10 misrepresentations about climate change

Few scientific fields generate as much controversy as climate change. Misunderstandings, misrepresentations, and outright lies are common. While environmentalists rightly criticize anti-global warming activists for not being truthful, neither side is innocent. Presented here are five common misrepresentations from both sides and the truth about those issues.

Misrepresentations from Climate Change Deniers:

#1: The Earth is not getting warmer.

Who said it? Among others, all of the Republicans serving on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee. Earlier this year, Henry Waxman, a Democrat serving on the committee, proposedan amendment calling on Congress to acknowledge that the Earth is warming. All of the Republicans on the committee voted against it.

The truth: According to NASA, the two warmest years ever recorded were 2010 and 2005. Five of the six years tied for the third warmest year ever recorded have been since the year 2000 (2002, 2003, 2006, 2007 and 2009). In other words, last year was the warmest year ever and the whole last decade was the warmest decade ever. The planet is warming.

Global temperature map courtesy of NASA

#2: Humans are not responsible for the Earth getting warmer, it’s a natural process.

Who said it? Among others, former Republican Presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty. In an interview earlier this year, he said “The weight of the evidence is that most of it, maybe all of it, is because of natural causes.”

The truth: In a well-known paper published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, William Anderegg and colleagues found that 97-98% of climate scientists who are most commonly publishing papers support “the tenets of anthropogenic climate change” (that humans and human activity are a major cause of climate change). That sure doesn’t sound like “maybe all” of the evidence is against this idea.

#3: There is no scientific consensus on whether or not climate change is happening.

Who said it? Among others, current Republican Presidential frontrunner and Texas Governor Rick Perry. In a recent Presidential Debate, he said about climate change that ““The science is not settled on this…scientific theory that’s not settled yet”.

The truth: As stated above, 97-98% of climate scientists seem to agree. Additionally, the National Academies of Science of many countries including those of all the G8 nations (United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, Japan, and Russia), have issued statements showing that they agree with the tenets of anthropogenic climate change. National academies of other major global economies (such India, China, South Africa, Brazil) have also issued these statements. To be sure, there are those who do not agree, but this is basically as close to a scientific consensus as anyone could reasonably expect.

#4: Scientists lie about climate change and have been caught doing so.

Who said it? Many conservatives and conservative organizations have tried to make political hay of “climategate”. Conservative commentator James Dellingpole called the incident “the final nail in the coffin” of climate change, and said “The conspiracy behind the Anthropogenic Global Warming myth… has been suddenly, brutally and quite deliciously exposed.”

The truth: A NOAA report cleared all U.S. government scientists of any wrongdoing. The National Science Foundation cleared other U.S. scientists of any wrongdoing. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explained how the so-called “scandal” was overblown and that the specific criticisms leveled against various climate researchers were exaggerated or made up entirely. Three independent panels have cleared these climate researchers of wrongdoing. The “climategate” e-mails do not show any wrongdoing by any climate researchers, and neither does anything else.

#5: Environmentalists and climate scientists lie about climate change so that they can get rich.

Who said it? Among others, Rick Perry. While campaigning in New Hampshire, he said “there are a substantial number of scientists who have manipulated data so that they will have dollars rolling into their projects.”

The truth: Actually, Rick Perry is correct when he says that greed is having a strong influence on the climate change debate. He just identified the wrong side. Energy companies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing the debate. Scientists and environmentalists do not become scientists and environmentalists to get rich.

Misrepresentations from Climate Change Advocates

#6: Hurricane Irene was a result of climate change.

Who said it? Among others, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben. He wrote that “Irene’s got a middle name, and it’s Global Warming.”

The truth: It is indeed extremely rare for a serious tropical storm to hit New England, and while many climate change models predict more storms and more extreme storms, it is impossible to tie any one storm to climate change.

#7: Sea level rise related to climate change is already so bad that many small Pacific islands have been evacuated.

Who said it? Among others, Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth. “The citizens of these pacific nations have all had to evacuate to New Zealand”

The truth: No such mass evacuations have occurred. They may happen in the future, but it is difficult to predict exactly how much the seas will rise in the future, and different studies have different conclusions. At least one study concluded that many low-lying Pacific islands have actually gained landmass lately.

#8: The only way to save ourselves is a cap and trade system.

Who said it? Among others, the Environmental Defense Fund said “Cap and trade is the most environmentally and economically sensible approach to controlling greenhouse gas emissions…the only certain way to limit pollution.”

The truth: Even though many leading figures from both U.S. political parties once embraced the idea (including 2008 Republican Presidential nominee John McCain), the high estimated cost likely doomed this plan from the beginning. It certainly has no chance of passing in the current political climate, and the very fact that it won’t happen means that it isn’t the best solution. A variety of other solutions, each with their own pros and cons, are available to us, including a carbon tax, increased investment in alternative energy, increased energy efficiency, geoengineering, and planting trees on a large scale. We could even (gasp) use some combination of these ideas. The environmental movement would be well served by advocating solutions that will help the planet and have a chance of passing rather than giving up because their main idea is politically impossible.

#9 The proposed Tar Sands pipeline is the make-or-break moment for the environment.

Who said it? Among others, prestigious climate scientist James Hansen. In an opinion piece, he wrote that if President Obama approves the Tar Sands pipeline, ” it is game over.”

The truth: Extracting oil from tar sands emits much more CO2 than traditional oil drilling, and the currently proposed plan will result in cutting down hundreds of thousands of acres of trees to facilitate drilling. Environmentalists are right to strongly oppose it and to support green energy projects instead. However, many factors contribute to climate change and no one pipeline or drilling project is the be-all end-all for the planet. As we’ve said many times before, if you believe that your side is correct, then there is no need to exaggerate points. The facts on this issue speak for themselves, there is no need to artificially inflate its importance by claiming that one pipeline will be “game over” for the environment.

#10: Anyone who denies climate change is stupid.

Who said it? Among others, British economist Sir Nicholas Stern (author of the famous Stern report about the economic effects of climate change) said that climate change skepticism is equivalent to being a “flat-earther”.

The truth:  Even if we accept without question the premise that climate change is happening, we are responsible for much of it, and we need to act, that does not mean that anyone who doesn’t agree is stupid. In many cases, climate change skepticism can be tied to hearing only one side of the issue, or a natural distrust of environmental or liberal policies. Disagreement or skepticism does not make people stupid even if one side is objectively correct. There are a large number of people in the United States who do not accept the prevailing scientific consensus on climate change. As environmentalists, to a large extent, this phenomenon is both our fault and our problem. If we communicated the facts more effectively, no amount of lies and distortions from the other side would make a difference. Public support will be needed to make any sort of meaningful environmental policy change, and it is our responsibility to convince the public that our side is the right one. The facts are on our side, but you’ll never convince anyone to join you by insulting them.

October 3, 2011 • 11:30 am