the film.  The segment put some slick graphics to the old myth that because carbon dioxide is only a small part of the atmosphere, that it couldn’t have an effect on the climate.

So I asked some leading climate scientists to look at it, and then produced a bit of a critique of my own.

I’ve written a few pieces now about the documentary for DeSmog – how it’ll reheat old denialist tricks, how there’s a particular religious zeal behind the director and how the premiere was skilfully stage managed when even the red carpet was fake.

Anyway, here’s the vid. UPDATE: Marc Morano has contacted DeSmog to say the clip was not in the final version of the film.  I’ve clarified this in the YouTube clip and the clarification also appears on the DeSmog story that went with it.  I also apologise. The clip was on the public website of Climate Hustle’s production company, CDR Communications (screenshot here) , and was marked “Climate Hustle”. As of right now, 7 Jan 2016, the clip remains there. I should say also, that Mr Morano and CFACT executive director Craig Rucker both told me outside their Paris screening that they would have welcomed me to see the film, but that it was full.  People in the screening later told myself and DeSmog editor Brendan DeMelle that the theatre was in fact only about 70 per cent full.


Key Coal Mining Lobbyist Explains Why We Can Now Ignore Everything He Says

QRC boss Michael Roche, who according to him, you can ignore

Michael Roche is the executive director of the Queensland Resources Council – the powerful peak lobby group for the state’s coal industry.

Last night he went on the telly to explain a few things about why he thinks the federal government should remove the rights of environment groups in Australia to use the Federal court system to review decisions made under Federal environment laws.

The debate comes out of a case in which the federal court ordered that a decision by the Environment Minister Greg Hunt to approve Indian mining company Adani’s giant Carmichael coal mine should be set aside.

The ruling was on the back of a technicality, as the minister himself conceded. The upshot is that the decision to approve the mine will be delayed a few weeks, rather than be overturned.

Roche appeared on Lateline alongside Jeff Smith, the boss of the New South Wales Environmental Defenders Office – the legal group that takes on cases on behalf of conservation groups.

During the debate, ABC host Tony Jones pointed out that “even coal baron Clive Palmer” didn’t agree that the laws should be changed. I just wanted to highlight Roche’s answer, which I thought instructive.

MICHAEL ROCHE: Can I just touch on Mr Palmer? Mr Palmer has a vested interest here. Mr Palmer would see himself as a competitor to Adani in terms of being the first mover in the Galilee Basin. So I set aside Mr Palmer’s comments as self-interest.

So Michael Roche says he can “set aside” Palmer’s view because he has a vested interest.

The last time I checked, the Queensland Resources Council gets something in the order of $13 million in membership fees and income (financial statement for year ending June 2013). QRC’s members include the state’s coal mining powerhouses, including Adani.

So if we take our direction from Roche on who we should and should not listen to, then surely we should all “set aside” the views of the QRC?


The Australian misreports study on influence of sun on global warming

lloyd ice age
The p5 story in The Australian. Chances of story about climate science being wrong are on the rise if they appear in The Australian.

If you read The Australian newspaper the other day, you might be forgiven for thinking a new study into the amount of energy coming from the sun had found that the chances of the world experiencing another “little ice age” had gone up.

You might think that because that’s what the newspaper’s environment editor wrote.

Here are the first two paragraphs, under the headline “Chances of little ice age on the rise“.

The sun’s power is weakening at its fastest rate in 9300 years, doubling the odds of a return to little ice age conditions by mid-century, according to research by the British Met Office.

The chance of a repeat of conditions that last occurred between 1645 and 1715 when London’s Thames River regularly froze over and became the scene of winter fairs, was now rated at between 15 and 20 per cent, up from 10 per cent in 2010.

The big problem with these two sentences, is that the study did not look at the chances of the world, or even parts of the world, “returning to little ice age conditions”.

Rather, the study referred to the chances of the sun having a prolonged period of low solar activity similar to a period known as the Maunder Minimum, which coincided with the Little Ice Age but might not necessarily have actually caused it.

The study was published in Nature Communications and amazingly (or not surprisingly if you have followed much of Lloyd’s work over the years) it doesn’t even mention the Little Ice Age.  So what does it say?

Continue reading “The Australian misreports study on influence of sun on global warming”