Climate change is an increasingly divisive topic due in part to widespread misinformation. All the myths floating around make it hard to separate climate fact from climate fiction. Sarah A. Green, PhD, a chemistry professor at Michigan Technological University, says debunking these myths can help us plan for a better future.
“Myths can help people feel in control of something that’s complicated or frightening. Some myths may fit comfortably into the pattern of many folklore weather prediction myths like Groundhog Day or Farmer’s Almanac stories,” says Dr. Green. “However, a large part of the blame for the spread of climate myths has to be laid at the feet of people and industries that have vested interests in the status quo. These people have been actively promoting myths for decades in order to manipulate the public to help resist threats to their profits.”
Considering current climate emergencies, it’s important to ensure that we’re doing everything we can to address climate change now.
“With the recent catastrophic fires on the West Coast [of the United States] and Australia, global floods, heatwaves, and intensified hurricanes, we’ve been hearing the phrase ‘the new normal,’” says Dr. Green. “That phrase implies that we are in a new state where that level of climate disruption will continue; that impression is wrong. We are at the start of a long trajectory of increasingly severe disruption. We are seeing the impacts of a 1°C increase in average global temperature. The impacts will become more severe and more irreversible with each increment of heat-trapping gasses added to the Earth’s atmosphere. This is not a new normal, we’re just seeing the first signposts along a long road to disaster.”
Emma Frances Bloomfield, PhD, an assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, explains that myths have a ton of power. “Myths are harmful in part because they are incorrect. The more incorrect information that circulates, the less space and attention there is for accurate information,” says Dr. Bloomfield. “Furthermore, once the myths are present, it takes time and attention to try and refute them and there are a lot of difficulties in changing people’s minds once a myth has taken root. If people are not on the same page about [climate] change and its dangers, then it is hard to push for collective action.”
To help stop the spread of myths about climate change, Dr. Bloomfield says to have fact-based discussions with friends and family members. “People are starting to care about the environment more, but very rarely talk about it with others. “One of the best things we can do to raise awareness and encourage collective action is to have more conversations with people about climate change and why we think it is important to address,” she says.
Below, Dr. Green and Dr. Bloomfield dispel the myths and set the record straight with irrefutable facts about climate change.
These are the facts you need to understand about climate change
1. Climate change is caused by humans
Dr. Green says she often hears people (incorrectly) say that climate change is caused by the sun or that it’s part of a natural cycle.
“These myths all imply that scientists have not considered these factors,” she says. “Every one of them has been studied by thousands of scientists for decades. We have learned a lot of amazing things about how our planet functions—and other planets, too. The data is available, the results have been published in peer-reviewed papers and in popular press.”
Dr. Bloomfield adds that the scientific community is close to unanimous consensus surrounding the causes and impact of climate change.
“Studies repeatedly show that the scientific consensus on climate change is between 90 to 97 percent, meaning that based on scientists surveyed and scientific publications, there is widespread and near-universal agreement that climate change is happening, that humans have caused it, and that it can have dire consequences,” says Dr. Bloomfield. “To say that there is a consensus does not mean that there are no outliers, but it means that the scientific community has considered those outliers and found them unsupported by scientific evidence.”
2. It’s not too late to fix the damage that’s been done
“We can turn off the road to disaster as soon as we use our collective efforts to put on the brakes and commit to global net-zero carbon emissions,” says Dr. Green. “Until we do that, we will continue down the path of worsening impacts. 1.5 million acres burned in California is bad; 10 million would be worse. It’s never too late to make changes.”
3. Climate change affects everyone—including you
Although some may feel the impacts of climate change more than others (considering geographic and socioeconomic inequities), everyone experiences its impacts. For example, this map from The New York Times shows how climate change impacts you based on where you live in the U.S.
“The world’s climate is an interconnected system where weather patterns, changing temperatures, and rising sea levels affect the entire system,” says Dr. Bloomfield. “It is not accurate to think that climate change is something that only affects others.” From changes in the weather to the increased spread of diseases, climate change impacts the living conditions and livelihoods of billions.
4. Certain issues can have more than one cause
“It’s true that [one of] the wildfires on the West Coast [was] started by a gender reveal party, but it’s also true that climate change has increased temperatures and created drier conditions that helped those fires spread out of control,” says Dr. Bloomfield. “If we can trace an extreme weather event or occurrence back to a human-made cause, that does not mean that climate change didn’t play a role in encouraging or amplifying the effect. Sometimes people create binaries where it has to be one or the other or that it’s not responsible to blame everything on climate change.” Is climate change worsening the fires on the West Coast, or is it poor forest management? Experts say the answer is likely that both are to blame. “Climate change is often at the root of why incidents like the wildfires are so hard to contain,” says Dr. Bloomfield.
5. There are plenty of fossil fuel alternatives
“Solar technology has improved massively in the past few decades and keeps getting better. It’s now cheaper, more efficient, and more durable than ever before,” says Dr. Green. “Electric power can be made with effectively zero emissions. New technologies for storage and distribution are advancing every day. Powering our society with clean electricity will be a challenge, but we can do it! It is no longer a technological impossibility, just difficult politically.” Much of this opposition is fueled by lobbyists from the coal and gas industries.
Continuing to fund innovation in renewable fossil fuel alternatives is actually good for the economy, she says. “The economy sits on top of the environment,” says Dr. Green. “Saying they are in conflict is like saying we have to compromise on the foundations of a building so we can put more effort on making the penthouse nice.”
A 2019 analysis by research company Wood Mackenzie found it would cost the U.S. $4.5 trillion to fully decarbonize. But a September 2020 report from the Commodity Futures Trading Commission found that not making any changes would have catastrophic economic consequences.