Resistance is futile
On 7th December 2019, the BBC published an article titled: “Climate change: Oceans running out of oxygen as temperatures rise.”
COMPLAINT 1 – T plus 0
Naturally this was entirely wrong, so I used the online form to explain why. The below is a quote, verbatim, from my web complaint on 7th December 2019:
|The piece’s title is ridiculous and pure scaremongering: “Climate change: Oceans running out of oxygen as temperatures rise.”|
The text reads: “The scientists estimate that between 1960 and 2010, the amount of the gas dissolved in the oceans declined by 2%. That may not seem like much as it is a global average, but in some tropical locations the loss can range up to 40%.”
The change in O2 solubility in tropical water has no chance of reaching 40%, ever. This is pure scaremongering. You can check the solubility of O2 for a range of temperatures, air pressure, and salinity at https://water.usgs.gov/software/DOTABLES/ where you will find the present change of global temperature (call it 1 degree C) results in a change in O2 solubility in warm tropical water of less than 2%. Not the 40% as stated.
If this 40% actually relates to local issues caused by eutrophication (nothing to do with climate change or carbon dioxide concentration) the article should say so. The alternative, that this change relates to carbon dioxide concentration, is impossible. Please remove.
Please amend the piece’s title to something that is in proportion to the actual facts, rather than something that is intended to make your readers think the world is coming to an end.
COMPLAINT 2 – T plus 55
I received a notification that my complaint had been received, but nothing else. On the 31st of January 2020 I got tired of waiting and sent in a snail mail hurry-up:
I believe I made my submission within an hour of the piece being uploaded, hoping that it would rapidly be corrected. However, my only acknowledgement has been the automated one triggered on submission of the complaint. All I was asking for was accuracy. The oceans are not running out of oxygen, and there is not the slightest chance that they will. The piece’s title still stands today; I have not re-read it to check whether there have been any amendments. Either way, it is now far too late, for the story has long since dropped off the front page (it was the top story on Science and Environment for a time on 7th December). Thus hardly anyone will now see a correction, even if you belated [sic] make one. I would be pleased to know why my request was not acted on swiftly. I want to trust the BBC to report facts.
A round two weeks later the Complaints Team replied by letter:
Thank you for writing to the BBC. This is an update to let you know that we had referred your complaint to the relevant people and regret that it may take a little longer before we can send our reply.
This was accompanied by boiler-plate text about how they aim to respond to complaints within 10 working days (14 days using 2nd class post), but can’t always achieve this target. They also said they appreciate my patience.
Two weeks later (about 27th February 2020), another letter from the BBC Complaints Team arrived:
We are contacting you to apologise that we’ve not been able to reply to your complaint within the time period we aim for. We manage this for most complaints but regret it’s not always possible to achieve.
Blah blah blah
In the meantime we appreciate your patience and will respond as soon as we can.
COMPLAINT 3 – T plus 426
At this stage our old friend Covid intervened. I heard nothing for the rest of 2020. I decided to let things stand, what with more important issues dominating everyone’s minds. So it was not until 5th February 2021 that I tried again.
What with 2020 being an unusual year, I was inclined to allow a lengthy period for your next communication! However, it’s now a year since my letter, and 14 months since the original news story and web complaint. I’d be grateful if you could let me know the status of this matter when you have a moment.
Two weeks later [20th February 2021], the BBC replied:
Thank you for taking time to contact us again recently. This is an update to let you know that although we had referred your complaint to the relevant people, we regret that it may be a little longer before we can reply.
We apologise for this and have been in touch with the relevant staff again. We therefore ask you not to contact us further in the meantime.
Two months later [20th April 2021]:
We are contacting you to apologise that we’ve not been able to reply to your complaint within the time period we aim for.
In the meantime we appreciate your patience and will respond as soon as we can.
COMPLAINT 4 – T plus 629
On 27th August I considered that enough time had passed. My next letter was mostly a list of communications thus far:
7 December 2019 – I complained about the scaremongering nature of a news article.
31 January 2020 – I followed up with a letter, having heard nothing beyond an automated acknowledgement.
13 February 2020 – you sent a letter apologising for the delay.
20 February 2020 (approximate [actually about the 27th]) – you sent a further letter apologising for the ongoing delay and promised to respond as soon as possible.
5 February 2021 – I sent a follow-up letter, noting that an entire year had passed since your promise to respond as soon as you could.
20 February 2021 (date received by me) – you sent a further letter apologising for the ongoing delay. You had been in touch with the relevant staff and asked me not to contact you in the meantime, implying an imminent substantive reply.
20 April 2021 (date received by me) – you sent yet another letter apologising for the ongoing delay, promising to respond as soon as you could.
At this point a cynic might suggest that your plan is to keep apologising until I give up, die, or the world ends, thus unofficially terminating this complaint saga. I notes [sic] that when Important People complain about matters on your website, action follows instantly (cf. the result of George Monbiot complaining about inconvenient, but nevertheless factual, statements in one of your revision packages).
It is now 20 months since the original news story and web complaint. Since your stated aim is to reply within 20* days, this seemed like a good point to nudge you again. I’d be grateful if you could let me know the status of this matter when you have a moment.
COMPLAINT 5 – T plus 709
Perhaps my snark in #4 was too much, for they did not reply. I tried again on 15th November 2021, noting that 23 months had passed and that the BBC’s stated aim was a 20-day window. I promised to write to Tim Davie (while admitting there was no chance he would see my letter) and Ofcom.
COMPLAINT 6 – T plus 738
Well, I heard nothing. In mid December (now more than 2 years since the original complaint) I sent photocopies of all the correspondence to Ofcom, not to Davie, and complained about the lack of a substantive response.
Ofcom did not reply.
SUBSTANTIVE REPLY – T plus 794
Then, in February, out of the blue, I finally had a substantive reply to my complaint. It came from the BBC complaints department, not Ofcom. I was honoured to have the article’s author himself address me directly. Matt McGrath said:
I am very sorry for the inordinate delay in getting a response to your complaint and I want to personally thank you taking [sic] the time to take issue with the story that I wrote based around the research published by the IUCN.
Regarding the amount of dissolved O2 in the ocean,
…there is a well-established body of literature about oxygen loss – and that it is linked to climate change and that in some tropical areas it is up to 40%.
McGrath then cited a lecture by Prof Levin of Scripps, who said that O2 levels were down 2% over the past 50 years because of climate change (in line with my expectation of the plausible magnitude of changes via what we might quaintly term “basic science”). However, she also said:
…this loss … can be up to 40% in some areas…
…to support which Levin quoted from her own work and a paper by Ren et al 2018. McGrath helpfully reproduced a paragraph of the latter paper in his reply to me:
A potential consequence of climate change is global decrease in dissolved oxygen at depth in the oceans due to changes in the balance of ventilation, mixing, respiration, and photosynthesis. We present hydrographic cruise observations of declining dissolved oxygen collected along CalCOFI Line 66.7 (Line 67) off of Monterey Bay, in the Central California Current region, and investigate likely mechanisms. Between 1998 and 2013, dissolved oxygen decreased at the mean rate of 1.92 µmol kg−1 year−1 on σθ 26.6–26.8 kg m−3 isopycnals (250–400 m), translating to a 40% decline from initial concentrations.
Having relied on “basic science” for my objection I was not up to date with the literature. So naturally I read Ren et al., which, I found, also said:
While observations of decline off of [sic] Central California reinforce other reports of ocean deoxygenation in recent decades, additional studies are needed to determine whether climate change or natural variability is the underlying cause.
Not quite “Climate change: oceans running out of oxygen.” [The pseudo-cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation gets a mention in the paper.]
Regarding the alarmist headline itself, according to McGrath:
…a number of media outlets covered the story in a similar way to the BBC, including the New York Times which said “the world’s oceans are losing oxygen rapidly….”
Hmm. I suppose “Natural variability: multi-decadal cycle in oxygen concentration” does not have quite the same ring to it.
I place here Figure 4 from Ren et al, showing the change in oxygen concentration at four different depths over the 16 years. The red line shows the depth at which the 40% decline occurred. To my eye the surface appears to have more oxygen in 2013 than in 1998, but that hardly matters. California, I might add, is not in the tropics. I might also wonder aloud what happened after 2013: after all, this paper was published in 2018. We’ll never know.
What have we learnt? Not much, save that only masochists ought to complain about wrong things to the BBC. You might say that some things should not be allowed to stand. But in this case time, paper, ink, envelopes, first class stamps, and the patience of the ocean avail us naught. The article and its excitable headline are undefeated as at 2nd March 2022.
As for me, I’ve given up. I may not agree with the answer I’ve been given, but at least, after 794 days, I have finally had one.
Notes and References
*Up top I wrote that the BBC’s complaints window was 10 working days. Lower down I have written that it is 20 days. There may have been a change during this saga. Either figure is substantially lower than the 794 days it actually took.