10 myths about climate change – and how to debunk them

Your guide to spotting and tackling climate disinformation

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The scientific consensus is clear: the climate crisis is real, and we are running out of time to prevent its worst effects.

And yet, even as temperature records are broken and climate disasters multiply, fake news is as rife as ever. In fact, these disasters may be fueling denial on the internet.

So, what can we do to battle this barrage of disinformation? From global cooling to the sun burning brighter, here are 10 of the most common climate change myths – and the truth behind each of them.

1. Global warming stopped in 1998

Average global temperatures, 1998-2012
Average global temperatures, 1998–2012. Our World in Data

The chart above shows average global temperatures between 1998 and 2012. If we only look at this period in isolation, global warming appears to have stopped.

Aside from the obvious cherry picking, it only takes a bit of zooming out to show that the Earth has warmed significantly since the late 19th century. The chart below shows the same average global temperatures, but on a longer time scale, between 1880 and 2022.

Average global temperatures, 1880-2022
Average global temperatures, 1880–2022. Our World in Data

The deniers are almost correct on one count: the Earth did warm more slowly during the period from 1998 to 2012 than it did in the 20 to 30 years prior – though it didn’t stop entirely.

Climate scientists dubbed it a “global warming hiatus,” and it was mainly due to a natural cycle called the El Niño–Southern Oscillation, which caused 1998 to be unusually hot. There was also a decrease in energy from the sun during this period (more on that in myth #7).

It was called a hiatus because that slowdown was only temporary, and since 2012, the planet has continued to warm faster than ever. In fact, nine of the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 2010 – and 2023 is set to be the hottest year ever.

So, not only has global warming not stopped, but it’s accelerating: every single year since 2013 has been hotter than 1998.

2. It’s global cooling, not global warming

Snow in London
A snowy day in London. orva studio, Unsplash

This particularly outlandish myth claims that the Earth is getting colder, rather than hotter – evidenced by cold spells in winter.

First, there’s an important difference between weather and climate. Weather refers to conditions right now: hot or cold, sunny or cloudy, rainy or dry. Climate is how the weather usually is at a given place and time, based on long-term averages.

As the term suggests, climate change refers to how the Earth as a whole is getting hotter over a span of decades – not necessarily everywhere and every day. There will still be cold days even though the Earth is getting hotter overall.

In fact, as the Arctic gets hotter, it’s destabilizing the polar vortex, which brought freezing temperatures to Texas and northern Mexico in February 2021. In other words: global warming can be cold sometimes.

3. Scientists predicted an ice age

Europe heatwave
A visual representation of a heatwave in Europe in July 2023. European Space Agency, Flickr

Scientists rely on models to predict climate change. Some deniers question the reliability of those those models, claiming that scientists wrongly predicted an ice age back in the 1970s.

Models are mathematical representations of reality that can be used to estimate general trends. Like weather forecasting, climate modeling makes predictions based on factors like wind patterns, ocean currents and changes in temperature – only that these predictions take place over decades or even centuries.

We can tell how accurate a climate model is by hindcasting – running it with past data to see how well it can predict events and trends that have already happened.

The models used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were fairly accurate in predicting temperature changes since 1970, with deviations of between 8 percent and 17 percent. And in another recent study, 14 out of 17 models managed to accurately predict global warming between 1970 and 2007.

As for an ice age: only a few studies predicted in the 1970s that the Earth would get cooler. The vast majority correctly found that it would get warmer.

4. Antarctica is gaining ice

Iceberg in Antarctica
A tabular iceberg in Antarctica’s Weddell Sea. 66 north, Unsplash

Most scientists agree that East Antarctica is gaining mass in the form of either ice, snowfall or both (though this could change if global warming reached 2 degrees Celsius). West Antarctica, on the other hand, is losing mass faster than ever as its glaciers melt, which is contributing to rising sea levels.

But in 2015, NASA released a study that contradicted every other study to date. It found that Antarctica is gaining ice overall because snowfall in East Antarctica was increasing more quickly than glaciers in West Antarctica were melting. The study concluded that Antarctica was not contributing to rising sea levels as a result.

But other scientists quickly found issues with its methodology, and many more recent studies have found that the NASA paper probably overestimated how quickly East Antarctica is gaining mass.

Today, the scientific consensus is that Antarctica is still losing ice overall, with the NASA study as the sole outlier.

5. Scientists aren’t sure

Scientist
Photo: NOAA, Unsplash

Multiple studies have shown that at least 90 percent of climate scientists agree that the climate crisis is not only real but also primarily caused by humans.

Notably, these studies found that the more qualified an expert is, the more likely they are to agree with the consensus. Climatologists who publish regularly in peer-reviewed journals are the most likely to say that climate change is mainly caused by humans, while among non-publishing climatologists, that consensus drops to anywhere between 66 percent and 87 percent.

And then, there’s the leading authority on the climate crisis, the IPCC, which brings together hundreds of top experts to produce assessments every few years.

According to its latest report, not only are humans causing climate change, but we’re already suffering from its effects, including more frequent and destructive droughts, heatwaves and floods, which are expected to get worse.

6. It’s not our fault

Earth from space
View of the Earth’s atmosphere from space. NASA, Unsplash

We’ve established that the climate crisis is real. But what if it’s just a natural phenomenon?

The Earth’s atmosphere keeps us warm by trapping heat from the sun using gases like carbon dioxide, methane and ozone, collectively known as greenhouse gases, and their warming effect is known as the greenhouse effect.

If the Earth didn’t have an atmosphere, it would be around 33 degrees Celsius colder, making it largely uninhabitable for humans.

Temperature and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have been closely linked throughout the Earth’s history. During the Eocene (56 million to 34 million years ago), carbon dioxide levels were almost four times higher than they are today, at around 1,500 parts per million (ppm). This made temperatures about 10 degrees hotter. During the last ice age, they were between 180 and 300 ppm.

And each year, humans are emitting about 9.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, and another 1.5 billion through deforestation. Today, carbon dioxide levels are the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years, at around 417 ppm.

As a result, the Earth is now 1.2 degrees hotter than in the late 19th century. That’s almost double the warming at the end of the last ice age, and happening at least 100 times faster.

7. It’s the sun

Sun
The sun is not making the Earth any warmer. Jonathan Borba, Unsplash

Nonetheless, some deniers still believe that the sun is burning brighter and heating up the Earth.

In fact, the sun’s energy has been decreasing since the 1980s – and yet the Earth is still getting hotter.

If the sun were getting brighter, it would warm the entire atmosphere. But instead, only the lower atmosphere is getting hotter while the upper atmosphere is getting cooler. That’s because more and more heat is being trapped in the lower atmosphere by the greenhouse gases that humans are emitting.

In any case, solar fluctuations only have a very minor impact on the Earth’s temperature – no more than 0.1 degrees Celsius.

8. The climate has changed before, so what’s the big deal?

Eocene
An artist’s impression of the Eocene. highdarktemplar, DeviantArt

There are indeed natural cycles that cause the Earth’s climate to fluctuate between cooler and warmer periods. For instance, the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is a climate pattern in the Pacific Ocean that fluctuates between a warm phase, El Niño, and a cool phase, La Niña, roughly every three to seven years.

The Earth also fluctuates between cold periods, otherwise known as ice ages, and warmer periods, known as interglacials, roughly every 100,000 years due to Milankovitch cycles, which are fluctuations in the Earth’s orbit and tilt.

But today’s warming isn’t part of any of these natural cycles. The Earth is currently at its hottest in at least 12,000 years, and perhaps even 125,000 years.

9. Climate change isn’t that bad

Siberian wolf
Siberia’s wildlife is unlikely to reap any benefits from climate change. Roman Purtov, Unsplash

Could the benefits from climate change actually outweigh the costs?

Admittedly, a few regions could benefit. For instance, Canada and Russia could gain huge areas of farmland that are currently too cold, as well as new Arctic shipping routes.

But both countries are already suffering from melting permafrost and raging wildfires in the Arctic, which is warming four times as quickly as the rest of the Earth.

For the rest of humanity, the climate crisis doesn’t offer many benefits. According to the latest IPCC report, over 40 percent of the world’s population is “highly vulnerable” to the effects of water shortages, deadly heat stress, rising sea levels and crop failure due to extreme weather.

10. It’s too expensive to solve climate change

Wind farm
Climate change mitigation is much cheaper than climate change itself. Karsten Würth, Unsplash

While climate solutions are indeed expensive, they would cost significantly less than the climate crisis itself.

By 2050, the world could lose up to 18 percent of its GDP if we do nothing, and 11 percent even if we can limit warming to 2 degrees. And by 2100, the climate crisis could shrink the global economy by 37 percent.

We don’t even have to look that far: in the next five years, companies will lose USD 1.3 trillion to climate-related supply chain disruption.

On the other hand, we would have to invest between 1.3 percent and 2.7 percent of global GDP to limit warming to 2 degrees. But these investments would also yield co-benefits to human health by reducing pollution and improving diets, which would likely exceed the costs.

In fact, we could reap benefits of up to 5 percent of global GDP just by tackling air pollution – more than enough to cover the costs of climate action.

This article is focused on value chains in support of the work of the Food Systems, Land Use and Restoration Impact Program (FOLUR), with funding from the Global Environment Facility.

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