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John Everett

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Dr. John Everett is a marine biologist who has worked with NOAA and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and manages the UN Atlas of the Oceans; he is currently president of the consulting firm Ocean Associates, Inc.[1] He is also a garden-variety climate denier. [2] More unique is his denial of 'the other CO2 problem', that is, ocean acidificationWikipedia. He has presented misinformation on the subject to the US Senate, at the invitation of James Inhofe.[3][4] His testimony is interesting in that it recycles old talking points about global warming into a new context.

Quantities and rates[edit]

At several points, Everett appears to confuse quantities with their rates of change. For example, he says:

"Importantly, oceans are alkaline - not acidic, so use of the term 'acidification' unnecessarily promotes fear."

To Everett’s credit, this is great PR. It’s snappy, it’s to the point, it sounds nice, it’s easily remembered and repeated. However, acidification refers to a downward trend in pH; it doesn't mean that the solution in question is going to become an acid. If a solution has a pH above 7, it is basic. If its pH drops, it has become more acid- acidified- even if the solution remains a base. If the pH of a solution changes from 9 to 8, the solution has acidified, even though it is still basic. If someone who’s fallen off a bridge says, 'Help, Help, I’m falling dooooooooooooooown', Everett’s response would be akin to saying, 'You’re not falling down! You’re still way, way up in the air!'

Everett also presents a graph of global CO2 accumulation rates, noting that the 'observational trend line shows monotonic growth'. He contrasts this with the scenarios used by the IPCC, which 'rely on an accelerating growth'. However, the IPCC scenarios which he presents graphs CO2 concentrations. The observed growth in accumulation rates doesn't contradict accelerating growth in the concentrations, it implies it! A quantitative comparison shows that the data he presents actually agree relatively well with the IPCC scenarios he disputes.[5] (Even Everett's preferred scenario will reach CO2 concentrations which have demonstrated negative effects on sea life, e.g., Gazeau et al. 2007)

Questionable extrapolations[edit]

A common tactic amongst climate denialists is extrapolating short-term variation as though it were a long-term trend; typically sounds something like "global warming stopped in 1998!" It's the thought process of a gambler who wins a few hands and decides that she is 'on a roll', while ignoring that her stack is half the size as when the game started.

Everett (mis)applies this reasoning to the CO2 accumulation rates he has graphed, saying 'if the last 8 or 12 years are representative of the future, we might imagine a downward slope in the growth rate.' However, like the temperature record, the annual accumulation rates show great variability at the 8-12 year time scale, including many such intervals with no clear trend, or even a negative trend. These occur in the presence of a clear long-term trend,[6] so it's not obvious how meaningful Dr. Everett's observation is. He justifies the reality of this downturn, saying: 'This could be real as rising fuel prices cut usage and lead to economic distress.' This was plausible, but was not ultimately born out: CO2 emissions hit a record high in 2010.[7]

Misuse of sources[edit]

Everett misrepresents a number of sources he cites.

He claims that 'shell forming algae do much better in a higher CO2 environment', but the paper he cites does not make this claim; rather, it merely points out that some calcifying algae form thicker shells under high-CO2 conditions. The authors have criticized his rosy interpretation of their work on a number of grounds; they write:

"Dr. Everett’s conclusion that ocean acidification poses no threat to marine organisms is based, in large part, on the Iglesias-Rodriguez et al. (2008) study that showed that calcification within coccolithophores (calcifying phytoplankton) was enhanced under elevated CO2. However, this study also showed that growth rates for these marine algae were simultaneously impaired under high-CO2 conditions. These algae are among the most important sinks of atmospheric CO2 on the planet. Although they release CO2 through calcification, they consume it through photosynthesis (growth). Thus, a shift to enhanced calcification (release of CO2) and reduced growth (consumption of CO2) would substantially reduce the ocean’s ability to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere. [...] The physiology of the whole organism, not simply its ability to calcify, must be investigated to fully assess its ability to survive in a future high-CO2 world."

The response is well worth reading in its entirety; it is an extremely satisfying smackdown.[8]

Although Everett claims that acidification experiments have do not give organisms sufficient time to adapt to increased CO2, the paper which he describes as 'Perhaps the most thorough review of the literature on acidificaton impacts' suggests exactly the opposite: experiments don't go on long enough to demonstrate the full severity of the problem!

"Although suppression of metabolism under short-term experimental conditions is a “sublethal” reversible process, reductions in growth and reproductive output will effectively diminish the survival of the species on longer time-scales." (Fabry et al. 2008)

Everett references the work of Dr. Wolfgang Knorr, which suggests that the airborn fraction of CO2 emissions has not changed significantly over the industrial period - that is to say, the oceans and the land are continuing to absorb CO2 at preindustrial rates; this is in contrast to some predictions and observations that the oceanic carbon sink is weakening. This might be good news as far as global warming is concerned, but if true, it means that ocean acidification will continue unabated! It's not obvious why he brings it up, but his bibliography is suggestive. His citation for this article reads 'Knorr, Wolf. "No Rise of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide Fraction in Past 160 Years"' However, Knorr's paper is actually titled "Is the Airborne Fraction of CO2 Emissions Increasing?". The phrase "No Rise..." doesn't appear in the paper itself, nor in the news item Everett refers to in his testimony, but it is the title of countless posts in the denialist blogosphere echochamber.[9] It appears that he re-appropriated a popular 'skeptic' talking point and shoehorned it into his remarks, even though it argued against his case (and would appear to be in conflict with the calcifying algae results discussed above.)

Everett tries to allay concerns about ocean acidification by pointing to an acid rain study conducted in Little Rock Lake, Wisconsin. part of the lake was deliberately acidified, then allowed to recover. He quotes a news item on the experiment: "Some species were decimated and others thrived, but the sum-total of life in the lake stayed the same." He neglects to mention that this quote referred to the slow recovery, rather than the acidified state. Other points he doesn't mention include mortality of sports fish, 'a complete revolution' in the food chain, increased mercury levels in fish, and the takeover of an invasive algae nicknamed 'elephant snot'.[10] It is also not clear why he is comparing fresh- and saltwater ecosystems; the differences between the two are obvious to any aquarist. The director of the Little Rock Lake study agrees that the comparison is specious.[11]

Deep time[edit]

Climate denialists often point out that the climate has changed in the past, thus current global warming is not anthropogenic and/or not alarming. Everett makes a similar argument, pointing to periods of high-CO2 concentrations in the past, which failed to exterminate all life on earth. That means we're okay, right?

However, simply identifying high-CO2 episodes in the past is not sufficient to make this case. Organisms and ecosystems are adapted over evolutionary time to their environments, and there are strict upper bounds to their abilities to adapt. These constraints are a major part of the predictive power of evolution, and they are what rule out the creationist parody of dogs giving birth to cats. Without considering the rate at which environmental variables change, the values of those variables themselves don't tell us much. Indeed, it is the rate of change that distinguishes the current geological experiment in CO2 release from similar events in the past. To the extent that that comparisons can be drawn (such as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum), the outlook is somewhat bleak. (Kump et al. 2009)

In particular, Everett emphasizes the high-CO2 Cretaceous period, which was characterized by significant deposition of calcium carbonate. This ignores the geochemistry of CO2, particularly the kinetics of ocean alkalinity and weathering. [12]

Further reading[edit]

  • CO2 Trouble: Ocean Acidification, Dr. Everett, and Congressional Science Standards
  • Fabry, VJ, Brad A. Seibel , Richard A. Feely , and James C. Orr.Impacts of ocean acidification on marine fauna and ecosystem processes. ICES Journal of Marine Science: Journal du Conseil Advance Access. April 1, 2008. Link
  • Gazeau et al. 2007, Impact of elevated CO2 on shellfish calcification, Geophys. Res. Lett., 34, L07603, doi:10.1029/2006GL028554
  • Kump et al. (2009). Ocean acidification in deep time. Oceanography, 22 (4), 94-107