Climate Change Denial Myths: The Truth

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Climate change is a hoax! Or so some say. There is much debate over whether anthropogenic climate change is real. Many assertions have been made from a variety of sources which claim that humans cannot affect the climate. However, this debate is one for the cameras, because almost all working climate scientists agree that these claims are inaccurate and that humans are almost certainly responsible for the changing weather patterns we have been witnessing in recent years.

A recent article gave a basic overview of climate change. This article will explore some of the most common assertions made by anthropogenic climate-change deniers and then contrast these claims with the findings of climate scientists. I will then briefly look at some cases of how climate scientists have been slandered in order to try to discredit their findings, and finally some of the potential motivations behind these slanders will be examined. Any curious readers are invited to please click on the links below if they wish to familiarise themselves with the sources and some of the specific scientific studies relevant to this article's content.

The Earth Isn't Warming

So what exactly are the claims against anthropogenic climate change? The politician Danny Healy-Rae recently insisted that it's nonsense because only his God controls the weather. It is left to the reader's own capacity for critical thinking to assess the validity of this bombshell of wisdom. On a more serious note, one of the most common claims is that the planet isn't warming. This belief is possibly due to a miscommunication. Global warming simply means that the overall average temperature of the planet is increasing. It doesn’t mean that every part of the globe is becoming warmer simultaneously. Understandably someone in one part of the world could notice that the last few winters have been colder and then surmise that global warming is a hoax. But this would be a false conclusion as the planet's mean temperature has been increasing, like a person with a fever saying they don’t have a high temperature because there’s an icepack on their head.

Climate change deniers sometimes point to the fact that recently there was an increase in the amount of Arctic sea ice. But this ignores the very obvious overall global decrease in sea ice. Others claim that the sun is getting brighter and this accounts for climate change. But scientists have shown that, on the contrary, the sun has on average been getting dimmer since the 1950s. Much is often made of some scientists’ claims in the 1970s that we should expect global cooling rather than warming, and therefore that climate scientists these days don't know what they are talking about. Indeed, as any climate scientist will be the first to admit, global warming was much less well understood by scientists during the 1970s, but it is much more thoroughly understood today. However, six times as many climate scientists were predicting warming rather than cooling in the 1970s. It was the mainstream media which made a big sensation out of the idea of ‘global cooling’.

Human CO2 Emissions are Very Small

Much is also often made of the fact that humans only emit a small fraction of the CO2 which is sent into the atmosphere and oceans. But small fractions can make a big difference. The Earth’s climate is in a very precise balance, and tipping CO2 concentration over the edge can cause it to breakdown. Similarly, iron is an important mineral for the human body, but ingesting too much – which would ultimately be trace amounts - can tip that balance and cause us to become very sick. This small fraction of CO2 emissions is enough to upset the balance and create a 'positive feedback loop'. However, it must be noted that the total concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, which builds up cumulatively, has increased from about 275 ppm to 405 ppm since the industrial revolution. That’s an increase of about 33%, not exactly minor.

What About Water Vapour?

This brings us to our next denial myth - namely that water vapour is a far stronger greenhouse gas than CO2, therefore humans aren't responsible for global warming. Water vapour is indeed the dominant greenhouse gas – that’s good, it makes life possible on Earth. The first thing to note is that there’s little room for extra water vapour up above. CO2 stays in the atmosphere for a long time (e.g. 100 years), but extra water vapour condenses and falls back to the ground quite quickly (hours/days). Secondly, warm air holds a greater quantity of water vapour than cold air. Since the extra CO2 humans produce increases atmospheric temperature, this allows more water vapour to stay up there. More water vapour pushes the temperature up even further.

Feedback Loops

This has a double effect, for the oceans and ice. CO2 is absorbed by the atmosphere, but also a huge amount by often forgotten oceans. Warmer temperatures decrease the solubility of CO2 in the oceans, therefore leading to more CO2 in the atmosphere. Next, the Earth is like a big mirror. The more reflective it is, the more of the sun’s rays are sent back to space, the cooler the Earth. Since ice is white, it is very reflective (this is why it’s a good idea to wear white in hot countries). As global average temperature increases, the overall global amount of ice decreases, reducing the reflectivity of the Earth's surface and causing further temperature increase. This reflectivity is called the Earth’s ‘albedo’. These kind of feedback loops are what makes the Earth climate system tick.

What About Volcanoes?

Some claim volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans. But scientists have shown that volcanoes only emit around 1% of the amount of CO2 that humans do. Others say ‘OK, there is CO2 in the atmosphere, but humans aren't putting it there’. But we know that humans are actually responsible. This is by using something similar to how ‘carbon dating’ works. The two most common ‘isotopes’ of carbon are carbon-12 and carbon-13. Naturally occurring CO2 has more carbon-13. Carbon from fossil fuels burned by humans contains less carbon-13. The presence of the isotope carbon-13 in the atmosphere is decreasing whilst the amount of CO2 is increasing, which indicates the extra CO2 must be coming from burned fossil fuels. It’s a bit like mixing paints. Blue and yellow make green, but if your green is getting yellower and yellower, you know that more yellow is being added than blue.

Climate Change is Natural

'But there was climate change in the past before humans, it’s natural', some deniers say. This is true and it usually happened at regular intervals and was caused by 'Milankovitch cycles', which are cyclical variations in the Earth's orbit over thousands of years. The cycles allow for differing amounts of solar radiation to hit the Earth at different times, leading to changes in the climate. Imagine holding a ball closer to a fire, tilting it different ways, and so on. However scientists are almost certain that the recent climate change we have been witnessing is not due to natural phenomena – the decisive factor is humans.

'But CO2 levels were much higher in the distant past than now, and we've had both higher and lower temperatures when this was the case. So CO2 doesn't affect climate change'. The first part of this claim is true - CO2 levels were higher in the distant past and the planet experienced both high temperatures and ice ages at this time. But this isn't because CO2 doesn't affect global temperatures. It is because climate change, like most things, is caused by a number of factors. So for example the amount of solar energy hitting the Earth was much less in the distant past, and this compensated for the higher levels of CO2. Milankovitch cycles and the position of the continents were also factors in some of the past ice ages. CO2 levels then began to drop during the Ordovician Period about 450 million years ago as a result of tectonic plate activity. The point being that making this claim is like saying that because you can shoot someone with a gun without killing them, this means that guns can’t kill people. You have to ask yourself if they were wearing a bullet-proof vest.

CO2 Lags Temperature

Another point which is sometimes made in favour of climate denial is that if we look at data relating to the distant past we see that the CO2 increase lags behind the temperature increase, and therefore CO2 can't be the cause of climate change. After all, for me to cause a ball to move across the room, I need to kick it first (kicking needs to lead moving). But if we look more closely at the data we see that it is only initially that the CO2 level lags behind the rising temperature. Firstly, this only applied to the southern hemisphere. Secondly, once the temperature begins to rise the CO2 level quickly begins to soar. 90% of the temperature increase occurs after the CO2 level rises. This is because the Milankovitch cycle caused the initial temperature increase which warmed the oceans. Warmer oceans reduced the solubility of CO2 leading to increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere and created a positive feedback loop. It’s like a relay race, the CO2 takes the baton from the sun and runs with it.

However, it’s very important to make clear that there is no doubt that CO2 causes temperature increases. This has been known for a long time, as far back as 1824 when Joseph Fourier first speculated about a layer of insulating gases in the atmosphere, to Claude Pouillet specifying CO2 in 1838, to John Tyndall measuring this property in 1860, to Svante Arrhenius estimating its planetary effect in 1896, to Charles David Keeling producing the famous ‘Keeling Curve’ in 1961, and beyond.

Climate Change is Good

Finally, another common claim is that global warming is a good thing - it will lead to increased harvests as a result of warmer and shorter winters. However, while global warming will initially lead to increased growing seasons in certain parts of the planet, scientists have predicted that overall food production will be greatly reduced. And then there are the rising sea levels and flooding, ever more extreme storms and droughts, population displacements, damage to infrastructure and facilities etc. At this point, it’s important to note that even though most ink is spilled arguing about ‘global warming’, global average temperature rise is only one part of climate change. For example, ocean acidification is very significant.

Shoot the Messenger

Available scientific data indicate that humans are indeed affecting the climate and that unless steps are taken to radically change course the consequences will be extremely severe. Climate scientists have known this for decades and have accordingly made huge efforts to make the public aware of the dangers. Surprisingly, as a result of their efforts, many climate scientists have been subjected to a barrage of false accusations, defamation and even death threats. Perhaps the most common accusation is that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax and that climate scientist are lying in order to ensure that they receive funding. This is unlikely as climate scientists can usually make far more money working for fossil fuel companies and in other areas.  As the atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe points out working to solve the problem of climate change isn't typically a particularly lucrative career option.

The Spice Girls Say So

Other attempts to discredit climate scientists include the 'Oregon Petition' and 'Climategate'.  The Oregon Petition was an alleged list of 31000 scientists who deny anthropogenic climate change. This sounds like a weighty rebuke, at least until upon closer inspection the Oregon Petition was revealed to be a bit of a hoax itself.  Many of the signatures weren't genuine (for example Prof. Charles Darwin, Prof. Michael J. Fox, and the Spice Girls to name but a few were listed). Of the genuine signatures many of those who signed simply had a degree in science rather than a doctorate. Of those who had a doctorate, few were climate scientists. Indeed, at least 97% of working climate scientists acknowledge human-caused climate change, and the number is likely closer to 99%.

'Climategate' occurred in 2008 when a server at the University of East Anglia was hacked and thousands of e-mails written by climate scientists were stolen. Phrases from these e-mails were taken out of context in order to create the illusion that climate scientists were concocting false reports on climate change. The scientists involved were tried nine times by federal commissions, universities, and independent scientific panels and were found innocent every time. Unfortunately it is likely that the frequent references to the Oregon Petition and Climategate in the mainstream media over the years have influenced public opinion in favour of climate change denial. Many people often believe there is no smoke without fire.

Big Business and Cold Warriors

So why all these attacks on climate scientists? Most of those spearheading the attacks and attempting to discredit the scientists' findings have links to fossil fuel companies (for example individuals such as Bill O'Keefe, Lee Raymond, and the notorious Koch brothers). The American Petroleum Institute (API) alone have spent almost $100 million on lobbying and propaganda. Five of the ten highest-earning companies in the world are fossil fuel companies. If restrictions are placed on fossil fuels or fossil fuels are replaced by green energy these companies will lose an enormous amount of profit. It is unlikely that these deniers' views are not in some way biased by their concern for monetary profit.

The motivation of other prominent climate change deniers may be different. For example Dr. Fred Singer and Dr. Fred Seitz are outspoken deniers. They are both physicists and worked for the US state during the cold war. They are both deeply opposed to USSR-style Communism and as a result are deeply opposed to strong government intervention in the economy. They have opposed government intervention in a number of industries such as tobacco and asbestos. They have often called climate scientists 'communists' and 'socialists'. It seems plausible that their denial of climate change may be motivated by a belief that the governmental regulation of industries effecting the environment will inevitably lead to communism, rather than being based upon a cool-headed appraisal of the available evidence.

Conclusion

Upon consideration of the climate change denial myths mentioned in this article, it becomes apparent that they are just that, myths. They can only be constructed by cherry-picking the scientific data for morsels which, when viewed by themselves, seem to lend some credence to the belief that anthropogenic climate change is a hoax. However, when the full panoply of available scientific evidence is examined it quickly becomes clear that each denial claim is as hollow as a politician's promise. Most of the impetus for climate change denial is a result of the efforts - and the money - of private fossil fuel interests. Indeed there are many more myths than were examined here. We are dealing with a case of a deliberately deceived portion of the population standing idly by whilst a sector of the already-rich capitalist class continues to make huge profits in exchange for the intensified suffering, deprivation, and very likely death of the many. Therefore, this big business cartel should be resisted and neutralised by all appropriate means. As climate change campaigners say ‘system change, not climate change.’ Knowledge is power and being aware of the misinformation is the first step to making a difference.

 



Sources / Further Resources

 

Merchants of Doubt - Documentary

Based on the book of the same title, eye-opening documentary on the history of climate denial, how it has used the same tactics and even people as for cigarette / lung cancer denial + link with Cold War agenda.

Donald Trump, the Koch Brothers, and Their War on Climate Science
Excellent documentary unearthing the vast networks of climate misinformation funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers and other vested interests.

Poholer54 – Youtube
Probably the most comprehensive rebuttal of climate change denial myths on YouTube or in video form. Makes many entertaining but rigorous videos. For example, this one on carbon dioxide lagging temperature.

Skeptical Science - Website
Main point of this site is to debunk climate myths - it’s quite technical but good.

Veritasium – Youtube
Nice summary video from Veritasium on this topic.

Some top climate deniers are:

Richard Lindzen, Judith Curry, Roy Spencer, Steve Koonin, Fred Singer, Christopher Monckton, Patrick Moore (former Greenpeace), Willie Soon, as well as Fred Singer and Fred Seitz mentioned above. If you encounter these people, make sure to cross-reference what they're saying with other material (the peer-reviewed literature would be best, but not always possible).

Other general climate change resources are:

NASA Climate
350.org
Real Climate
Climate Central
NOAA

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