20 Common Myths That Climate Scientists Often Hear

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Over the past few weeks I casually asked several climate-informed colleagues what questions, claims, or myths do they hear most often from friends, family, or random people. I call these “zombie” theories because they have often been refuted but live on in social media, other outlets, and so forth.  Here are the top 20 that emerged.

In this image provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA, shows how low sea ice levels were in the Arctic this winter, alarming climate scientists. During the winter, Arctic sea ice grew to 5.57 million square miles (14.42 million square kilometers) at its peak, but that’s the smallest amount of winter sea ice in 38 years of record keeping, beating the record set in 2015 and tied last year. Sea ice in March of this year was smaller than last year by an area about the size of the state of Maine. (National Snow and Ice Data Center and NASA via AP)

1. The climate always changes naturally, and we always had extreme weather. This is an accurate statement but misses the point that natural cycles can be altered by anthropogenic processes (Natural growing grass+fertilizer and Major League Baseball-home runs in the steroid era). Natural processes have always and will continue to affect climate. We just have to figure out how this relatively new anthropogenic “ingredient” is modifying the recipe.

2. Ok, the climate is changing but how do we know humans are contributing? There are a couple of good public-focused resources to answer this. One, from Bloomberg, provides a visual graphic to explain relative contributors to climate warming, and the other, from The Economist, explains it with text. For science background, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is a good source.

3. It is cold or snowing so there is no such thing as climate change. This highlights the need for increased climate literacy as a day or week doesn’t refute or prove climate warming. Weather is mood, climate is Personality. If you don’t like the weather wait a few hours, if you don’t like the climate move. Weather is what you are wearing today, climate is what’s in your closet. And believe it or not, in a warming climate we will still have winter and all that it brings. Seasonal weather is defined by the axial tilt of Earth as it orbits the sun.

4. How can you trust climate models when the weather models are unreliable past a certain number of days? They have fundamentally different objectives. This is an “apples vs oranges” discussion in many ways and further explained here.

5. Scientists were predicting a new Ice Age of global cooling in the 70s because some popular news magazine said so. No, a magazine article, a few people, and some literature said this not the majority of scientists/scientific studies. The writer of that magazine article has even debunked this himself.

6. We are coming out of an ice age that is why we are warming. A recent Nature Climate Change article looked at this, and it is summarized in this Guardian article which points out,

Right now we’re in a warm interglacial period, having come out of the last ice age (when New York City and Chicago were under an ice sheet) about 12,000 years ago. During that transition, the Earth’s average surface temperature warmed about 4°C, but that temperature rise occurred over a period of about 10,000 years….In contrast, humans have caused nearly 1°C warming over the past 150 years, and we could trigger anywhere from another 1 to 4°C warming over the next 85 years

7. There has been no warming since 1998. NOAA recently debunked this in a study, and a common sense look at the data does as well. There was even an whistleblower scandal but that was clarified since the scientist acknowledged no fraudulent activity.

8. Al Gore believes it is so I don’t. So does John McCain, Bob Inglis, Lindsey Graham, Mitt Romney and Christine Todd Whitman. The issue has mistakenly evolved as a political one. This is a shame since it is a human problem not a left or right one. We also do not have a Plan B planet to go to so why are we willing to ignore the risk? Sure there will be the occasional hearing that is more about theater, tribalism, and intent than science, but I do see progress.  Recently, a group of conservatives including Henry Paulson, President Bush’s Treasury Secretary, proposed a strategy forward on climate and bipartisan caucuses are emerging in Congress.

9. It’s the Urban Heat Island (see my past Forbes piece for a description). Climate scientists fully understand urban biases so carefully ignore urban temperatures in climate studies or correct for them. Dr. Brian Stone of Georgia Tech has even shown that scientists have been so careful to avoid urban bias that they have overlooked that cities are warming more due to combined urban and greenhouse gas-related warming.

10. It was warmer in the past. This is an accurate statement, but if you look at the earth and sea level at those times, it was a different planet. David Chandler address this eloquently in New Scientist, and it is worth the read.

11. The satellites say something different.  As a former NASA scientist developing large weather-climate missions, this one is always of interest. My past Forbes article examines aspects of this point and attempts to explain the nuances of measuring temperature from 100s of kilometers in space versus at the ground.

12. What about the positive benefits of climate change? I am sure there are positive benefits of the flu but they are far outweighed by the negative impacts. Here is  a critical analysis (though not peer reviewed so take it for what it is worth) of this claim.

13. Most of the changes are in the Arctic, and the Antarctic is gaining ice. Changes in the Arctic influence global weather patterns, ocean circulation, and sea level. For a clear explanation of differences in Arctic vs Antarctic changes, this NASA narrative is quite good.

14. Many scientists say it isn’t real. The key point is to look at what percentage of scientists are actually studying climate and publishing in the peer-review literature rather than just expressing opinions from afar. This is also a good time to review the concepts of Dunning-Kruger Effect and Cognitive Dissonance (both explained here). I just added Tom Nichol’s new book “The Death of Expertise” to my weekend reading list to better understand the erosion of trust in expert knowledge. I still believe a plumber can fix a leak in my house better than I can.

15. It is not settled science. Not exactly sure what this means because most science isn’t “settled.” Meteorology or cancer research falls into that category too, yet there is ample knowledge in both to utilize, warn of risks, and make decisions.

16. It’s the sun causing it. Solar cycles are not consistent with warming trends. Scientific American offers a brief but excellent discussion for public consumption. Also see #2 above.

17. They changed the name from global warming to climate change because they had no evidence of warming. This very interesting memo describes political maneuvering with the terms during a past administration but from my perspective, climate change is a broader word that captures the scope of the issue. I don’t describe the flu by saying I have a fever. Research by Dr. Theresa Andersen, one of my former doctoral students, also pointed out that the media (at least prior to her study) tended to use “global warming” while research forums used “climate change”.

18. The small amount of greenhouse gases couldn’t matter that much. Actually the small amount of greenhouse gases relative to nitrogen and oxygen is why we can live comfortably on Earth. As Colorado State University’s Dr. Scott Denning says, “we survive night each day because of the greenhouse effect” or it would be too cold. The physics of greenhouse gases have long been understood by Svante Arrhenius and others. And remember, it only takes a small amount of black mamba venom to kill you. It is quality not quantity.

19. What about India and China? Ok, and your point is…..? Yes, they are now leading emitters too, but that says nothing about the science. This statement is more rooted in the challenges associated with the solutions, and they are difficult. Dana Fisher and colleagues, publishing in American Behavioral Scientist, examine at where the polarization comes from on climate and identify the solution space as one of the culprits.

20. Honorable Mention. This made the list because it was just an amusing story by a colleague that captures many elements of the previous list. The colleague told me, “This was on a long flight. Person says to him ‘I am a chemist and I know how difficult it is to measure temperature. How can we measure global temperature changes of less than a degree?’ …….”

By the way, I see a lot of cringeworthy things on the other end of the spectrum too. There are still gaps and uncertainties in our knowledge that are often not properly conveyed. And at times, I do see some “over the top” analyses and statements. I will likely write about those in the future too.

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