Despite the mountains of scientific evidence, as well as what we can see with our own eyes, myths and misinformation about climate change are remarkably stubborn, so I take whatever opportunities on offer to debunk these in as many media outlets as possible. The below piece was commissioned by the Irish Daily Mirror, my first piece for this audience, and ran over two pages in early November.
THOUGH IT’S not yet over, 2022 will be remembered as a year of dramatic weather extremes and disasters. The extended heatwave that racked China this summer has been described as the most severe in human history, while Europe just endured its hottest summer ever recorded.
Meanwhile, from Africa and Asia to north America, many countries have experienced record-smashing heat, drought and flooding events this year.
It’s no mystery as to why this is happening. The Earth is heating up, rapidly and dangerously. The clearest evidence for this is that the five hottest years in recorded history have all occurred since 2017.
Our planet is running a fever, fuelled by the dumping of over 40 billion tonnes of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere every year, largely as a result of fossil fuel burning and land clearance for agriculture.
Yet, despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes and threats posed by climate change, many people still choose not to accept the evidence, preferring instead to believe either that it’s not happening or that it has nothing to do with human actions.
Here are seven of the most common climate myths, and how to debunk them:
- The sun controls the climate; it has nothing to do with us
Scientists carefully track the amount of energy the Earth receives from the sun. This varies very slightly in 11-year cycles. However, over the last 30-40 years, solar output has been lower than normal, yet temperatures on Earth have risen relentlessly during this period. If variations in the amount of the sun’s energy reaching us were driving the climate, we should now be in a cooling period, but the opposite is the case.
- Surely warming by a couple of degrees can’t be bad? The temperature changes every day
The Earth’s average surface temperature is around 14C. Despite huge variation in location and seasons, as well as from night to day, this global average temperature hasn’t changed by more than 1C in over 10,000 years. This stable climate system is what has allowed humans to thrive and our agriculture systems to flourish. However, this era has come to a sudden end as a result of global warming. If your own body temperature rises by more than a couple of degrees, you will become ill, or worse. The same is true for our planet as a whole. Seemingly small changes make a huge difference when they are happening on a global scale.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) only exists in tiny amounts. It can’t be changing the world’s climate
Even though CO2 is only a trace gas in the atmosphere, its unique ability to trap and hold heat energy is the reason Earth is not frozen solid. However, CO2 levels have increased by around 50% in recent decades, to the highest levels in millions of years. Like pulling on an extra duvet on your bed, more heat is now being trapped, causing the atmosphere and oceans to heat up dangerously.
- The climate has changed before. It’s all just a natural cycle
Over long periods, Earth’s climate system goes through cooling and warming periods. It does so in response to whatever is applying the most pressure. For example, slight wobbles in the Earth’s tilt and orbit around the sun can, over time, trigger an ice age. This shows how, despite its vast size, our planet is quite sensitive to even subtle changes. Today, man-made emissions, mostly from burning fossil fuels, are by far the strongest influence on the global climate, causing it to heat more quickly than at any other time in human history. This extra heat energy is making our weather more extreme and scientists warn that it poses a huge threat to all life on Earth, including humans.
- Ireland is too small to have any impact on the global climate so why should we bother cutting emissions?
The top 1% of the world’s most wealthy people account for almost half of all global emissions. Overall, emissions produced by five million Irish people are equivalent to the total emissions produced by over 300 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. If for instance you fly regularly, your personal emissions will be among the highest in the world. Another reason why Ireland’s per capita emissions are among the highest in the world is our huge herd of over 7 million beef and dairy cattle, which produce large amounts of methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas.
- Scientists disagree about whether global warming is happening. There is no consensus
Fifty years ago, this was probably true. Given the size and complexity of the global weather and climate systems, there was a lot of uncertainty as to what was really going on. This is no longer the case. When working climate scientists were recently surveyed, more than 99% agreed that climate change was real and caused by human actions. Very few areas of science have such a powerful consensus. This is based on decades of research and on evidence gathered by scientists. You will sometimes hear of surveys claiming that scientists “reject” global warming, but these are invariably suspect, usually involving retired non-specialists making mischief for political or ideological purposes.
- I’ve heard it’s far too late to stop global warming, so there’s no point in even trying
It is true that some of the damage already done will take thousands of years to reverse, but even at this late stage, every action we take to reduce emissions matters. What we do now can mean the difference between a difficult future and outright catastrophe. The future is not yet set. We can still avoid the very worst outcomes for ourselves and our children, but only if we listen to the science and demand that our politicians, media and business leaders tell us the truth about the climate emergency and what we have to do to save ourselves.
- John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator