A part of my John Everett series – read more: 0/I – II.0 – II.5 – II.75 –  III.0 – III.3 – IV.0 – IV.4 – IV.8 – V – VII – VIII – Full Report 

Often, in order to explain why a particular Weird Belief is correct despite being at odds with available evidence, the belief holder will invoke conspiracy theories. Young Earth Creationists often invoke a conspiracy by god and/or satan to make the earth look much older than it actually is. Intelligent Design Creationists allege an academic conspiracy to suppress ID research. Climate change skuptiks see conspiracies to falsify data the way I see faces in clouds. It’s not necessarily that conspiracies don’t exist- but because the point of a conspiracy is to mask its own existence, we have to be very careful in deciding which conspiracy theories are justified and which aren’t.

Dr. Everett doesn’t invoke a conspiracy in the classical sense of a bunch of men in suits, smoking cigars in a dimly lit room. But he does seem to invoke a distributed, systemic conspiracy, in which science as a system has been corrupted, and its results can not be trusted. He does this in order to cast doubt on studies of the effects of acidification on calcifiers:

None can be accepted at face value. The peer review process has warts. A good example is the dispute over whether acidification is good or bad for “shell”-forming plant plankton, a vital part of the ocean’s biology with the ability to sequester vast amounts of CO2. The first paper says more CO2 is good, the second that it is bad, and then the first successfully refutes the criticism and gets the last word, sustaining the positive assessment in great detail – all published in Science. [… excerpt from Dr. Iglesias-Rodriguez & colleagues … ] However, Riebesell et al. vigorously attacked the paper, claiming that “shortcomings in their experimental protocol compromise the interpretation of their data and the resulting conclusions.”7 In rebuttal, also in Science, Iglesias-Rodriguez et al. get the last word by successfully demonstrating that the logic and methods of Riebesall et al. are the ones that are flawed and the original findings of increased calcification are valid8.

He presents this straightforward episode of peer review as a soap opera: one group “vigorously attacked” a second, and the second “get the last word”. He also presents this as evidence that “The peer review process has warts”, but it’s hard to see how. One group published some research. Another group reviewed it and raised potential issues. The first group responded with an explanation of why the issues raised didn’t invalidate their study.  Where are the warts?

Dr. Everett makes a big deal about one study getting “the last word” in a peer-review exchange. Ironically, the authors have also gotten the last word in another peer-review exchange- one in which they review Everett’s science! After his testimony, the first authors for two of the main papers Dr. Everett cites responded with a “clarification ” of their research. The whole thing is worth reading, but there are large chunks that should be highlighted (emphasis theirs). For example, remember how I said that inducing a thicker shell doesn’t necessarily mean that more CO2 is a good thing for plankton?

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.

What’s worse is the implications for the carbon cycle:

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.

In other words, if Dr. Everett wants to use this paper as a whole, rather than just picking out the parts he likes, he’s going to have to reconcile it with his earlier claim that the oceanic carbon sink is stable.

The authors continue:

Dr. Everett also states that only 2 of the 18 species of marine calcifiers (soft clams and oysters) investigated in the Ries et al. (2009) study exhibited a negative response to CO2-induced ocean acidification. In actuality, 11 of the 18 species that were investigated exhibited impaired calcification under high CO2 conditions and, of these, 6 exhibited shell dissolution (i.e., net loss of shell).

Furthermore, only calcification was assessed in the Ries et al. (2009) study. Other studies suggest that calcification rates within organisms reared under high-CO2 conditions are maintained at” normal levels” by diverting energy from other vital process, such as tissue growth or  reproduction. Along these lines, Wood et al. (2008, Ocean acidification may increase calcification rates, but at a cost, Proceedings of the Royal Society B 275: 1767-1773; DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2008.0343) showed that calcification rates within brittle stars reared under high-CO2 conditions were maintained at the expense of muscle mass, indicating that this apparent positive response was unsustainable. 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.

As the ocean becomes more acidic, sea urchins stop smooching. (image from Everett's testimony)

We saw other examples in part III.0, such as then negative impact of acidification on mollusc and echinoderm reproduction.

Dr. Everett also cites the variability in the responses of calcifying marine organisms (both positive and negative) observed in these two studies as evidence that ocean acidification poses no threat to marine organisms. Implicit in this argument is the assumption that a negative response of one species is offset by the positive response of another. We find this assumption to be flawed for the following three reasons:

• Ecosystem health is measured by diversity (number of species), as much as by abundance(number of individuals). Therefore, the loss of one species will not be offset by the expansion of another, as this results in a net decline in diversity and, thus, ecosystem health.

CO2-tolerant species (e.g., marine algae, crabs, lobsters, shrimp, urchins) are likely to be negatively impacted by the decline of CO2-intolerant species (e.g., corals, clams, oysters, scallops, conchs) within their ecosystems. For example, clams and oysters play important roles in filtering seawater in estuarine environments. Their disappearance would result in a degradation of water quality for all organisms inhabiting those waters.

The expansion of CO2-tolerant species may exacerbate the decline of CO2-intolerant species through enhanced predation, grazing, and/or competition. For example, Ries et al. (2009) found that calcification is enhanced within crabs and lobsters under elevated CO2 , yet impaired within clams, oysters and scallops. This may cause clams, oysters, and scallops to become overexploited by some of their main predators, crabs and lobster, ultimately causing problems for both.

The published variability in the responses of marine organisms to ocean acidification should not be misconstrued as evidence of their immunity to it.

And finally:

Dr. Everett’s conclusion that ocean acidification poses no threat to calcifying marine organisms was based largely on only two papers from a vast body of literature on the subject. Critically, neither of these papers refuted previously published evidence that many keystone marine organisms, including corals, foraminifera, some crustaceans, mollusks and even fish, are negatively impacted by ocean acidification.This large body of peer-reviewed research, of which our own contributions compose only a small part, collectively suggests that many calcifying marine organisms will exhibit negative responses to CO2-induced ocean acidification over the coming centuries […] Dr. Everett’s spoken testimony is received with concern by the marine research community because of its disproportionate focus on only two of the hundred-plus peer-reviewed articles that currently exist on the subject. It also runs counter to the assessment of ocean acidification made in 2009 by a panel of over 70 national science academies and to the IPCC 4th Assessment Report on Climate Change in 2007.