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10 Myths about Climate Change—and Why they’re Wrong

Climate change is the biggest existential threat human civilization has faced in its thousands of years of existence. As a result, there is an inexhaustible amount of information online regarding climate change and global warming. Unfortunately, however, there still persists lots of false information and myths regarding climate change. Here are 10 myths about climate change you may encounter most frequently, and why they are simply incorrect.

Myth #1: “Earth’s climate has always been changing. This is no different.”

In a sense, the first part is true. Earth’s climate has always been in a continuous state of change. However, this change was cyclical and based on forces that were in balance. It also happened over hundreds of thousands of years. What we are witnessing now is extremely different.The simple fact is that Earth’s climate responds to the dominant forces causing it to change. Throughout history, these forces have been described by Milankovitch cycles and have occurred in regular, predictable intervals. These cycles describe how slight changes in Earth’s tilt, rotation, and orbit affect its surface temperature. As more sunlight hit the earth its surface temperature would rise ever so slightly, causing the solubility of CO2 in the oceans to decrease. In turn, the level of CO2 in the atmosphere would increase and trap more heat, creating a positive feedback loop which warms the planet even more.

Climate has always been changing but there are a lot of anomalies in the last 50 years
Figure 1: Temperature anomaly, CO2 concentration, and sea level rise over time (Hansen et al., “Target Atmospheric CO2”)

What’s happening now is entirely different. Whereas Milankovitch cycles describe periods of hundreds of millennia, we’re seeing temperatures and CO2 concentrations rise to unprecedented levels in the space of just a couple hundred years.

Myth #2: “It’s cold outside so global warming isn’t real.”

Even Donald Trump has tweeted this on many occasions. This simplistic argument fails to take into account that global warming doesn’t imply that everywhere on Earth is going to always get warmer, all the time. The burden of climate change is not felt equally across the planet. Some regions, such as at Earth’s poles, will see average temperatures rise much more severely than those nearer to the equator. And of course there will still be cold days and nights—this has never been disputed. However, on average, temperatures will rise all across the globe.

Temperature change is not uniform across the globe.
Figure 2: Temperature change is not uniform across the globe. (IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 C)

Furthermore, the problem isn’t just that it is going to get hotter. Scientists use the term climate change as opposed to global warming because it more accurately takes into account the far-reaching effects that a warming climate will have on our planet. These include more extreme weather events, floods, droughts, ocean acidification, ecological ruin, and mass extinction events.

Myth #3: “The sun is responsible for global warming.”

While it’s true that in the 1960’s and 1970’s some scientists attributed global warming to increased solar activity, the truth is that for the past 35 years the amount of energy from the sun striking the earth has been decreasing while temperatures have still been rising. This is more than obvious in the graph below:

Temperature vs Solar Activity
Figure 3: Temperature vs Solar Activity (SkepticalScience.com)

The graph shows that the significant warming observed over the past decades could not have been caused by the sun. Instead, there must be other factors causing it, and the primary suspect (who’s most certainly guilty) is CO2.

Myth #4: “Humans only release an insignificant amount of CO2. We can’t be the cause of global warming.”

Although humans do emit only a small fraction of the CO2 released into the atmosphere each year, that amount is by no means insignificant. According to the IPCC, natural processes emit about 750 billion tons of CO2 each year; humans, on the other hand, were only responsible for an additional 35 billion tons in 2018. This means that we only contribute to about 4.5% of total CO2 emissions. Does that mean we’re not the problem?

Atmospheric CO2 concentration from 800,000 years ago to now
Figure 4: Atmospheric CO2 concentration from 800,000 years ago to now (NQAA)

Not quite. It’s important to realize that before humanity’s effects on the climate, Earth’s carbon cycle was in balance. 750 billion tons of CO2 were released by the earth and 750 billion tons of CO2 were absorbed. Now, however, we are digging up and burning fossil fuels which release huge amounts of CO2 that the earth had been storing up for millions of years. This CO2 is released but is not re-absorbed, causing the whole system to shift out of balance. This is seen in the graph below, where land and atmospheric measurements of CO2 concentrations show that in the past 150 years we’ve caused atmospheric concentrations of CO2 to rise to unprecedented levels.

Also, please note that CO2 is not the only greenhouse gas there is, and it is certainly not the most potent one. Other GHGs include methane, nitrous oxide, and even water vapor. However, due to factors such as lifespan and abundance in the atmosphere, CO2 has had and will continue to have the greatest effect on the earth’s climate.

Myth #5: “Not all scientists agree that humans are causing climate change.”

While this isn’t strictly false, it is certainly very misleading.  It is very rare to find an issue in any scientific field where there is 100% unanimity. There will always be those with different opinions and ulterior motives.However, as far as consensus on climate change is concerned, it has been shown that roughly 97% of climate experts agree that humans cause global warming and climate change. The most comprehensive study on this matter was conducted by a team of seven experts on the topic of climate consensus, and they published a definitive report showing that the greater the expertise among those surveyed, the higher the consensus that humans are responsible for global warming.

Myth #6: “So what? Climate change isn’t even that bad.”

This argument is often pushed by politicians or those who have something to gain by painting the climate emergency a “hoax”.  Unfortunately, this is a very dangerous lie. While we should be careful not to draw an overly-pessimistic picture of the future which frightens away potential change, we should also not be quick to dismiss the numerous negative outcomes that have and will continue to affect us because of climate change.

The direct effects of climate change not only include rising average temperatures and sea levels, but also more extreme weather events and thawing permafrost in the arctic. These will create positive feedback loops that’ll cause even more global warming, but they’ll also lead to the far more severe indirect consequences of climate change. These include food shortages and water crises, heat waves and wildfires, higher transmission of diseases and pathogens, ocean acidification and the loss of biodiversity, and the need for adaptation to all of the above with hugely expensive economic implications and costs.

Myth #7: “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

Actually, there’s a lot we can do to prevent further climate change. The solution is quite simple: we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. This has been stressed by scientists as far back as the 1960’s and just as it was true back then, it’s still very true today.

In 2019, we released over 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. A rough breakdown of global greenhouse gas emissions by sector (in CO2 equivalent) is as follows:

25 percent of Global greenhouse emissions are from Electricity and Heat Production
Figure 5: From the IPCC (2014) with data gathered from 2010

Although this graph is from 2014, it is still a good reflection of which aspects of society and industry are the most environmentally polluting today. For example, electricity generation and agriculture/forestry alone account for almost 50% of GHG emissions. If you add industry and transportation to that, then the percentage rises to 84%. Now that Solar energy is cheaper than coal this can be reduced.

By moving away from fossil fuels and instead switching to renewable energy sources, we can significantly decarbonize the energy sectors (particularly electricity generation and transportation). By promoting sustainable forestry and greener agricultural practices, we can reduce the devastating impacts of the food and logging industries which are not only major drivers of global warming due to their immense carbon footprint, but are also responsible for tremendous loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation.

Thus, it is quite clear: we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. But by how much? It is the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that has most thoroughly and convincingly answered this question. Their 2018 report strongly highlights the need to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. If we want to stay below 1.5 °C of warming (the target most advocated by climate experts), we need to start cutting emissions by roughly 7.6% each year from now until 2030. This will require enormous efforts arising from nearly every aspect of society, but we must not underestimate what’s at stake.

Myth #8: “Renewable Energy is too expensive anyway.”

Renewable energy was once seen as an expensive, impractical alternative to fossil fuels. This is a very outdated belief. In fact, renewable energy today is just as cheap (and in many cases cheaper) than any form of fossil fuels.

Large-scale hydroelectric dams can cost as little as $0.05 per kilowatt hour (kWh) of capacity while solar and wind farms typically cost less than $0.10 per kWh. Even offshore wind, typically considered one of the more expensive forms of renewable energy to install, costs as little as $0.13 per kWh of capacity. Some of the largest and most efficient onshore solar and wind farms even generate clean electricity for as little at $0.03-$0.04 per kWh. This is why the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) published a report in 2019 stating that “In most parts of the world today, renewables are the lowest-cost source of new power generation.”

Furthermore, when you take into account the external costs of the fossil fuel industries and the financial incentives and subsidies used to keep it competitive, you’ll find that the true cost of fossil fuels like coal and oil is already far, far higher than that of renewable energy.

Myth #9: “[Insert country here] is the problem, they should fix it!”

Climate change is a global challenge that will impact all of us. Every nation and indeed every person has had some role to play in global warming, and therefore we all share responsibility to change our societies and economies for the better.

It is true that a country such as China emits more CO2 than any other country in the world, at around 9.3 billion tons of CO2 in 2017. However, if you take into account that China also has the largest population in the world, their per capita emissions are far lower than other countries such as Australia and the United States. The average US citizen emits more than two times as much CO2 per year than the average Chinese citizen. Nevertheless, finger-pointing and blaming others only wastes precious time and effort that could be spent enacting policies and driving change across the globe.

We also have to remember that climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also a humanitarian one. A UN-sponsored 2017 paper titled “Climate Change and Social Inequality”, reinforces the notion that even though global warming is mostly driven by affluent, developed nations and their emissions, it will disproportionately affect those  from developing countries who are less capable of coping with it.

Simply put, “the people least responsible for global warming are those that will suffer the most from its consequences” (youmatter.world).

Therefore, we all need to play our parts in preventing climate change from becoming not only a force for environmental disaster, but also to prevent it from further driving a wedge between the affluent and the poor, escalating social inequality.

Myth #10: “It’s too late.”

Of all the myths and lies on this list, this is perhaps the most dangerous one. It is not too late! Although we’ve already reached average temperatures that are ~0.9 °C higher than pre-industrial levels, we still have some time to prevent global warming from further raising the temperatures to 1.5 °C or, much worse, 2 °C.

he science has been very clear that our time window is getting shorter and shorter; yet, there is certainly enough time for us to really change ourselves and our economies and lower our emissions—if we really want to. Over the past few years millions of people around the world have been voicing their opinions and demands with regards to taking action about climate change, but the truth is that—on national and international levels—we are simply not doing enough. Governments and corporations are not divesting from fossil fuels fast enough; they are not forcing agricultural, shipping and logistics industries to decarbonize quickly enough, and they are simply not giving this issue as much attention as it deserves.

If we want to prevent climate change from getting out of hand—and thereby prevent all the associated economic and environmental costs that will come with it—we need to act now. We need to make ourselves heard, but we also need to take action ourselves. You don’t have to wait for anyone’s permission to start living a more sustainable and environmentally-conscious lifestyle. Whether it’s through your diet, your travel, your household’s electricity generation/consumption, or any other aspect of your life, there are numerous steps you can take right now to become a part of the change.

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