For many of us, thinking about climate change can feel scary and overwhelming.
Especially when clickbait headlines, misbeliefs or downright misinformation about global warming run rampant online.
These false narratives create confusion around the gravity of the crisis we’re facing, leaving us unsure what to do at a time when collective action is urgent.
Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, who performed at President Biden’s inauguration, touches on this dilemma in “Earthrise,” a poem she wrote for the Climate Reality Project: “Climate change is the single greatest challenge of our time, / Of this you’re certainly aware. / It’s saddening, but I cannot spare you / From knowing an inconvenient fact, because / It’s getting the facts straight that gets us to act and not to wait.”
With Gorman’s words as inspiration, let’s separate climate change facts from fiction, and unpack six popular myths around global warming.
Myth 1: Scientists don’t agree or know for sure if climate change is real
97 percent of scientists agree on two crucial things: Global warming is happening, and the cause of global warming is humans.
Scientists may not agree on every single thing to do with climate change, but the majority (and by majority we mean 97 percent) do agree on two crucial things: Global warming is happening, and the cause of global warming is humans.
200 worldwide scientific organizations that hold the position that climate change is real and caused by human actions.
Not only have most of the world’s leading science organizations made public statements confirming their position, it’s a fact immortalized in the 2018 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the United Nations body for assessing climate change science.
Just scroll through this list of more than 200 worldwide scientific organizations that hold the position that climate change is real and caused by human actions.
Myth 2: It’s too late to stop climate change
Of all the misinformation around climate change, this myth is particularly deflating. The truth about climate change is that it is a big problem, but it’s not too late to tackle it.
According to climatologist Michael Mann—who created one of the earliest visual representations of the planet’s rising temperatures, known as the Hockey Stick graph—the science indicates that if we dramatically reduce our carbon emissions, we can avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
Our collective action has the power to slow down climate change
Turning things around will take collective action, but climate change myths that dismiss the power of individuals are not only false, they’re damaging.
Our choices matter, from the votes we cast in elections to the way we travel, shop and eat. How we frame the problem matters, too: recognizing that it is big, but if we don’t do anything, it will be worse.
“We can be doomed, if we choose to be,” climate scientist Kate Marvel pointed out in an interview with The New York Times. “Climate change is inevitable; it’s already happening. But there is a difference between bad, disruptive and completely catastrophic. And we still have time to prevent that catastrophe.”
Myth 3: Climate change is a natural phenomena
It’s not unreasonable to assume there may be some truth to this idea.
After all, over the past million years, the earth has indeed experienced warmer periods and colder ones. But this belief implies that climate scientists haven’t already taken natural climate cycles into consideration.
We know the scientific community is nearly unanimous on what’s causing climate change.
Even if we can’t remember much from 9th grade science, we know that in order to prove an experiment’s hypothesis, you need to account for all the variables.
And because we know the scientific community is nearly unanimous on what’s causing climate change (reminder: it’s us), alternative theories—or variables—like the notion that global warming may be caused by the sun (it’s not), or that it’s part of the Earth’s natural cycle, have been studied and accounted for.
How do we know that the climate crisis is caused by humans?
The Columbia University Earth Institute explains it this way: Scientists look at data sets and climate models to try to reproduce the changes that have already been observed.
When they input natural forces, such as the sun’s intensity, they can’t reproduce the changes that have occurred so far. It’s only when the emissions from human activity are included—the greenhouse gases, like carbon dioxide, trapping heat in the atmosphere—that the models and data sets are able to accurately reproduce the warming we’re seeing in oceans and the atmosphere today.
Myth 4: Other countries emit far more emissions. Aren’t they more responsible for climate change?
We don’t need a psychology degree to know that denial is one of our most common defense mechanisms as humans.
We often use it when we feel anxiety, and we know that eco-anxiety and climate depression are real. The fact is, as countries like the United States have grown from rural and farming-based to industrialized and urban societies, we’ve burned a lot of fossil fuels along the way. And as the United Nations points out, carbon dioxide—which accounts for about two-thirds of greenhouse gases—is “largely the product of burning fossil fuels.”
No country has contributed more C02 to the atmosphere than the United States.
Yes, today China emits about twice as much carbon dioxide as the United States, but citing that stat without some key context is misleading—China’s population is more than four times larger than America’s, about 1.4 billion compared to 328 million.
In fact, if we look at a 2018 ranking of per capita emissions, the United States, Canada and Australia are in the top five, and countries like China and India (which rank in the top three when we look at emissions by country) are 13th and 21st on the list, respectively.
Myth 5: Climate change isn’t all bad. What’s wrong with milder weather and warmer winters?
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, January 2020 was the hottest January in the past 141 years, and the four warmest Januaries have all happened in the past five years.
While warmer winters may seem like a silver lining to the dark cloud that is climate change (especially if you’re not a fan of wearing winter parkas and thermal underwear), this change is causing a lot of problems, from flooding to droughts, and affecting everything from agriculture to tourism.
Cold weather isn’t a sign of a climate change hoax. In fact, we can expect colder winters in parts of North America as temperatures warm in the Arctic.
Take California, where crops like apples require a certain amount of cold weather, or “chill hours,” to grow.
Or Maine, where activities like skiing and ice fishing that bring out-of-state visitors (aka a tourism economy) are experiencing shorter seasons.
And by the way, cold weather isn’t a sign of a climate change hoax, an idea that’s made the rounds on Twitter. In fact, according to a Rutgers University study, we can expect colder winters in parts of North America as temperatures warm in the Arctic.
What's the difference between climate and weather?
It’s important to understand that there’s a difference between climate and weather. They aren’t the same thing. In the words of Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, the former president of the American Meteorological Society: “weather is your mood and climate is your personality.” But climate does affect weather. For instance, climate change will make weather like heavy rainfalls even heavier, and heatwaves hotter and more frequent.
Myth 6: Switching the world to entirely renewable energy is impossible in the time frame we have
“We can do hard things”—it’s not just an Instagram-friendly affirmation. (Just look at what President Biden did for climate change in a single day.) Challenging? Yes. Impossible? No.
A full transition to clean energy, by shifting to mainly wind and solar power, may be possible by 2050.
Stanford University pulled together a collection of nearly 50 peer-reviewed papers, authored by close to 100 researchers, that analyzed different scenarios to explore whether individual countries or different regions around the globe could get by on renewable energy alone.
The consensus was that it’s achievable, with a caveat: A full transition to clean energy, by shifting to mainly wind and solar power, may be possible by 2050—which would keep global warming below the 1.5°C (2.7°F) limit outlined in the Paris Agreement—but it requires commitment from a range of stakeholders, including policymakers, investors and other relevant organizations.
Local governments in many American cities have committed to powering their communities with 100% renewable energy.
The good news is that local governments in many American cities have already committed to powering their communities with 100 percent clean, renewable energy.
Meanwhile, companies like General Motors are taking climate action that will surely influence others in the industry; the automaker recently announced it will phase out gas-powered cars and go electric by 2035. Solar power keeps improving and is far cheaper than it’s ever been. And innovative start-ups are breaking new ground, engineering everything from sustainable air conditioners (Leonardo DiCaprio is an investor in Bluon to electric planes.
How to use your climate change knowledge
Now that the facts are clear, what can we do next?
If you ask my daughters, who’ve watched Frozen II too many times to count, they’d probably say to do “The Next Right Thing.”
If this Disney reference is lost on you, let me explain: As with all things that seem difficult and overwhelming, all we can do is take it one step at a time, whether that’s sharing what you’ve learned in this article with friends and family, switching your car commutes for lower-carbon driving alternatives, making your bathroom more climate-friendly, choosing to eat more plant-based meals, or trading shopping sprees for vintage thrifting.
Inspiring others to get on board with the cause and donating to environmental organizations are helpful, too.
And beyond that, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and co-host of the podcast How to Save a Planet, offered this idea in a recent interview: Ask yourself what you’re good at, and how that matches with the work that needs to be done. In other words, whether you’re an artist, web designer, lawyer or bank teller, how can you use your special skills, network and resources to contribute to climate solutions?
Keep in mind that perfectionism isn’t the goal, as youth climate activist Xiye Bastida writes in her essay for the book All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis.
“A vibrant, fair, and regenerative future is possible,” she says—“not when thousands of people do climate justice activism perfectly, but when millions of people do the best they can.”
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