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    • Concern about ecosystems often confuses social effects with natural effects.
    • There is strong evidence that some researchers have produced false claims for political effect.
    • Society, and policymakers especially, need to better understand the ideological nature of the concept of ‘ecosystems’, which may have very little scientific value.

    On the green view, society depends on natural processes throughout the environment that provide essential resources. For example, pollinators such as bees assist in agriculture, and photosynthesis in plants and algae produce oxygen. Seas produce fish, on which many coastal communities depend. According to green reasoning therefore, changes to the climate, especially warming, will alter these natural processes, with grave consequences for agriculture in particular, and therefore society. “Entire ecosystems are collapsing”, Greta Thunberg claims.

    However, evidence of climate change causing the degradation of ecosystems may be based more on hypothetical reasoning than on evidence and is often conflated with other issues around interactions between society and nature, and confused by ideology.

    The IPCC’s WGII AR6 chapter on Oceans and Coastal Ecosystems and their Services, for example, advises that ‘climate change worsens the impacts on marine life of non-climate anthropogenic drivers’, such as overfishing and pollution, as the effects of climate change ‘impacts’ are hard to isolate from social effects. Similarly, the human consequences of these changes are not easily isolated from natural changes. The IPCC claims that ‘impacts to human communities will depend on people’s overall vulnerability’, i.e. that development (wealth) is the major determining factor of the impact of relatively small changes in ecosystems. Thus, as is pointed out in the section on Column 3, and on poverty in particular, socio-economic problems are routinely misunderstood as, and falsely presented as, environmental problems, not necessarily by the IPCC itself in this case, but in hasty and shallow readings of the IPCC’s Assessment Reports.

    There is also a growing body of evidence that seemingly profound changes in vulnerable marine ecosystems have been unsafely attributed to climate change, may be completely natural, and their effects are far less lasting and less significant than has been claimed. The coral bleaching – a major concern of climate change researchers and activists – on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR), in the mid and late 2010s attracted a great deal of attention and was attributed to anthropogenic global warming. But controversy was amplified, rather than resolved, when marine physicist and professor at James Cook University, Peter Ridd was expelled from his post for challenging the prevailing view of the sensitivity of the GBR in particular and reefs in general. According to Ridd, ‘Research science used to inform public policy decisions […] is rarely subjected to rigorous checking, testing and replication’. Ridd argued that the momentum behind the climate agenda had driven researchers to their alarmist conclusions.

    The reaction of his university to Ridd’s broadening of the debate demonstrates a systemic problem in research that is intended to drive policy: that it arguably seeks to defend consensus more than it enables independent investigation. By eschewing debate, consensus is achieved through exclusion. Researchers’ hostility to their peers, and their closing ranks against criticism, is evidence in itself of a problem in science, of ideological and political colonisation.

    A similar problem with research prematurely declaring alarming results emerged in the field of ocean acidification (OA) in the late 2000s and early 2010s. The OA hypothesis held that as ocean water absorbs more CO2, it becomes less alkaline (rather than more acidic), and that this may interfere with the normal development of marine organisms, and therefore on wider marine ecosystems. Initial research intended to prove this hypothesis focused on results in which organisms were exposed to solutions which were far more acidic than they were likely to experience in any natural scenario.

    A 2016 edition of ICES Journal of Marine Science aimed to address these problems with the novel science of OA, calling for ‘organised (academic) scepticism’ to be applied to the field, encouraging ‘a broader perspective on ocean acidification research’, including studies that ‘show[ed] no effect of OA’, which ‘are typically more difficult to publish and, when published, seem to appear in lower-ranking journals’ than studies that seem to produce alarming results. Though the journal’s editorial on the subject was careful not to claim that OA had been debunked, the impression that scientists had been incautious in their work was clearly sustained. According to one article in the series, which ‘assessed 465 OA studies published between 1993 and 2014’, 95% lacked scientific rigour. The remaining articles, again while not debunking OA science in general, demonstrated the fact of scientific debate and controversy, which had not been present in scientific literature and news media coverage of the issue of climate change, much less in political campaigns that advocated urgency.

    Rather than learning this lesson, both institutional science and scientists in the field continued using the issue of OA as a campaigning tool. A 2020 paper published in the prestigious journal Nature found that Ocean acidification does not impair the behaviour of coral reef fishes, challenging many papers that had claimed otherwise, many of which were notable and informed the IPCC’s analysis of the OA problem. According to a review of the controversy generated by the paper in the journal Science, this new work was thorough, split researchers in the field, and even led to claims of scientific fraud. One of those accused was Philip Munday, a marine biologist coincidentally based at James Cook University, which had fired Peter Ridd. 

    There is perhaps an even deeper problem with the notion of ecosystems’ close dependence on the climate. Despite bold early promises to reveal the workings underpinning the complexities of the natural world, the science of ecology ran into problems, leading some to challenge its core assumptions and its emphasis on ‘systems’. Many had assumed that ecosystems at all scales tend towards producing ‘balance’, or ‘homeostasis’, as it was later understood by the related field of cybernetics, but researchers discovered far more chaotic change than could be accounted for through a systems approach – modelling interactions between the populations within an ecosystem itself. Population numbers within ecosystems fluctuated wildly and spontaneously. And this led some to question whether ecology had any use as a science.

    Nonetheless, ecology and the idea of ecosystems have profound cultural significance and political utility, and policies seemingly intended to protect the environment trade on the concepts developed by outmoded fields and popularised by political campaigning. At the very least, it should be understood that ‘ecosystems’ and ecology are highly contestable forms of science, in which there exists much debate, and are extremely prone to ideology and political interference, and which has a long history of error and failed predictions at all scales of ‘ecosystem’, from the field level to the planet.