Common myths

Background - March 16, 2006
Tackling some of the tough questions, common myths and falsehoods surrounding the climate debate: email us with your questions!

72 percent of the British public say no to nuclear power and yes to wind power. Nuclear power is dangerous, polluting and very expensive. Nuclear is not the answer to climate change.

There are a lot of people out there with genuine questions about climate change, and a few who are paid to sow doubt about the issue. On this page we tackle some of the tough questions, and more than a few of the outright lies that are repeated far too often.

Have you heard something about climate change that just doesn't sound right? Or maybe there's a question about the issue that's been bothering you for a while.  Send it to us. Really, we'd love to hear from you - whether you're a school kid, a blogger, a member of the general public or a PR flack for the fossil fuel industry. If enough people ask a question, we'll post the answer here.

Common myths, misconceptions and a few good questions about climate change:

Q: Is there really solid science behind what we think we know about climate change? I heard that some scientists still disagree.

We think Lord Robert May, President of the Royal Society (the world's oldest scientific society) said it well in his 2004 anniversary address:

"There are, as always, questions about particular details. But those who suggest that the marked changes in climate patterns are not associated with human activities (as some still do) are isomorphic with those who suggest that cigarette smoking is not the major cause of lung cancer (as some still do)."

The reality is that there is far more agreement than disagreement about climate change. Much of the so called "debate" about the issue is largely thanks to sophisticated PR work by the fossil fuel industry, and fact that journalists feel obligated to cover "both sides of the story" - even when one side is demonstrably wrong.

See also: Scientific consensus

Q: Shouldn't we be building more nuclear power plants? Aren't they greenhouse gas free?

Really, we can't understand why anyone (outside of the nuclear industry) thinks this is a good idea. Nuclear power is the most expensive and most dangerous means ever devised by humans to boil water. Plus, it still has all of the same fundamental problems it did ten, twenty and thirty years ago (risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, the unsolved radioactive waste problem, plant safety problems, security issues, etc., etc.). It's time to stop throwing good money after bad. 

See also:

Solutions - for proven energy alternatives.

The nuclear fallacy - for more on why nuclear isn't the answer to climate change.

The Nuclear issue section - for more information about nuclear power.

Q: In fiction writer Michael Crichton's book "State of Fear" his characters say the climate change is all made up (by terrorists), and I heard that's what he really thinks (except for the terrorists part). 

We're not literary critics so we won't pass judgement on "State of Fear" as a work of fiction (tempting though that might be). From the standpoint of scientific accuracy, we will say the book is full of falsehoods and deceptive half-truths. And since others have done such a good jobs of debunking it, we won't bother...

They Don't Call It Science Fiction for Nothing - NRDC

Michael Crichton and Global Warming - Brookings

Michael Crichton's State of Confusion - RealClimate

Michael Crichton's State of Confusion II: Return of the Science - RealClimate

We will note, however, that for a guy who claims to be "troubled by the insensible and distracting contentiousness that seems to inform so much of current political debate", he sure goes out of his way to trump it up.

Q: I know for a fact that plants use carbon dioxide to grow. Won't more carbon dioxide just make plants grow faster – so we'll have more forests, more food and no climate change because the plants will absorb the extra carbon dioxide?

Unfortunately, no. Carbon fertilization, as the effect is called, may help to some extent in the short term, but is well documented to be a false hope. One problem is that there are other factors besides carbon dioxide keeping plants from unlimited growth. For example, the depletion of soil nutrients, water scarcity, pollution and soil erosion.

See also: a good post on this at RealClimate.org

Q: How can a few degrees be such a big deal? Where I live the temperature changes more than that in a day.

Small changes in the global average temperature can have big effects. For example, average temperatures during the last ice age were only about 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees F) cooler than today. That was enough to keep the whole system in a different state. Since the late 1800's our planet has warmed about 0.6 degrees Celcius (1.1 degree F), and even with that small amount of heating we're seeing serious impacts.

See also: Climate Science.

Q: Stopping climate change isn't practical. Why can't we just adapt to it?

When your house is on fire, the first thing you do is put the fire out - not try and get used to the heat. The truth is that we will need to do a lot of adapting just to cope with the more than 1 degree C (1.8 degrees F) that is now inevitable (thanks to past and current emissions). But we will also need to hold the global rise in temperature to under 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F). If it goes any higher, we are at a greater risk of catastrophic impacts and run away feedback effects. 

Fortunately, there are proven technologies we can use to get the energy we need without more climate change. See our Solutions section for more detail.

However, in regard to both adaptation and implementing solutions, the richer nations must take the lead and provide assistance. Indeed, they are bound to do so by treaty obligation, having signed the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Many poorer countries simply don't have the resources, money or expertise to go it on their own. Besides, it's largely the richer nations that have caused the problem in the first place, by centuries of fossil fuel burning and deforestation.

Categories