Tuesday, August 25, 2015
Tuesday, August 25, 2015
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Matt Ridley is the author of provocative books on evolution, genetics and society. His books have sold over a million copies, been translated into thirty languages, and have won several awards.

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Archive for tag: general

And the band played on

The not so good old days

I heartily recommend a new book called "And the Band Played On" by Christopher Ward, a friend of mine. It's a best-seller already in the UK. It's about his grandfather, who was the violinist in the band that played as the Titanic sank. But it's not about the sinking, but about what happened afterwards, and in particular the feud that broke about between the violinist's father and his pregnant fiancee's family. It's an astonishing tale of fraud, hoaxes, lawsuits, imprisonment and cruelty that would make a fiction writer blush at having exaggerated.

But, for the purposes of this website, what struck this rational optimist most was the examples of how non-good were the good old days. A world in which a ship's musician has to buy his own uniform on credit, to be deducted from his wages, is not very nice. But a world in which those wages were stopped by his employer at 2.20am on 14 April 1912 is shockingly awful. And a world in which his father then receives a letter pointing out that the wages having been stopped, there is still a sum owing for the uniform buttons, which the father should settle by return -- takes the biscuit. This was also a world in which a seventeen year old girl who devised a cruel hoax to get revenge on her father and stepmother was imprisoned in a brutal jail awaiting trial for deception. Yet I suspect Scotland in 1912 was a lot kinder than it was in 1812 or 1712.

Next time the Archbishop of Canterbury or some pontificating busybody tells me the world is getting worse because people are so much more selfish these days, I will suggest they read this book.

Good for the environment, after all

After 13 years, everybody sensible now knows the GM crops were good for human beings and the environment too. But admitting it is hard.

The Scientific Alliance newsletter has an interesting update on GM food. The public no longer feels the visceral fear of these crops that they did 13 years ago, even in Europe. But finding ways for politicians to climb off their high horses, without upsetting their masters in the Big Green organisations, is not proving easier. Here are three extracts:

Many farmers seem to like GM crops. Only 15 years after they were first commercialised, 148 million hectares were sown with biotech seeds around the world in 2010, a 10% increase over the previous year. According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (, 15.4 million individual farmers grew GM crops, over 90% of them in developing countries. This is not unexpected: agriculture has evolved over the centuries by farmers trying and adopting new technology if they see a benefit. Crop biotechnology is just one more step on the road, and certainly not the last...

This anti-biotech activity has firm roots in the broader environmentalist and anti-globalisation movements. For most of the public, crop biotechnology is generally now a non-issue, and greater availability of GM crops - without taking away the critical element of choice - would be unlikely to cause a real furore in many countries, except amongst the activist minority. But that relies on governments taking the scientific advice of EFSA and allowing more approvals...

Samuel Johnson prize shortlist

The film of the book

Frank Dikotter's fine -- and vital -- book on Mao's Great famine won the Samuel Johnson prize. But you can see a short film and a discussion about my book on the BBC Culture showhere(from minute 17.17 onwards). It's an honour to have made it to the shortlist.

Unbleached if not unblemished

New evidence has been published that the Great Barrier Reef is not in trouble from climate change. The effects of bleaching are short-lived and reversible. When I said this in my book, I was patronised from a great height by a bunch of marine biologists in New Scientist. Will they, and New Scientist, now apologise? As I keep saying, coral reefs are indeed under threat from man-made problems -- pollution, overfishing, run-off, but climate change is the least of their worries. Here's the abstract of Osborne et al's paper in PLOS One:

Coral reef ecosystems worldwide are under pressure from chronic and acute stressors that threaten their continued existence. Most obvious among changes to reefs is loss of hard coral cover, but a precise multi-scale estimate of coral cover dynamics for the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is currently lacking. Monitoring data collected annually from fixed sites at 47 reefs across 1300 km of the GBR indicate that overall regional coral cover was stable (averaging 29% and ranging from 23% to 33% cover across years) with no net decline between 1995 and 2009. Subregional trends (10-100 km) in hard coral were diverse with some being very dynamic and others changing little. Coral cover increased in six subregions and decreased in seven subregions. Persistent decline of corals occurred in one subregion for hard coral and Acroporidae and in four subregions in non-Acroporidae families. Change in Acroporidae accounted for 68% of change in hard coral. Crown-of-thorns starfish (Acanthaster planci) outbreaks and storm damage were responsible for more coral loss during this period than either bleaching or disease despite two mass bleaching events and an increase in the incidence of coral disease. While the limited data for the GBR prior to the 1980's suggests that coral cover was higher than in our survey, we found no evidence of consistent, system-wide decline in coral cover since 1995. Instead, fluctuations in coral cover at subregional scales (10-100 km), driven mostly by changes in fast-growing Acroporidae, occurred as a result of localized disturbance events and subsequent recovery.

Here's what i wrote in my book.

Politics clothed in science

Walter Russell Mead is always worth reading. Now he has written a two-part essay on Al Gore and the climate debate (part one; part two) that is, I think, very perceptive. It is angry, hard-hitting, and I don't agree with everything in it, but it somehow gets to to the core of the issue in a way that so much other commentary has not. This is the sort of old-fashioned polemic from somebody with historical perspective that has been lacking on this subject. Here's his conclusion:

The green movement's core tactic is not to "hide the decline" or otherwise to cook the books of science. Its core tactic to cloak a comically absurd, impossibly complex and obviously impractical political program in the authority of science. Let anyone attack the cretinous and rickety construct of policies, trade-offs, offsets and bribes by which the greens plan to govern the world economy in the twenty first century, and they attack you as an anti-science bigot.

Another long listing

The Royal Society Book prize

The Rational Optimist is one of 13 books long-listed for the Royal Society Book prize for science books. If I make it to the shortlist, this will be my fifth time on this shortlist. (I have yet to win, though!)

A second disease goes extinct

Rinderpest joins smallpox in oblivion

I missed this news last month. For the second time in history, human beings have eradicated a disease altogether. This time it is rinderpest, which people cannot get, only cattle so it's not such big news as smallpox or (soon?) polio.

Trial and Error

Tim Harford's new book understands bottom-up design

I have written the following review of Tim Harford's book Adapt, for Nature magazine:

Charles Darwin's big idea - that blind trial and error can progressively build a powerful simulacrum of purposeful design - got pigeonholed under biology. Yet it always had wider implications in economics, technology and culture. Darwin probably drew some elements of his bottom-up thinking from the political philosophers of the Scottish enlightenment, notably Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson. Biology is now returning the favour.

Books such as Steven Johnson's Where Good Ideas Come From (Allen Lane, 2010), Kevin Kelly's What Technology Wants (Viking Books, 2010) and Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology (Free Press, 2009) are suffused with concepts from natural selection, as is my own, The Rational Optimist (Fourth Estate, 2010). Tim Harford's Adapt follows this tradition, focusing on the key role of failure - the 'error' in trial and error - in economic and social progress.

Get the fertiliser out. We can feed the world

Farmers can feed the world, if they are allowed to

I have the following op-ed in today's Times:

Oxfam's chief executive, Dame Barbara Stocking, claimed this week in a BBC interview that there will "absolutely not be enough food" to feed the world's population in a few decades' time.

Such certainty about the future is remarkable, so I downloaded Oxfam's new "report" with interest. Once I got past the fundraising banners, I found a series of assertions that there is a food crisis caused by failures of government "to regulate, to correct, to protect, to resist, to invest, which means that companies, interest groups and elites are able to plunder resources and to redirect flows of finance, knowledge, and food". Oxfam is calling for "a new global governance" - effectively the nationalisation of the world food system.

Bed news is lumpy, good news is smooth

I sent this letter to the Financial Times:

Sir, Gideon Rachman ("In defence of gloomy columnists", May 24) is right to point out that terrible blips will still happen in an improving world. Another way of making the same point is that good news tends to be gradual, incremental and barely visible, while bad news almost by definition comes in sudden, newsworthy lumps: wars, crashes, disasters, epidemics. It is impossible to see a field of wheat growing, but easy to see it washed away by a flood.

Matt Ridley

Shale gas emissions are lower

Warmiong potential of methane emissions from gas do not nearly match carbon dioxide emissions from coal

It turns out I was right to be sceptical about the Howarth study claiming that shale gas production produces more greenhouse gases than coal.

Ther's now a definitive study here thoroughly debunking Howarth and showing that shale gas results in 54% less GHG production. Howarth claimed that the gap between gas produced and gas sold indicated leakage. Instead it indicates usage in powering equipment.

This is Howarth's second big mistake. His first last year was to assume that coal mining produced no methane.

A long way from our peak

Sean Corrigan's superb essay on finite resources

Now this is what I call magnificent writing in the sprit of Swift: Sean Corrigan riffs on peak oil, finite resources and the planet's carrying capacity:

It is much better to forget all that Sierra Club/WWF elitist, anti-mankind, horse manure about 'the call on the planet' exerted by us members of the 'plague species' and to take a little Bjorn Lomberg, a smattering of Julian Simon, and a riffle-through of Matt Ridley, regarding the minuscule size of the impact which our tiny little ilk - unimaginably outweighed by living forms we cannot even see - can really expect to exert on the vast, negatively-feedbacked rock which we inhabit-and to glory in the sustained quality of our response to the challenges which confront us, even under the far-from-ideal conditions under which we are usually asked to make it.

For example, just as an exercise in contextualisation, consider the following:-

Spectator Diary

Random thoughts on gas, songs, weather, walls and dead flies

I wrote this week's Spectator diary (no link yet):

A day in London for the launch of my new report `The Shale Gas Shock', published by the Global Warming Policy Foundation. I argue that shale gas calls the bluff of the renewable energy movement in the same way that genetically modified crops called the bluff of the organic farming movement. Just as GM allows the organic dream of drastic cuts in pesticide use to come true without high cost, so shale gas promises gradually to displace both coal (in electricity generation) and oil (in transport), drastically cutting carbon emissions without needing subsidy. Since subsidy is the lifeblood of most of the busybodies in the energy business, and since good news is no news, few people turned up for my report's launch. Back in the north, watching Newcastle United unconvincingly defeat Birmingham at St James's Park, I tried to explain `Blaydon Races' to my wife's Swedish cousin. Tyneside's national anthem chronicles no climactic battle, doomed love affair, prolonged feud or heroic feat, but the crash of a horse-drawn bus when a wheel fell off. Bizarrely, the crash never even happened, let alone on the date mentioned in the second line, 9th June 1862 - four days after the song was first performed by the song's writer, Geordie Ridley (no relation). Apparently the only bit that came true, in a verse added after the event, is the line (in Ridley's spelling) `The rain it poor'd aw the day an' myed the groons quite muddy'. By last weekend, it had not done that for weeks. I realised the drought was getting to me when I dreamed about rain. For weeks we have stared at the sky, and the web page of the Met Office rainfall radar, in the hope of a smudge that might presage a deluge. But still the sun shone every dawn, promising (in the Sarah Miles' character's words from the film White Mischief) ``another ****ing beautiful day''. The barley is beginning to suffer, though it is not yet at the point of no return. A friend says in Iowa snow and frost has delayed the maize planting to the point where it is almost too late. This is weather, not climate: noise, not signal. Just like last December's cold, or Alabama's tornadoes, or Queensland's floods, things are well within the pattern of normal variation. The global average temperature in April was 0.12 of a degree above the long term average, according to satellites: after 30 years of supposedly worrying warming. Not that this will stop the climate preachers claiming the drought as evidence of Gaia trampling out her grapes of wrath. Watch for the have-it-both-ways words: `while no single event can be blamed on climate change, this is the sort of weather we can expect more of.' The barley is grown on contract for Famous Grouse whisky. Apparently, because there is not enough winter barley in Scotland these days, they have had to redefine Scotland to Hadrian's old border, the wall, and we are north of that. Can we vote in Scotland's independence referendum, then? Driving along the military road, atop Hadrian's wall, on another ****ing beautiful evening, I ponder a simple question: did it work? We keep telling ourselves it was an act of visionary genius to build an eighty-mile whinstone border fence with watchtowers, but maybe it was just a bureaucratic folly, signed into existence by a distracted emperor with whom nobody dared argue and then found to be Maginot-useless at stopping regular barbarian incursions. Given what we know about the relentless decay into self-serving incompetence of all modern monopolies - public or private - I suspect we are too forgiving in our accounts of ancient ones, the Roman army included. As I drive, a blizzard of hawthorn flies and other insects die (dies?) on my windscreen. Judging by the Geiger-counter noise they make, it must be hundreds a minute. And there are millions of cars on the roads. Say ten billion deaths a day in Britain alone. Does this worry Jain or Buddhist drivers, who don't like killing living things? I google (actually Bing) the question and immediately find a Buddhist who advises sticking Tibetan mantras on the car so that `even if the insects get struck by the car and die, at least they touched the mantras and purify their negative karma.' A bit like papal indulgences, or carbon offsets. On Saturday night, the rain came.


The BBC draws no lessons from its relentless, and relentlessly wrong, alarmism

I stumbled on a BBC television program this evening (watch it here), which was unintentionally revealing. It was a compilation of extracts over several decades from its flagship science series `Horizon', all on the theme of the `end of the world'. The episodes covered asteroids, supervolcanoes, contagious earthquakes, bird flu, the Y2K computer bug, the greenhouse effect, the melting of Antarctica, the collpase of the Gulf Stream as a consequence of global warming.

In every episode, the alarm was maximised, the worst case emphasised, the language ludicrously extreme. Not one hint was allowed, even in tonight's commentary linking the episodes, that perhaps the failure of these extreme predictions of disaster should lead to just a little caution about continuing apocaholism.

The BBC's unbalanced championing of alarm continues.

The Shale gas shock

Yes, it really will change the world energy scene, mainly because it is low-cost

Read my report for the Global Warming Policy Foundation on The Shale Gas Shock here.

The foreword is by Freeman Dyson.

This is the summary

The Hayek prize

The Rational Optimist has won the Hayek Prize from the Manhattan Institute. I will be giving the Hayek Lecture when I accept the prize later in the year. The Hayek Prize honors the book published within the past two years that best reflects Hayek's vision of economic and individual liberty. The Hayek Prize, with its $50,000 award, is among the world's most generous book prizes. It was conceived and funded by Manhattan Institute trustee Tom Smith to recognize the influence of F.A. Hayek and to encourage other scholars to follow his example. The winner of the Hayek Prize is chosen from among the nominations by a selection committee of distinguished economists, journalists, and scholars. Past winners include: William Easterly for The White Man's Burden, Amity Shlaes for The Forgotten Man, and, most recently, Benn Steil and Manuel Hinds for Money, Markets & Sovereignty.

This is a great honour because my central themes about collective intelligence and spontaneous order are in many ways prefigured in F.A.Hayek's work, and his ideas on the evolutionary nature of economic progress are ones that I share and have built on.

The Rational Optimist has also won a silver medal Axiom Business Book Award.

Vote for nutters and you can vote twice

I don't have terribly strong views on the alternative-vote referendum that Britain holds this week. But I found this radio exchange on the BBC between John Humphreys and the prime minister, David Cameron, remarkable. If even Humphreys does not know how the system would allow the second votes of extremists to be counted more than those of moderates (and he clearly does not), then it does not sound like a comprehensible system.

DC: " start counting some people's votes more than once".

JH: "No, you don't. That simply isn't true, that you count some votes more than once."

Giving money for lobbying for money

The circular nature of some subsidies

Update: the Taxpayers' Alliance has a major report on this issue, by Matthew Sinclair, which concluded that

Over £37 million was spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning in 2007-08. That is nearly as much as the £38.9 million all three major political parties combined spent through their central campaigns at the 2005 election. But, the true amount spent on taxpayer funded lobbying and political campaigning may be much higher as this report has taken a conservative approach, focussing just on the most clear-cut examples.]

Is anybody else as shocked by this as I am?

Julian Simon on rational optimism

Master Resource reposts Julian Simon's wonderful and inspiring message of 1 May 1995. For good and bad, it has aged not at all:


The origin of joy

Why do we like springtime so much?

Update: The `hungry time' was even later in the year than I said. See below.

A meditation on the English spring I wrote for yesterday's Times:

I live on the 55th degree north parallel. If I had gone round the world along that line last week, through Denmark, Lithuania, Russia, Kamchatka, Alaska, Hudson's Bay and Labrador, I would be trudging through snow nearly all the way (there is a handy northern hemisphere weekly snow map on the website of Florida State University, whence I gleaned this fact). Yet instead I ate a picnic on a Northumbrian riverbank as a blizzard of orange-tip butterflies danced over a snowfield of wood anemones in the mild sunshine.

More for less

Keeping an open mind about the sun

Correlation ain't causation.

But for some time I have been noticing that the correlations between certain aspects of solar activity and certain aspects of climate are getting really rather impressive -- far more so than anything relating to carbon dioxide.

Carbon dioxide certainly can affect climate, but so for sure can other things, and in explaining the ups and downs of past climate, before industrialisation, variations in the sun are looking better and better as an explanation. That does not mean the sun causes current climate change, but it certainly suggests that it is at least possible that forcings more powerful than carbon dioxide could be at work.

Leviathan versus Behemoth

Your genes are your own to test

Don't let physicians have a gate-keeping role between you and your genetic information

Who dried out the Aral sea?

The other day at a talk I was asked, as I often am, whether I agree that only putting the state in control can clean up the environment. I wish I had then read this, from the blog at Cafe Hayek: a letter sent to the Los Angeles Times:

My Family and Other Animals

I was on BBC Radio 4's programme A Good Read (the link allows you to listen again) this week, where I recommended the book that was my favourite as a child, and probably still is: My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. The others chose A Game of Hide and Seek and Great Expectations.

Consensus about what?

We keep hearing that there is a consensus about climate change, but it includes a wide range of possibilities

Simon Singh and James Delingpole, both of whom I know, like and respect as fine writers, have been disagreeing about climate change.

Beneath Simon's latest blog on the subject there is a debate in which several very sensible and non-inflammatory things are said by Bishop Hill and Paul Dennis. Do read it.

An especially good comment came from Climate Resistance, who spoke for me and I suspect many others when he asked:

The personalities of the elements

Prospect magazine has published my review of Hugh-Aldersey-Williams's delightful chemistry book, Periodic Tales. Here is an extract in which I was struck by the parallels between finding specialised jobs for the metals and finding specialised roles for individuals in society:

The best science writing emulates fiction, creating plots, surprises and characters out of its esoteric material. The science writer's trick is to transmute the dull tinplate of fact and theory into the precious gold of truthful entertainment. Thus James Watson turned the discovery of the structure of DNA into a charming farce (The Double Helix, 1968); Richard Dawkins turned gene-based evolution into a gripping detective story (The Selfish Gene, 1976); and Simon Singh turned the history of mathematics into an epic (Fermat's Last Theorem, 1997).

Human and natural fertility

Mankind enhances natural productivity as well as eats it

I have just found at Spiked Online Brendan O'Neill's superb recent essay on whether the earth is finite, and I heartily recommend it. Here's a sample:

Over the past 200 years, Malthusians have tended to look at people as simply the users-up of scarce resources. They have tended to view nature as the producer of things and mankind as the consumer of things. And their view of people as little more than consumers - almost as parasites - inevitably leads to them seeing human beings as the cause of every modern ill, and therefore reducing the number of human beings as the solution to every modern ill. Their focus on finiteness means they conceive of humanity as a kind of bovine force, hoovering up everything that it comes across.

I read this while sitting in a hotel room at San Francisco airport. Huge jets queue for take off in full view of my window. I am in the middle of a great conurbation. But between me and the jets lies a stretch of water, an arm of the Bay itself. And the water is a bird watcher's paradise. There are rafts of ducks such as buffleheads and wigeon. There are pelicans, grebes and two speces of gull. Along the shore there are great white and little egrets, willets, whimbrels, grey plovers, stints, dowitchers, avocets, yellow-legs and tight flocks of sandpipers. Sea lions cruise a litle further out, and an osprey has just plunged into the water after a fish.

Sinners that repent

Some greens have seen the light on nuclear power and GM food. It's a start.

Update: I'd like to add one thing to the story below. Stewart Brand, who I know and admire, played a prominent part in the Channel 4 film. He's not a `convert' to these views. He has always been strongly pro-GM food and mildly pro-nuclear. So my comments here were not aimed at him.

Last night saw a TV programme in the UK called What the Green Movement Got Wrong, in which various greens admitted that they had done terrible harm by opposing nuclear power and GM food and indoor DDT. It was a pretty good programme, especially on Chernobyl.

Rare earths versus the Earth

Another environmental cost of wind turbines

Tim Worstall has an enlightening essay on his specialist subject, rare earths.

Rare-earth minerals are the 15 elements in that funny box at the bottom of the periodic table -- known as lanthanides -- plus two others. About 95 percent of global production takes place in China, largely at one huge mining complex in Inner Mongolia. The lanthanides are essential to much of modern electronics and high-tech equipment of various kinds. The magnets in windmills and iPod headphones rely on neodymium. Lutetium crystals make MRI machines work; terbium goes into compact fluorescent bulbs; scandium is essential for halogen lights; lanthanum powers the batteries for the Toyota Prius. For some of these products, alternative materials are available (moving to a non-rare-earth technology would make those cute little white earbuds about the size of a Coke can, though). For others, there simply isn't a viable substitute.

In other words, those vast wind turbines depend on surface mining just as much as the fossil fuel industry does.

A puzzle

An acrostic challenge

Here is Sunday'sNew York Times variety puzzlewhose solution was a nice surprise for me (hat tip Steve Budiansky).


An advert that advocates blowing up people who disagree with you


This video was made by an organisation funded partly by the UK taxpayer.

Hope springs in Wells

Here's the text of an opinion piece I wrote, which was published in the Western Daily Press (link to home page, not article itself) this morning to publicise a talk I am giving in Wells Cathedral on Tuesday 14th. Come along if you live nearby for the peculiar sight of me speaking in a church. Will I get to use the pulpit?

``If you write a book saying the world is getting better, you might get away with being thought eccentric. But if you write a book saying that the world is going to go on getting better and that in 2100 people will be healthier, wealthier and wiser -- and have more rainforests too - you will be though stark, raving bonkers. It is just not sane to believe in a happy future for people and their planet.

Yet I cannot stop myself. I've looked at all the statistics, facts, anecdotes, predictions and pronouncements I can get hold of and they all seem to me to suggest that we will be better off in 2100 than we are now. Much better off.

The oil runs out

That damned elusive slick

I noticed a curious thing recently. The BBC's coverage of the Gulf oil spill for the last two nights was missing one thing: oil.

A reporter went down in a minisubmarine and looked at a pristine coral reef. Newsnight interviewed lawyers, fishermen and politicians.

But there was no sign of a slick, a slimed pelican or even a tar ball in their reports.

Bastiat: Freedom and Optimism

A journalism prize to celebrate Frederic Bastiat

Frederic Bastiat's writings are full of brilliant rebukes against the restriction of trade, and the curtailment of human happiness such restrictions always bring. But it is in a discussion around the state funding of the arts that Bastiat most clearly articulates the pessimism behind the bureaucratic state and the life-enhancing optimism of those who believe in human freedom.

Our adversaries consider that an activity which is neither aided by supplies, nor regulated by government, is an activity destroyed. We think just the contrary. Their faith is in the legislator, not in mankind; ours is in mankind, not in the legislator.

The latest evidence for the rationality of such optimism can, of course, be found in my book.

More evidence of just how 'greatly exaggerated' the ocean acidification scare is

Natural variations in ocean pH both in time and space dwarf human-induced trends.

Pertinent to my recent response to New Scientist on ocean acidification, Willis Eschenbach has a fascinating piece at Wattsupwiththat on a study of ocean pH along a transect from Hawaii to Alaska. Turns out that the further north you go, the less alkaline the ocean:

As one goes from Hawaii to Alaska the pH slowly decreases along the transect, dropping from 8.05 all the way down to 7.65. This is a change in pH of almost half a unit.

The study also measured the change caused by carbon dioxide from industry:

Thousands of results on ocean acidification

A comprehensive database confirms it is a greatly exaggerated worry

For those who think my recent report on ocean acidification and plankton is unrepresentative, do check out this comprehensive database that has collated all studies. The conclusion is very, very clear: PH reduction has a negative effect only at greater changes than are likely in the twenty-first century. At likely changes, the effect is positive. Can we have some honesty from scientists, please?

In the final graphical representations of the information contained in our Ocean Acidification Database, we have plotted the averages of all responses to seawater acidification (produced by additions of both HCl and CO2) for all five of the life characteristics of the various marine organisms that we have analyzed over the five pH reduction ranges that we discuss in ourDescription of the Ocean Acidification Database Tables, which pH ranges we illustrate in the figure below.