Photo: PSI/Science Photo Library via AFP
04 Jun 2024 Story Climate Action

Debunking eight common myths about climate change

Photo: PSI/Science Photo Library via AFP

The world is warming at a record pace, with unseasonable heat baking nearly every continent on Earth. April, the last month for which statistics are available, marked the 11th consecutive month the planet has set a new temperature high.

Experts say that is a clear sign the Earth’s climate is rapidly changing. But many believe – or at least say they believe – that climate change is not real, relying on a series of well-trodden myths to make their point. 

“Most of the world rightly acknowledges that climate change is real,” says Dechen Tsering, Acting Director of the Climate Change Division at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “But in many places, misinformation is delaying the action that is so vital to countering what is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.” 

This month, delegates will be meeting in Bonn, Germany for a key conference on climate change. Ahead of that gathering, here is a closer look at eight common climate-related myths and why they are simply not true. 

Myth #1: Climate change has always happened, so we should not worry about it. 

It is true that the planet’s temperature has long fluctuated, with periods of warming and cooling. But since the last ice age 10,000 years ago, the climate has been relatively stable, which scientists say has been crucial to the development of human civilization. 

That stability is now faltering. The Earth is heating up at its fastest rate in at least 2,000 years and is about 1.2°C hotter than it was in pre-industrial times. The last 10 years have been the warmest on record, with 2023 smashing global temperature records.   

Other key climate-related indicators are also spiking. Ocean temperatures, sea levels and atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gasses are rising at record rates while sea ice and glaciers are retreating at alarming speeds. 

Myth #2: Climate change is a natural process. It has nothing to do with people. 

While climate change is a natural process human activity is pushing it into overdrive. A landmark report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which draws on the research of hundreds of leading climate scientists, found that humans are responsible for almost all the global warming over the past 200 years.  

The vast majority of warming has come from the burning of coal, oil and gas. The combustion of these fossil fuels is flooding the atmosphere with greenhouse gases, which act like a blanket around the planet, trapping heat.  

By measuring everything from ice cores to tree rings, scientists have been able to track concentrations of greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide levels are at their highest in 2 million years, while two other greenhouse gases, methane and nitrous oxide, are at their highest in 800,000 years.  

A satellite view of a hurricane
As the Earth’s climate changes, hurricanes and other superstorms are expected to become more common in many parts of the world. Photo: APF/NOAA

Myth #3: A couple of degrees of warming is not that big of a deal. 

Actually, small temperature rises can throw the world’s delicate ecosystems into disarray, with dire implications for humans and other living things. The Paris Agreement on climate change aims to limit average global temperature rise to “well below” 2°C, and preferably to 1.5°C, since pre-industrial times.  

Even that half-a-degree swing could make a massive difference. The IPCC found that at 2°C of warming, more than 2 billion people would regularly be exposed to extreme heat than they would at 1.5°C. The world would also lose twice as many plants and vertebrate species and three times as many insects. In some areas, crop yields would decrease by more than half, threatening food security. 

At 1.5°C of warming, 70 per cent to 90 per cent of corals, the pillars of many undersea ecosystems, would die. At 2°C of warming, some 99 per cent would perish. Their disappearance would likely lead to the loss of other marine species, many of which are a critical source of protein for coastal communities. 

“Every fraction of a degree of warming matters,” says Tsering. 

Myth #4: An increase in cold snaps shows climate change is not real. 

This statement confuses weather and climate, which are two different things. Weather is the day-to-day atmospheric conditions in a location and climate is the long-term weather conditions in a region. So, there could still be a cold snap while the general trend for the planet is warming.  

Some experts also believe climate change could lead to longer and more intense cold in some places due to changes in wind patterns and other atmospheric factors. One much-publicized paper found the rapid warming of the Arctic may have disrupted the swirling mass of cold air above the North Pole in 2021. This unleashed sub-zero temperatures as far south as Texas in the United States, causing billions of dollars in damages. 

A man shoveling snow.
Some experts believe that climate change could spark cold snaps in unusual places, like the American state of Texas, which was hammered by a historic snowstorm in 2021. Photo: AFP/Matthew Busch 

Myth #5: Scientists disagree on the cause of climate change. 

A 2021 study revealed that 99 per cent of peer-reviewed scientific literature found that climate change was human-induced. That was in line with a widely read study from 2013, which found 97 per cent of peer-reviewed papers that examined the causes of climate change said it was human-caused. 

“The idea that there is no consensus is used by climate deniers to muddy the waters and sow the seeds of doubt,” says Tsering. “But the scientific community agrees: the global warming we are facing is not natural. It is caused by humans.” 

Myth #6: It is too late to avert a climate catastrophe, so we might as well keep burning fossil fuels. 

While the situation is dire, there is still a narrow window for humanity to avoid the worst of climate change.  

UNEP’s latest Emissions Gap Report found that cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 42 per cent by 2030, the world could limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C compared with pre-industrial levels.  

A little math reveals that to reach that target, the world must reduce its annual emissions by 22 billion tonnes of carbon-dioxide equivalent in less than seven years. That might seem like a lot. But by ramping up financing and focusing on low-carbon development in key transport, agriculture and forestry, the world can get there.  

“There is no question the task ahead of us is massive,” Tsering says. “But we have the solutions we need to reduce emissions today and there is an opportunity to raise ambition in the new round of national climate action plans.”  

A solar plant set in the desert. 
To avert the worst of climate change, the world must embrace low-carbon technologies, like solar power, say experts. Photo: UNEP/Duncan Moore

Myth #7: Climate models are unreliable. 

Climate skeptics have long argued that the computer models used to project climate change are unreliable at best and completely inaccurate at worst. 

But the IPCC, the world’s leading scientific authority on climate change, says that over decades of development, these models have consistently provided “a robust and unambiguous picture” of planetary warming.  

Meanwhile, a 2020 study by the University of California showed that global warming models were largely accurate. The study looked at 17 models that were generated between 1970 and 2007 and found 14 of them closely matched observations.  

Myth #8: We do not need to worry about lowering greenhouse gas emissions. Humanity is inventive; we can just adapt to climate change. 

Some countries and communities can adapt to rising temperatures, lower precipitation and the other impacts of climate change. But many cannot.  

The world’s developing countries collectively need between US$215 billion and US$387 billion per year to adapt to climate change, yet only have access to a fraction of that total, found UNEP’s latest Adaptation Gap Report. Even wealthy nations will struggle to afford the cost of adaptation, which in some cases will require radical measures, such as displacing vulnerable communities, relocating vital infrastructure or changing staple foods.  

In many places, people are already facing hard limits on how much they can adapt. Small island developing states, for example, can only do so much to hold back the rising seas that threaten their existence. 

Without significant action to lower greenhouse gas emissions, communities will reach these hard limits faster and begin to suffer irreparable damage from climate change, say experts.   


The Sectoral Solution to the climate crisis  

UNEP is at the forefront of supporting the Paris Agreement goal of keeping global temperature rise well below 2°C, and aiming for 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. To do this, UNEP has developed the Sectoral Solution, a roadmap to reducing emissions across sectors in line with the Paris Agreement commitments and in pursuit of climate stability. The six sectors identified are: energy; industry; agriculture and food; forests and land use; transport; and buildings and cities.