Climate change myths

Links to reputable sources of information on climate change, which present the science and tackle the “myths” (links after discussion below).

There is a lot of conflicting information about climate change out there on the web, and in the media. On the one hand there is body of argument claiming that climate change in the form of global warming is happening, and that it is driven principally by increases in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations resulting from human activities (the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, and modifications to the land surface). This body of argument is based on a huge amount of scientific evidence. Whatever anyone tells you, the overwhelming majority of scientists engaged in climate change research agree that the world is warming as a result of human activity (although of course there are arguments about the details and likely consequences).

On the other hand there is a body of argument that maintains either that the Earth is not warming, or that any observed warming is not due to human activity. Those who hold either of these views will tell you that climate scientists, environmentalists and governments are lying to the public about global warming. Most of those promoting this view are not scientists, and almost none are climate scientists. Nonetheless, this scepticism about human-induced climate change is fed by a number of arguments that purport to be based on scientific evidence. These climate change “myths” are generally based on arguments that have already been refuted, on unreliable data, or on the willful misrepresentation of real, reliable data. The people pushing these myths are very often linked to politically or economically motivated organisations with an interest in denying the reality of climate change.

I’m very interested in the ideological and political contexts in which climate change “scepticism” and climate change “myths” flourish. However, I’m often told that as a scientist I should be spending my time not addressing people’s apparent ideological motivations, but rather trying to convince people of the reality of climate change by arguing the scientific case. I have some sympathy with this view, but am getting a little bored with having to justify the scientific case for human-induced climate change over and over again. This is usually to people who think that TV production companies and political ideologues are more reliable sources of information about climate change than climate scientists. So, to save myself some bother, I’ve created this page of links to reputable sources of information about climate change. Anyone who wants to see the scientific arguments can access them by following the links below. I’ve focused particularly on sources that take the trouble to debunk the myths about climate change that are the currency of those bent on denying and perverting science to their own nefarious ends. Happy reading.

UK Meteorological Office – Dispelling the Doubts: – A run through some of the most common myths about climate change. – This is a site run by climate scientists, which addresses common questions and points of confusion, as well as the usual myths about climate change promoted by the “sceptics”. It can be a bit technical (the authors are mainstream scientists after all – not professional media pundits), but if you can stomach reading about matters such as radiative forcing and the relative contributions to the greenhouse effect of carbon dioxide, water vapour and other gases, this is a very illuminating site (and some of it is pretty accessible – it depends on the topic).

Martian warming proves warming of Earth not due to humans shock! This is one I’ve only recently come across – the notion that a shrinking of the southern polar ice cap on Mars over the past few years proves that it’s not just Earth that’s warming – it’s the whole solar system! This means global warming must be part of a solar system wide warming driven by (you guessed it) the sun. RealClimate has a post on this topic, which is worth singling out here.

New Scientist Climate Change Myths Page – Here the UK popular science journal New Scientist addresses 26 climate change “myths” in a special feature devoted to this topic. Some of the explanations are quite detailed. Ever wondered why scientists are fixated on carbon dioxide (CO2) when there is much more water vapour (also an important greenhouse gas) in the atmosphere? You can find out here. (The quick answer is that water vapour has a very short residence time in the atmosphere (a few days) whereas carbon dioxide builds up over time, so the effect of pumping CO2 into the atmosphere is cumulative.) [December 2009 update – New Scientist’s responses to the less stupid (and many are still pretty dumb to the point of being internally inconsistent) “reasons why global warming is natural” published by the Daily Express]

The Royal Society: Facts and Fictions about Climate Change – This ancient and august UK scientific body has prepared a 19 page “Guide to facts and fictions about climate change” which you can download in pdf format from their website by following the link above. The guide identifies a number of what it calls “misleading arguments” and then sets about refuting them based largely on the work presented in the 2001 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (see below for more on the IPCC, and note that the latest report was published in 2007). There is a lot of discussion about the extent of the scientific consensus and about scientific uncertainty.

Sierra Club of Canada: 10 Popular Myths about Climate Change – The Sierra Club deals more in advocacy than other organisations linked to on this page, and this is reflected in some of the myths tackled here, which venture into more political territory. There is also a focus on high-latitude impacts (in Canada). However, this is worth a look.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – If you want to examine the state of climate science in detail this is the place to look. The IPCC releases regular reports summarising the state of our knowledge of climate change. Each report consists of three sections, with each section produced by a Working Group (WG). WGI deals with climate change science, WGII with the societal impacts of climate change, and WGII with potential ways of reducing the magnitude of climate change. Scientifically, WGI is the strongest (in my opinion at any rate), by its very nature. WGII and WGIII deal with issues such as human vulnerability and adaptation, and the economic and technical aspects of responding to climate change respectively, and these topics are potentially more controversial as they move beyond the hard science, and therefore are more interpretive. The IPCC reports may not be entirely flawless, but they do take great pains to present the uncertainties involved in the studies they summarise. WGI in particular is concerned with sticking to what can be said on the basis of current quantitative knowledge, and is therefore seen by many scientists (including those involved in its preparation) as conservative in its projections for the future. For example, climate models tend to have problems reproducing the kinds of abrupt changes we know happened in the distant past, so some scientists suspect that they underestimate the likelihood of such events occurring in the future. Another example is the recent “downgrading” of estimates of sea-level rise in the Fourth Assessment Report (2007) compared with the previous report in 2001. The lower range of likely sea-level rise does not take into account certain dynamical processes associated with the possible disintegration of large ice sheets, as these are not understood well enough to be quantified. When it comes to El Niño, the IPCC is not predicting doom and gloom – the line taken in the 2007 report is that we do not know how El Niño will respond to human-induced warming. There are similar uncertainties about the behaviour of monsoon systems in Africa and Asia. So when you hear people criticising the IPCC for being alarmist this is more sceptical propaganda. The IPCC may get it wrong here and there, but the approach it takes, particularly when it comes to the basic science, is on the whole one of cautious conservatism. It must also be remembered that the material published in the IPCC reports (particularly in the summary reports which receive most attention from policy makers and journalists) has to be endorsed by the governments of the countries that are signatories to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). These include the governments of the United States, China, and OPEC members including the notoriously “sceptical” Saudis, so there is plenty of lobbying by governments who see it as in their interest to downplay the severity and potential impacts of human-induced climate change. This approach is countered to a certain extent by that of groups such as the European Union, which prefers to emphasise the potential risks of climate change (while doing very little to actually counter them). The bigger and richer countries tend to have more say in the endorsement process, as they send more delegates to the meetings at which the text of the IPCC reports is negotiated. For the summary reports these negotiations often involve tortuous arguments over the wording of individual sentences, particularly in the summary reports. Often wording will be changed (and in at least once case a key graphic showing projected increases in greenhouse gas concentrtions removed) at the behest of governments that want to play down the risks of climate change. So don’t believe people who tell you that the IPCC reports are alarmist propaganda by a bunch of environmentally-minded scientists.  To a significant extent they are muted by governments who don’t want alamism over climate change to damage prospects of economic growth based on existing developmental models. (My interest here: I made a very small contribution to the Chapter on Africa for WGII, and am listed as a contributing author).

More links may follow at some indeterminate point in the future….

If the above isn’t enough for you, try using the term “climate change myths” in a search engine. There will be plenty of results.


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