The latest from the ‘Redneck-Wonderland’.

The following was recently posted by shock jock Andrew Bolt who has just been given his own TV program by Australia’s richest person, mining billionaire Gina Rinehart. For those overseas – Greg Combet is our Federal Minister for Climate Change.  For those wondering why the reference to “Redneck Wonderland” go here and here.

Note that the ‘experts’ that he refers to are unqualified and unpublished in the peer-reviewed literature associated with the majority of expert areas behind their claims.  Good choice Andrew – I guess they match your expertise on climate change and  its impacts.  Wouldn’t want to have a real expert disagree with you!


Bob Carter, David Evans, Stewart Franks and Bill Kininmonth identify 10 errors in Climate Change Greg Combet’s big speech last week on his carbon dioxide tax.

Go here for their explanations, but these are the 10 falsehoods Combet uttered:

1. The evidence of atmospheric warming is very strong, and the potential for dangerous climate impacts is high. The scientific advice is that carbon (sic) pollution (sic) is the cause.

Continue reading

Accuracy, balance and rigor on talk-back radio…in the week after hell freezes over?

A very interesting episode of Media Watch screened tonight which threw a spotlight on the waves of climate skepticism that are the norm across Australian talk back radio.

Apart from recently chastising the Prime Minister for being 10 minutes late to a interview, 2GB radio host Alan Jones has also been busy drumming up support for a rally against the proposed carbon tax,set to happen at Parliament House this Wednesday (where you could choose to sport a hand made Pinnochio-style Julia Gillard mask courtesy of the Climate Skeptic Party. Check the legal disclaimer -they’ve got all their bases covered on inexpert advice).

A couple of interesting snippets – the first is the not-so surprising bias towards giving air time to reknowned climate skeptics over practicing climate scientists:

Let’s ask Chris Smith. He’s certainly got no time for the people the Prime Minister listens to …

“She said she knew who she’d rather have on her side, not Alan Jones, not Piers Akerman, not Andrew Bolt, but the CSIRO, The Australian Academy of Science, the Bureau of Meteorology, NASA, the National Atmospheric Administration, and every reputable climate change scientist in the world. Did you hear that?

There was no mention of leading Australian scientists who question climate change including Professor Ian Plimer, Professor Bob Carter and Dr David Evans, among others. What, none of them are reputable now?”

— 2GB Sydney, The Chris Smith Afternoon Show, 17th March, 2011

In fact, the bias was greater than I expected:

Not one orthodox climate scientist – not one – has been interviewed by any of the climate sceptics on Fairfax stations.

Despite the skewed viewpoints that are constantly being broadcast over the airwaves, we’ve all become so used to it that it seems pointless to consider anything different on talk back radio. Radio broadcasters do have to adhere to a code of practice, but interestingly, so far no-one has made any complaints:

As we’ve seen, there are requirements for accuracy and diversity of view in Code of Practice No 2. The problem is, the regulator won’t or can’t enforce the Code unless someone complains it’s being flouted. And, says ACMA…

“The ACMA does not have any current code 2.2 or 2.3 complaints or investigations into these programs on their coverage of global warming science…

— Response from ACMA, 18th March, 2011

Time to write some letters?

Watch the episode in full here


Silencing the scientists: the rise of right-wing populism

This piece by Clive Hamilton is worth a read. I recently had my own run-in with an individual who tried to get me sacked from the University of Queensland.   My crime?  Saying on ABC Stateline that the IPCC was a highly credible source of information on climate change.  Where do these people come from?

Last month, Americans were shocked at the attempted murder of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the killing of six bystanders. The local County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik captured the immediate assessment of many when he linked the attempted murder to the rise of violent anti-government rhetoric and imagery, observing, “The anger, the hatred, the bigotry that goes on in this country is getting to be outrageous.”

When asked if the Congresswoman had any enemies her father replied: “Yeah. The whole Tea Party”. Many, including Giffords herself, had had a premonition that the inflammatory language of radical right-wing activists would sooner or later find real expression.

The same hate-filled rhetoric that created the circumstances in which Gabrielle Giffords was gunned down also stokes ferocious attacks on climate scientists and environmentalists in the United States. Debunking climate science is official policy at Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News; a leaked memo from management has instructed reporters to always cast doubt on data reporting global temperature increases.

Continue reading

Hoodwinking the public with faulty information

By Hans Hoegh-Guldberg, Economic Strategies, Australia.

A few months ago on this blog I reviewed the current alarming state of climate change denial pushed by big business interests,  which scientists need to debate vigorously beyond uttering the evident truth that climate change is real. The Australian government, supported by the Greens and independent members, has “committed” itself to a carbon tax, or what Treasurer Wayne Swan now calls an interim price on carbon as a step towards a future emissions trading scheme. Scientists need to help support, explain and strengthen this initiative.

The proposal is good news but there is still a long way to go, with the opposition promising to fight “the great big tax on everything” all the way. The Coalition fails to mention that the proposed price on carbon will be combined with measures to support lower-income groups, small businesses, and renewable energy.  Voters need to understand that structural change in the taxation and subsidy system is part and parcel of what must happen. Estimates of a $300 electricity price hike, petrol  costs rising by 6.5 cents a litre, and $150 increases in the annual gas bill that have been canvassed by Coalition members such as Greg Hunt are premature when nothing has yet been decided on the carbon price, or the associated reforms. An extensive consultative process will follow, in which scientists have an evident role.

Continue reading

Republicans announce new climate strategy: Abandon Earth

Unfortunately, no, this isn’t a piece from the Onion: GOP members want to scrap NASA’s climate research funding to instead invest in a new mission to outer space. Have they been talking to Stephen Hawking?

Reposted in full from the Wonk Room:

Republicans have a new idea: instead of wasting time protecting this planet, let’s figure out how to escape it.

Over a hundred years ago, scientists started warning that the unconstrained burning of fossil fuels could make planet Earth uninhabitable for human civilization. Since then, we have spewed billions of tons of greenhouse pollution into the atmosphere, acidifying the oceans, devastating ecosystems, and intensifying catastrophic weather. Fortunately, scientists have also found that the strategy of reducing pollution would unleash an economic revolution with clean energy and keep our planet friendly to the human race. Many of these scientists work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA), which has a billion-dollar budget for studying the “natural and man-made changes in our environment” that “affect the habitability of our planet.”

However, Republicans in Congress find the clean energy pathway unreasonable, arguing the costs of reducing our toxic dependence on coal and oil would be too great. Perhaps stung by accusations that they are simply the Party of No, a group of House Republicans have now put forward an alternate strategy to avoiding disastrous global warming: the first step being to scrap NASA’s world-leading climate science research funding, and direct it instead into sending people into unpolluted outer space:

Global warming funding presents an opportunity to reduce spending without unduly impacting NASA’s core human spaceflight mission. With your help, we can reorient NASA’s mission back toward human spaceflight by reducing funding for climate change research and reallocating those funds to NASA’s human spaceflight accounts, all while moving overall discretionary spending toward 2008 levels.

The signatories of this Abandon Earth letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) are Reps. Sandy Adams (R-FL), Rob Bishop (R-UT), Mo Brooks (R-AL), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Pete Olson (R-TX) and Bill Posey (R-FL), all from districts that play a role in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) manned spaceflight program. As they are currently on planet Earth, they are also all from districts threatened by the effects of global warming.

Although the signatories don’t explicitly state that the goal of shifting funding from climate research into manned spaceflight is to find a new home for the 350 million people of the United States, one can only assume that they support that goal. Signatory Mo Brooks (R-AL), the new subcommittee chair for the House science committee’s panel on basic research and education, told ScienceInsider that “I haven’t seen anything that convinces me” that greenhouse emissions should be reduced, and will hold hearings about cutting as much of the U.S. climate research budget as possible.

As they are responsible politicians who worry about “[f]uture generations of Americans,” they surely don’t intend to stick our children with catastrophic sea level rise, summer-long heat waves of over 100 degrees, superfueled storms and floods, intense droughts, desertification, and mass species extinction without offering them a Planet B:

Space is the ultimate high ground and nations such as China, Russia, and India are anxious to seize the mantle of space supremacy should we decide to cede it. We must not put ourselves in the position of watching Chinese astronauts planting their flag on the moon while we sit earthbound by our own shortsightedness. Future generations of Americans deserve better.

The Planet-B Republicans rightfully recognize that the moon — without an atmosphere or liquid water — would lead to serious resource competition between the 6 billion people now on this planet, perhaps with China the greatest threat to our post-Earth plans. Although China does have a growing space program, its government is primarily investing in the “save this planet first” strategy, spending twice as much as the United States on clean technology, establishing mandatory standards for renewable energy production, mandatory energy efficiency standards, and mandatory fuel economy standards.

Some people might say that ramping up interplanetary travel from the 12 men who walked on the moon to millions or billions of people, while figuring out how to terraform lifeless planets when we’re failing to keep our own climate stable, in a few decades is a higher risk, more costly endeavor than increasing energy efficiency and renewable energy by one or two percentage points a year. Although those people would be technically correct, they would also be failing to appreciate the total awesomeness of the Abandon Earth plan.

Coral Reef Baselines

The pristine or natural state of a population or community is called the baseline in conservation biology. A baseline serves as a guide for setting conservation and restoration targets. Unfortunately, scientists rarely have reliable information on baselines, because in most cases quantitative data are not collected until long after the resource has been modified. This is particularly true for marine communities which can be difficult and expensive to monitor.

A new paper in Coral Reefs “Assessing loss of coral cover on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef over two decades, with implications for longer-term trends” (Sweatman et al. 2011) tries to get at what the baseline is for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) using the results of ecological surveys performed by the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS). Sweatman et al argue that the AIMS surveys, which began in 1986, are the most reliable evidence we have and that other evidence should be ignored. However, many other scientists surveyed reefs on the GBR (for various reasons) decades before AIMS began it’s monitoring program. Three papers have collated that data and combined it with the AIMS survey data to estimate how the GBR has changed over the last 4-5 decades.

The first such paper (published in Nature by Bellwood et al 2004) included this graphic of long-term change in coral cover (the percentage of the sea floor covered by living corals – because corals facilitate so many reef inhabitants, living coral cover is a key measure of reef habitat quality and quantity, analogous to the coverage of trees as a measure of tropical forest loss):

Figure 1 (from Bellwood et al 2004). Degradation of coral reefs. a, Results of a meta-analysis of the literature, showing a decline in coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef. Each point represents the mean cover of up to 241 reefs sampled in each year. b, The recorded number of reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, Australia, substantially damaged over the past 40 yr by outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish (COTS) and episodes of coral bleaching.

The second study (Bruno and Selig 2007) is a meta-analyses of coral reef survey data from 2667 reefs across the Indo-Pacific performed between 1968 and 2004 (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 (from Bruno and Selig 2007). Coral cover in ten Indo-Pacific subregions in each of three periods. Plotted values are means +/- 1 SE and values above each bar are the subregional sample sizes. *=no data available

The third paper, Pandolfi et al 2003, used a variety of historical and palontological data sources in an attempt to reconstruct the longer-term, including pre-human, history of the GBR and other reefs around the world (Fig. 3).

Figure 3 (from Pandolfi 2003). Time trajectories for reef regions over seven cultural periods.

All three studies essentially concluded that GBR coral cover and overall ecosystem health began to decline decades ago, despite the fact that the GBR is currently in better shape than many of the world’s reefs.

Sweatman et al dismiss pre-1986 data from all three studies, arguing that only AIMS survey data are suitable, and thus conclude that the GBR has changed little if at all due to human influences: “We argue that the GBR is currently less degraded from its natural, resilient state than some published reports have asserted”. Global climate change skeptics have frequently use a very similar approach: they rationalize cherry picking a favored data set and time interval in an attempt to show land and ocean temperatures haven’t increased, that sea ice hasn’t declined, etc.

Abstract (from Sweatman et al 2011):

While coral reefs in many parts of the world are in decline as a direct consequence of human pressures, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is unusual in that direct human pressures are low and the entire system of 2,900 reefs has been managed as a marine park since the 1980s. In spite of these advantages, standard annual surveys of a large number of reefs showed that from 1986 to 2004, average live coral cover across the GBR declined from 28 to 22%. This overall decline was mainly due to large losses in six (21%) of 29 subregions. Declines in live coral cover on reefs in two inshore subregions coincided with thermal bleaching in 1998, while declines in four mid-self subregions were due to outbreaks of predatory starfish. Otherwise, living coral cover increased in one subregion (3%) and 22 subregions (76%) showed no substantial change. Reefs in the great majority of subregions showed cycles of decline and recovery over the survey period, but with little synchrony among subregions. Two previous studies examined long-term changes in live coral cover on GBR reefs using meta-analyses including historical data from before the mid-1980s. Both found greater rates of loss of coral and recorded a marked decrease in living coral cover on the GBR in 1986, coinciding exactly with thestart of large-scale monitoring. We argue that much of the apparent long-term decrease results from combining data from selective, sparse, small-scale studies before 1986 with data from both small-scale studies and large-scale monitoring surveys after that date. The GBR has clearly been changed by human activities and live coral cover has declined overall, but losses of coral in the past 40–50 years have probably been overestimated.

For several reasons listed below, I think the main conclusion of Sweatman et al is unsupported once you consider the scientific record as a whole.

1) There is much more pre-1986 data available than Sweatman et al suggest

Our study alone (Bruno and Selig) includes data from 154 surveys of reefs across the Indo Pacific performed between just 1980 and 1982. We found that mean coral cover was 42.5% (95% CI, 39.3 and 45.6). Our analysis includes 104 GBR surveys performed between 1968 and 1983, all from published literature (see Fig. 2).

2) Baseline data from other regions indicates that historically GBR coral cover was higher than it is today (or was in 1986)

In the Caribbean a small number (a few dozen) of reliable quantitative surveys from before the early 1980s suggest the regional mean for coral cover was 30-40% (Gardner et al 2003, Schutte et al 2010: see Figs. 5 and 6 below). Because countless well trained reef scientists were working throughout the region and observed the state of reefs over the last 100 years, most Caribbean reef scientists think that historically, the regional mean of Caribbean coral cover was higher than this; probably closer to 50% (or greater). Most Caribbean reefs of this era were dominated by Acropora spp., as can be seen in the photo below from 1974:

Sweatman et al are effectively arguing that the GBR has naturally lower coral cover (averaging a mere 28%) than the Caribbean, which lacks plating species; even in dense thickets of branching Acroporids (as seen above), Caribbean coral cover rarely exceeds 70% whereas on the GBR, cover can easily reach 100% (see the photo below).

We also have substantially more older survey data for several non-GBR Pacific regions than are available for the GBR. For example, Gomez et al surveyed more than 600 sites in the Philippines in 1981 (Gomez et al 1981). Their work clearly shows a coral baseline far higher than today in the Philippines, the GBR or anywhere else in the world. Also see Fig. 4 below from Bruno and Selig (2010) that suggests the values reported in Gomez et al are representative of other regions at the time. And note the striking difference in the distribution of coral cover values among reefs between the early 1980s and for more recent surveys. Does it look like the Indo-Pacific as a whole, the Philippines or the reefs off mainland Asia haven’t changed? NO! They clearly have. Even assuming we had no pre-1986 coral cover data for the GBR, I don’t think it is logical to assume that the GBR hasn’t followed these global trends and that it has a much lower coral cover baseline than the rest of the world.

Figure 4. (From Bruno and Selig 2007) Histograms illustrating percent coral cover in the Indo-Pacific and selected subregions during different periods.

3) The GBR was already disturbed and changing by the time the AIMS monitoring program began

AIMS began surveying a few dozen reefs along the GBR in 1986 after it became obvious that the reef ecosystem was changing due to over-fishing, sediment pollution from coastal development, ocean warming and predator outbreaks. Sweatman et al argue the values recorded by the early AIMS LTMP surveys of the late-1980s, when cover was roughly 30%, are representative of the pre-human, historical baseline.  I see no reason to assume this given the well-documented anthropogenic disturbances that were already affecting the reef by then (see Fig 1).

4) Nearshore reefs were smothered by sediment from coastal development a century ago

Sweatman et al: Observations and models of the dynamics of flood plumes (Devlin et al. 2001) show that it is the inshore reefs that are frequently exposed to runoff, but these reefs constitute less than 5% of the reef area of the GBR.

Sweatman et al cite the early work of Devlin et al (2001), suggesting that only the inshore reefs are ‘frequently’ exposed to runoff, but this isn’t the case. More recent evidence from CSIRO suggests that terrestrial runoff affects a much greater area of the GBR than Sweatman et al suggest:

The remotely sensed images, taken from February 9 to 13 this year, challenge conventional thought that sediment travelling from our river systems into the GBR is captured by the longshore current and travels no more than 10 to 15km offshore, affecting only the inner Great Barrier Reef Lagoon and the inner reef corals.

Images captured by CSIRO show large plumes of terrestrial material following unconventional patterns and travelling quite fast as far as 65 to 130km, to the outer reef and, in some instances, travelling along the outer reef and re-entering the reef.

Sediment, brown and green against the blues that show 'normal' reef waters, from the Annie River (1), North Kennedy River (2), Normanby River (3) and Marrett River (4) washes into Princess Charlotte Bay, past Flinders Island (5) and along Corbett Reef (6) before being carried into the Fairway Channel (7) and into the ocean. (Credit: CSIRO: GeoScience Australia)

To quote CSIRO scientist Arnold Dekker: “A re-think is needed now that we know where flood plumes go, and what this means as organic micropollutants may be travelling to parts of the reef scientists hadn’t thought to look before”. This suggests that both mid and outer shelf reefs are impacted periodically by flood disturbance – traveling as far as 65-135km, and affecting much more than the 5% that Sweatman et al claim. Why is this important? Scientists from AIMS have already implicated nutrient runoff and and crown of thorns starfish plagues, suggesting that “frequent A. planci outbreaks on the GBR may indeed be a result of increased nutrient delivery from the land”. Further research by Jupiter et al from from the southern GBR shows that whilst the inshore reefs that are exposed to chronic high-magnitude events are clearly degraded, near shore reefs influenced by episodic, high-magnitude exposure are also showing signs of stress, with persistent high cover of fleshy macroalgae. While Sweatman et al select (cherrypick?) the stories that makes the GBR look resilient:

“There is other evidence of recovery; 6 years after bleaching, survey sites on inshore reefs in the Innisfail sector had the highest densities of juvenile corals (<10 cm diameter) of any inshore reefs of the GBR (Sweatman et al. 2007), though the densities of juvenile corals were much lower on inshore reefs in the Townsville sector.”

The inclusion of such data largely glosses over some of the other studies Sweatman et al have co-authored, showing reduced resilience and phase shifts from coral to macroalgal dominance: “In this study, 11 years of field surveys recorded the development of the most persistent coral–macroalgal phase shift (>7 years) yet observed on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR)” (read more)

5) The early GBR survey data are sound

Sweatman et al: Another concern is that the objectives of many early reef studies predisposed them to select areas of high coral cover…This change in research emphasis is likely to be reflected in the choice of study sites, with early studies selecting sites for their diverse communities and high coral cover where the study organisms are abundant and large samples can be found in a small area.

I initially thought this too, but once I got into the literature, I was reminded that the late 60s and early 70s were the heyday of disturbance ecology and most reef ecologists were community ecologists, and like their peers working in other systems, focused almost entirely on the effects of large disturbances on reef communities, e.g., Endean and Stablum 1973, Endean 1977, Connell 1978, Done 1992, Done et al. 1991, etc.  Thus, if anything, I think most the early bias is in the other direction.  Regardless, I agree site selection biases, both then and now, complicate long-term trend interpretation.

Sweatman et al: While the AIMS long-term data show a decline in average coral cover on GBR reefs from 28.1 to 21.7% between 1986 and 2004, two studies (Bellwood et al. 2004; Bruno and Selig 2007) based on unweighted meta-analyses have suggested that average coral cover on GBR reefs was considerably higher in the 1960s and 1970s than in the 1980s. Bellwood et al. (2004) presented a plot of mean coral cover on the GBR indicating that cover halved from ~40% in the early 1960s to ~20% in 2000, almost three times the rate of decline in the AIMS long-term monitoring data.

Bruno and Selig (2007) used information from 2,667 sites to assess change across the Indo-Pacific, including the GBR as one subregion. Based on published studies including AIMS monitoring data, they found that mean coral cover on the GBR declined by ~25% (in relative terms) from the period 1968–1983 to 1984–1996 and then was relatively stable until the end of their study period in 2004. We argue that this difference is substantially due to a change in the scale of surveys and in survey methods. The most compelling evidence for this is that, in the data sets of both studies, the annual estimates of the mean for coral cover on the GBR drop abruptly in 1986, the first year of large-scale moni- toring on the GBR, and then vary rather little around the new level in subsequent years.

The apparent abrupt drop in average coral cover on the GBR in 1986 is most probably due to the inclusion of AIMS monitoring data with cover estimates from small selected patches of reef from small-scale studies…

Like Sweatmean et al, Bruno and Selig and Bellwood et al found that at a regional scale, average coral cover on the GBR has changed little since 1984 (see Figs. 1 and 2 above).  A similar pattern has been documented for the Caribbean, where substantial coral loss in the early 1980s changed to relative regional stasis since (Figs. 5A and C), i.e., a very similar pattern has been found in other regions (regardless of the scale of surveys and survey methods – also see Bruno and Selig for other Indo-Pacific examples) in which AIMS has never surveyed. 

Figure 5 (From Schutte et al 2010). Annual cover values (±1 SE, closed circles, left y-axis) and site sample sizes (open circles, right y-axis) for (A) mean coral cover for all sites in the Caribbean basin (n = 1962; star: 1980, the year in which Hurricane Allen struck and white band disease outbreaks began); (B) mean macroalgal cover for all sites for which data were available (n = 875; star: 1983, the year in which the Diadema antillarum die-off began); (C) mean coral cover for all sites in the greater Caribbean except those in the Florida Keys (FLK; n = 1515); and (D) mean coral cover for all sites in the FLK subregion (n = 447)

6) Are the AIMS LTMP data sound?

Here’s what Professor Mike Risk had to say about the AIMS monitoring program:

“One of the largest monitoring programmes is operated by the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences (AIMS) (e.g. Sweatman et al. 1998). Like all large monitoring programmes, it is expensive and time-consuming. It is designed to detect changes over time in reef communities at a regional scale. There has been a massive amount of data collected in this programme, which is commendable. On the other hand, as annual surveys are run between September and May, beginning in the north and working south, seasonal changes will be difficult to separate from spatial and temporal changes. It will take perhaps 30-50 years to accumulate enough baseline data to allow useful generalizations to be made” – (Risk 1999)

The AIMS survey data presented in Sweatman et al used the “manta tow” technique; snorkelers are towed behind a boat, over a reef and visually estimate coral cover within 10m wide swaths to categories such as 0-5%, >5-10%, 10-20%, 20-30%, etc. I think the manta technique can be a valid tool for estimating crude spatio-temporal trends in coral cover. I even used the AIMS manta data in our Bruno and Selig paper, although I haven’t used it since (having spoken with several former AIMS technicians about the technique and it’s accuracy and precision). In short, Sweatman et al argue that their manta tow data is so superior to data from other sources, that only the AIMS manta data should be used to asses long-term trends in GBR state. I disagree; not to knock the AIMS manta data, but it is a visual quasi-quantitative estimate collected by technicians as compared to the pre-1986 GBR data which was all collected by renouned PhD scientists, e.g., Endean and Stablum, Connell, Done, etc, that spent their lives studying the GBR.

Furthermore, these pre-1986 GBR surveys were performed using wholly quantitative techniques such as underwater photography to estimate coral cover. I just don’t buy the argument that the AIMS-intern-manta tow data are superior to quantitative surveys by trained PhD scientists. For one, how can we know that the visual estimation of “20%” coral cover has stayed constant over time? Secondly, I really doubt any technique only capable of estimating coral cover to the nearest 10% (i.e., with such low precision) is sensitive enough to even detect the gradual decline in coral cover that has been reported for the GBR and elsewhere, e.g., ~0.5-2% a year. (Just take a look at the error bars in Fig. 2 from Sweatman et al in the Abstract above). Third, I doubt the AIMS manta surveys were run long enough to detect regional trends without including data from other sources. Given the inherent noise in the system, I usually look for 30+ years of data before I try to test for a large-scale trend.

Fourth, I think it is somewhat misleading to represent the manta tows as having far greater spatial coverage. This is only true if you compare the cumulative area of the samples. However, unlike the manta tows, quantitative benthic reef surveys include extensive independent replication and if properly designed will produce coverage estimates that are representative of the broader surrounding benthos.

Finally, I suspect that the manta technique substantially underestimates coral cover because it does not (and cannot) correct for uninhabitable (by corals) substrate that is encountered in surveying. When coral scientists use the term “coral cover”, they mean the percentage of the sea floor occupied by stony corals that is habitable by this group, i.e., hard substrate, not sand or other types of soft substrate. This is easy to factor out with other quantitative survey methods; you just divide the total coral cover by the total hard (suitable) substrate cover to calculate “coral cover”.   In most cases, the hard/suitable cover is nearly 100%. But because manta tows cover wide and long swaths of reef, they inevitably include small and large patches of sand, etc, and it is impossible to do the mental math to factor this out when estimating the coverage of corals and other benthic taxa while getting pulled behind a boat in shark infested waters!  (manta towing is a job for the young and immortal!) If you compare the AIMS manta data to the quantitative AIMS video transect data (~48 reefs surveyed annually) you can see this artifact: from 1994-2003 the mean coral cover from the AIMS manta tows was 21.7 +/- 0.5 (1 se) and 30.7 +/- 0.9 from the video transects. This suggests that the drop in GBR coral cover in the mid-1980s could be due to a methodological bias of the manta tow technique. Would this mean that the GBR hasn’t lost any coral or that “losses of coral in the past 40–50 years have probably been overestimated”?  Only if you think that the coral cover baseline, unlike the rest of the world, for the GBR is only ~30%: as I explained above, I think this is unlikely.

Figure 6 (From Gardner et al 2003). Absolute percent coral cover from 1977 to 2001. Annual coral cover estimates (black triangles) are weighted means with 95% bootstrap confidence intervals. Also shown are unweighted mean coral cover estimates for each year (black circles), the unweighted mean coral cover with the Florida Keys Coral Monitoring Project (1996–2001) omitted (X), and the sample size (number of studies) for each year (white circles, right y axis).

7) Other skeptic soundbites

Sweatman et al make a lot of noise about variation among reefs and subregions in coral cover trajectories and states. Basically, there is a high degree of spatio-temporal asynchrony in the system, as we discussed in Bruno and Selig and illustrated with this graphic:

Figure 7 (from Bruno and Selig 2007). Illustrative examples of asynchrony of coral cover among 25 randomly selected monitored reefs on the GBR (a) and in Indonesia (b).

This isn’t surprising or atypical and it doesn’t mean a long-term trend isn’t present or detectable, as Sweatman et al suggest. Climate change deniers use this argument frequently, suggesting that natural short term variation makes long-term, anthropogenically forced trends, unlikely or undetectable. This is in a sense what Sweatman et al are arguing as well. But the fact that there is great unforced spatiotemporal variation, i.e, noise or weather, does not mean that longer-term, human-induced change isn’t also happening. (Although this is indeed a big issue for many fields of global change science: how to detect slow, long-term trends in a sea of shorter term noise.)

Sweatman et al: A reef system that is stable in the long term will still show cycles of disturbance and recovery at a subregional scale

True, but so will a reef system that isn’t stable and is declining as has been shown for other regions such as the Caribbean (Schutte et al 2010).

Sweatman et al: In the kind of broad analysis presented here, reef resilience is manifested as substantial increases in coral cover following disturbance. In the great majority of sub- regions of the GBR, reefs showed both declines and sub- stantial periods of increasing living coral cover over the 19 years of surveys, evidence that many reefs retained their regenerative capacity.

This, I largely agree with. In fact, there isn’t much doubt that reefs on the GBR have not lost all their regenerative capacity, eg, see here.

Shifting baseline syndrome

In his classic 1995 paper in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, Daniel Pauly outlined his argument for shifting baseline syndrome in fisheries:

Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species compostion that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.

The Sweatman et al paper is a great example of shifting baseline syndrome: coral reef scientists that accept as a baseline the state and coral reef cover that occurred at the beginning of their careers and use this to evaluate changes regardless of valid evidence of previously higher estimates.

In conclusion: The science certainly isn’t settled and I welcome this and future contributions by Sweatman et al and others on the matter.  I started working on this problem about 7 years ago and I frequently ask more experienced scientists and old-timers what they remember from the 60s and 70s and what they think the baseline distribution for coral cover  – which certainly varies among regions – really is.

We can’t know for sure without a time machine. But based on all the data at hand, I feel confident the GBR historically (before people starting mucking it up) had at least twice the coral it has now (including the nearshore reefs that we have lost and don’t even bother to survey anymore). This is pretty much what the vast amount of data (10,000+ surveys) for reefs around the world indicates has happened globally.

In Australia, this topic matters a lot because there has been an ongoing argument about how much the GBR has changed and how threatened it really is.  Sadly, much of this is playing out in the dodgy Aussie newspaper, the Australian. See past debunking of this nonsense about the GBR being “blue again” here, here, here, here and here.

Both shifting baseline syndrome and data cherry picking are more common in hard science and the peer-reviewed literature that you’d think. I am working on a followup post about another case of coral reef scientists playing fast and loose with the data in an attempt to support a pet idea; in this case they exclude a different set of survey data in an attempt to make the opposite point Sweatman et al did, namely to argue that reef decline is worse than has been reported. So stay tuned…

Some background and disclaimers: The lead author, Hugh Sweatman is a colleague and collaborator of mine. We have published several papers together and are working on other collaborative projects and started corresponding about coral reef baselines about five years ago. Dr. Sweatman is the director of the long-term monitoring program at AIMS (the analysis was based on the dataset from this program). I was a reviewer of the manuscript and made the same points in my signed (non-anonymous) review that I made above. Finally, Sweatman et al (2010) directly criticized findings of a paper on which I was the lead author (Bruno and Selig 2007).


Connell J.H. (1978). Diversity in tropical rain forests and coral reefs. Science, 199, 1302-1310

Endean R. (1977). Acanthaster planci infestations of reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. Third International Coral Reef Symposium, 185-191

Endean R. & Stablum W. (1973). The apparent extent of recovery of reefs of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef devastated by the crown-of-thorns starfish. Atoll Research Bulletin, 168, 1-41

Done T. (1992). Constancy and change in some Great Barrier Reef coral communities: 1980-1990. American Zoologist, 32, 655-662

Done T.J., Dayton, P.K.,  Dayton, A.E.,  Stege, R. (1991). Regional and local variability in recovery of shallow coral communities:  Moorea, French Polynesia and central Great Barrier Reef. Coral Reefs, 9, 183-192

Gomez, E. D., A. C. Alcala, and A. C. San Diego. 1982. Status of the Philippine coral reefs – 1981. Proceedings of the Fourth International Coral Reef Symposium, Manila 1:275-282

Risk, M.J. 1999. Paradise lost: how marine science failed the world’s coral reefs. Marine & Freshwater Research 50 831-837

Obama and climate change

As I heard from lots of friends Tuesday (I think I’m getting to be known in my community as being slightly obsessed about this topic!), Obama didn’t have much to say about climate change in his State of The Union speech (just like last year).  This is a calculated strategy to avoid the negative political consequences of taking this issue head on.  LAME . Obama needs to be a leader on this front.  Scientist-bloggers like us cannot swing the tide of America’s misperceptions about climate change without the assistance of our nations leaders.

I try not to get overly political in my blogging, but Iv’e gotta say it; on most the political issues I really care about – gay rights, gun control, war, the environment – this administration is totally disappointing.

Joe Romm has been blogging a lot about this and has a great post today with a long piece by Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University on why Obama’s “don’t use that nasty C word” strategy is unlikley to work:

In his State of the Union speech, Obama called for a big boost in low-carbon energy, but didn’t mention carbon, climate or warming, as I noted last night. Other people noticed, too.

Matthew Hope, a researcher in American politics at the University of Bristol, found that Obama has mentioned ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ or the ‘environment’ fewer times on average than his two predecessors, as an article today by the UK’s Guardian notes. That piece, which quotes my post, also quotes Dr. Robert J. Brulle of Drexel University, “an expert on environmental communications,” saying Obama’s “approach has several major drawbacks.” I asked Brulle for all of his thoughts on Hope’s key word analysis and Obama’s speech.  Brulle has a lot to say that is worth reading. Here it is:

From a political viewpoint, it is clear that Obama is not talking about climate change. The analysis based on key word counts is interesting, but not definitive. The idea that both Clinton and Bush are more “green” than Obama cannot be maintained from just a key word analysis. With all of the Obama administrations faults, this administration has done more than either Clinton or Bush in actually implementing regulations and standards to encourage actions to reduce GHG emissions.

What I see going on here is that Obama is following the rhetorical advice of David Axelrod and groups like ecoAmerica, who argue that the American public is unwilling to deal with climate change. [See Messaging 101b: EcoAmerica’s phrase ‘our deteriorating atmosphere’ isn’t going to replace ‘global warming’ — and that’s a good thing].

So rather than make the case for climate change and the necessity of action, this approach focuses on “clean” energy and research and development as a way to make a transition to a different energy mix. This is considered the popular, no pain, “energy quest” approach that relies on a mystical belief in R&D to address climate change. The Obama administration appears to have bought this approach completely as the politically popular way to address this issue. In my opinion, this approach has several major drawbacks, and effectively locks in massive and potentially catastrophic global climate change.

Read the complete post here on Climate Progress

And tell us what you think!  Are your political leaders ducking this issue?

Who’s to blame for blocking progress on global warming?

Wonder no longer – Rolling Stone has made a list: 12 Politicians and Execs Blocking Progress on Global Warming.

It’s far from exhaustive, but gives a pretty representative sample of the main players in the US, as well as some more familiar faces.

Rupert Murdoch takes the (coveted?) #1 spot, thanks to the continued efforts of The Australian and Fox News to obscure debate and promote doubt in climate science (but it’s always important to consult the experts when reporting on serious matters).

The Koch brothers’ bankrolling of last year’s Proposition 23 (later defeated by a a 23% margin) in California prompted then-Governer Schwarzenegger to aggressively defend the state’s climate legislation, prompting this response to the oil companies’ claims they were trying to protect jobs:

“This is like Eva Braun selling a kosher cookbook. It’s not about jobs at all. It’s about their ability to pollute and protect their profits,” he said.

Bjørn Lomborg now seems to think that climate change is a problem, but just don’t ask how his new film fared.

And then there’s Sarah Palin.

Who would make it onto an Australian-flavoured list? I have a few ideas.

1. Rupert MurdochCEO, News Corporation

2. Charles and David Koch CEO and Executive VP, Koch Industries

3. Sarah PalinRetired half-term governor, Alaska

4. Gregory Boyce – CEO, Peabody Energy

5. Tom Donahue – President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

6. Rex Tillerson – CEO, ExxonMobil

7. Tim Phillips – President, Americans for Prosperity

8. Ken Cuccinelli – Attorney general, Virginia

9.  Sen. Jay Rockefeller – Democrat, West Virginia

10. Rep. Darrell Issa – Republican, California

11. Bjørn Lomborg – Author, “Cool It”

12. Rep. Fred Upton – Republican, Michigan

Why was it so cold in Europe and North America if climate change is meant to be real?

We have seen record cold weather over the past few months in Europe and North America.  I keep getting asked:  why is this so if climate change is meant to be happening?  Our inept denialist ‘friends’ continue to trumpet this as evidence that climate change is not happening.  The experts, however, think very differently.  Here is some of what they say.

The strongly negative NAO is back again this winter. High pressure has replaced low pressure over the North Pole, and according to NOAA, the NAO index during November 2010 was the second lowest since 1950. This strongly negative NAO has continued into December, and we are on course to have a top-five most extreme December NAO. Cold air is once again spilling southwards into the Eastern U.S. And Europe, bringing record cold and fierce snowstorms. At the same time, warm air is flowing into the Arctic to replace the cold air spilling south–

temperatures averaged more than 10°C (18°F) above average over much of Greenland so far this month. The latest 2-week forecast from the GFS model predicts that the Hot Arctic-Cold Continents pattern will continue for the next two weeks. However, the coldest air has sloshed over into Europe and Asia, and North America will see relatively seasonable temperatures the next two weeks.

Severe winters in eastern US and E. Asia are related by teleconnections to changes in atmospheric pressure and winds following loss of Arctic sea ice

Hot Arctic-Cold Continents

Dr. Jim Overland of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, one of the world’s experts on Arctic weather and climate, [has] demonstrated that the Arctic is normally dominated by low pressure in winter, and a “Polar Vortex” of counter-clockwise circulating winds develops surrounding the North Pole. However, during the winter of 2009-2010, high pressure replaced low pressure over the Arctic, and the Polar Vortex weakened and even reversed at times, with a clockwise flow of air replacing the usual counter-clockwise flow of air around the pole. This unusual flow pattern allowed cold air to spill southwards and be replaced by warm air moving poleward. This pattern is kind of like leaving the refrigerator door ajar–the refrigerator warms up, but all of the cold air spills out into the house.

The North Atlantic Oscillation NAO

This is all part of a natural climate pattern known as the North Atlantic Oscillation NAO, which took on its most extreme configuration in 145 years of record keeping during the winter of 2009 – 2010. The NAO is a climate pattern in the North Atlantic Ocean of fluctuations in the difference of sea-level pressure between the Icelandic Low and the Azores High. It is one of oldest known climate oscillations–seafaring Scandinavians described the pattern several centuries ago. Through east-west oscillation motions of the Icelandic Low and the Azores High, the NAO controls the strength and direction of westerly winds and storm tracks across the North Atlantic. A large difference in the pressure between Iceland and the Azores positive NAO leads to increased westerly winds and mild and wet winters in Europe. Positive NAO conditions also cause the Icelandic Low to draw a stronger south-westerly flow of air over eastern North America, preventing Arctic air from plunging southward. In contrast, if the difference in sea-level pressure between Iceland and the Azores is small negative NAO, westerly winds are suppressed, allowing Arctic air to spill southwards into eastern North America more readily. Negative NAO winters tend to bring cold winters to Europe and the U.S. East Coast, but leads to very warm conditions in the Arctic, since all the cold air spilling out of the Arctic gets replaced by warm air flowing poleward.

The winter of 2009 – 2010 had the most extreme negative NAO since record keeping began in 1865. This “Hot Arctic-Cold Continents pattern”, resulting in a reversal of Polar Vortex and high pressure replacing low pressure over the Arctic, had occurred previously in only four winters during the past 160 years—1969, 1963, 1936, and 1881. Dr. Overland called the winter of 2009 – 2010 at least as surprising at the record 2007 loss of Arctic sea ice. He suspected that Arctic sea ice loss was a likely culprit for the event, since Francis et al. (2009) found that during 1979 – 2006, years that had unusually low summertime Arctic sea ice had a 10 – 20% reduction in the temperature difference between the Equator and North Pole. This resulted in a weaker jet stream with slower winds that lasted a full six months, through fall and winter. The weaker jet caused a weaker Aleutian Low and Icelandic Low during the winter, resulting in a more negative North Atlantic Oscillation, allowing cold air to spill out of the Arctic and into Europe and the Eastern U.S. Dr. Overland also stressed that natural chaos in the weather/climate system also played a role, as well as the El Niño/La Niña cycle and natural oscillations in stratospheric winds. Not every year that we see extremely high levels of Arctic sea ice loss will have a strongly negative NAO winter. For example, the record Arctic sea ice loss year of 2007 saw only a modest perturbation to the Arctic Vortex and the NAO during the winter of 2007 – 2008.

For more information

The NOAA web page, Future of Arctic Sea Ice and Global Impacts has a nice summary of the “Hot Arctic-Cold Continents” winter pattern.

NOAA’s Arctic Report Card is also a good source of information.

Francis, J. A., W. Chan, D. J. Leathers, J. R. Miller, and D. E. Veron, 2009: Winter northern hemisphere weather patterns remember summer Arctic sea-ice extent. Geophys. Res. Lett., 36, L07503, doi:10.1029/2009GL037274.

From Climatesignals

The real climate change challenge.

Ian DunlopABC Unleashed, by IAN DUNLOP

Greg Combet’s speech to the ANU Crawford School Forum on November 30, 2010 encapsulates everything that is wrong with climate change policy in Australia.

The rhetoric is all there – acceptance of the science, intergenerational equity, the need for decisive action and an early carbon price and so on.

The problem is the total misalignment between policy and the real implications of the science, as government and opposition, and indeed the global climate cognoscenti now assembled in Cancun, continue to avoid the major issue; which is that the climate challenge is far greater, and the required response far more urgent, than they are prepared to admit.

Despite two decades of negotiation, virtually nothing has been done to address escalating global carbon emissions – Australia’s actual emissions continue to rise rapidly. As a result, our options to take a graduated response to emissions reduction have largely disappeared, which is already costing the Australian community dearly.

The scientific framework on which current global and national policy is based is almost a decade old. In the interim, scientific understanding and the empirical evidence have progressed markedly, to the point where it is clear we have completely underestimated the task ahead. The gulf between science and policy continues to widen; in short, we are trying to solve the wrong problem with the wrong policies, and until this is honestly acknowledged, realistic policy and solutions will not be forthcoming.

On the balance of probabilities, if catastrophic outcomes are to be avoided, the world must reduce atmospheric carbon concentrations back toward pre-industrial levels, requiring emission reductions close to 50 per cent by 2020, almost complete de-carbonisation by 2050, and continuing efforts to draw down legacy carbon from the atmosphere. To have a reasonable chance of remaining below the “official” target of a maximum 2 degrees Celsius temperature increase, the world can only emit carbon for another 20 years at current rates, allowing barely a third of existing fossil-fuel reserves to be consumed. If the temperature target has to be less than 2C, which is now likely, the budget is considerably lower. Australia’s budget, on a fair basis as one of the world’s highest per capita emitters, would be totally used up in around five years.

In this context, current political thinking on an emission reduction of 5 per cent by 2020, possibly 25 per cent if the rest of the world behave themselves, is laughable; it is high time we faced up to reality and stopped playing political games.

Quite apart from the risks to which we are exposed, Australia is rapidly falling behind other countries in the race to develop a low-carbon economy. It is no longer a question of losing competitiveness because we are taking action, but rather because we are not.

Having crossed the threshold of publicly acknowledging that climate change is a serious threat, leaders now have additional fiduciary responsibilities: politically to honestly inform the community of the full extent of the challenge, corporately to fully inform shareholders of the risks, and the opportunities. Absent such honesty, the consultative arrangements put in place by the Gillard Government are futile and “policy certainty” for both business and community will be misleading and extremely dangerous.

The same applies to NGO advocacy groups. In the lead-up to Copenhagen most opted to work “in the government tent”, finessing a minimalist reform agenda, rather than insist on meaningful reform, on the basis that it is better to get something started and then modify it, than nothing at all. Notwithstanding the history of major reform in Australia that, once implemented, it takes at least a decade to make significant change – a decade we no longer have. Despite the abject failure of that strategy, they are doing it again. The recent release of the Southern Cross Climate Coalition’s “Stronger, Fairer, Healthier” paper continues to avoid the real issue, in the process letting the politicians off the hook. If the Climate Institute, ACF, ACOSS and the ACTU genuinely do have their members interests at heart, they should stop trying to anticipate what might be politically possible, set out the real challenge and lobby for realistic solutions. Let others worry about the politics – we can no longer afford “lowest common denominator” attitudes.

Political, community and business leaders, along with key advisers such as Ross Garnaut and the Productivity Commission must now urgently undertake a comprehensive re-calibration of both the climate challenge itself based on the latest science, and of our policy response. It should focus far more on the opportunities of moving, at emergency speed, to a low-carbon economy rather than preoccupation with the problems of moving away from a high-carbon “business-as-usual”. And instead of obsession with a carbon price as a “great big new tax”, recognise that it is, in reality, the removal of a “great big old subsidy”, a subsidy which is rapidly destroying the planet.

The continual emphasis on the economy as the main game, with climate change grudgingly considered as an optional extra, ignores the fact that unless we address climate change fast, the economy will be in tatters err long.

Government ministers should stop bleating about the Greens being the sole reason emissions trading is not already up and running. The CPRS was appalling policy which ignored all sensible advice on policy design and would have imposed an enormous cost on the economy for minimal reduction in emissions. The Greens did us a great favour in killing it. What is now required is a meaningful, increasing, carbon price of at least $35 per ton initially, leading into a clean emissions trading system with no compensation for polluters and the revenue generated being recycled to the community to offset cost increases, and to encourage low-carbon innovation.

Climate change is not just another policy item on the normal agenda, it is a transformative issue which has life-and-death consequences. This is not a time to follow Bismarck’s advice that“politics is the art of the possible”, as Combet suggested. Quite the reverse; we need leaders who can see that what was politically impossible will shortly become politically inevitable.

Ian Dunlop is a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development and a contributing author to their latest book, More Than Luck: Ideas Australia needs now. Ian is Chairman of Safe Climate Australia and chaired the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading from 1998-2000.