Characteristics of climate denial
Climate denial has five main characteristics: the use of fake experts, faulty logic, impossible expectations, cherry picking and conspiracy theories.
Fake experts are pseudo-scientists, like Lord Monckton, who are used by climate deniers to give the impression that there is no scientific consensus about climate change. These people appear to be highly qualified, but actually have no qualifications in the field. There are also a few legitimate experts, like Fred Singer (1924-2020), who do not accept the climate consensus. These people are also trotted out to give the public the impression there is no consensus.
These are logically false arguments that lead to an invalid conclusion. An example would be the idea that CO2 is a colourless, odourless gas, which constitutes only the tiniest proportion of the atmosphere, so how can it possibly cause global warming? Logical fallacies include misrepresenting the science, making faulty links (i.e. jumping to conclusions that don’t actually follow) and presenting false dichotomies (presenting only two choices when other options are available).
This involves demanding unrealistic standards of proof before acting on the science. The tobacco industry pioneered this. Every time new evidence came out, the industry would demand a new, higher standard of proof. Climate deniers require higher levels of proof for claims that conflict with their beliefs than for ones that conform to those beliefs. In other words, they create impossible expectations.
Cherry picking involves using only evidence that fits the desired conclusion, and excluding evidence that does not. This is a very common method used by climate deniers. A good example would be the claim that because Louisville Kentucky has not experienced any increase in temperature over the past century, there cannot be any global warming. As we shall see later, the first part of this statement is correct, but the second part is absolutely false.
Conspiracy theories are often the last vestige of climate deniers, when no other explanation is available. The main such theory regarding climate change is that all the world’s experts, scientific institutions and journalists are conspiring to fake or exaggerate the evidence about the Earth’s temperature.
Categories of climate denial
The arguments put by climate deniers are various, fallacious and often contradictory. They can be put into five broad categories:
- Climate change is not real.
- Climate change may be real, but it is not the result of human activity (i.e. is not caused by greenhouse gas emissions).
- Climate change is real but not a problem, so there is no need to fix it.
- Climate change may be real, but it is too expensive or technically difficult to fix. We would be better off just adapting to it.
- Climate change is real, but is too far advanced to fix. (In other words, we are all doomed, so we might as well enjoy ourselves while we can).
We shall examine each of these categories in detail, looking at 80 different climate myths, and how to respond to them.
Category 1: Climate change is not real
This first type of myth relates to the very existence of climate change. Those who push this view are hardcore climate deniers – so hardcore that they refuse to even accept the temperature data. Many also refuse to accept that sea levels are rising, or that Antarctica, the Arctic and a majority of the world’s glaciers are experiencing a loss of ice.
Myth 1: Temperature measurements are inaccurate, because we don’t have good enough technology to measure the Earth’s surface, the oceans, the stratosphere and the troposphere.
Fact: Temperature measurements are not perfect, but provide a very good picture of temperature trends. These all show warming. Interestingly, climate deniers were happy to use temperature measurements when they thought they showed a fall in temperatures or a temperature pause (as was the case between 1998 and 2005). Since 2005, however, they have shown increasing hostility to the very notion of being able to accurately measure global temperature.
It’s the same with climate models. Deniers use them when they confirm their own views, but reject them when they don’t.
Myth 2: The Earth was heating up until the late 1990s, but this has now stopped. Temperatures actually fell in the 1950s and ‘60s. So global warming isn’t an issue.
- The slight fall in global temperatures that occurred in the 1950s and 60s was due to increased particulate matter (sulfate aerosols) in the atmosphere, due to unregulated industrialisation. This particulate matter reflected some of the sun’s rays, causing a small amount of cooling. When, for health reasons, nations introduced laws in the 1970s mandating a reduction in industrial pollution, the quantity of particulate matter decreased significantly, and global warming resumed as predicted. [It should be noted that increased particulate matter resulting from greater volcanic activity after 1257 AD is believed to have been the main factor triggering the so-called ‘Little Ice Age’ (1450-1850 AD), which caused a noticeable drop in temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere. The drop in global temperatures, however, was nowhere near as significant – somewhere between 0.2°C and 0.6°C from the peak of the Medieval Warm Period (900-1150 AD).]
- It is true that global temperatures reached a peak in 1998 – a record that was not broken until 2005. This temperature pause seemed to call into question the predictions of climate scientists, and prompted some commentators (like Australia’s Andrew Bolt) to claim that the Earth was actually cooling. Three factors explain the pause. Firstly, and most importantly, much of the Earth’s increased heat was going into the oceans (partly due to the La Nina effect), rather than the atmosphere. Secondly, industrial pollution from Asia increased the level of albedo (reflection of the sun’s rays), just as European and North American pollution did in the 1950s and ‘60s. And thirdly, and solar activity briefly declined during these years.
- Surface temperatures have continued to rise since 2005, albeit not as fast as in the decades prior to 1998. The temperature record was next broken in 2010. Every year since 2013 has been hotter than 2010. Global temperatures rose by an average of 0.07°C each decade after 1880. The most recent decade (2010-19), however, saw a increase of 0.39°C – five and a half times the historical average. The warming trend is clear, and very worrying.
Myth 3: Climate science was invented by leftists as a way of destroying capitalism.
Fact: This conspiracy theory is so ludicrous as to barely warrant refutation. In fact, climate science has been around for almost 200 years.
- The French physicist Joseph Fourier, who developed the Law of Heat Conduction, first postulated the idea of a greenhouse effect in 1824, as a way of explaining why the Earth was not a ball of ice. Something in the atmosphere was trapping infrared radiation, but he did not know what.
- Another French physicist, Claude Pouillet, demonstrated that some infrared radiation was not returning to space. In 1838 he speculated that this might be because it was being trapped by CO2 and water vapour.
- Then, in 1861, the Irish physicist John Tyndale demonstrated that CO2 and methane were the gases responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere.
- In 1896, the Swedish physical chemist Svante Arrhenius calculated that a doubling of CO2 would result in about a 4°C increase in global surface temperatures – a figure that is very close to modern day predictions. [Arrhenius won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1903.]
- Finally, in the 1930s the English meteorologist Guy Stuart Callendar gathered global CO2 and temperature measurements from around the world over a 50 year period and demonstrated that both were rising, and that the likely cause of the latter was the increase in the former. His experiments suggested that at least half of the temperature rise to that point was attributable to human activity. This was the first time anyone had suggested that humans were causing global warming. Callendar calculated that a further temperature increase of 2°C might act as a ‘tipping point’ for increases that would be irreversible. [It was another 40 years before scientists had the instruments needed to prove Callendar right.]
Hence, climate science is not a recent development. It has been a part of modern science for as long as Darwin’s theory of evolution and longer than Einstein’s theory of relativity.
Myth 4: Governments and research institutions are conspiring to fake temperature measurements.
Fact: This claim is also completely ludicrous, as it implies that the US government has been a part of this conspiracy, even when President Trump was declaring global warming to be a hoax. If it really is easy for a government to cover up the truth, you would expect the US government to have planted weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, to justify the 2003 invasion. Instead, it sent 1,500 weapons inspectors to scour the country for WMD, then admitted that no such weapons existed. Conspiracy theories are almost never true, particularly in countries where the government is held accountable by voters and the media. [In authoritarian regimes it is a different matter, as the government controls all the levers of power. Even so, the truth has a way of getting out over time.]
Myth 5: Scientists came up with the term ‘climate change’ to cover for the fact that the world stopped warming in 1998.
Fact: Climate deniers have this completely the wrong way around. The term ‘climate change’ is actually much older than ‘global warming’ in the scientific literature. It dates back to the 1850s, and refers to “changes in a particular climate variable over a given area.” ‘Global warming’, by contrast, refers to changes in the Earth’s overall temperature. It is just one of various types of climate change. The term was first used in the 1960s, but was popularised by Professor Wallace Broecker in a 1975 article in the journal Science.
Myth 6: If global warming is real, why are there still record cold days? Surely there would be no record cold days in a warming climate.
Fact: Global warming doesn’t mean there are no very cold days, just fewer of them. Weather reports in the US and Australia over the last 60 years show that the number of hot and cold records were about equal during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Then the number of heat records started to increase and the number of cold records started to fall. There are now almost twice as many hot records as cold ones. As an example, in August 2020 Baghdad hit a new temperature record of 51.78°C. Similarly, in June of that same year, a monitoring station in Verkhoyansk in Siberia registered a record high of 38°C. Such temperature records are being set all over the world at the moment. This is certain evidence that global warming is real.
Myth 7: If global warming is real, why are some glaciers increasing in size?
Fact: A few glaciers are advancing, but the vast majority of the world’s 200,000 glaciers are shrinking. The reason a few are expanding is that in a few places, warmer winter air can lead to more snowfall (as warmer air holds more moisture), thereby increasing the mass balance of glaciers. [The mass balance is the difference between the total gains and losses of ice over a year.] In most glaciers, the extra snowfall does not add to the glacier’s mass, as it melts quickly. Only in a few places does it get incorporated into the glacier. If global warming continues, however, this process will cease completely, and all glaciers will shrink. Non-polar glaciers are currently losing about 150 billion tonnes of ice each year. [This is more than the entire weight of Mount Everest.] To put that in perspective, it takes approximately 360 billion tonnes of ice to produce one millimetre of global sea-level rise. Frighteningly, in 2019 the Greenland ice sheet lost about 500 billion tonnes of ice. Loss of Greenland’s ice is the major cause of global sea level rise at present. If the entire ice sheet were to melt, sea levels would rise by 7.3 metres. Of course, it would take thousands of years for this to happen.]
Myth 8: If climate change is real, why has Antarctic sea ice been increasing over the last few decades, rather than declining?
- It is true that Antarctic sea has been increasing over the past few decades, but land ice has been decreasing – and at a faster rate than sea ice has been increasing. One reason for the increase in sea ice is that the winds that blow off the continent of Antarctica have been increasing, carrying more cold air out to sea, where ice forms. Another reason is that increasing meltwater from the Antarctic ice sheets has led to an increase in ice formation, as fresh water freezes at a higher temperature (0°C) than salt water (-2°C). Finally, higher temperatures have increased snowfall over both the continent and the surrounding oceans, thereby increasing sea ice cover. [This is because warmer air holds more moisture.]
- Hence, the increase in sea ice is evidence that global warming is occurring, not that it is not happening. Were the climate stable, there would be no overall change.
Myth 9: How can a colourless, odourless gas like CO2 that only makes up 0.04 percent of the atmosphere (or 419 parts per million, as of 2021) have an effect on the climate?
Fact: This argument sounds plausible, however is it completely fallacious, as the quantity of a substance is not the only factor determining its impact. For example, Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and Hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) make up just 1,190 parts per trillion of the atmosphere (or just over one part per billion), yet threatened to destroy the ozone layer (with extremely deleterious repercussions for life on Earth). Similarly, just 35 parts per billion of arsenic in drinking water is hazardous to health, and 800 parts per million of alcohol in the bloodstream is enough to render a person intoxicated. Finally, the painkiller ibuprofen works at just 3 parts per million. So of course CO2 can have an impact at just 419 parts per million.
Myth 10: How can there be global warming when some places, like Louisville Kentucky, have had no temperature increase at all?
Fact: Some places haven’t experienced a rise in temperature, but others have had very large increases. The temperature in Sao Paulo, for example, has risen by about 2°C since the beginning of the 20th century – double the global average. Cherry picking data from individual locations doesn’t give us the big picture. We have to look at the global average.
Myth 11: If climate change is real, why aren’t sea levels rising by much, and why aren’t those rises happening evenly across the globe?
- Sea levels are not even across the globe. Factors like winds, currents, river discharges, and variations in temperature and gravity make sea levels different in different parts of the world. It’s the same with sea level rises. For example, Sydney harbour has only risen by about 10 cm in the last century – about half the global average of 20 cm between 1901 and 2018 – but in other places, like Micronesia, the sea level has risen by more the global average.
- Worryingly, sea levels are rising at an increasing rate. For the first seven decades of the 20th century, they rose at an average of 1.3 millimetres per year. However, between 2006 and 2018, they rose at 3.7 millimetres per year – an increase of 185 percent.
- In fact, we are only in the early stages of sea level rise. Around 400,000 years ago, when global temperatures were about 2°C warmer than they are now, sea levels were 6-9 metres higher. At current rates of warming, we are headed for a rise of up to one metre by the end of the century. Some scientists believe the eventual rise will be as much as 3 metres. [It should be noted that tides are not uniform across the globe either. In some places, at certain times, there is barely any difference between high tide and low tide. In other places (such as the Bay of Fundy in Canada), the difference is as much as 16 metres!]
Myth 12: In 2010 there was a small fall in global sea levels. How could this have happened if global warming were real?
Fact: The reason sea levels fell in 2010 was that there was very heavy rain over Australia and South America, which transferred a significant amount of water from the oceans to these two land masses. It took two years for that water to fully drain back into the sea, and once that had happened, sea levels rose again.
Myth 13: How can global warming be real when the eastern United States had a record cold snap in 2012-13?
Fact: Temperature increases in the Arctic are causing movements in the jet stream – the band of strong winds near the top of the troposphere, about 10 km above the Earth’s surface. The jet stream acts like a barrier to the southward movement of frigid arctic air. In 2012, the jet stream moved south in a wave-like formation (known as the Wavy Jet Stream), taking cold Arctic weather with it. This is what caused the cold snap in the eastern US. At the same time, the western US experienced a terrible drought.
Myth 14: Climate activists claim that 97 percent of climate scientists accept that global warming is real and is caused by fossil fuel emissions. This so-called ‘consensus’ is just an invention of the media, and has no basis in reality.
Fact: A number of major studies generated the figure of 97 percent. Two of the best known were by academics at Princeton University and the University of Illinois. Peer-reviewed articles in respected climate science journals were reviewed to see if the authors supported the notion of anthropomorphic (human-induced) climate change. Those authors were also given the opportunity to reject the conclusions reached by the reviewers. The figure each of these studies came up with was 97 percent. By contrast, no studies have been done suggesting anything different. It should also be pointed out that not all of the 3 percent of scientists who do not accept the consensus are deniers of anthropomorphic climate change. Many simply have not yet reached a conclusion. Others have accepted the consensus since the studies were done.
Myth 15: In 1998, the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine (OISM) released a list of 31,000 people with science degrees who had signed a petition rejecting the theory of human-caused global warming. This proves that the so-called ‘scientific consensus’ is actually no such thing.
Fact: In 2006, Scientific American published a study which found that list contained flaws so glaring as to render it all but meaningless. [See “Skepticism about Skeptics,” Scientific American, 23/8/2006]
- In the first place, no verification was done by OISM to check that the names on the list were real, or that the people really had science degrees. [In fact, pranksters managed to get Charles Darwin, a member of the Spice Girls and characters from the movie Star Wars included on the list.]
- Secondly, the journal contacted people on the list, and found that a majority either no longer supported the petition, couldn’t remember signing it, or were dead.
- Thirdly, while 31,000 sounds like a lot of people, it is actually only about 0.3 percent of the total number of people in the US who gained a science degree over the previous 40 years.
- Finally, and most importantly, only 39 of the 31,000 people on the list were actually working in climate science. The rest were working in fields unrelated to climate, and could therefore be expected to have little real knowledge on the subject.
- It should also be noted that the petition did not just declare climate change to be a myth, but also that “there is substantial scientific evidence that increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide produce many beneficial effects upon the natural plant and animal environments of the Earth.” In other words, it actively encouraged the use of fossil fuels, as does the OISM.
Myth 16: Even if 97 percent of climate scientists do agree that global warming is real, doesn’t the fact that 3 percent don’t agree suggest that there is still some doubt?
Fact: There is almost never 100 percent agreement among scientists. For example, after Copernicus, Darwin and Einstein published their theories, there was a lot of scientific resistance. More recently, there are still researchers who don’t accept the link between smoking and cancer (many of them working for tobacco companies, it should be pointed out). But that does not mean we should abandon efforts to discourage smoking, or tell people that it’s a perfectly safe activity. Think of it in terms of aviation. If 19 engineers declared that a plane was unsafe to fly, and one said it was perfectly okay, how many people would still get on the plane? A few might, but most would defer to the majority opinion of the experts. Another analogy relates to insurance. Statistics show that the chance of a house burning down in a particular year is about 1 in 3,000 – i.e. extremely small. Yet most people still insist on having home insurance, even though such insurance is not cheap. The reason is that they are unwilling to put their major asset at risk, however small that risk might be. Yet some of the very same people will take enormous risks when it comes to the security of their celestial home – planet Earth. It doesn’t make sense.
Myth 17: If global warming really were a major problem, surely governments would be taking it more seriously.
- This myth is based on the idea that governments always act rationally and in the best interests of society. Were that the case, the Second World War would never have happened, as the British and French governments would have recognised Hitler as a threat and put an end to his ambitions before they got out of hand. Instead, they believed what they wanted to believe, which was that the Hitler had only limited objectives and was not a threat to world peace. This was strange, given that he had never made a secret of his intentions. [They were published in Mein Kampf in 1925, fourteen years before the start of the war.]
- Another problem is that politicians often do realise that action is needed, but would rather postpone it until a later time – preferably when they are not in office. A good analogy would be with smokers. Most know that cigarettes are bad for them, and that it would be better if they quit, but they cannot bring themselves to do it just yet. The benefits they gain now by continuing their habit are greater than any danger they may face in the future. Besides, they tell themselves, that danger may never eventuate. After all, doesn’t everyone know someone of advanced age who spent a lifetime smoking?
- Finally, it should be pointed out that in recent years, governments have been taking climate change seriously, and have begun introducing policies to combat it.
Myth 18: Climate scientists are just making money and becoming famous by propagating the myth of global warming.
Fact: This myth is simply ridiculous. If anyone could prove definitively that global warming was not happening or was not a problem, he or she would become the most famous, wealthy and decorated scientist since Einstein. Scientists become famous by overturning paradigms, not by reinforcing them. Besides, if you want to make a lot of money, you don’t go into science as a profession; you go into business.
Myth 19: Climate models used by scientists are at best imperfect, and cannot be used to predict future warming?
Fact: Climate models are imperfect, as is our knowledge of the solar system, of cancer, of economics, and of many other things. No models of the real world are ever perfect, but that shouldn’t stop us from using them. Global climate models are very useful tools. Even in the 1890s, Svante Arrhenius was able to predict that a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere would result in significant global warming, and he was relying on simple observations plus a pen and paper! Climate models have improved dramatically since then, and have proven remarkably accurate in their predictions. [See below.]
Myth 20: So-called ‘experts’ have made ‘doomsday’ predictions in the past, and these have not come to pass. Examples include the likelihood that overpopulation would lead to mass starvation, the notion that the ‘millennium bug’ would disable computers, and the fear that the nuclear arms race would lead to nuclear holocaust. Predictions about climate change will prove no different.
- This is faulty logic. The fact that one threat doesn’t come true doesn’t mean that others won’t. The coronavirus pandemic is an excellent example. Many prominent climate deniers also denied the seriousness of the pandemic when it first emerged. Some of those people still don’t take it seriously.
- Climate models have been amazingly accurate over the years. In the 1890s, Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius estimated that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would result in global surface warming of about 4°C. That is amazingly close to modern day predictions – and Arrhenius had only rudimentary laboratory equipment and a slide rule to do his calculations.
- Modern climate models have predicted global warming since the 1960s, and have been proven remarkably accurate. In 1967, Syukuro Manabe and Richard Wetherald calculated that a doubling of CO2 would cause about 2.4°C of warming. [Manabe shared the 2021 Nobel Prize for Physics for his work in this area.] In 1981, James Hansen projected that between 1981 and 2015 the planet would warm by 0.6°, which is just 0.1° more than actual observations.
- In the 1970s, Manabe and Wetherald also predicted that CO2 emissions would cause the lower atmosphere to warm and the upper atmosphere to cool. Another of their predictions was that the Arctic would warm faster than the rest of the planet, in part because of decreased reflectivity due to melting ice. Both these predictions have been confirmed by scientific observation.
- In 1989, Roland Stouffer, Syukuro Manabe and Kirk Brian predicted that CO2 emissions would cause the land surface to warm faster than the ocean surface – something which has subsequently proved to be true.
- Even in the 1970s, when the climate had not warmed much for two decades, climate scientists were still predicting future warming, due to the physics of CO2. Time would prove them right. The climate pause of the 1950s and ‘60s was found to be due to increased particulate matter in the atmosphere. Once this was reduced by legislative action, global warming resumed.
Myth 21: Didn’t scientists in the 1970s predict that the Earth was going to cool, and that we faced the imminent threat of an ice age? Global cooling did not occur, so how can we take scientific predictions about global warming seriously?
Fact: Scientists did not predict an imminent ice age. What happened was that researchers at NASA calculated what would happen if there were a quadrupling of particulate matter in the atmosphere. They predicted that this would block enough sunlight to reduce global temperatures by 3.5°C and trigger another ice age. Of course, this scenario did not occur, as governments introduced legislation in the 1970s to clean up polluting industries. The reason the public became aware of the story was that Time and Newsweek magazines published articles at the time about the possibility of an imminent ice age. Scientists were not wrong in their predictions, as they never made such predictions. This was just a media ‘beat-up’.
Myth 22: Scientists can’t explain everything about the climate, so we should wait until they can before taking any action.
Fact: Again, this argument is ridiculous. It’s like saying, “Scientists don’t know everything about cancer, so people shouldn’t stop smoking until they do,” or “We don’t know everything about space, so we should stop exploring it until we do.”
Myth 23: Since computers can’t predict the weather two weeks ahead with any certainty, how can they be relied on to predict what the Earth’s climate will be decades from now?
Fact: This myth makes a false analogy between weather and climate, which are two different things. Weather is the state of the atmosphere at a given point of time. It covers temperature, cloud cover, air pressure, wind direction, wind speed, rain and snow. Climate, by contrast, is the average weather over a long period of time. The fact is, we can’t predict the weather more than a week in advance, but we can predict what average temperatures will likely be decades into the future, given the basic laws of physics.
Myth 24: The emails that were hacked in 2009 have completely discredited climate science.
Fact: The hacked emails haven’t discredited anything. Climate deniers have totally misrepresented what the scientists were discussing in those emails. They were talking about the so-called ‘divergence problem’, which is a minor issue in climate science. [It refers to the relationship between temperature and the width of tree rings in Arctic regions. Since 1960, that relationship has changed, and at the time the emails were written scientists did not fully understand the reason.] In one of the hacked emails, Professor Phil Jones (Director of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia) said that he had come up with a ‘trick’ to reconcile an aspect of the divergence problem. Climate deniers used this email as evidence that Professor Jones and his fellow correspondent (Professor Michael Mann) were perpetrating fraud. Nothing could be further from the truth. In science, a ‘trick’ is jargon for a solution, not a falsehood. Professor Jones was proposing a solution to an aspect of the divergence problem. His words were taken completely out of context.
Myth 25: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is exaggerating the dangers posed by climate change.
Fact: This is simply not true. If anything, the IPCC is underestimating the impacts of global warming. For example, its reports have downplayed the importance of Arctic sea ice loss in driving global warming (via reduced albedo), have discounted the impact of meltwater from Greenland’s glaciers in raising sea levels, and have largely ignored the impact of methane released by melting permafrost in the Arctic. By contrast, scientific papers in respected journals actually paint a far bleaker picture of the Earth’s prospects than do the IPCC reports. The main reason for this is that the IPCC is very conservative, and does not wish to present scientific speculation as fact. [The IPCC has, on occasion, overestimated certain impacts of global warming, but such examples are isolated, and are always corrected when new evidence and data come to hand. This is in stark contrast to the pronouncements of climate deniers.]
Myth 26: The IPCC’s own figures show that the Earth has warmed far less than 1.1°C.
Fact: This view has arisen due to the fact that the IPCC’s temperature figures are averages, and contain a significant margin of error. In the case of the IPCC’s 2021 report (Assessment Report 6), the margin of error is estimated to be 0.2°C above or below the stated figure of 1.1°C. While this does indeed mean that the Earth’s temperature could have risen by only 0.9°C since the second half of the 19th century, it also means it could have risen by as much as 1.3°C. In other words, it’s possible the situation is not quite as dire as we fear (albeit still dire!); but it’s also possible that it’s worse. Climate deniers are happy to assume that the official figure is an overestimation, but shirk from the possibility that it is actually an underestimation. The most reliable figure we have is the one officially used by the IPCC – the global average.
Myth 27: The Earth’s atmosphere is becoming ‘carbon-saturated’, meaning that as the level of CO2 increases, it’s impact on global temperature will decrease. (In mathematics, this is known as the ‘logarithmic effect’.) As a result, we can happily go on emitting CO2 without causing significant increases in temperature.
- This view has been propounded by William van Wijngaarden, Professor of Physics and Astronomy at York University. He claims that a doubling of CO2 levels from 400 ppm to 800 ppm will only increase global temperatures by 1°C. [We are currently at 421 ppm, up from 270 ppm prior to the industrial revolution.] To get an additional 1°C warming, CO2 would have to increase to 1,600 ppm, according to Wijngaarden.
- It would be nice to believe that the Earth has a built-in stabiliser to save us from catastrophic climate change. However the science doesn’t bear that out. Although it is true that the warming impact of CO2 decreases as its prevalence in the atmosphere increases, this effect is nowhere near as strong as Wijngaarden claims. The scientific consensus is that other factors will overwhelm the ‘logarithmic effect’ and ensure global warming continues unabated. The most important of these factors is the exponential rate at which CO2 emissions will increase if no serious action is taken by governments. Secondly, the ability of the Earth’s carbon sinks (forests and oceans, primarily) to absorb CO2 is decreasing, meaning that more of our emissions will likely finish up in the atmosphere. And finally, there will be feedback effects that increase global temperature. These include a reduction in snow and ice cover (which will reduce albedo) and the melting of permafrost (which will increase CO2 and methane emissions).
- So no, ‘carbon saturation’ will not save us from ourselves.
It should be noted that prominent climate ‘sceptics’ have now largely stopped claiming that the Earth’s atmosphere is not warming. Those ‘sceptics’ include all the famous names: Patrick Michaels, Robert Balling, John Christy, Steven Koonin, Richard Lindzen, Roy Spencer, William Happer and William van Wijngaarden. Instead of challenging the temperature record, most are now claiming that greenhouse gases are not primarily responsible for the observed warming. Steven Koonin, for example, claims that it is impossible to determine the respective contribution of CO2 emissions and other factors (like solar activity) due to “the deficiencies of climate data”; hence we would be better off adapting to climate change rather than trying to stop it. Roy Spencer is blaming the observed warming on “natural factors” like the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, although he provides no evidence for this assertion. John Christy, by contrast, does attribute most of our current warming to CO2, but does not believe the impact of future temperature rises will be catastrophic. Patrick Michaels agrees, even though he estimates those future rises to be up to 3°C by 2100.
Hence, the nature of climate denial has changed over the past decade. We now need to look at claims that observed temperature increases are unrelated to human activity.
Category 2: Human activity is not responsible for climate change
This second type of myth is espoused by people who accept the reality of climate change, but refuse to acknowledge that humans are responsible for it. As we shall see, this is a hard argument to make, as greenhouse gas emissions are the only viable explanation for our current level of warming.
Myth 28: Temperature changes are natural. They happen in cycles, and this is no different. The Earth has passed though countless ice ages and thaws. More recently we have seen the Medieval Warm Period (900-1150 AD) and the Little Ice Age (1450-1850 AD), both of which occurred without any significant CO2 emissions by humans.
- Large temperature changes are natural over many millennia (ice ages and thaws), as are small changes over many centuries. We know what causes these changes, and those factors do not apply at the moment.
- The current level of warming is absolutely unprecedented – 1°C in a century. During thaws from ice ages it takes between 1,000 and 2,000 years for the atmosphere to warm by this amount.
- The Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age involved significant temperature changes in northern Europe and the Atlantic, but not in other parts of the planet. Scientists estimate that the average global temperature changed by between 0.2°C and 0.6°C from the height of the Medieval Warm Period to the nadir of the Little Ice Age. During the latter period, winters in Europe were colder than today, but summers were not significantly so. There is little evidence of a widespread breakdown of food production.
- It should be noted that the Little Ice Age was not actually an ice age, or anything like it. Many climate deniers are obsessed with it simply because of its name. They seem to think that because it has been dubbed an ‘ice age’, it actually was one.
Myth 29: The Medieval Warm Period (MWP) was warmer than today, as evidenced by the fact that the Vikings were able to cross the north Atlantic and settle in Iceland and Greenland due to the reduced ice cover. This is proof that global temperature changes are natural, and that current warming is nothing to worry about.
- The MWP (900-1150 AD) was not warmer than today, although in northern Europe and the North Atlantic temperatures were similar to today’s, and may have even been warmer. In some parts of the world, however, temperatures actually got colder during the MWP. Scientists estimate that on average, global temperatures were similar to those in the mid 20th century. Interestingly, sea levels then were nowhere near as high as they are today. (They rose by 24 cm over a period of 400 years, but never got to 20th century levels.)
- If we only look at the natural factors that generated the MWP (changes in solar and volcanic activity, changes in oceanic currents, and small changes in the Earth’s orbit), there should have been global cooling over the past 50 years, not warming. Yet we are experiencing the opposite.
- The current warming trend is unprecedented – 1°C in a century. We have not seen such rapid warming in the past two million years, and maybe not for 55 million years. During thaws from ice ages it took between 1,000 and 2,000 years for the atmosphere to warm by 1°C.
- It should also be noted that while the MWP improved living conditions in places like Greenland, it devastated regions like the southwest of the United States, which experienced severe and prolonged droughts. Communities in the latter regions were forced to move, while the Vikings were forced to abandon Greenland when the MWP ended. [Had the Vikings discarded their European farming practices and adopted the Inuit lifestyle, however, they would not have had to leave Greenland.]
- A final point of interest is that Iceland was settled before the Medieval Warm period began – evidence that reduced ice cover was not the reason the Vikings were able to cross the north Atlantic.
Myth 30: How can anyone know what temperatures were like centuries ago, let alone millions of years ago? For all we know, temperatures were much hotter during the Medieval Warm Period (900-1150 AD) than they are now.
Fact: Scientists use ‘proxies’ to calculate past temperatures. These include tree rings, ice cores, coral sediments and sea levels. [The study of past climates is called paleoclimatology.] The data produced by these proxies is not perfectly accurate, but does provide a good picture of the past. That data suggests that the Medieval Warm Period was not warmer than today, although temperatures may have been this warm in parts of the northern hemisphere. [Interestingly, climate deniers are happy to use evidence from proxies when they confirm their views, but not when they contradict them.] For more detail on the Medieval Warm Period, see the previous myth.
Myth 31: Recent temperature rises have been caused by solar activity, not by rises in CO2.
- Solar radiation reaching the Earth (known as insolation) can only result in minor temperature changes. The sun’s energy fluctuates on an 11 year cycle. It only changes by about 0.1 percent each cycle, so its impact is very small.
- Scientists estimate that solar activity has contributed about 0.1°C to temperature increases since 1870. For the last three decades solar activity has actually been decreasing, yet the planet isn’t cooling. If CO2 levels had no impact on global temperatures, as climate deniers claim, then you would expect this not to be the case. What is actually happening is that the impact of CO2 emissions is overwhelming any cooling effect from decreased insolation. Of course, when solar activity starts to increase again, it will exacerbate the impact of greenhouse gas emissions.
- Another important factor is that if solar activity were causing recent temperature increases, the atmosphere would warm uniformly. In fact, the upper atmosphere (above 20 kms) is cooling, while the lower atmosphere is warming. This is not consistent with solar activity. It is consistent with increases in CO2, however. In addition, if solar activity were the cause of recent warming, summers would be warming more than winters, and days more than nights. In actuality, neither of these things is happening.
- Hence, all the evidence suggests that CO2 is the main cause of the warming we are currently experiencing.
Myth 32: Current temperature increases are just part of the same process that ended the Little Ice Age.
Fact: An increase in solar activity did help trigger an end to the Little Ice Age. However, the warming that has occurred since the middle of the 20th century cannot be explained by solar activity. For the past three decades solar activity has been decreasing, yet there has been no concomitant cooling of the atmosphere.
Myth 33: Temperature changes are caused by Milankovitch cycles and other changes in the Earth’s orbit, not by CO2.
Fact: A Milankovitch Cycle is the movement of the Earth’s climate from an ice age to a thaw or vice versa. Such cycles are caused by small changes in the Earth’s orbit, its tilt and the rotation of its axis (all of which are affected by the gravitational pull of the larger planets). Over a period of about 100,000 years, the orbit, tilt and rotation line up in such a way as to significantly change the amount of solar radiation reaching different parts of the planet. This in turn sets off a feedback loop that induces an ice age or a thaw. This process occurs very slowly (over millennia rather than decades). The Earth emerged from the last ice age around 12,000 years ago, and is not due to enter another for about 70,000 years. Milankovitch Cycles are not the cause of our current global warming.
Myth 34: Global warming is the result of volcanic activity, not the burning of fossil fuels.
Fact: Volcanoes have caused global warming in the past, when they erupted en masse and emitted vast quantities of CO2, but this has not happened for many millions of years. The level of CO2 emanating from volcanoes each year now is about 1 percent of that emitted by humans – not enough to have any impact on temperatures. Moreover, present day carbon emissions are low in the isotope Carbon-13, indicating an origin in plants rather than volcanoes. [Plants preferentially select Carbon-12 during photosynthesis.] In fact, volcanic activity in modern times has a cooling effect, not a warming one, as it increases the particulate matter in the atmosphere, thereby increasing albedo (the reflection of the sun’s rays). Major eruptions can reduce the Earth’s temperature by up to half a degree for a period of several years, but these effects are temporary. The last major eruption that had an impact on global temperatures was that of Mount Pinatubo in 1991.
Myth 35: Scientists can’t prove that emissions of CO2 and methane are the cause of global warming. Until they can, we should not take action.
Fact: It’s true that scientists can’t prove the link between greenhouse gas emissions and temperature changes. But that is true for many areas of science. The theories of gravity, relativity and evolution cannot be proven. Nor can the link between smoking and cancer. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t accept these theories as true. We accept them because they provide a convincing, testable explanation of observed phenomena. We believe in the theory of gravity, for example, because there is no other way to explain why objects fall to the ground when dropped. Even so, it is still theoretically possible that they do so because angels are sitting on them, pushing them down. This is what people believed in medieval times. (Not even climate deniers believe that now.) It’s the same with global warming. There is no alternative explanation for the rapid temperature increases we have seen over the past 50 years. This is one reason why climate deniers have been so reluctant to accept the very fact of those temperature increases. Once you do so, you are compelled to find an explanation for them, and only one scientifically viable explanation exists: greenhouse gas emissions.
Myth 36: Studies show that changes in the level of CO2 follow changes in temperature, rather than precede them, so they can’t be the cause of global warming.
Fact: Changes in temperature do trigger changes in the level of carbon dioxide, by causing the oceans to emit more or less CO2, and by melting permafrost to release trapped greenhouse gases. This in turn changes the Earth’s temperature, by increasing or decreasing the absorption of heat in the atmosphere (which in turn changes the level of water vapour – a major greenhouse gas). In other words, global temperature and CO2 levels lead and follow each other, in mutually reinforcing cycles. It is this process, over a period of millennia, that results in ice ages and thaws.
Myth 37: The amount of CO2 released each year by humans is only about 4 percent of all global emissions. The other 96 percent occurs as a result of natural forces. So our impact is very small.
Fact: This statement is logically flawed because over the years the build-up of CO2 in the atmosphere becomes very significant. In fact, it has increased by 50 percent since the 19th century – from 280 parts per million in the 1880s to 421 parts per million today. Nature has actually been resisting that increase, by absorbing up to 60 percent of what we’ve been releasing – mainly into the oceans. This process is keeping atmospheric CO2 levels below where they would otherwise be, but it is increasing ocean acidification significantly. Acidification is having its own detrimental effects on the biosphere, threatening fish species and contributing to coral bleaching.
Myth 38: The main greenhouse gas isn’t CO2, it’s water vapour. It is responsible for about half of all global warming. So why aren’t we concerned about water vapour? It’s because we have no control over it. As such, there is nothing we can do about most of the warming that is taking place.
Fact: Water vapour is an important greenhouse gas, but its level is determined by prevailing weather conditions and sea surface temperature. The main such factors are CO2 and albedo (reflection of the sun’s radiation). Studies show that for every 1°C of warming, there is a 7 percent increase in water vapour. This creates a powerful feedback effect that further heats the atmosphere. In other words, we do have control over water vapour, but indirectly, via our emissions of CO2. The only way to stop water vapour from increasing is to stop emitting CO2 and other greenhouse gases.
Myth 39: How do we know that CO2 in the atmosphere has been emitted by human activity? The vast majority of it could just be natural.
Fact: A molecule of CO2 from burning fossil fuels does not contain the isotope Carbon-14, as this decays over time (indicating that the carbon has been in the ground for millennia). CO2 from fossil fuels contains only Carbon-12 and Carbon-13. It is therefore not difficult to determine what proportion of the CO2 in the atmosphere is a consequence of human activity. [Interestingly, the existence of C-14 allows us to date plant material up to 60,000 years old, since C-14 has a half-life of about 5,700 years. This process is known as ‘radiocarbon dating’. It is regularly used in archaeology.]
Myth 40: If CO2 is the cause of global warming, how do you explain the temperature decrease that occurred in the 1940s and 50s?
Fact: This is explained by the increase in aerosols (particulate matter in the atmosphere from industrial activity). This reflected away some of the sun’s rays, causing some cooling. When we acted to reduce industrial pollution (for health reasons), aerosols decreased and warming resumed.
Myth 41: Temperature increases over the past century are explained by the Urban Heat Island Effect – that is, by urbanisation – in that cities are ‘darker’ and therefore reflect less heat than rural areas.
Fact: There is a little bit of truth to this, but the impact of the Urban Heat Island Effect on global temperatures is miniscule compared to that of CO2 emissions.
Overall, climate deniers don’t have an alternative paradigm to explain what is happening to global temperatures. This is why many are reluctant to admit that warming is a reality. [Even those who deny the theory of evolution have an alternative paradigm (the biblical story of creation), dubious as this paradigm might be.]
Category 3: Global warming is real, but is not a serious problem
This third type of myth is espoused by people who accept the reality of climate change, and who may also accept that humans are causing it, but who deny that it’s a problem. A warmer climate will be good for us, they say, or at the very least will be benign. This is often a fallback position, after they have given up on the first two sets of myths but still don’t want to do take any action.
Myth 42: We are heading into another ice age, so won’t global warming help avert this?
Fact: The next ice age is not due for another 70,000 years, so we do not need to be concerned about it at the moment. [In fact, given the level of warming that is already locked in, some scientists believe the next ice age may not actually be due for another 100,000 years.]
Myth 43: Heat is good for people. It’s cold that’s a killer.
- It’s true that cold kills more people each year than heat stress, but that is not an argument against preventing global warming, as the latter is a threat to the biosphere, not individuals. It will affect people by impacting food supplies and ecosystems.
- In addition, most people who die of cold do so because they are living on the streets or are too poor to pay for heating. You don’t solve this problem by heating up the world. You solve it by raising people’s incomes and living conditions. [Interestingly, many of the same people who claim that cold is a bigger threat than heat are indifferent to the suffering of those who cannot afford proper heating.]
- High temperatures and high humidity are a deadly combination. Medical investigations have revealed that large areas of the tropics will become uninhabitable if these warm, humid areas increase in temperature by just a few degrees.
Myth 44: 3°C of warming is nothing. The difference between summer and winter is far greater than that, so there is nothing to worry about.
Fact: 3°C of warming is very significant at a global level. In fact, the difference between an ice age and the current warm period is only about 5°C. [The oceans were about 3.5°C cooler during the last ice age.] The planet has not seen such high temperatures for 400,000 years, and certainly not when it had 8 billion people to feed.
Myth 45: CO2 is good for plants, so increased levels of CO2 will “green the planet” and increase agricultural production. Plants also need less water in a higher CO2 environment, so decreased rainfall won’t be a problem.
- Plants do grow better with more CO2, and this does mean some need less water. The problem is that plants do not do well in higher temperatures, and you can’t have more CO2 without more warming. Wheat is particularly susceptible to heat. [Climate deniers often counter this by claiming that the rise in CO2 is not being accompanied by increased warming, since the two are not linked. However, this line of argument cannot be used to explain why higher temperatures would be good for the planet.]
- Recent scientific research has shown that as CO2 levels increase, the nutritional content of crops decreases, due to a reduction in vital trace elements like zinc and iron. The incidence of crop diseases like wheat leaf rust and corn rust is also greater, as is the prevalence of weeds. In addition, some pests (like the Colorado potato beetle and the European grapevine moth) also thrive in higher temperatures.
- Finally, a warmer world will not be a world with more ground water, so crop yields will not increase. [The reason why ground water will decrease is outlined in the next myth.]
Myth 46: Warmer temperatures will lead to more evaporation and therefore more rain, so global warming will not lead to a drier world.
Fact: This is faulty logic. Given that there is a finite amount of water on the planet, if more of it stays in the atmosphere at any one time (due to higher temperatures and higher rates of evaporation), then there will be less of it on the ground. A warmer world will be a drier one.
Myth 47: As the planet heats up, there will be an increase in water vapour. This, in turn, will cause more clouds to form, and these will reflect away more of the sun’s rays, thereby reducing some of the heating effect of CO2 emissions. In other words, clouds will act as automatic stabilisers, saving us from the worst impacts of global warming. There is therefore nothing to worry about.
- This argument was put forward by Richard Lindzen and Roy Spencer in 2011. The science of cloud formation is complex and not well understood. Low level clouds (like cumulus) do increase albedo (reflection), and therefore have a cooling effect on the planet. High level clouds (like cirrus) absorb heat (given that they are composed of water vapour), and warm the planet. The overall impact depends on which type of clouds will form. The current view is that the overall effect will be slightly on the warming side. But even if that were not true, and only low level clouds were formed, this would have a marginal impact on the climate.
- The flaw in Lindzen’s and Spencer’s argument should be obvious even to a layperson. If clouds really did negate the effects of temperature changes, how could we have had temperature changes in the past? In other words, how could the Little Ice Age or the Medieval Warm Period have occurred – let alone actual ice ages and thaws? Surely changes in cloud cover would have prevented these changes from happening. No, clouds are not our saviours.
- Finally, it should be noted that Lindzen and Spencer are not devotees of all forms of science. Spencer rejects the theory of evolution, while Lindzen rejects the notion that second-hand cigarette smoke is dangerous to health. Hence, climate is not the only field of study in which they are outside the scientific consensus.
Myth 48: We’ve had higher levels of CO2 in the past, yet they haven’t destroyed life on Earth, so why worry now?
- It’s true that CO2 levels were much higher hundreds of millions of years ago, but the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth back then was also significantly less. This is because stars like our sun get hotter as they age, and emit more radiation. Another reason is because at that time the continents were joined together near the equator, and were reflecting more solar energy back into space. These two factors cancelled out much of the impact of higher levels of CO2. If CO2 were to return to the level of the distant past, the result would be catastrophic, as so much more solar energy is reaching the planet now.
- It should also be noted that the last time CO2 levels were as high as they are now (421 parts per million) was during the Pliocene period, around about 3 million years ago. At that time, sea levels were about 10 metres higher than now. Humans had not yet evolved, and we certainly didn’t need to feed 8 billion people.
Myth 49: Species can adapt to climate change. They survived the various ice ages we’ve had in the past, so they’ll survive the current warming.
- Yes, species can and do adapt, but not quickly. When the ice ages hit and receded, species had thousands of years to adapt and/or move. This time they will only have decades or, at best, a few centuries. For many, that will not be enough time.
- There have been five mass extinctions in the past, with each resulting in the loss of over 75 percent of all species. Scientists believe that four of these events were triggered by climate change, mostly resulting from volcanic activity, which first froze the planet (due to increased albedo from additional particulate matter) then heated it (due to increased CO2). [The other mass extinction, 65 million years ago, was triggered by an asteroid striking the Earth. It resulted in the passing of the dinosaurs.] Some scientists believe we are headed for a sixth mass extinction, as a consequence of global warming. They suggest that we could lose up to 40 percent of all species by the end of the century. If such an extinction occurs, it will take millions of years for the planet to recover.
Myth 50: Polar bear numbers have increased from 5,000 to 30,000 over the last 50 years, so they are not under threat from global warming.
Fact: Polar bear numbers have indeed increased, but only because hunting was banned in the 1960s and 70s. However, about 70 percent of Arctic sea ice has disappeared over the past 35 years, threatening the bears’ habitat. In some regions the bears are still doing well, but in others they are under threat. If global warming continues, they will largely be extinct in the wild by 2100.
Myth 51: There are fewer hurricanes now than decades ago, so they are not a threat.
Fact: There is some truth to this statement, as hotter temperatures are increasing wind shear, which can break up hurricanes before they reach land. However, hotter temperatures are also increasing evaporation, which puts more latent heat (i.e. energy) into the upper atmosphere. This has made hurricanes more powerful and destructive. So there are fewer hurricanes now, but they are more damaging. Overall, this is a bad outcome.
Myth 52: We’ve had bushfires in Australia in the past that were so bad they make our recent fires look like a backyard burn. The 1974-75 fires burnt 117,000,000 hectares, which is six times as much as the fires of 2019-20.
Fact: The fires of 1974-75 were mostly of grassland in the Northern Territory and Queensland. We didn’t even know they had occurred till after the fact. The 2019-20 fires were in forested areas, and were four times more damaging than the previous worst such conflagration.
Myth 53: If sea levels 3 million years ago were 10 metres higher than they are now, when CO2 levels were roughly the same as now, why aren’t they 10 metres higher now? This is proof that sea levels are unrelated to CO2.
Fact: Sea levels have a long lag time, following temperature increases. It may take hundreds of years before they reach their peak, but the evidence suggests that this is the direction they are headed. At current rates of temperature increase, scientists expect a rise of up to one metre by the end of the century, with more coming after that.
Myth 54: Can’t we use carbon dioxide ‘fans’ to suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and sequester it safely underground?
Fact: Certainly, this can be done but it is prohibitively expensive. Given the technology available to us today, it costs about US$100 a tonne to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere. This means that in order to remove all the CO2 emitted by humans in a year, we would need to spend US$5.5 trillion, or more than Japan’s entire GDP. It would be much cheaper to simply stop the emissions in the first place.
Myth 55: Can’t we counter the warming impact of greenhouse gas emissions by firing particulate matter into the stratosphere, to reflect some of the sun’s rays back into space?
- This idea, known as ‘solar geoengineering’, seeks to emulate the impact of large volcanic eruptions like that of Mount Pinatubo in 1991, which cooled the atmosphere by 0.6°C for about 15 months. The scheme has the advantage of being cheap and feasible, but the disadvantage of being potentially very dangerous.
- Unfortunately, putting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere will not precisely offset our CO2 emissions, as the two processes impact the Earth in different ways. The former blocks the entry of heat, while the latter blocks its escape. This means that while the Earth’s temperature would indeed cool if we bombarded the stratosphere with aerosols, that cooling would not be spread evenly across the globe. It is entirely possible that the polar regions would become hotter rather than cooler, and that the polar ice caps would melt at a faster rate rather than a slower one. This, in turn, would reduce the level of albedo on the planet, increasing solar radiation rather than reducing it. The simple fact is, we don’t know what the overall effect would be if we started experimenting with the planet this way.
- Another problem is that eventually, all of the particulate matter sent into the stratosphere would return to Earth, creating acid rain. This problem was deemed so severe in the 1970s that laws were passed to stop industries from polluting this way. Acid rain is dangerous to lakes, rivers and people’s health. It is also damaging to the ozone layer.
- Then there is the problem of politics. Who decides how much particulate matter is put into the stratosphere, and what happens if a rogue state decides to ‘go it alone’? It is difficult to get agreement among nations on any issue, let alone one as important and difficult as this.
- Finally, there is the question of what to do if we make a mistake. If, for example, we were to put too much particulate matter into the stratosphere, there is simply no way to get it down until it comes down of its own accord – and we don’t know how long that would be. In the meantime, the impact on the climate could be catastrophic.
Myth 56: Can’t we put gigantic reflectors into space, to stop some of the sun’s rays reaching us?
Fact: This idea is another example of ‘solar geoengineering’. It has the advantage of being less dangerous than putting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere. However, it would be prohibitively expensive, as it can cost up to US$400 million to put a large satellite into space. No one knows how many of these reflectors we would need to cool the atmosphere. Whatever the cost, it would be much cheaper to simply stop emitting greenhouse gases.
Myth 57: Can’t we seed the oceans with iron dust to generate phytoplankton blooms, which would absorb the CO2 we are currently emitting?
Fact: This idea, known as ‘ocean iron fertilisation’, works in principle, in that phytoplankton do require iron in order to grow, and seeding the oceans does produce phytoplankton blooms. Unfortunately, studies have shown that most of the CO2 absorbed by the blooms is released back into the atmosphere when the phytoplankton die, rather than sinking to the bottom of the ocean as proponents of the idea had hoped. This means ‘ocean iron fertilisation’ is not a viable solution to the problem of global warming. Not surprisingly, its advocates have gone quiet of late. ___________________________________________________________________________
Myth 58: What about reforestation? Can’t we just plant enough trees to absorb all our CO2 emissions?
Fact: Sadly, the answer to that is ‘no. Even if we planted trees on every available hectare of land on the planet, those trees would only be able to absorb about half the CO2 emissions from a single year of human activity. In reality, of course, there are economic and political reasons why we would not be able to plant anywhere near that number of trees. Hence, reforestation on its own is not the solution to global warming. It is an important part of the solution, but not a replacement for the cuts we need in greenhouse gases.
Myth 59: Some places like Greenland and northern Canada will benefit from global warming, while others will lose. In the end, the benefits will cancel out the losses.
- It is not true that the benefits will cancel out the losses. But even if it were true, climate change would still cause inestimable damage, as the regions benefiting from this change would not compensate those losing. So, for example, if life were to improve in Greenland, the country would be inundated with refugees seeking to escape their own damaged homelands. Powerful nations suffering from global warming would almost certainly step in, ensuring that their people gained the benefits, not the people of Greenland. Thus, the latter would be robbed of their culture and independence.
- You need to look no further than the war in Syria to see the political consequences of climate change. In the years before the Arab Spring in 2011, 60 percent of the nation’s farms were ruined by a prolonged drought. A million and a half people were forced off the land, and ended up as refugees in Syria’s cities (adding to a similar number of refugees who were already there as a result of the conflagration in Iraq). The Syrian government did nothing to help these people, and when the Arab Spring broke out, many joined the protests sweeping the country. The result was the most brutal war of this century, with 500,000 dead, millions of refugees and much of the nation’s infrastructure in ruins.
Category 4: Stopping climate change is not affordable
A fourth type of myth is espoused by people who may or may not accept the reality of climate change, but believe that fixing the problem would be prohibitively expensive.
Myth 60: China is mostly responsible for global warming, and is doing nothing about it. If we take action, we’ll only bankrupt ourselves and still not solve the problem.
- While it is true that China is currently the world’s largest emitter of CO2, and is emitting 27 percent of the world’s total, its cumulative total is only half that of the USA and the EU. And when population is taken into account, the average Chinese citizen is responsible for only half of the annual emissions of the average American, and only one ninth of the cumulative emissions. For India, the respective figures are one tenth and one thirty-fifth. So it is quite disingenuous to single out China as the main culprit when it comes to global warming.
- Secondly, it is not true that China is doing nothing about climate change. In September 2020, President Xi Jinping announced that the country would become a net-zero carbon emitter before 2060. To that end, China is responsible for about a third of all global investment in renewable energy – more than either the US or Europe. In 2018, renewables accounted for 22 percent of China’s electricity production – a proportion that is rapidly rising. In fact, 52 percent of all new spending on energy infrastructure in China is on renewables. In 2021, one out of every three solar panels and wind turbines in the world were in that country, as were almost half of the world’s electric passenger vehicles, 98 percent of its electric buses and 99 percent of its electric two-wheelers. By 2022, electric cars represented 13 percent of sales in that country (up from 4.8 percent in 2019, and compared with just 1.5 percent in Australia). By 2035, they are expected to reach 80 percent. To facilitate this, the Chinese government offers significant cash incentives for purchase of electric vehicles and has put charging facilities (1 million of them) in accessible locations. By 2025 it is expected that the nation’s entire bus fleet will be electric. Finally, in June 2021 China introduced an emissions trading scheme (ETS) to punish companies emitting CO2, and encourage a shift to renewables. This priced emissions at US$6.30 a tonne, and will rise to US$10 by 2025. [By contrast, California’s ETS prices emissions at US$17 a tonne, while the EU’s scheme does so at US$36 a tonne (up from US$5.50 in 2017). Julia Gillard’s carbon tax, which Tony Abbott said would destroy the Australian economy, was $24 a tonne.] The Chinese will need to ramp up this ETS considerably if they hope to reach zero net emissions by the middle of the century, but at least they’ve made a start.
- Despite all of these initiatives, it is true that China is still building coal fired power stations. However, it is also dismantling older, more polluting ones, and the importance of coal in the electricity grid is declining. The fact is, renewables are already cheaper than coal in most parts of China, and will soon be significantly cheaper. The Chinese government plans to take advantage of this. It intends that China lead the world in renewable energy technology.
- China is also very vulnerable to the impact of climate change, and has selfish reasons to participate in global action. Its coastal cities face inundation, even with relatively modest rises in sea levels. Similarly, its river systems are fed by glaciers that are threatened by warmer temperatures. Their loss would devastate the nation’s agriculture. The Chinese government is well aware of these problems.
- China also has important strategic reasons to decarbonise, as it cannot aspire to superpower status while being dependent on fossil fuel imports, and it lacks sufficient domestic supplies to pursue a policy of fossil fuel autarchy. Were a war to come, the country would be vulnerable to a cut-off of oil, coal and gas supplies, and it lacks the military might and political will to defend far-off sea lanes. Decarbonisation is the only way it can achieve energy self-sufficiency.
- As far as Australia is concerned, we too need to make the shift to renewables or suffer the consequences of rising fossil fuel prices. The Albanese government knows this, and has commenced the transition process. As stated earlier, Tony Abbott insisted that the introduction of the Carbon Tax would destroy the economy, but in practice it had no impact whatever on GDP. He also said that its removal would reduce electricity prices, but this also failed to occur.
- Finally, at a moral level, the argument put by climate deniers is similar to that espoused by slave traders in the 18th century: if England were to withdraw from the slave trade, they declared, other countries would simply fill the vacuum; no fewer slaves would be traded, and England would deny itself an important source of income. William Wilberforce, by contrast, argued that Britain had a moral obligation to act, irrespective of the cost. As it turned out, Britain’s decision to ban the slave trade shamed other nations into taking similar action. Within a dozen years of that decision, trade in human cargo was at an end. Slavery itself was abolished over subsequent decades.
- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson put the moral argument about climate change very succinctly in 2020, when he said that it was incumbent on the countries that had put most of the CO2 into the atmosphere to act first to take it out. Under Johnson, Britain is committed to zero net carbon emissions by 2050.
Myth 61: It will cost too much to eliminate carbon emissions.
- This is simply not true. Ross Garnaut, one of Australia’s leading economists, estimates that a move to zero emissions would cost the country between 0.67 and 1 percentage point of GDP growth per year, if we put a price on carbon. That’s not 1 percent of GDP, but of GDP growth. In the long run, the move will actually save us money, as it will spawn a raft of new industries, with new sets of skills and export potential. More importantly, it will generate jobs that have a long-term future, because they will not be threatened by declining resources, changing international demand or government action to reduce pollution.
- And even if the move to renewables did cost a lot, it would be far less than what we spent on dealing with the coronavirus. During WWII, Britain devoted 52 percent of its GDP to the military without destroying the economy. The US was devoting 37 percent of its GDP in 1945, and Australia 40 percent in that same year. Germany devoted a massive 70 percent to the military in the later stages of the war. It was not this spending that destroyed the German economy; it was bombing by the Allies.
- Finally, there is an important comparison to be made with the cost of home insurance. Although home insurance is not cheap, the vast majority of people still choose to take it out, even though the chance of their home burning down is about one in 3,000 – i.e. 0.03 percent per year. The chance of dangerous climate change occurring is much greater than this, and the cost of dealing with it is significantly less. In fact, offsetting your lifestyle against climate emissions costs about 10 percent as much as insuring your home. And it should be remembered that as the impacts of climate change increasingly manifest themselves, it will become prohibitively expensive to insure against them – especially in regions prone to fires, floods and storms.
Myth 62: Renewables are more expensive than fossil fuels, and can’t provide baseload power.
- Again, this is simply untrue. In most parts of the world, solar and wind are cheaper than coal, and only a third the cost of nuclear power. Batteries and stored hydro can provide most of the backup we need to keep the lights on ‘when the wind don’t blow and the sun don’t shine’, as climate deniers love to say. In fact, Britain’s National [Electricity] Grid has set itself the target of being able to operate completely fossil fuel free by 2025. [Climate deniers sometimes suggest that Britain will only be able to achieve this because of an excessive reliance on nuclear energy. This is not true either. Britain currently gets only 16.8 percent of its electricity from this source, and has no plans to increase such capacity.] Scotland is even more advanced. It currently gets 97 percent of its electricity from renewables (mostly from wind). The other 3 percent comes from gas.
- In order for Australia’s electricity grid to become fossil fuel free, an extra $180 billion will need to be invested in wind and solar generation, plus about $20 billion in pumped hydro-electrical storage. This represents about $800 a year per person, over a ten-year period – or about $2.20 a day. Such an amount will hardly bankrupt the country.
Myth 63: The elimination of coal will cost jobs and income.
- This is true, but so did the elimination of the car industry in Australia, along with the footwear, clothing and textile industries, the steel industry, and many others. That didn’t stop the government from supporting or initiating these changes. Nor did it affect the Australian economy in the long-run. In fact, these changes have benefitted us economically. There can be no economic development without some dislocation. The key is to provide alternative employment for those affected by the transition.
- In addition, we have no control over the future of our coal industry, as 77 percent of our coal is exported. Britain reduced its reliance on coal for electricity generation from 75 percent in 1970 to just 2 percent today. Very soon, coal will disappear completely from its grid.
Myth 64: If the world shifts to renewables, we will sentence developing countries to perpetual (or a longer period of) poverty.
- This argument is completely disingenuous, as many climate deniers are unconcerned about poverty in their own countries, let alone in developing ones. In fact, many developing nations have discovered that renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuels, and are adopting them at a faster rate than we are. The cost of renewables is actually much less for developing countries, as they don’t need to scrap existing fossil fuel plants. They can go straight to renewables as they develop.
- Even so, it will be necessary to provide some funding to the poorest nations, to kickstart the transition. This was agreed to in Paris in 2015.
Myth 65: You’ll never replace fossil fuels in many of our key industries, like steel, cement, aluminium and aviation.
Fact: Replacement technologies will soon be available in all these areas. Low emission steel is already viable, and zero-emission steel is being developed. It’s the same with cement and aluminium. In addition, the Germans are developing zero emission aviation fuel, although it will be more expensive and won’t be available until at least 2025. [Interestingly, the advent of the Coronavirus has shown the world how easy it is to do without global travel.]
Myth 66: The manufacture of lithium batteries produces more greenhouse gases than the batteries save during their lifetime. Hence the move to renewables is futile.
Fact: A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) showed that the greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the manufacture of lithium batteries are offset after 6 to 18 months of battery use. Given that such batteries currently have a lifespan of about fifteen years, this represents a huge saving in emissions.
Myth 67: It has been predicted that demand for lithium will increase 42 fold if we make the shift to electric vehicles. There simply isn’t enough lithium in the world to make this transition possible.
Fact: It is true that the world’s know sources of lithium would run out by mid-century, if we were restricted to using lithium just once in batteries, or if no other technologies became available. Neither of those caveats is true, however. In the first place, lithium can be recycled. To quote a 2021 report by BloombergNEF, “With universal battery recycling, not only does primary lithium demand remain below known reserves, but there is also the prospect of a fully circular battery industry, with supply of recycled lithium exceeding total annual demand by mid-century.” [See James Fernyhough, “EV-to-grid could supply three times peak electricity demand: BNEF,” Renew Economy, 9/6/21.] Secondly, a number of new technologies have been developed which either do not require lithium at all, or use it in far smaller quantities than is the case now. These technologies include zinc-ion batteries, zinc-air flow batteries and iron air batteries. Iron air batteries offer the prospect of storing energy at one-tenth the cost of traditional lithium-ion systems. So the supply of lithium is not going to be a problem.
Myth 68: Lithium mining has a devastating effect on the environment, so will cause widespread damage if we have to rely on it for our energy storage needs.
Fact: It’s true that lithium production is environmentally damaging, particularly in ecologically sensitive regions like the Atacama salt flat in Chile. For this reason, strict regulations will be needed to ensure that mining is carried out as responsibly as possible. Of course, it is by no means certain that lithium batteries will underpin our shift to electric vehicles. Hydrogen fuel cells may well prove a cheaper option, and have none of the environmental impacts of lithium. [These work by fusing hydrogen with oxygen to make water. Electricity is produced in the process, which is then used to power a motor.]
Myth 69: You’re asking us to move to new technologies that haven’t even been invented yet. How does that make sense?
Fact: Well, actually it makes complete sense. When, in 1961, President Kennedy pledged to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, scientists had no idea how to do it. In fact, America had only just lauched a man into space the previous year. What Kennedy was doing was giving his scientists and engineers a goal, and in response they developed the technology to achieve it. It was the same when President Roosevelt approved the development of the atom bomb. More recently, scientists were tasked with developing a vaccine for COVID-19. Just because we don’t currently have a technology does not mean we should not be trying to develop it.
Myth 70: What about nuclear power? Isn’t that the best solution to global warming?
- Nuclear power is a possible to solution to global warming, but not a viable one economically or politically.
- The fact is that wind and solar are significantly cheaper than nuclear, so no companies are likely to build reactors unless heavily subsidised by the government. As of 2020, the price of nuclear power was 16 cents a kilowatt hour. By contrast, the price of solar was 3.7 cents a kilowatt hour, and wind 3.4 cents. Largely for this reason, the world commissioned 192GW of new renewable power in 2020, but only 8GW of new nuclear power. At the same time, 5GW of nuclear power was decommissioned, meaning the total planned addition to the world’s nuclear capacity for 2020 was 3GW.
- Politically, nuclear power is also problematic. Although modern reactors are far safer than their predecessors, the experience of Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima has soured the public on nuclear technology. It is next to impossible to find a community willing to host a nuclear reactor. As such, it is largely a waste of time to push nuclear power as a solution.
- Another problem is that nuclear waste must be stored securely for many thousands of years before its radioactivity drops to safe levels. The cost of doing so, and the impact on the environment at the storage site, are often not fully taken into account.
- A final difficulty is that constructing a nuclear power plant is very energy intensive, and unless this energy were produced by solar, wind or other renewable sources it would result in a large increase in CO2 emissions. These would eventually be offset by the lack of emissions from the nuclear plant, but not for many years. We would be so much better off using renewable energy than nuclear power.
Myth 71: Business is opposed to climate action, and because business is the backbone of the economy, any attempt at climate action would be bad for the economy.
Fact: Business was opposed to climate change not so many years ago, but this has changed recently. An increasing number of the world’s leading corporations are now divesting from fossil fuels and/or supporting a move to zero net emissions by 2050. By August 2020, 139 global financial institutions had announced an exit from coal. These include Mizuho (the world’s largest private financier of coal), Deka Investments and Union Investment (two of Germany’s largest asset managers), Citibank, Allianz, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and the Norwegian Government Pension Fund (the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund). Even fossil fuel companies like Shell, BP and Total are now calling for carbon neutrality by 2050. In Australia, institutions that have ceased lending to the coal industry include the CBA, NAB and Suncorp, with the ANZ Bank expected to follow soon. In addition, the Business Council of Australia and the National Farmers Federation have called for zero net emissions by 2050, and support the Albanese government’s 43 percent emissions reduction target.
Myth 72: Actions to mitigate climate change are antithetical to a market economy. They would involve a move to socialism.
Fact: There is no truth to this statement. Climate deniers tend to make it because they believe that all climate activists are closet Marxists. In fact, market mechanisms are by far the best way to drive the economy towards carbon neutrality. By introducing a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme (ETS), businesses would be given a market signal that would push them to reduce CO2 emissions without significant input by government. Such mechanisms are no different in the way they operate than tariffs and other kinds of taxes. They skew market signals so as to produce the government’s desired outcome. The carbon tax that operated in Australia from 2012 to 2014 was extremely effective in reducing CO2 emissions, without in any way impeding economic growth. Interestingly, the so-called ‘direct action’ policy that replaced it saw only a marginal fall in emissions. [If the rate of reduction under the Coalition government were to have continued, Australia would not have achieved net zero emissions until 2167!] There is no need for excessive government intervention in order to move to a carbon neutral economy. What is needed is a clear set of price signals to encourage businesses and consumers to invest in renewables. [Interestingly, it is the fossil fuel industry in Australia that has been, and still is, the main beneficiary of government intervention – in the form of an $11 billion a year subsidy. Strangely, few climate deniers claim this to be a form of socialism.]
Myth 73: Won’t the disposal of solar panels and batteries make them an uneconomic and dangerous proposition?
Fact: There will be health considerations when disposing of solar panels and batteries, but these problems are no worse than with many other types of electronic equipment. Most of what goes into a solar panel or battery can be recycled, and the rest can be disposed of safely. All it requires is proper government legislation. As for the economics of disposal, it is estimated that recyclable materials from solar PV panels will be worth more than $US2.7 billion a year by 2030, and a staggering $US80 billion by 2050. Hence, disposal will not be a significant issue.
Myth 74: Hasn’t Australia been meeting its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement of 2015? Why should we do more than other nations?
- The Morrison government was only able to claim that we were meeting our Paris climate commitments because those commitments amount to very little. In fact, we have done a lot less than other, comparable nations. What we agreed to in Paris was to reduce our 2005 level of emissions by 26-28 percent by 2030. However, we also claimed the right to achieve this by using ‘carryover credits’ from the time of the Kyoto Protocol, when we were allowed to include changes in land use (a drop in deforestation) in the calculation of our emissions. The fact that we did manage to reduce our emissions during that period (largely due to Labor’s carbon tax) has meant that the current government can now slacken off in its own efforts and still achieve its 2030 target. To our shame, we were the only country in the world that was planning to use this subterfuge, even though others had also earned the right to do so. As the IPCC pointed out in 2019, doing this would “reduce what Australia needs to do to meet its 2030 target by more than half.” And even using these carryover credits, we were still not on target to meet our Paris commitments! [As an aside, it is worth noting that our two biggest mining companies, BHP and Rio Tinto, opposed the use of carryover credits. Both believed we should make real emissions reductions, and not just paper ones.]
- According to government figures, the nation’s emissions fell by 19 percent between 2005 and 2020. About two thirds of that occurred prior to the abolition of the carbon tax, 3 percent as a result of the COVID economic downturn, and 4 percent from initiatives by the Coalition government. At this rate, it was likely that our emissions would only fall by 8-11 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. [It should be noted that all other nations used 1990 as a benchmark for emissions reductions. We used 2005 because our emissions were a lot higher in that year than in 1990.]
Category 5: Global warming might be a problem, but it’s too late to take meaningful action
A final type of myth asserts that it is too late to do anything about climate change. The horse has already bolted; temperature increases are now locked in.
Myth 75: There’s nothing we can do about climate change; it’s too big a problem, or it’s too late to act. If we’re already heading for 2°C warming, we’re doomed anyway.
Fact: It may indeed be too late to keep warming to less than 1.5°C. Even 2°C will be difficult. But both those temperatures are manageable ecologically, and we have all the technology and all the economic levers needed to stop further increases. The only problem is political.
Myth 76: Even if we stopped all greenhouse gas emissions, the CO2 and methane we have already released would stay in the atmosphere forever, so the planet is still doomed.
- This is not true. The oceans and land absorb about 60 percent of the CO2 we emit each year, so if we reduced our emissions to zero, these would become giant CO2 sponges. Scientists estimate that it would take about 50 years for our cumulative CO2 emissions in the atmosphere to fall by 60 percent, and 200 years for them to fall by 80 percent. [Unfortunately, it would take thousands of years for them to fall back to preindustrial levels.]
- Methane, which accounts for about a third of our greenhouse gas emissions, would be even easier to eliminate, as methane molecules only stay in the atmosphere for 12 years, by which time it is largely converted to CO2. Methane levels would start falling very quickly if we reduced our emissions to zero (or to somewhere thereabouts).
- The news is even better when it comes to global temperature. Climate scientists estimate that this will stabilise with three to five years after we reach net zero.
Myth 77: Methane clathrates have already been irreversibly destabilised by the current level of global warming, meaning that catastrophic temperature increases can’t be stopped. There is therefore no point in cutting CO2 emissions.
Fact: Methane clathrates are ice-like substances that trap methane gas in a cage of water molecules. They form below the seabed and in permafrost. If just a fraction of one percent of the methane trapped in these clathrates were released into the atmosphere, it would indeed add significantly to global warming. However, there is no evidence that this is about to happen, so we are not facing such a doomsday scenario. The planet’s methane clathrates are still locked away safely beneath the oceans and in the Arctic permafrost.
Myth 78: Global warming is an international problem, and needs and international solution. We can’t act alone.
Fact: We already have an international solution: the Paris Climate Accord. Many nations are taking it seriously, and with the election of Joe Biden, the US is doing so too. China is also now committed to achieving zero net emissions by 2060. The nations flouting the Accord (Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Russia) are very isolated, and vulnerable to economic pressure.
Myth 79: India and China are going to overwhelm any action the rest of the world might take, so it’s a waste of time us acting.
Fact: India and China are not doing nothing, and are nowhere near as responsible for the problem as we are. Most of the CO2 in the atmosphere was put there by the nations of Europe and North America, so it is incumbent on them to take the lead when it comes to solving the problem. Australia, with the second-largest greenhouse gas emissions per capita among OECD nations, is also responsible for a disproportionately high level of CO2 in the atmosphere. We have a moral responsibility to rectify this.
Myth 80: Overpopulation is the reason why global warming is taking place. Unless we can drastically reduce the world’s population, we cannot do anything about climate change.
Fact: Overpopulation is a serious problem, and is putting great stress on the planet’s resources. However, it is not the main factor driving climate change. A person’s environmental footprint is calculated by the following formula: Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology (I = PAT). The fact is, while population might be great in many poor countries, affluence and technology are not. Most of our greenhouse gas emissions are a result of these latter two factors, and originate in the wealthy nations, not the developing ones. [China is the main exception to this, although it should be noted that most of its CO2 emissions are generated by its upper and middle classes, not its poor. This will change, of course, as the country continues to develop.] The solution is to be found by changing the technology we use to generate wealth. By using renewable energy, we can go on living comfortable lives without altering the Earth’s climate.
This document was prepared by Ken Enderby, of Climate Action Burwood-Canada Bay. It can also be accessed at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1O01cqq3agO2ET1Y1S4G-oFHZ6mtEtuDT/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=112604914675006353183&rtpof=true&sd=true.
If you would like more information on any of the topics discussed here, or help in preparing a presentation on climate change, feel free to contact Ken at email@example.com.