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Monday 4 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
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Debunked: Five common climate myths and why they're wrong

As COP27 climate summit begins in Egypt, here are the facts on climate change.

A MAJOR UN climate summit – COP27 – is starting in Egypt today, with representatives from countries around the world convening to negotiate pledges to fight the climate crisis.

As COP27 and climate change receive public attention in the coming weeks, false information that tries to deny or detract from the seriousness of the climate crisis is likely to increase too.

The Journal has identified five common myths linked to the climate crisis and climate action:

  • That the earth is not warming
  • That it is warming but the impacts will be negligible
  • That it is warming but humans aren’t responsible
  • That there is nothing humans can do to stop the climate crisis
  • That Ireland’s emissions are too little to warrant taking climate action

These are incorrect ideas that are often used to try to deny the reality of climate change or block efforts to take action that can help solve the crisis.

Let’s look at why each of them is wrong and what the facts are – but first, where do facts about climate change come from?

Getting the facts

The leading source of global climate information is a series of reports published by a United Nations body called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Its reports are written and checked by hundreds of scientists who compile and analyse the latest climate research from around the world.

The IPCC sets a very high bar before it will definitively declare something to be known for certain. For every finding it includes, it is explicitly transparent about the level of scientific confidence in the research and the probability of a predicted impact occurring.

Its reports are much longer than an average person would be inclined to dedicate to reading but it publishes many of its important conclusions on its website in condensed formats and we draw on some of its key work in this article.

Another example is the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, which has carried out significant research projects into climate change.

Within particular countries, there are plenty of bodies, research groups and academics also collecting, studying and sharing data pertinent to the climate, such as, in Ireland, the Environmental Protection Agency. 

There are lots of resources that then try to bring factual and reliable information about climate to a wider audience. One example of an up-to-date book that’s useful is Introduction to Modern Climate Change by a climate scientist called Andrew Dessler, which we also use as a source in this article.

However, there are many places, particularly on the internet, that publish claims about the climate that are not accurate. Sometimes they contain clear errors or aggressive language that may signal to you that something is amiss. Sometimes, scientific articles – or, often, texts masquerading as scientific – can have inaccurate information.

A key question asked in science to figure out if a finding is reliable is whether it is replicable. If one scientist makes a surprising finding, will additional studies find the same result? Or was there a mistake in the first finding, or maybe the result was an outlier? Data is most trustworthy when it is backed up by multiple different sources and studies, like the findings published by the IPCC.

Now, let’s get into debunking those five common climate myths.

Fact from fiction

Myth: The earth is not warming.

Fact: The earth is warming.

Not every single year was warmer than the one before it, and some places have not warmed as much as others, but on average, the long-term temperature trend for the last century and a half – and especially since the 1980s – has been an upwards one.

Compared to 1850, the earth has warmed by around 1.1 degrees Celsius, which may sound like a small number, but even a few degrees of change in average global temperature is significant in relation to how human life survives on earth. 

The evidence for this comes from data taken from thermometers on the earth’s surface and is backed up by additional data from sources like satellite measurements taken from space, as well as data on the effects of warming on glaciers, ice sheets, ocean temperatures, sea level and more.

On a global level, 2021 was the sixth-warmest year on record in recent history, according to the temperature data collected by the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The nine years from 2013 to 2021 take up nine of the 10 spots on the list of the 10 warmest years on record.

In Ireland, temperatures have been above their long-term average for 11 years in a row, according to Met Éireann. Since 2000, only one year – 2010 – recorded a temperature below the long-term average. 

Myth: Temperatures may be warming but the impact will be negligible.

Fact: Warmer temperatures create serious dangers for humans, animals and plants.

The IPCC has warned that the impacts of climate change are already causing severe and widespread disruption to people’s lives in multiple ways across various regions of the world. 

Co-chair of the working group behind one of its reports, Hans-Otto Pörtner, said that “the scientific evidence is unequivocal: climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and the health of the planet”.

“Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future,” Pörtner said.

The IPCC has found that with 1.5 degrees of global warming, the world “faces unavoidable multiple climate hazards” in the next 20 years.

Exceeding a 1.5 degree rise, even temporarily, would lead to “additional severe impacts, some of which will be irreversible”.

How far temperatures rise depends on how fast and significantly humans act, but it is widely expected that they will surpass the 1.5 mark.

Nasa’s climate division has described how “the effects of human-caused global warming are happening now” and “will worsen in the decades to come”.

The changing climate system affects features of the natural world that may seem distant but have crucial impacts. For example, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets in turn impacts sea-level rise, which threatens coastal areas, and oceanic currents, which are a factor in the increase of extreme weather events.

In Ireland, the EPA expects that annual temperatures will have increased by between 1-1.2 degrees and 1.3-1.6 degrees, depending on our emissions. Projections predict:

  • More frequent heatwaves
  • Less rainfall in spring and summer and more heavy rainfall events in winter and autumn (which has knock-on impacts for sectors like farming)
  • Sea level rise with major economic, social and environmental impacts and increased coastal erosion, flooding and damage to property and infrastructure

In Europe, the report this week by the WMO warned that the continent is a “live picture of a warming world” and that even relatively well-prepared societies aren’t safe from extreme weather events.

The report detailed impacts like a 30-metre loss in the ice thickness of the Alpine glaciers between 1997 and 2021; the melting of the Greenlane ice sheet, contributing to sea-level rise; and droughts and high temperatures that have fuelled significant wildfires and heatwaves. 

In many parts of the world, the impacts of rising temperatures are not simply a prediction for the future but a threat that is increasingly impeding on everyday life. 

Heatwaves, droughts and flooding have ravaged areas like the Horn of Africa and India and Pakistan in the last year.

The 2022 Global Hunger Index, which described world hunger as being at “catastrophic” levels, pointed to a “toxic cocktail” of conflict, the climate crisis, and Covid-19.

Sometimes people trying to claim that climate change won’t have a significant impact raise the fact that many years ago, the earth experienced temperatures well above the ones we have today.

It’s true that throughout millions of years of history, global temperatures have been both higher and lower than they are at present.

The problem is that the conditions that make the planet a safe home for humans rely on a much narrower temperature range. Although the physical earth can withstand fluctuations in temperature, human life – along with many of the plants and animals that live alongside us – is vulnerable.

As temperatures rise, the kind of impacts discussed above start to become more and more of a reality.

Myth: Humans aren’t responsible for temperatures rising.

Fact: Human activities have caused an excessive amount of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere, causing temperatures to rise.

There is a large body of evidence that shows how rising temperatures correspond to increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the correlation between the addition of greenhouse gases and human activities.

The primary way that humans emit greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is through the burning of fossil fuels. 

Fossil fuel combustion releases carbon that was stored in the ground for thousands of years and sends it to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, where it traps too much heat around the earth instead of it being able to escape back to space.

Other human activities that cause temperatures to rise relate to using our land in ways that release carbon stored in the ground or plants, such as cutting down trees, or excessive amounts of agriculture involving ruminant livestock like cows that release methane.

The IPCC states that it is “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. 

Myth: There’s nothing humans can do to stop the climate crisis.

Fact: There are many actions that humans can take to stop the climate crisis.

According to the IPCC, the world has the tools and knowledge it needs to combat the climate crisis, it just needs to act on them rapidly.

It found that greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced by 40% to 70% by 2050 if the right policies, infrastructure and technology are implemented. 

At the heart of hundreds of ways that humans can address the problem are fossil fuels.

Switching to clean, renewable energy sources instead of extracting fossil fuels from the ground and burning them is a major aspect, as well as reducing energy consumption through cutting down how much energy we use and improving energy efficiency.

The IPCC’s latest report pointed to a range of measures that it described as “technically viable”, “increasingly cost-effective” and “generally supported by the public”:

  • solar energy,
  • wind energy,
  • electrification of urban systems,
  • urban green infrastructure,
  • energy efficiency,
  • demand-side management,
  • improved forest and crop/grassland management,
  • and reduced food waste and loss. 

Myth: Ireland’s emissions are too little to warrant taking climate action.

Fact: Ireland’s emissions per capita are one of the worst in Europe and efforts on climate change matter for multiple reasons.

Ireland’s share of global emissions is around 0.1% but that does not mean that our emissions don’t matter or that we can afford not to take action to cut emissions.

In 2020, Ireland’s emissions per capita were the third highest in Europe, according to data sourced by the European Environment Agency and published by Eurostat, behind only Iceland and Luxembourg. The ranking was the same in 2019, indicating that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic were not the cause of Ireland’s performance in 2020.

Globally, taking only CO2 emissions into account, we emitted more than 7.5 tonnes of CO2 per capita in 2018, putting us in the top 30 globally. If other greenhouse gases such as methane were included, Ireland’s position on the list would likely have been higher. 

Sometimes the argument is made that a country like China, considered to be one of the worst emitters, should take action first before other countries are called upon to do so. 

But the urgency of the climate crisis means that the world cannot afford to lose any time. 

On top of that, the logic that one country should wait until another takes action is flawed, because if all or most countries were to adopt that attitude, no progress could ever be achieved.

Even the argument that China is the largest emitter depends on how emissions are counted and compared. In terms of producing emissions, China is the largest emitter. But per capita (per person), North America, Oceania, the Middle East and Europe all emit more than Asia (and more than South America and Africa).

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But in terms of consumption (ie who uses the product of the emissions), the USA has far higher consumption-based emissions per capita than China, with the EU’s also slightly higher than China’s.

(That is not to suggest, though, that China does not have a gargantuan role to play in climate action. It, too, needs to massively cut emissions, but it is not the only place that does.)

Ireland can also play an important role by striving to be an example on climate action to other countries and by supporting vulnerable countries that are already facing the worst effects of the climate crisis.

Finally, even if our emissions reductions had no impact on the rest of the world, there are benefits for Ireland for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Improving air quality, protecting plants and animals, and increasing energy security by removing reliance on fossil fuels are all ways that Ireland’s action on climate change matters.