Around the world, climate change isn’t controversial. It may not be vigorously acted upon, but it also isn’t vigorously debated — people at least accept that it’s happening in nearly every country. In the United States, the story is different, and the intensely partisan nature of the issue has spawned a large climate denialism movement.

There are many levels to climate change denial. These are nine widespread myths and misconceptions about climate change, broken down into three stages of disbelief.  

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Stage One: Climate Change is a hoax

Earth isn’t warming

A study from Pew Research Center last October reported that 20% of US adults believe there is no evidence of global climate change.

But the evidence is abundant.

Global temperatures are rising, with the greatest increase happening in the last 35 years. Oceans are warming as well, and at a faster rate than previously believed. Sea levels are also rising and oceans are becoming increasingly acidic from absorbed carbon dioxide.

Shrinking ice sheets and damage from fires, floods, and mining are so significant they can be seen from outer space.

There is no scientific consensus

According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 28% of adults in the US believe there is disagreement among scientists that global warming is happening.

Actually, more than 97% of climate scientists currently publishing papers on the issue agree that human beings are causing the Earth to warm at a highly accelerated rate.

Some climate change skeptics cite Galileo to claim that science is about breaking with consensus. In reality, Galileo broke with the Church (not science) and helped develop the scientific method, used today to determine that Earth’s climate is getting warmer.

The Earth is actually cooling

1998 was the hottest year on record for more than a decade. Because subsequent years were comparatively cooler (that is not to say, cool), during that time, climate change deniers made the argument that the Earth had stopped warming.

This misinterpretation of data overlooks the fact that 1998 was an El Niño year, causing temperatures to spike. The average global temperature clearly continued its upward trend in the following years.   

This myth was totally debunked when 2014 became the hottest year on record. That is until 2015 became the hottest ever, which was subsequently topped by 2016.

2017 is on pace to make it four years in a row.

Stage Two: Climate change is not man-made

The Earth is warming due to natural causes.

“Earth’s climate is always changing,” is a popular opinion among man-made climate-change deniers, who point to the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period as alleged proof that Earth’s climate has undergone drastic transformations without human contribution.

Changes in the sun affect global climate, but the energy the Earth has received from the sun has actually trended downward since the 1960s, while temperatures continue to rise.

Levels of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere have always had the greatest impact on warming and cooling. Though Earth’s climate has fluctuated in the 4.5 billion years of its existence, it’s the current rate at which the Earth is warming that’s the problem.

Up until the past several decades, the planet’s climate remained relatively constant for tens of thousands of years. Currently, CO2 concentration is at an all-time high as a result of human activities. Meanwhile, deforestation is removing the planet’s natural CO2 filters.   

It’s no coincidence that temperatures have increased steadily since the industrial revolution. The EPA reported that CO2 emissions in the US increased 9.9% from 1990 to 2014. Though the rate of greenhouse gas emissions in the US plateaued under the Obama administration, President Donald Trump is set to undo his predecessor’s environmental protection initiatives, and invest further into coal and fossil fuels.

Carbon dioxide/fossil fuels aren’t to blame

Without greenhouse gases, Earth would be an ice planet. However, if levels are too high, Earth would be like Venus.  

CO2 causes about 20% of Earth’s greenhouse effect. What is more, CO2 has a direct effect on the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere, which accounts for 50% of the greenhouse effect.

The concentration of CO2 causes temperatures to rise. This means more water vapor evaporates into the atmosphere and augments the greenhouse effect.

NASA concludes, “carbon dioxide controls the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere and thus the size of the greenhouse effect.”

Image: NASA

There is a natural circulation of carbon throughout Earth’s land, water, atmosphere, and living creatures. Human activity is throwing off that balance by pumping CO2 into the atmosphere, primarily by burning fossil fuels to produce energy.

Fossil fuel combustion for electricity accounted for 37% of US carbon emissions in 2014. Transportation caused 31%. Industrial processes contributed 15%.

Mitt Romney endorsed “clean coal” in an unsuccessful presidential run in 2008. Trump has picked up the torch, promising deregulations on shale energy and coal production. He also ordered the continuation of the Keystone and Dakota Access oil pipelines.

In addition to greenhouse gases, coal mining emits sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and ash which cause acid rain, respiratory illness, lung disease, and smog.

Clean coal” is a myth, plain and symbol.  

We don’t know how much humans have contributed to global warming

Last May, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) took this position on the presidential campaign trail. He told CNN’s Chris Cuomo that, though there is scientific consensus that human activity is causing climate change, “there’s no consensus on how much of the changes that are going on are due to human activity.”

More recently, Fox News’ Tucker Carlson argued this point with scientist Bill Nye. The Science Guy explained that Earth’s climate should be identical to what it was in 1750, and provided real-world examples of how it’s changed, like vineyards in Britain which couldn’t exist if not for an abnormally warm climate.    

Carlson accused Nye of dodging the question and called him a closed-minded bully.

We do, in fact, know how much humans have contributed to climate change. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report isolates warming caused by humans while controlling for external natural factors. The results — humans are responsible for more than 100% of the global surface warming since 1950.

Stage Three: There’s no clear way to address climate change

Measures to combat climate change are too expensive

There is a third group of skeptics who accept that the Earth is warming and that humans are causing it, but continue to reject any proposals to address the crisis.

Many contend environmental regulations hurt the economy and that renewable energy is too expensive. Some have gone so far as to claim global warming is a conspiracy against taxpayers.

In reality, renewable energy is becoming more cost-effective and will soon be cheaper than natural gas — it actually makes economic sense for governments around the world to invest in clean energy solutions.

82% of adults in the US support funding for renewable energy sources.

Climate change isn’t a serious threat

According to the Pew Research Center, only 45% of Americans believe climate change is a very serious problem, and only 41% think climate change is harming people right now. 70% believed climate change would never harm them directly.  

Indeed, many people say climate change isn’t a national security threat.

In addition to the health problems caused by fossil fuel extraction and consumption (see: Stage Two), NASA reports a 2℃ increase in temperature would have catastrophic consequences for all life on Earth — more severe storms, less fresh water, crop failures — to go with floods, droughts, and melting polar ice caps.

Approximately 40% of the world’s population live in coastal areas, which means rising sea levels will likely cause mass migrations and exacerbate an already catastrophic global refugee crisis.  

 Plants and animals cannot simply adapt to warming temperatures. Local extinctions are already underway.   

Just obtaining natural gas is destructive: fracking is causing earthquakes in states like Oklahoma and Texas.

There are other priorities

This perspective goes hand in hand with the economic argument — the most popular way to phrase this opinion is, “scientists shouldn’t dictate policy” — but it addresses other global issues as well.

Americans rank the militant group ISIS, Iran’s nuclear program, and North Korea’s nuclear program as greater threats than climate change. Protection from terrorism (83%) and protection from outsourcing jobs (81%) top most Americans’ lists of foreign policy priorities.

The implication is that climate change isn’t a problem for right now.

But climate change is a threat to all of humanity and investing in sustainable energy has ripple effects throughout societies —  it pays for itself in the long term, it creates jobs, it’s better for women, and better for public health.

Solutions to climate change are as real as the threat.

The aptly named Solutions Project concluded that right now, we have the capability to achieve 100% renewable energy.

Between solar, wind, and geothermal energy, a healthier, more efficient, and sustainable world is within reach. We just have to reach out and grab it (and then hold on).

Step one is recognizing that there’s a problem. 


Defend the Planet

We’re Setting the Record Straight on 9 Climate Change Myths

By James O'Hare