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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C

Debunked: There is no such thing as 'asymptomatic' climate change

An image doctored to look like a headline of a news website has been shared widely online.

For general Factchecks not about Covid (1)

AN IMAGE THAT looks like the headline of an Irish Independent article includes the claim that Ireland is “suffering from asymptomatic climate change” is fake.

The image is doctored to look like a headline screenshotted from The fake headline states:

Climate crisis explainer: Why is July so cold while everywhere else on the planet is burning? Prof Luke O’Neill says Ireland is suffering from asymptomatic global warming.

The date on the false image reads “Thursday 20th July”. The image itself, as well as claims about “asymptomatic global warming”, have been shared widely on Facebook and Twitter.

One Twitter account with over 5,500 followers and a verified blue tick (which means posts are boosted) shared the image along with the commentary: “What the f*** is ‘asymptomatic global warming’?”

The tweet was viewed 56,500 times and was retweeted and quote tweeted close to 640 times at the time of writing. Many of the accounts boosting the original tweet add commentary suggesting climate change is a hoax.

References to “asympomatic global warming” have also appeared on Facebook in recent days, with similar suggestions that climate change is a hoax. 

No article

However, no article with the headline has appeared on on 20 July or any other date.

In a statement, a spokesperson for confirmed: “The Irish Independent has never published an article under this headline.”

The headline also appears to conflate the Covid-19 pandemic – which has attracted its own fair share of misinformation – with climate change.

Professor Luke O’Neill, referenced in the fake headline, is a professor of biochemistry in the School of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin.

He became a regular media commentator during the pandemic, speaking on radio and being interviewed for his expert opinion on immunology.

O’Neill was interviewed on 20 July on Newstalk, and spoke to Pat Kenny about genetics and how people adapt to heat.

However, he never used the phrase “asymptomatic global warming”; instead, he spoke about how people adapt to heat, not about Ireland’s temperature in relation to the rest of the world.

‘Asymptomatic global warming’

The term ‘asymptomatic global warming’ is not used in science or in general climate communications, but has been used to downplay or deride the negative effects of human-made climate change.

According to Dr Cara Augustenborg, Assistant Professor in Landscape Studies and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin, the term is not used in science.

“Asymptomatic indicates a lack of symptoms or signs of something. Climate scientists study the opposite of that, searching for indicators or signs of how the climate is change and how Earth is responding to those climatic changes,” she told The Journal.

“It’s not a term used in the scientific literature. Nor is it something that is happening.

The scientific evidence shows the world, and Ireland, is warming and “symptoms” including sea level rise, glacial retreat, heatwaves, ocean acidification, etc. are all very apparent at this stage. 

Maynooth University Emeritus Professor John Sweeney, one of the leading climatology and climate change experts in Ireland, said that the reference to ‘asymptomatic climate change’ was a “meaningless comment”.

It’s not a concept I’ve ever come across. It’s a makey-up word and concept.

According to Dr Sadhbh O’Neill, a researcher and lecturer in climate ethics, climate policy and governance and environmental politics, and coordinator of the Stop Climate Chaos campaign group, the term is “nonsense”.

“I never have even heard of this thing. This is ludicrous,” she said.

Anybody who thinks that climate change isn’t unfolding in front of our eyes has their head in the sand.

The sharing of false or misleading statements around climate change is a tactic used by bad actors to attempt to undermine climate science and the facts of human made climate change. 

In an article published last year, UN Under-Secretary-General Melissa Fleming said climate misinformation “is shared widely online, seeking to sow division and delay climate action”.

Online headlines, one part of the climate misinformation trend, are easy to fake. While sometimes intended as satire, they are regularly spread as a form of misinformation and believed to be real in some online communities.

The Journal has previously debunked similar fabricated headlines, including about climate change

 The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.