Sorting scientific fact from fiction on climate

Seeking out and clinging to reassuring myths as an antidote to the often frightening realities around the climate emergency is a surprisingly common reaction among the public, and even persists amid the all-too-obvious signs of climate breakdown happening in real time, all around us. I filed this piece for the Irish Examiner in mid-September which looked at a number of the more common myths and how they might be addressed.

THE PUBLICATION this week of the multi-agency ‘United in Science’ report on the climate crisis led by the World Meteorological Organisation underlines the overwhelming scientific evidence that the Earth is warming quickly as a result of human actions, and that this poses grave dangers to humanity.

However, a minority of people still cling to the belief that it’s not happening or that it has nothing to do with us. Here are five of the most common climate myths, and how to unpick them.

1. The climate has changed before and is always changing, therefore it’s all just part of a natural cycle.

This is true, to an extent. Earth has warmed and cooled previously as a result of climatic shifts. For instance, subtle changes in the planet’s tilt and orbit around the sun, known as Milankovitch cycles, can trigger ice ages over thousands of years. However, for the 12,000 years or so since the end of the last ice age, Earth’s temperature has been remarkably stable. This has allowed humans and agriculture to flourish. However, due to man-made emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a key heat-trapping gas, global temperatures are now rising rapidly.

The climate system responds to whatever is putting the greatest pressure on it, and in recent times, humanity has become a planetary-level force. Global CO2 levels are now at their highest in several million years and, as the extreme heatwaves, droughts, and flooding events around the world are now showing, this additional heat energy poses a massive threat. Unless radical action is taken to cut emissions, climate breakdown threatens to bring the recent era of human flourishing to an abrupt end.

2. There is no ‘consensus’ around global warming. Scientists are divided and nobody really knows what’s going on.

This myth has been largely promoted by the fossil fuel industry, which has invested heavily in creating uncertainty around climate science, including funding efforts to spread doubt about the science while smearing and discrediting scientists. The energy industry has known for decades that continuing to burn its products could lead to a global catastrophe, but the lure of easy money overcame any scruples about telling the truth. There is no “debate” whatsoever among practising climate scientists that global warming is real, man-made, and dangerous.

Recent surveys of publishing scientists estimate that more than 99% agree on the human causes of global warming. There are few areas in science with such robust agreement among experts.

Despite this, you will still encounter occasional claims such as: “1,000 scientists reject global warming”. On closer inspection these sceptical “scientists” usually turn out to be retired professionals from unrelated fields, such as engineering, many with close ties to the energy industry. Their unqualified opinions carry no weight whatsoever within the community of expert climatologists.

3. CO2 is plant food, it makes crops and trees grow, so it can’t be responsible for climate change.

Yes, CO2 is absorbed by plants as part of a natural cycle. In fact, without trace amounts of CO2 in our atmosphere to trap solar energy, the Earth would freeze over from pole to pole.

However, you can have too much of a good thing. Fossil fuel burning has seen atmospheric CO2 levels increase by 50%, and this is causing the Earth to quickly heat up.

The world’s oceans are becoming increasingly acidic as a result of CO2 and this is interfering with the chemistry of the seas, with serious consequences for marine life.

And while increased CO2 levels do have a fertilising effect, it is of limited value to plants as other limits quickly neutralise the benefits. Earth has been described as the ‘Goldilocks planet’ — not too hot, not too cold. The key gas in maintaining this balance is CO2, so its sharp recent increase is deeply worrying.

4. Yes, climate change is real and serious, but it really won’t affect me personally.

‘Optimism bias’ is what psychologists describe as an innate human tendency to assume that good things will mostly happen to us, while underestimating the risks of bad thing affecting us.

Many smokers, for instance, are aware of the health risks, but optimistically assume that someone else, not them, will develop cancer. When it comes to climate risk, surveys have repeatedly shown very high levels of concern among the Irish public. However, when asked if they themselves would be affected, far fewer people agree. For instance, a RedC poll last year found that 9 in 10 people in Ireland regard global warming as “a serious threat for humankind”.

Despite this clear awareness of the risks, most respondents admit that they have personally made few if any changes to be more sustainable.

This underlines that most people in Ireland still feel psychologically disconnected from the threat of climate change.

In reality, as a small, open economy, our fate is closely connected to what happens elsewhere. No country is immune from the risks of economic collapse, mass migration, droughts, famine and deadly flooding events, despite what many people still believe.

5. It’s too late to stop climate collapse, so why even bother trying?

This is a surprisingly widespread belief. While some people may earnestly feel this is the case, for others, it is simply a convenient excuse to continue doing nothing inconvenient. It mirrors climate denial, which also advocates inaction, but for entirely different reasons.

Again, there is some truth in this view. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year warned that some of the negative changes to the global climate system are already “irreversible”. However, the situation is far too serious for the luxury of fatalism.

Every fraction of a degree of warming that can be avoided will ease the suffering of countless millions of people around the world, and reduce pressure on the natural world, which has suffered grievously as a result of human impacts.

It is certainly too late for a “soft landing” from the climate crisis, but by acting strongly now to cut emissions, protect nature and restore ecosystems, we are buying vital time in a last-gasp effort to avoid truly apocalyptic outcomes.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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