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Climate change myths

The fact that the earth’s climate is changing is undeniable. Despite science telling the world that for years, and climate change denialism almost going out of fashion, it has remained a hot button topic for debate. 

How? Why? Because the types of action required to reverse or slow down change require changes to how humans live. People disagree on everything from how much needs to be done to who should be held most responsible. 

Climate action is then challenged even further by false and misleading claims and conspiracy theories that try to undermine calls for serious change. In some instances,  misinformation and disinformation efforts seek to rebuff the fact that man-made climate change exists or to detract from how serious it is, and the level of threat that it poses to lives and livelihoods around the world.

It’s therefore understandable to find the topic difficult to navigate, or feel that your questions might be met with derision. 

But what we do know with absolute certainty is that the earth’s climate is changing. 

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased since the Industrial Revolution. (Credit: Luthi, D., et al.. 2008; Etheridge, D.M., et al. 2010; Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.)

Scientists agree it is "unequivocal" that human influence has caused the earth's atmosphere, land and oceans to warm. If this pattern of change is allowed to continue unchecked, it spells a web of disaster for human and natural life that will topple like dominos in the near- and long-term future.

What is uncertain is how we are going to act.

Common phrases and themes

The types of false claims that are made about the climate crisis are wide-ranging and have evolved over time as the science of climate change has become clearer and clearer. 

Around the 1980s, scientists already had an evidence-based understanding of climate change and how rampant burning of fossil fuels would cause the earth to warm. However, fossil fuel companies and some politicians and media commentators pushed the idea that climate change was ‘unsettled science’, arguing that not enough was known about it to start taking measures against it.

Early, deliberate efforts to prevent or delay climate action by spreading confusion and misinformation followed the tobacco industry’s playbook. 

Just as cigarette companies had once tried to downplay the massive health impacts of tobacco, the fossil fuel industry spent millions trying to minimise the fact that burning fossil fuels creates greenhouse gases emissions that trap heat inside the atmosphere, causing the earth to warm.

The industry tried to cast doubt on the science and manipulate public opinion. When it did have to start to acknowledge that climate change was real, it argued that not enough was known about it yet to take action – all the while trying to delay any measures to prevent climate change that might have pinched its bottom line. 

As the body of evidence proving the existence and threat of climate change continues to grow, some misinformation still tries to outright deny that reality, while other false narratives spread lies about the causes, impacts, and potential solutions.

An extensive study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue on misinformation and disinformation in Ireland found that prominent climate-related discussions sharing false claims on social media “often framed climate change as part of a broader ‘culture war’, trivialising the issue, denying the scientific evidence behind it, and portraying it as a “conspiracy to control the population”.

Some false claims about climate change contain errors that are easily identified, while others require additional scrutiny to get to the truth of the matter. 

Some claims can start with a kernel of truth but twist it to try to create their own story for their own reasons. A person or group might share information that is factual but present it as something it is not. They might share a graph, for instance, that is based on real statistics but say that it proves a particular point when actually what it shows is something else.

One false claim commonly made, for example, is that climate change isn’t something to fear since the earth experienced temperatures many years ago that were 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.

False information about climate today prevails in many different forms. It often falls under one of a few common themes, like these ones:

  • Climate change is not real
  • Climate change is real but humans didn’t cause it
  • Climate change is real but the impacts won’t be significant
  • Climate change is real and it’s too late to stop it

Conspiracy theories

Often, lies about climate change originate from vested interests that want to prevent action being taken to stop it because of ways, they believe, it would hurt them financially.

Another reason false claims are made about climate change is as part of conspiracy theories. It starts with people and groups who are already embedded in a web of deeply incorrect theories and have an intense distrust of public authorities. They believe that climate change is one of myriad myths made up by governments in order to control people. They try to convince others to see the world through their lens, aided by the kind of misinformation created by vested interests and adding their own false claims.

Politicians can also be a source of false claims about climate change. 

Those deliberate lies and false or misleading information percolate out from their original circles and reach people who may not start out with a strong opinion about climate change, but when bombarded by misinformation, are made to feel scared, anxious or angry. Social media is used to spread this misinformation widely and in various forms - doctored images, for example, or political fear mongering,or plain nonsense.

What do people in Ireland think?

It should be noted that the majority of people in Ireland understand that climate change is real. A study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2021 found 96% of people in Ireland think climate change is happening, with just 2% saying they don't believe it is happening and another 2% who were unsure.

It also showed people generally understand that human activities are causing climate change and that Ireland is or will be harmed by it. The EPA has also found only 3% of the population are doubtful about climate change - the rest are alarmed (36%), concerned (48%) or cautious (12%).

The minority, though, who do not believe in climate change or try to downplay its impacts can be very vocal, cause confusion, and try to pressure politicians against taking action.  

At the same time, the need to take climate action is becoming more and more urgent.

“In recent years, a significant increase in awareness regarding the dangers of climate change has led to its growing significance as a major concern among the general population,” the Institute of Strategic Dialogue’s report noted.

“However, as the topic has gained prominence in headlines, there has also been a surge in conspiracy theories and mis- and/or disinformation surrounding climate issues.”

Its analysis of climate-related misinformation content over time showed spikes during COP26 and COP27 (UN climate conferences) in 2021 and 2022 respectively and when the government announced sectoral emissions ceilings in July 2022.

What do we know about global temperatures?

Global average temperatures are rising. That doesn’t mean that every single year has been warmer than the one before it, or that every part of the earth is experiencing the same type or rate of change 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. This sounds like it’s a small number, but even a few degrees of change in average global temperatures is significant in relation to how human life survives on earth. Scientists are strongly urging that countries must try to limit warming to within 1.5 or 2 degrees to prevent all-out catastrophe - though even warming of that amount will carry sizable impacts.

The evidence of temperature rise 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.

VIDEO: Earth's average surface temperature in 2022 tied with 2015 as the fifth warmest on record, according to an analysis by NASA. Continuing the planet's long-term warming trend, global temperatures in 2022 were 1.6 degrees Fahrenheit (0.89 degrees Celsius) above the average for NASA's baseline period (1951-1980), scientists from NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York reported. The past 10 years have been the warmest years since modern record-keeping began in 1880. This means Earth in 2022 was about 1.11 degrees Celsius warmer than the late 19th-century average. Full story here(Credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio. Data provided by Robert B. Schmunk (NASA/GSFC GISS))

Last year, 2021 was identified as the sixth-warmest year of modern records, according to the temperature data collected by the US’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). It was then surpassed by 2022, which took it out as the sixth-warmest year with average temperatures that were 1.06 degrees Celsius warmer than pre-industrial times. That means the 10 warmest years on record have all occurred since 2010, according to the NOAA.

The World Meteorological Organisation's annual State of the Global Climate Report published in 2023 similarly found that 2015-2022 were the eight warmest years on record, even despite the cooling impact of a La Niña event for the most recent three years.

In Ireland, temperatures have been above their long-term average for 12 years in a row, according to Met Éireann. Since 2000, only one year – 2010 – recorded a temperature below the long-term average.

How do we know this is caused by humans?

Climate change has been driven by human activities that have caused an excessive amount of greenhouse gases to be released into the atmosphere.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has stated that it is “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land”. The IPCC is made up of hundreds of scientists from around the world and is known for being especially cautious and setting a very high bar of certainty before making declarative statements.

The earth has been both hotter and colder than it is now throughout its history at times where humans did not have a significant influence, but that does not change the fact that the current period of warming is due to human actions.

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

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 are using our land in ways that releases carbon into the atmosphere that was previously stored in the ground or plants, such as cutting down trees, or excessive amounts of agriculture that relies on ruminant livestock like cows that release methane, another damaging greenhouse gas.

The impacts of this human-caused climate change create serious dangers for humans, animals and plants.

The impact of climate change

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. 

It has found that if global average temperatures rise by 1.5 degrees – a threshold it is widely expected will be surpassed – 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”.

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 moderate temperature rise will bring impacts such as:

  • 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.

Met Éireann identified that a drier than average spring and summer in 2022 had "negative consequences for agriculture and wider society", noting that “latest Irish climate change projections indicate further warming in the future, drier summers on average and an increased chance of heatwaves and periods of drought”.

World Meteorological General Secretary Professor Petteri Taalas has stated that “while greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise and the climate continues to change, populations worldwide continue to be gravely impacted by extreme weather and climate events”.

“For example, in 2022, continuous drought in East Africa, record breaking rainfall in Pakistan and record-breaking heatwaves in China and Europe affected tens of millions, drove food insecurity, boosted mass migration, and cost billions of dollars in loss and damage.”

There are many actions that humans can take to stop the climate crisis. The world has the tools and knowledge it needs to combat the climate crisis.

The IPCC 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 is our approach to 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 has 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. 

Nasa’s climate change division has outlined that although human activities have already had impacts on the earth’s climate that can’t be reversed in the short-term, “every little bit of avoided future temperature increases results in less warming that would otherwise persist for essentially forever”. 

“The benefits of reduced greenhouse gas emissions occur on the same timescale as the political decisions that lead to those reductions.”


November 11, 2023



Lauren Boland

Journalist with The Journal

The Journal
Knowledge Bank

FactCheck is a central unit of Ireland’s leading digital native news site, The Journal. For over a decade, we have strived to be an independent and objective source of information in an online world that is full of noise and diversions.

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