False things you believe about climate change

Of all the things we know about climate change, the most pervasive is probably this one: Climate change is really freaking scary. And that might also be the biggest reason so many people continue to believe other things about climate change that just aren't true. It's just so much easier to not believe in zombies than it is to admit that your house might be surrounded by them. Friends, it's time to open your front door and stare right into the approaching horde. Hopefully, once you can see them coming, you won't really have a choice but to unsheath your katana and start cutting them down.

The Sun affects climate change

The Earth is warm because the Sun is hot. Even flat-Earthers, toddlers, and most members of Congress can agree on that one. But is it possible that the reason the Earth is getting even warmer is also because of the Sun? Some people speculate that natural changes in the Earth/Sun dynamic or in the temperature of the Sun itself might actually contribute to global climate changes, and if that's true, it's a fairly solid excuse for inaction — we can't change the temperature of the Sun or the orbit of our planet, so we can't do anything about climate change, either.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, if you consider a larger time-scale (counted in millions of years), a change in the intensity of heat from the Sun does impact climate. That's what caused the ice ages, for example. But it can't explain the rapid increase in temperature we've seen over the past couple decades, especially since the Sun has actually been cooling down for the last 35 years. And anyway, a collective shrug is a bad way to handle impending disaster — it's kind of like saying that nothing should be done about the zombie horde just because you didn't personally engineer the virus that's making the dead rise from their graves.  

Increased CO2 is a side effect of climate change, not the cause of it

Back when humans were riding mammoths and battling armies of saber-toothed tigers (just kidding, that never happened), the gradual warming period that hailed the end of the ice age was followed by an increase in CO2, not preceded by it. In other words, the Earth warmed up, and then CO2 started to rise, so the warming couldn't have been a result of increased CO2 because the increase in CO2 came second.

Some people are quite smug when using this particular little factoid as an argument against climate change, but they're missing the big picture. The fact that CO2 increases as the planet's temperature rises is not a reason to discount global climate change, though it may be a reason to start digging the underground bunker you and your family will have to live in once the Earth becomes unfriendly to human life. According to Skeptical Science, as global temperatures rise, the warming seas release even more CO2 into the atmosphere, which makes the planet warm more, which in turn makes the seas release even more CO2 into the atmosphere. So human-initiated climate change is what gets that ball rolling in the first place. Would you like to borrow a shovel?

Global warming stopped in 1998

Ferocious hurricanes, widespread flooding, devastating droughts, and whole groups of people fleeing their ancestral homes are just some of the very modern examples of climate change in action. And yet, some people are still saying warming ended in 1998, thus proving that human beings have an astonishing capacity for covering up their ears and chanting, "La, la, la, I can't hear you."

So where did this strange notion that global warming is over actually come from? According to Scientific American, climate scientists create models that help them predict what will happen to the climate over time, and during the early 2000s their models did not line up with what was actually happening to global temperatures. During that time period, the climate was still warming, just not as quickly as the projection said it would.

Is that because global climate change isn't happening? Nope. It's likely just due to variability in the Earth's natural climate. In other words, temperature fluctuation is pretty normal and that period in the early 2000s was just one of those natural downturns. The real takeaway from all this isn't that the Earth actually cooled down or that warming stopped. (Neither one of those things is true.) It's that those natural fluctuations in climate weren't enough to halt the widespread climate change that's already happening. How's that bunker coming along?

Scientists don't agree that global warming is caused by humans

Okay, yes, every single scientist does not necessarily agree that human activities are causing global climate change. Consensus isn't 100 percent — it's more like 97 percent. But the fact is that there's no such thing as a 100 percent scientific consensus on anything. Scientists are still debating the Big Bang theory, the cause of dinosaur extinction, and whether red wine is actually good for you. The difference is that mostly none of those things will eventually lead to global annihilation, except for in the not-too-distant future when the fabric of society will crumble under the socioeconomic stress induced by the War of the Rosés. (Just wait, it's coming.)

As far as scientific consensus goes, "97 percent" is about as close as you'll ever get to "everyone." And it's not a number researchers arbitrarily plucked out of their backsides, either. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, to arrive at that 97 percent figure, a peer-reviewed study published in 2013 looked at more than 10,000 scientific papers, and found that more than 97 percent of those papers concluded that not only is global warming happening, it's been mostly brought on by human activity. That 97 percent figure is roughly equivalent to the number of scientists who agree that smoking causes cancer, and just imagine the ridicule you'd probably get from, like, the entire world if you went around telling everyone you think smoking has been unfairly vilified.

It's been extra cold this winter so the planet must not be warming

An old favorite of politicians and that one clueless guy you work with, this particular line of thinking reasons that a cold snap must mean there's no such thing as global warming. The argument usually goes like this: Science-denial Bob comes sauntering into the office on a frozen morning and smugly declares, "How about that global warming?"

If you'd like to have an argument you can present to Bob the next time he tells you a single cold day cancels out decades of climate trends and research, here's an analogy that scientists use: "Weather is mood; climate is personality." Everyone has days when their mood is dark and days when their mood is bright, but those moods can exist independently of their overall character. Personality is the sum total of all those different moods. A person who has a bright personality may occasionally have a few dark days, but that doesn't change the fact that that person is generally bright and happy, just as a few cold days doesn't change the fact that the climate overall is getting warmer.

There's also some science behind those severe cold snaps. According to LiveScience, when Arctic temperatures rise, winter air travels south. The changing weather patterns have an effect on atmospheric winds, which send unseasonably cold air into North America and Europe. That's why it's called "climate change" because the warming trend changes weather patterns and that can cause all sorts of weird things to happen, including cold snaps.

Ozone depletion contributes to global warming

This common misconception doesn't really have the potential for great harm that some of the others do, but it's still worth clearing up since it represents a certain amount of misplaced anxiety.

According to ClimateSight, ozone is a layer of oxygen atoms that exists in the stratosphere. It absorbs UV radiation, which is more or less why we don't all burst into flames on a sunny day in July. Back in the days of supercharged cans of hairspray and CFC refrigerant, ozone-depleting particles were a byproduct of daily life, and by the 1980s it was clear that they were actually eating a hole in the ozone layer. Thankfully, the hole was over the Antarctic, which was great news for us but not so great for emperor penguins.

In 1987 politicians worldwide managed to completely ban CFCs, and today there is some evidence that ozone concentrations are actually rising, so good for us. See, politicians can pass meaningful environmental policies. Stop laughing.

So what does all that have to do with climate change? Nothing. It's worth noting that the stratosphere cools as the climate warms, and a cooler stratosphere is more vulnerable to ozone-depleting particles (that's why the ozone hole formed over Antarctica). So ultimately, this means global warming is bad. As if you actually needed more reminding.

Climate changes over time, so this could just be a normal variation

Lots of things can cause climate change, and it's not just coal and people who drive Hummers. The Earth's orbit is slightly variable, which can cause climate change over thousand-year timelines. The Sun's temperature can fluctuate. Volcanoes can change the climate. So how do we know the current warming trend isn't natural? To answer that question, you just have to look at the hockey stick.

According to Pacific Climate Futures, scientists have charted atmospheric carbon dioxide over time, and the rate of increase corresponds quite nicely with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, which also corresponds neatly to the rate at which the planet has been warming up. The shape of that increase is like a hockey stick — relatively flat prior to the Industrial Revolution, and terrifyingly steep afterward.

Just before the Industrial Revolution, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. Today, it's more than 400 parts per million, which is higher than it's been in 800,000 years. What was happening 800,000 years ago? Modern humans didn't exist yet, and our ancestors had just invented the boat, which was evidently necessary because sea level was 100 feet above where it is now and the water was full of mega-toothed sharks. All that happened without the help of coal, Hummers, or mutation-inducing waste. So when you're done with that bunker, you might want to follow in our ancestors' footsteps and build yourself a boat, just in case.

It's too late to do anything about climate change

This fatalistic point of view is the equivalent of standing on top or your house and screaming, "It's too late to do anything about the horde of slowly ambling zombies that are still a couple miles away!" We can see climate change coming, and yes, it's possible to stop it. It just requires some collective effort, but sometimes that seems impossible.

According to a 2014 UN report, we could avoid some of the most dire consequences of climate change if we just reduced global emissions 41 to 72 percent by mid-century, followed by a goal of near-zero emissions by 2100, and maybe if we also had some magic wand capable of removing CO2 from the atmosphere.

Even if you're an optimist, that seems like an impossible goal, especially given the current political climate. But there is some hope that we'll find that magic wand capable of undoing the damage we've already done. Scientists are already proposing some wild ideas, like artificial trees designed to soak up environmental CO2. Now this seems like an awesome idea until you hear that you'd need 100 million artificial trees to cancel out all the world's carbon emissions, but when you consider that North America produces about 15 million cars every year, that figure doesn't actually seem so astronomical. There's a car in every driveway, so why not also put an artificial, CO2-sucking tree in every backyard?

Global warming might be a good thing

It's not all bad! You won't have to spend as much money heating your pool, you'll be able to sunbathe in November, and Canadian farmers will take over where California farmers left off. So let's all buy Hummers, turn on every light in the house, and run the dishwasher when it's half full because tropical paradise, here we come.

Sorry to spoil the fun, but that's not exactly how it's going to go down. According to Science Daily, warm summer temperatures and extreme changes in weather will almost certainly cause widespread crop failure. Forage crops, for example, will have difficulty transitioning from the warmer autumns to cold winter. And those higher summer temperatures will be hard on other crops, too, which could start to show reduced yields as early as 2030.

What about all the the good stuff, like November pool parties and lower power bills? If you put all those things on one side of a balancing scale, and pile up mass extinctions, rising sea level, the return of prehistoric diseases, and widespread famine on the other side, all the good stuff will go flying up to the stratosphere where it will proceed to contribute to the ozone hole. But the good news is, your home could become oceanfront property, so there's that. Just make sure you buy something that's roughly 30 to 130 feet above sea level, and then sit back and watch your property value skyrocket. Hooray for climate change.

Climatologists are in it for the money

You'll have to wait a few moments while the climatologists who are reading this article recover from convulsive fits of laughter. Now? Okay. Here's what might be the most shocking fact in this list: Climatologists as a whole aren't making big bucks; they're making medium-sized bucks. According to Skeptical Science, most climate scientists work in academia, and can expect to get less than $70,000 as a starting salary, and that's after years of college education and the mountains of debt that come with it. A tenured professor does a little better at $120,000, but that still falls way short of what you might need to buy a Maserati or retire on a cruise ship.

Now compare that to the $400,000 that aerospace engineer Willie Soon earned from the utility giant Southern Company for work he did that was critical of climate science, and it's pretty obvious where the real money is. So no, scientists don't usually get paid to believe in climate change. But sometimes scientists get paid to not believe in climate change. Which one of those two things is more terrifying?

In the '70s, scientists predicted an ice age

In the 1970s, some scientists kind of sort of thought an ice age was coming. But keep in mind that in the 1970s, people also paid real money for a box full of straw with a rock in it and thought Pong was entertaining, so you really do have to take the scientific thinking of the time with a grain of salt.

According to Skeptical Science, the ice age idea was largely based on a cooling trend that was being observed primarily in the north — global averages didn't really even support the theory. And some unscrupulous people even went so far as to take certain parts of scientific papers out of context so they appeared to support an argument for an impending ice age, even though they didn't.

Nevertheless, the mutterings about global cooling persisted long enough that most '70s kids still remember them, and since riding around on mammoths and battling armies of saber-toothed tigers does sound pretty awesome, they've kind of outshone the much more numerous scientists who rightly predicted that the Earth was not cooling down but actually warming up.

Human-produced CO2 is a small fraction of the amount the planet produces

This statement is actually true but also deeply misleading. The Earth contains 750 gigatons of naturally occurring carbon, and only 29 gigatons of human-produced carbon. But the Earth's carbon cycle was once in perfect balance — the carbon generated from natural sources was also absorbed by natural sources. When we humans add to the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, that balance gets thrown off simply because the Earth isn't equipped to absorb all that extra CO2. And that's not even factoring in cow farts. Do you want to factor in cow farts?

Cows fart methane gas, which is a greenhouse gas like CO2, but a much more efficient one. Methane gas traps 21 times as much heat as CO2, and American cows alone are propelling around 49 million tons of it into the air every year. So does that mean we all have to drive electric cars, install solar water heaters, and also give up beef? According to New Republic, methane as a fuel produces about half as much CO2 as coal, so it has potential as an energy source — although it's difficult to see how we could reduce our emissions by 72 percent if we try to do it by switching to a fuel that still produces half the CO2 emissions as the dirtiest fossil fuel in our system. But the idea of bottling cow farts is at least entertaining — you can't say the same for everything else about climate change.