Fighting the Myths: Cutting through the stew of climate misinformation with facts

Climate myths. We've all heard them. They've been analyzed and discredited in the scientific literature many years ago, but the same misinformation and misrepresentations get repeated endlessly by deniers on the blogosphere, talk radio, and even by politicians. They sound reasonable to a first hearing, except they are not based on fact (or they take one piece of fact, and ignore the rest of the information on the subject). In addition to myths about the science, there are lots of rampant misconceptions about how we should deal with climate change.

Here are some of the top myths and misconceptions, countered with the facts. For a more extensive list, with more thorough answers, check out Skeptical Science, and Coby Beck. Skeptical Science has apps for I-phone and Android, so whenever someone throws one of these myths at you, you can pull up the facts right there on the spot.

  1. "Humans can't be responsible for climate change, because climate changes happened long before humans were around to cause them."
  2. "This is just a natural cycle"
  3. "Global warming is an environmentalist issue, something for the green, eco-conscious treehugger crowd."
  4. "How can this be a climate emergency? The weather around us is only a little hotter than it used to be."
  5. "It's cold out today! I guess that pretty much blows the global warming theory."


  1. "Humans can't be responsible for climate change, because climate changes happened long before humans were around to cause them."
  2. That's like saying, "Forest fires happened as a result of natural causes before there were any people around, therefore it's impossible for people to cause forest fires. Since we all know forest fires are the result of natural causes, we shouldn't worry about throwing smoldering cigarette butts into the woods or leaving campfires unattended."

    We intuitively see how silly the forest fire argument is. The only difference between the two arguments is we can observe with our own eyes how human actions can cause a forest fire, but the way in which the CO2 we release causes climate change is a long, slow process that we can't directly observe with our own eyes.

    We have overwhelming evidence that humans are causing the climate changes that have happened recently, and it's going to get a whole lot worse unless we stop adding to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, and take out some of what we have added.

    And this argument misses something rather significant. Those slow, natural changes in climate that occured over millions of years teach us an important lesson: the Earth is hyper-reactive to influences on its climate. We largely understand the forces that triggered those natural climate changes, and they were tiny. Those small temperature influences (natural changes in CO2, changes in Earth's orbit) got magnified into massive climate shifts by Earth's climate feedback mechanisms. Today, humanity is putting pressures on our planet's climate system orders of magnitude larger those small natural influences that caused massive climate change in the past. Our planet's history of climate change does not give us reason for complacency -- it's actually, a big, flashing warning sign for us about the dangers of messing with the climate.

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  3. "This is just a natural cycle"
  4. A- According to natural cycles, the Earth should be in a long, slow cooling trend right now, not a rapid heat-up like what's actually happening. In fact, the planet was in a long, slow cooling trend, before humans started burning fossil fuels and raising the level of CO2 in the last 200 years:

    Human-caused greenhouse gas warming has cancelled out at least 2,000 years of natural cooling, and there's three times as much warming on the way from the CO2 we've already released, even if we stopped the rise in CO2 (which we're not doing). It is essential that we stop raising the level of CO2, and bring it rapidly back down to a safe level before the full warming from that extra CO2 happens.

    There is no natural cycle we know of that can explain the current warming. Besides, we know that CO2 traps heat, and that more CO2 in the air makes the planet warmer. We know that we've raised the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by 40% (and rising) over its natural level, and we know the planet has rapidly warmed recently. So anyone claiming this warming is a natural cycle would have to identify what natural cycle is responsible, and further, they would have to explain why the CO2 we've released is NOT causing the planet to warm.

    For more extensive answers to this argument, see here and here.

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  5. "Global warming is an environmentalist issue, something for the green, eco-conscious treehugger crowd."
  6. Ever notice how the media always pigeonhole stories about global warming as something of interest to environmentalists? How newspapers, when they bother to discuss the issue at all, put it under the heading “Environmental News,” or worse yet, “Green Scene”? The subtle messaging is, “If you're not a tree-hugger, don't worry about this. It doesn't pertain to you.“

    By pretending climate change is just another interest-group issue, of concern only to the tree-hugger crowd, we have marginalized it in the political debate to being just one more interest group among many for politicians to negotiate and compromise with. Unfortunately, the Earth's climate and the laws of physics cannot be negotiated and compromised with. We have to set our course not by what is politically convenient, but by what the science indicates is necessary to preserve a liveable planet.

    The science indicates that staying on our present emissions path means a very grim future for humanity. This is THE issue, for all of us. Everything we as humans care about depends on us winning this struggle.

    It's time to stop talking about this as an "environmentalist" issue, or a "green" issue. This is, first and foremost, a human issue, and the humans are us, our children, and our grandchildren.

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  7. "How can this be a climate emergency? The weather around us is only a little hotter than it used to be."
  8. A- We have not yet experienced the full climate change consequences of the greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere.

    Climate lags: The warming we've experienced so far is roughly a quarter of
    the warming we can expect as a result of the greenhouse gases we've
    already put into the air.

    Because of the thermal lag and aerosol lag, the warming of the weather that we've experienced so far is just a quarter of the warming we can ultimately expect from the CO2 we've already added to the atmosphere. There's three times more warming on the way as a result of the carbon we've already released (not to mention the carbon we'll release in the coming years if we stay on our present emissions pathway).

    Of the warming that has happened so far, it's been concentrated in the far north, far from where most of us live.

    Even with the warming that has happened so far, we are experiencing a dramatic rise in severe weather catastrophes.

    More ominously, we are seeing what appears to be the signs of climate feedbacks starting to be triggered. These feedbacks have magnified natural climate change many times over Earth's history. If we keep adding to the level of CO2 in the air, sooner or later we'll reach a point that between the actual warming, the "on-the-way" warming, and the climate feedbacks generating new sources of warming, we won't be enough to reverse the situation even by stopping our own emissions. The climate destabilization will proceed with a momentum of its own, out of our control to stop.

    This is an emergency, and the time for fixing it is NOW.

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  9. "It's cold out today! I guess that pretty much blows the global warming theory."
  10. Global warming means a long-term trend in increasing AVERAGE temperatures, but we still have weather, which causes lots of fluctuations around that rising trendline.

    Those of us who live areas with seasonal climates are familiar with this concept in another context: the changing of the seasons. Although seasonal change causes much faster changes than global warming does, the idea is the same. In spring time, when a late-season cold front cools the weather for a day or two, nobody says, "Well, I guess this blows the idea that we're going to have summer this year." We all understand the cool spell is just a little downward jag on a rising temperature trendline.

    Also, keep in mind that you are observing the weather at just one spot on a big planet. If you look at the whole Earth, you can see that most of the time, most of the planet is warmer than it used to be. A recent global temperature anomalies map makes this clear:

    Note that this is not a temperature map, but a temperature anomalies map. That means it shows the difference between the current temperature and the long term average temperature for that location. Red dots are areas warmer than the average for 1971-2000, blue dots are colder.

    There's more red than blue, isn't there? It's the same almost every month: the patterns of red and blue shift, but there's almost always much more red than blue overall. The planet really is warming. But if you're in a blue zone this month, it's easy to say, "It's cold out! So much for global warming!"

    It's important to look at the big picture, the whole planet, especially the Arctic, where the warming is happening fastest.

    Our atmosphere is a complicated, dynamic system, and a new wrinkle in recent years has created some unexpected temperature effects. Normally, winds around the North Pole keep the frigid air somewhat contained in the far north. A new pattern, called the Arctic dipole, has emerged, possibly caused by the massive loss of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean in recent years. When the system shifts into Arctic dipole mode, warm air from the temperate zones pours into the Arctic, and cold northern air moves south to replace it. This vast switching around of air masses has created the ironic situation that some areas in the far north have had periods of exceptional warmth, while areas further south, especially eastern North America and Western Europe, have had brief episodes of unusual winter cold.

    Here again, it's important to look at the temperature of the whole planet, expecially averaged over time. The fact that some areas were unusually cold didn't mean the planet had cooled, it just meant that air masses had switched around, quite possibly as a result of sea ice loss due to human-made warming. Even during extreme Arctic dipole events, there were still more areas warmer than usual than areas colder than usual.

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