Five years ago, the Great Barrier Reef was hit by its worst recorded bleaching to date, with media outlets around the world rushing to tell the public why that was putting the World Heritage site at risk.
Their stories were accompanied by headlines such as “Bleaching hits 93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef,” “93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is suffering” and the hyperbolic “93 per cent of the Great Barrier Reef is practically dead.”
This bleaching happens when corals are put under stress and expel the colourful algae that are their primary food source. It’s considered a consequence of climate change because that stress can be caused by rising water temperatures, with the Great Barrier Reef’s 2016 bleaching the result of a record-breaking marine heatwave.
But former Canadian Greenpeace leader turned prominent climate science skeptic Patrick Moore was suspicious about reports of that bleaching. In his new Amazon-bestselling book Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom, Moore wrote “the careful reader would be hard pressed to find the origin of the 93 per cent as there is no record of it other than in headlines.”
There’s just one problem: such a record does exist. At least some articles referenced the work of Terry Hughes and the National Coral Bleaching Taskforce.
When I emailed Hughes, the distinguished professor who leads Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, about Moore’s allegation, he forwarded me a news release distributed on April 20, 2016. The release, available to anyone searching his research centre’s website, announced the “results of extensive aerial and underwater surveys reveal that 93% of the reef has been affected” by the coral bleaching that was then unfolding on the Great Barrier Reef. Hughes was even quoted as saying only seven per cent of the reef had escaped that bleaching, a condition that corals can recover or die from. The complete survey findings were later published in the prestigious scientific journal Nature.
Contacted about Hughes’s response, Moore said he missed that news release because its headline didn’t include the words 93 per cent and committed to correcting the error. But this wasn’t the only instance where the mainstream scientists he references have said Moore got things wrong.
Moore’s book, which was just released in audiobook and hardcover formats, has so far been promoted by Canada’s largest newspaper chain, Rupert Murdoch’s Sky News in Australia, a TV talk show supported by a prominent Canadian university and a PBS talk show, as well as a constellation of conservative or climate science doubting groups including the Competitive Enterprise Institute, American Thinker, Rebel News, Watts Up With That? and Friends of Science.
And, even though the book was published five months ago, its support from the American right only seems to be increasing. The Washington Times and the Epoch Times both promoted it within the last several weeks. Around the same time, Moore also said Prager University, an influential non-profit that popularizes conservative ideas to teenagers and post-secondary students, will be producing a video special on Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom that will “give it a lot of exposure.”
The book, which also specifically targets parents “who do not approve of the ‘progressive’ school curriculum and its alarmism about the future of civilization and the natural world,” identifies 11 supposed fake catastrophes, with eight connected to climate change. They range from climate change itself to species extinction and ocean acidification.
When I reached out to mainstream scientists and organizations that Moore criticizes or cites to support his arguments, those who replied described how he misinterpreted their findings or conclusions. A few worried about how they could prevent something similar from happening in the future. For his own part, with one other exception, Moore stood by his arguments.
Moore, who doubts the fact human activity and carbon dioxide emissions are the main causes of global warming, said the scientists’ responses were just a “CYA” or cover-your-ass exercise. “The last thing they want is to be associated with climate skepticism. If you’re associated with climate skepticism, you’re all of a sudden a denier. And you’re all of a sudden out of research money.”
But this story is about more than just a conflict between mainstream experts and those who doubt them, a narrative that defines modern politics as we lurch between environmental and health disasters that threaten to overwhelm us. It’s about more than how those doubters continue to find purchase in the mainstream media and supporters on the political right.
Instead, it’s about how they can appropriate mainstream and sometimes out-of-date science to support their arguments, while trying to discredit findings, conclusions and scientists that counter them. And when such appropriation goes unchecked, as it often does, the resulting credibility they gain with their followers remains unchallenged.
After all, in their reviews, Amazon buyers of Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom praised Moore’s use of “hundreds of references to show that alarmists ignore science” as well as his “comprehensive scientific analysis” and use of “clear and readable scientific evidence” to reassure readers about “the future of our planet.”
Yet it doesn’t take much research to refute that analysis, calling into question not just the conclusions of those who reject mainstream climate science but also how they arrived at them in the first place. And, as Moore’s responses to the concerns of scientists he cited demonstrate, it also calls into question the way those doubters either denigrate experts who they once cited or replace them with individuals who aren’t mainstream scientists.
1. Claim: Warming ocean temperatures may not threaten corals
Moore questions whether warming ocean temperatures threaten the “very existence” of coral reefs, because the “warmest waters in the world have the highest species diversity.” However, the lead author of the 2010 paper he cites to support that argument, Dalhousie University biology professor Derek Tittensor, said his study doesn’t account for how temperature changes will affect species.
In an email, Tittensor wrote his study only looked at “species richness across the face of the globe, from polar to tropical regions. It said nothing about how changing temperature at any particular place would affect biodiversity in that location,” something that could be “very disruptive” to many species.
“Suddenly being confronted by change that outpaces their ability to evolve can be fatal. The disruption to existing marine ecosystems is likely to be immense,” continued Tittensor, noting his most recent research has showed rapid warming over the coming century will lead to substantial declines in marine biomass and likely declines — “not increases!” — in equatorial species richness.
Moreover, according to Tittensor, the study Moore referenced showed open ocean species richness is highest in subtropical regions, while coastal species richness is highest in the hottest equatorial locations.
That’s contrary to the claim in Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom that the “warmest waters in the world have the greatest diversity for every taxonomic class of marine life.”
Nevertheless, Moore maintained his support for that claim, citing a map he said showed that “tropical and subtropical waters are about the same temperature,” something Tittensor wrote could be “disproved with about 30 seconds of Googling,” providing four supporting links.
As for why Moore didn’t find an academic paper about the effects of warming water to support his argument, the former Greenpeace leader said, “You mean computer-derived predictions? I reject that entirely. Computers can’t predict the future of the climate, period.”
2. Claim: Ocean warming history shows it may not threaten corals today
After Tittensor refuted Moore’s use of his research, Moore said in an email that warming in Earth’s distant past caused coral reefs to spread, which he used to continue to question whether present ocean warming is a threat to coral.
But Ann F. Budd, the lead author of the paper he later cited to support that argument, said present warming is, in fact, a threat.
That 29-year-old paper states the history of Caribbean coral species in the cooler years after the Oligocene, which ended 23 million years ago, was “one of extinction.” As a result, Moore wrote, “warmer oceans = higher biodiversity of corals.”
Budd, who is a professor emeritus of earth and ocean sciences at the University of Iowa, stated it’s true the Eocene, which came before the Oligocene, was warmer and reef coral diversity was higher back then.
However, “the reef corals currently living in the Caribbean are survivors of the Pleistocene extinction, and thus are adapted to cooler temperatures.” Moreover, in the here and now, “the problem is not strictly the warm temperature, but the fact that today the temperature is rising so quickly.”
“Climate change lasted millions of years during the Eocene and corals were able to adapt. Climate change is occurring over decades today, and corals are not able to adapt. The two situations are not comparable,” Budd said, stressing that her paper’s findings can’t be used to support the claim a change in temperature today won’t threaten coral reefs because it wasn’t about that subject.
That said, a study published by Nature in March and highlighted by Moore in an email late last month suggests the global extinction risk of Indo-Pacific coral species is now “lower than previously estimated” and would take place over centuries. That’s because of their “huge population sizes” and “broad geographic ranges.”
As a result, the study’s authors, who include Hughes and other researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, state there’s an “opportunity for action to mitigate the threats to reef species well before climate change could cause global extinctions.”
3. Claim: The IPCC hasn’t found the climate is changing more rapidly
After being told of Budd’s responses about the threat to coral, Moore claimed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change hasn’t concluded the climate is changing more rapidly than in the past when, in fact, it has.
In an email, Moore wrote it would be “patently ridiculous” to make such a statement about the speed of climate change, adding “not even the IPCC makes this claim. I cannot believe an [sic] principled scientist would stoop to this assertion, given the known constant fluctuations of temperature during the past 10,000 years of the Holocene.”
However, in a frequently asked questions section included in its fourth assessment report, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning IPCC states, “The current rate of global climate change is much more rapid and very unusual in the context” of the temperature changes over the past million years.
Yet, despite the intergovernmental panel’s assessment reports being the result of scientists evaluating thousands of scientific papers, Moore claimed the intergovernmental panel doesn’t know the speed of past global warming. “It’s just complete BS. There is no evidence to support that it’s warming faster now.”
Moore, who also accused the panel of “starting to manipulate the data” without referencing any evidence, then said as much as half of the temperature increases in the last 50 years have been the result of formerly rural weather stations now being surrounded by warmer urban areas. In a later email, he added that Central England temperature measurements between 1694 and 1729 “showed a more pronounced rise in temperature than anything from 1900 to present,” leading him to claim that “the ‘meme’ that ‘temperature is rising faster now than ever before’ is fake.”
In fact, a 2009 peer-reviewed paper by a scientist at the United Kingdom’s Met Office Hadley Centre concluded the warmth of urban areas only had a small impact on global land surface air temperature records thanks to “assiduous efforts” by their compilers to “avoid or compensate” for that phenomenon.
A spokesperson for the centre, which maintains the Central England records Moore cited, also explained that dataset is not a measure of global mean temperatures. Moreover, the temperature rise he referred to was preceded by several “very severe” local winters, with 1695 being the second coldest year in the series. That means, according to the spokesperson, the Central England temperature measurements don’t “invalidate statements about the current rate of global warming or the role of CO2 in driving that.” But Moore defended his critique on the grounds the rapid warming in that region didn’t just happen in a single year but over a 35-year period.
As for what will happen in the future, the IPCC reports that if projections of approximately 5 C warming in this century come to pass, that rate will be unmatched “by any comparable global temperature increase of the last 50 million years.” This forecast, which Moore criticized for being created using computer models, is consistent with recent mainstream scientific understandings of climate change.
For example, in their updated overview of the climate change evidence and causes, the Royal Society and the U.S. National Academy of Sciences write, “If the rise of CO2 continues unchecked, warming of the same magnitude as the increase out of the ice age can be expected by the end of this century or soon after. This speed of warming is more than 10 times that at the end of an ice age, the fastest known natural sustained change on a global scale.”
For his own part, Moore said, “Everything they’re saying is subject to the word if. And the word if is not a fact. It is speculative.” He also criticized the Met Office Hadley Centre, using the work of Ross McKitrick, a Canadian economics professor who is a prominent signatory to an evangelical declaration claiming reducing “greenhouse gases cannot achieve significant reductions in future global temperatures, and the costs of the policies would far exceed the benefits.”
4. Claim: ‘There is a clear downward trend’ in species extinction
Moore claims the threat of species extinction is a “scare story,” doubting scientific estimates of both how many species are on our planet as well as how many are at risk. To support that claim, he reproduces a graph showing “there is a clear downward trend” in such disappearances, an interpretation the group responsible for its underlying data says is incorrect.
That graph was created by geologist Gregory Wrightstone, who is executive director of the CO2 Coalition, an organization that claims the “mainstream [global] warming forecasts have been wrong” and counts Moore among its directors. Wrightstone used data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature to indicate the number of extinctions per decade from 1500 onward out of the more than 134,400 species the organization has now assessed.
Referencing a portion of that graph, which shows a total of 413 recorded extinctions between 1870 and 2009, Moore writes, “During the last 100 years the number of extinctions has declined by about 80 per cent, largely due to efforts by naturalists, hunters, environmentalists, and politicians that gave their time to this cause,” attributing earlier disappearances to European colonization and overhunting.
However, in an email, Craig Hilton-Taylor, the head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of endangered species, described Wrightstone’s graph as “not good.” That’s because breaking extinctions down by decade “is not very helpful because of the lag time between extinction and a species being recorded as extinct” by the union.
That lag time is “often well in excess of 10 years between when a species is likely to have gone extinct and when our experts have gathered enough negative evidence to declare it extinct.” For example, in December, the group announced 15 freshwater fish from the Philippines’s Lake Lanao as being extinct, even though six of them had last been seen in 1964.
Moore told me he recognized that lag time existed. “I used what I felt was the best representation indicating that species extinctions are actually declining due to the fact people care more about it.”
Hilton-Taylor said the IUCN instead analyzes their extinction numbers on a century-by-century basis. That graph, on page 39 of this report shows extinction rates actually “rose sharply in the 20th century for all taxonomic groups for which a robust assessment can be made.” Indeed, according to Hilton-Taylor, it’s a “reverse” image of Wrightstone’s graph.
5. Claim: Climate change isn’t causing forest fires
Moore claims forests fires aren’t being caused by climate change, in part, by using data from the National Interagency Fire Center that the government organization recently removed after years of misuse by those who reject mainstream climate science.
That data showed the number of acres of land burned by wildfires from 1926 onward. A footnote on the webpage it was on warned the source of figures prior to 1983 “are not known, or cannot be confirmed, and were not derived from the current situation reporting process. As a result, the figures prior to 1983 should not be compared to later data.”
Nevertheless, that’s exactly what Moore did in his book without telling readers, writing the data showed a “sharp decline” in the number of forest fires in the United States in the 1940s — prompting him to sarcastically claim, “It would appear that the impact of climate change has moderated somewhat since the 1930s, long before CO2 emissions rose to the magnitude they are today.”
When asked why he didn’t include the National Interagency Fire Center’s disclaimer that the date was unreliable in his book, Moore said it was a “political statement.” He also linked to the webpage the disclaimer was on in his footnotes.
However, when contacted about Moore’s claims, interagency fire centre spokesperson Candice Stevenson provided a number of non-political reasons why “it isn’t a fair assessment to compare current wildland fire data to data gathered prior to 1983.”
In part, that’s because pre-1932 data, which related to years where there were severe droughts, may include fires that were intentionally set for forest management purposes. In later years, Stevenson stated better fire suppression equipment, resources and techniques would have been a “significant factor” in reducing the area burned, along with a number of cold and wet years in the 1950s and 1960s. A change in wildfire reporting systems is also a “likely” factor in the drop in acres burned that happened since the 1980s.
After providing that information to me, the National Interagency Fire Center removed the pre-1983 data from its site, which had been used by high-profile climate inactivist Bjorn Lomborg, as well as climate science doubters such as the Cornwall Alliance and Watts Up With That?. The page it was on now reads: “Prior to 1983, the federal wildland fire agencies did not track official wildfire data using current reporting processes. As a result, there is no official data prior to 1983 posted on this site.”
In a subsequent email, Stevenson stated that removal was part of a website update. “The previous [Trump] administration required the pre-1983 data to be listed,” she explained. “The data was confusing and, as we stated, the data prior to 1983 should not be compared to modern wildfire data, so it is now removed.”
For his own part, Moore said the fire centre’s explanation is “just CYA all the way…. All I know is that the professional forestry establishment has basically been taken over by the urban green philosophy. And so I really don’t believe anything they say.”
Moore also told me, without citing any evidence, the amount of American land burned by wildfires in the 1930s may have been even higher than what the centre’s data shows because “they’re more likely to miss areas that were so remote that they didn’t get to see it and measure it.”
6. Claim: Carbon dioxide isn’t the main cause of climate change
Moore claims “CO2 and temperature are out of sync more often than they are in sync,” concluding the “simultaneous rise of carbon dioxide and temperature over the last 170 years in no way supports a strong cause-effect relationship” between the greenhouse gas and global warming. But the scientist responsible for the out-of-date data partially underpinning the graph Moore uses to support that conclusion refuted it.
That graph, which claims to show carbon dioxide and temperature levels from the Precambrian Period onward, was created by Nasif S. Nahle, who believes “the Earth is actually cooling.” Nahle describes himself on LinkedIn and Facebook as a former professor at Universidad Regiomontana with a bachelor’s degree in biology and certification in “scientific ICAM research” at Harvard University.
The date of that certification, which his CV states was “sponsored by” the Harvard Medical School’s “department of continuing education” and the University of California in San Francisco, differs on his resume and LinkedIn profiles, with the former listing it as 1999 and the later as 2001-2002.
Nahle didn’t respond to three requests for comment about his research and qualifications, including a question about what ICAM research is. However, taking continuing education courses at Harvard Medical School doesn’t confer a degree or certification of competency. A Harvard spokesperson said ICAM could refer to the International Scientific Conference on Complementary, Alternative and Integrative Medicine Research, which took place in 2002.
Nahle’s graph referenced research by University of Virginia environmental sciences professor emeritus William F. Ruddiman and Northwestern University adjunct professor Christopher R. Scotese, as well as Mark Pagani, who was the director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute.
Pagani, who passed away in 2016, was lead author of a 2006 paper that found the Earth’s climate is extremely sensitive to carbon dioxide. At the time, a Yale University news release announcing that finding stated that meant global temperature would rise substantially as a result of those emissions. In other words, his research refutes Moore’s claim about the unproven or insignificant effect of carbon dioxide on global warming.
As for Ruddiman, he wrote in an email that his textbook, Earth’s Climate: Past and Future, isn’t the source of the graph’s data. “Someone else misquoted me as the source several years ago and Moore has repeated the error. I did not include that figure in my textbook because I did not trust the CO2/temperature data that far back.”
“If he’s saying that’s untrue, I’ll take it out,” responded Moore.
Instead, Nahle’s graph seems to be at least partially based on an out-of-date temperature curve from Scotese that plots temperature back through time. In an interview, Scotese said he corresponded about a decade ago with Moore “when he was probably formulating his anti-climate agenda. And I have to admit, a lot of these anti-climate groups have used the temperature chart that I made back 20 years ago to claim that temperature and CO2 are out-of-synch.”
He later added his most recent temperature chart, which is based on oxygen isotope measurements, “clearly shows” this isn’t the case. “There’s no doubt that more CO2 leads to higher temperatures.”
“I’d like to see his argument on that,” Moore replied, later accusing Scotese in an email of being a “full-on alarmist” who has “clearly bought into the ‘CO2 is dangerous’ mantra even though it is at historically low levels.”
But Scotese seemed anything but an alarmist. Instead, he lamented how the climate debate has resulted in political extremism on both sides. “If the point of view you’re trying to get across is that nothing is happening, don’t worry about it, then you say everything you can to deny that climate change is happening. On the other hand, if your point of view is that we have to save every single life that’s at risk because of increased temperature, then you end up claiming everything’s at risk, which is also not true.”
Scotese even acknowledged Moore’s summary of past carbon dioxide levels is basically correct. “There are only a few times in Earth history when atmospheric CO2 was lower than the last 10,000 years.”
Moreover, because we’re also living in an ice age, Scotese said the “good news” is “this is the best time in Earth’s history to have global warming.” But the “bad news” is that “human activity has undoubtedly resulted in global warming” because it is linked to CO2.
“If you take a geological perspective, where we will end up in a few hundred years, it is not such a bad place,” he said. “The problem is not so much where we are headed, but how we will get there. The rapid rate of global warming will be wrenching, and it’s going to be disastrous for many people and for large parts of the biosphere.”
7. Claim: A Utah Geological Survey graph helps prove carbon dioxide isn’t the main cause
After the temperature data in his first graph comparing it to carbon dioxide levels was refuted by Scotese, Moore tried demonstrating those numbers were correct by emailing me a temperature graph published by the Utah Geological Survey that “very much mirrors” the one in his book.
In an interview, the geologist who co-authored that publication said he wasn’t a climate researcher and it’s inappropriate for Moore to use, in that way, his work, which is not peer-reviewed and based on data that is now dated.
The temperature graph Moore sent was featured in an 11-year-old article printed in Survey Notes, which is described as the geological survey’s official newsletter and a “non-technical magazine.” Co-author Bob Biek, a senior scientist with the survey’s mapping program, said Moore citing that old graph was “lousy science on his part, to put it bluntly.”
“This is just a simple, short newsletter article,” said Biek. “I’m a mapping geologist. I look at rocks and I make geological maps. I have no background, really, in climate science other than just an interest in it like any geologist should. So I can’t speak to the current state of the science.”
Biek emphasized that the data in the graph for his newsletter item is based on other scientists’ research rather than his own work, making it a poor source for Moore to reference. “That’s just not the way you do citations,” he said. “We go to the primary published reports. I think that’s done all across science.”
In response, Moore said Biek, “shouldn’t have put his name on [the article] if he doesn’t believe it.” He also said the data underlying the graph is “the most recent, up-to-date work there is in the whole universe, as far as I know.” Nor might he be the only climate science doubter who has referenced that graph.
“This article, it turns out, has been getting the most hits month after month since it was published,” said Biek. “That’s really interesting and it’s really disturbing, actually. We don’t know who is looking at this, but my guess is a lot of climate skeptics are somehow finding this.”
That’s because the article includes information about how “global temperatures fluctuate often and rapidly,” something climate science doubters are using to argue it’s “not humans, then, that are causing the current problem. It’s just natural. It’s happened in the past.”
As a result, he said, the Utah Geological Survey is now discussing what to do about the article. Two years ago, the survey added an author’s note, advising readers the article “does not address the significant differences between pre- and post-Industrial Revolution climate change.”
“But that’s not dissuading people from cherry picking sentences out of there,” said Biek. “We’re all about trying to get accurate information out to the public and what they do with it we can’t control. But this is a case that’s just kind of disturbing that the skeptics seem to be choosing this article to promote their viewpoints.”
8. Claim: Ocean acidification is a ‘complete fabrication’
Moore challenges scientists to prove the ocean’s pH level has decreased, indicating it’s become more acidic — a process that’s particularly threatening to oysters, clams, sea urchins, corals and other calcifying organisms. His argument is partly based on a 2005 paper that Moore claims shows there was “no change in ocean pH [between 1708 and 1988] in the western Coral Sea region,” something the lead author of that study said it actually doesn’t show.
In an email, Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies marine biogeochemistry research professor Carles Pelejero wrote he remembers “several texts in exotic blogs taking our data out of context in similar ways, but that was just shortly after our publication, not 16 years later!”
Specifically, Pelejero said his study didn’t provide a record of pH for Australia’s western Coral Sea region. Instead, it was limited to the Flinders Reef lagoon within that region. That’s important because, in such confined coastal environments, seawater chemistry changes a lot due to a range of processes, making it more difficult to detect the trend toward a lower pH in the world’s oceans.
However, Pelejero said a recent study using the same technique in the tropical South Pacific suggested seas in the region have become more acidic over the past century or so. The study stated natural processes were the main drivers of pH changes up until 1881, when carbon dioxide emissions from human activity accelerated the process of ocean acidification. Moreover, Pelejero said another comparable study in the South China Sea reported even clearer evidence of the increasing acidity as a result of such activity.
Still, Moore said, “I don’t buy it. They don’t know what the pH was in 1900, never mind 1850, never mind 1750. They don’t know what the pH was then.” Moore didn’t explain why he referenced Pelejero’s own paper if that was the case.
“I reject the entire argument in the first place. It’s phony. The whole thing. Ocean acidification is a complete fabrication. That’s my bottom line and I’m sticking to it,” he said, citing the work of Craig Idso to support that argument. Idso is the founder of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, which claims there’s “no compelling reason to believe that the rise in temperature was caused by the rise in CO2,” which is contrary to climate science.
9. Claim: An asteroid impact help show ocean acidification isn’t a threat
When an asteroid collided with the Earth 66 million years ago, it caused both mass extinctions and ocean acidification. Because a 2015 paper concluded that acidification didn’t result in the extinction of certain marine species at that time, Moore uses it to support his claim there’s no “solid evidence” that ocean acidification is a “dire threat.” The paper’s lead author, Toby Tyrrell, stated his findings don’t support that claim.
That paper examined the reason for the extinction of the ammonites, a marine animal with a coiled external shell, as well as 90 per cent of calcium carbon-shelled plankton species. Tyrrell, an earth system science professor at the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, U.K., said Moore correctly explained his paper’s conclusion.
But he said it wouldn’t be correct to assume, as Moore has, that his study helps demonstrate ocean acidification isn’t a threat because “the oceans at the end of the Cretaceous were different from those today.” Perhaps more importantly, Tyrrel said ocean acidification can cause “very serious impacts far short of global extinction,” which wasn’t the subject of his paper.
“He’s just not wanting to break with the litany [of climate change], that’s all,” Moore responded. “None of these people can afford to allow themselves to be associated with anything that questions the dogma.”
10. Claim: ‘Plasticity’ means acidification isn’t a threat to many species
Moore questions whether ocean acidification is a crisis by telling readers that coastal species can quickly adapt to such environmental changes and pass the adaptations onto their offspring. However, Christopher S. Murray, the lead author of a paper that Moore cites to support that argument, said that, in many cases, climate change will exceed the limits of those abilities.
Moore takes issue with the belief that ocean acidification “threatens all or most calcifying species, as well many other species, with extinction.”
In this respect, Murray said Moore is right, since acidification isn’t as important a climate change stressor as warming or deoxygenation for most marine organisms. Instead, it’s the three of those changes in combination that will result in extinctions.
That said, Moore suggests one reason acidification isn’t a threat is because many marine species successfully “inhabit coastal waters” where natural processes change the pH and carbon dioxide in the water. Moore writes that’s due to plasticity, an organism’s ability to make physiological changes without genetic changes, similar to how humans can “acclimate to different temperature regimes and different altitudes.” Children can then gain those non-genetic adaptations from their parents, which is what happened in Murray’s study. A coastal fish population that was exposed to higher levels of carbon dioxide in nature produced offspring that were more tolerant of those conditions in the laboratory.
Murray, a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Washington’s Earth Lab and Washington Ocean Acidification Center, said it’s true organisms that evolved in such variable environments have more genomic plasticity — their genetically encoded ability to rapidly acclimate to changing conditions without changing their DNA sequences, such as when an octopus alters the colour and texture of its skin to camouflage itself. However, that still may not save them from the combined effects of warming, deoxygenation and ocean acidification. And the many species living in the open ocean have even less plasticity with respect to their tolerance for pH and carbon dioxide changes.
“No one is really disputing the fact that organisms have remarkable abilities to tolerate adverse conditions,” he said. “But what we’ve found is that these human-induced climate changes are occurring so rapidly that they outstrip the normal processes of adaptation. So, if you exceed these physiological limits, no matter how plastic an organism might be, these mechanisms are inherently limited — they have a hard ceiling and a hard floor.”
Murray said Moore’s argument “betrays a certain level of unfamiliarity with the core concepts” of plasticity and evolution. In response, Moore said, “He is entitled to his opinion but not to mine. I have been involved in oceanographic work all my life, following it carefully, following the science of it all along and this whole acidification thing,” insisting there’s “no indication” marine species are reaching their plasticity limits.
Policing the appropriation of science
Not all the scientists I contacted responded to requests for comment or as fully as Murray and his colleagues did. One told me, “It would be an endless waste of time…. I would have to write a book to debunk [Moore]. He’s not going to win any big global-warming argument, so it’s easy for me to just let it go.” Yet, even if Moore and his allies won’t win any arguments, that doesn’t mean they can’t win followers who will frustrate climate action by governments and corporations. The success of Moore’s Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom is proof of that.
And while all the scientists and organizations I interviewed were quick to demonstrate the distance between their findings and Moore’s misinterpretation of them, many of those outside that community seemed unconcerned by their association with his book. As a result, what began as an essay published on the fringes of the internet in August 2018, has now been listed as an “environmental science” bestseller on Amazon.
Nor is Amazon Moore’s only associate. Canada’s largest newspaper chain Postmedia ran an op-ed by Moore about that book, even though it contradicted reporting published by the national newspaper it was printed in. A televised talk show, Conversations That Matter, supported by Simon Fraser University, also featured Moore on an episode where he claimed “warming of the Earth will not really be that big of a problem for human beings.” That show, which is “partner program” with the university’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, is broadcasted on three mainstream television stations in British Columbia and promoted in the Postmedia-owned Vancouver Sun.
Moore tried to leverage his coverage by Postmedia to win an even larger audience in the United States. And, so far, that effort seems to be succeeding. In addition to appearing on Canada Files, an interview show presented by Buffalo’s WNED and rebroadcast on other PBS stations, the Washington Times recently promoted his book beneath the headline, “Eco-realist slams fake science news,” while the Epoch Times matched that story two days later in an article telling readers that environmental threats are based on “invisible, remote subjects to create fear.” Meanwhile, in Australia, Moore has drummed interest in his book on Chris Smith Tonight, a show on the country’s Fox News-wannabe channel Sky News.
When contacted, neither Amazon nor Postmedia committed to do something about their association with Moore, with the former expressing concerns about book censorship and the later stating, “We publish a variety of opinions.”
For his own part, the host of Canada Files, Jim Deeks, stated that, having previously had David Suzuki on his show, he was confident he had “already presented the views of mainstream science on the issue of climate change” and that his viewers were “intelligent and mature enough to make up their own minds about an alternative view.”
Deeks, who did challenge Moore’s “alternative” views during their interview and stated he didn’t agree with them, then added, “Who’s to say with absolute certainty that Patrick’s views are all wrong?”
WNED’s director of corporate communications, Heather Hare, stated those views, and others expressed on the show, do “not necessarily represent those of WNED” and that the station believes “strongly in the free expression of ideas” and their debate, with Moore’s episode representing “less than 30 minutes of hundreds of hours of programming.”
As for the Wosk Centre, its executive director Shauna Sylvester wrote that “editorial control” of Conversations That Matter rested with its host Stuart McNish, adding, “I’d hope we were beyond denial.”
McNish, who has hosted climate scientists and climate science skeptics in the past, wouldn’t consent to an interview unless it was on his show. Seven days later, Conversations That Matter posted a revised version of the show featuring the former Greenpeace leader that removed a logo stating the Wosk Centre presented the show. Subsequent shows broadcast after March 5 don’t seem to have that logo, although Conversations That Matter remains listed as one of the centre’s partner programs on its website. Neither McNish nor Sylvester responded to a request for comment about those changes.
By contrast, GoFundMe and the City of Regina did something more than removing a logo. The former cancelled Moore’s five-month-old crowdfunding campaign for his book that had raised more than $26,000 two weeks after I asked whether GoFundMe had any policies against hosting projects promoting misinformation, which it turns out they do. Regina cancelled an earlier keynote speech about Fake Invisible Catastrophes and Threats of Doom that Moore was scheduled to give at a sustainability conference it organized following complaints from the community.
Yet deplatforming those who doubt climate science won’t stop them from appropriating mainstream science. After all, most scientists can’t do what the National Interagency Fire Center did and just remove their data from the internet, nor would they want to.
Murray, the marine climate change researcher from the University of Washington, noted academics are trained to be forthright about their findings and ensure the public has access to them, something that is a “net benefit to society, I think, for many reasons.” But when it comes to countering those who misrepresent those findings, “it is kind of a challenge.”
Biek, the Utah geologist whose article was referenced by Moore and possibly other climate science doubters, knows all about that challenge. “My thought is, initially, well, we’ll just take the darn thing off the website. But then, that’s not right because there’s some good, simple information in there that would hopefully help the curious person understand why we have ice ages in the first place. That’s a really interesting story. So we can’t just capitulate and say, ‘We’re not going to put anything out there.’” As a result, he said, “I don’t know what you do about that other than what you are doing.”
Perhaps. But, against the seemingly unending tide of misinformation that now washes over our politics, threatening to drown evidence-based, democratic discourse, it may not be enough.