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Scientists the world over agree that climate change is real, it’s happening now, and it’s caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Still, there are a lot of myths being repeated about climate change, and even journalists can get taken in.
Most climate change myths have been perpetuated by fossil fuel companies, their political allies, and others with vested interests in the status quo. For decades, they’ve spent millions of dollars on advertising, think tank “studies,” and lobbying to confuse the public, policymakers, and the press and thereby forestall climate action.
This has led some journalists to soften their coverage — for example, by not connecting climate change to extreme weather — leaving the public misinformed. This guide equips journalists to recognize and refute these myths and report the truth.
See the CCNow press briefing “The Ever-Shifting Climate Misinformation Landscape” for more.
MYTH 1: Scientists do not agree about climate change.
FACT: More than 99% of climate scientists agree that human activity is overheating the planet.
- EXPLANATION: Few if any scientific issues have been studied and debated as much as climate change. The scientific consensus is overwhelming and durable. In this article, Kate Marvel, a NASA climate scientist, says: “We are more sure that greenhouse gasses are causing climate change than we are that smoking causes cancer.”
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Scientists overwhelmingly agree that burning oil, coal and gas is overheating the planet.
MYTH 2: Climate change is a political hoax.
FACT: The laws of physics don’t care about political ideologies. Human-caused climate change is a scientific fact, as virtually every scientific institution on Earth has concluded.
- EXPLANATION: Political leaders across the ideological spectrum, from Miami Mayor Francis Suarez on the right to US senator Bernie Sanders on the left, have supported action to avoid climate catastrophe. National, state, and local governments of various political stripes all over the world are taking such action.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: The scientific consensus is overwhelming that burning fossil fuels is dangerously overheating the planet
MYTH 3: We can’t possibly know that humans are causing climate change.
FACT: We can, and we do. Global temperature and CO2 levels in the atmosphere have increased in lockstep since humans began burning large amounts of coal and other fossil fuels during the Industrial Revolution.
- EXPLANATION: NASA, NOAA, the UK Meteorological Service, the Japanese Meteorological Service, and the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts are just some of the top scientific institutions that have compiled these temperature and CO2 records.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Scientists know beyond a doubt from studying ancient temperature and CO2 data that human activity is what drives climate change.
MYTH 4: The climate is always changing, today is no different.
FACT: True, Earth’s climate has changed before. But never as rapidly as now, thanks to 250 years of burning fossil fuels.
- EXPLANATION: Today’s human-induced rate of carbon release is “unprecedented during the past 66 million years,” according to a 2016 Nature study.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Scientists agree that the climate has never changed this fast in human history, and these changes are the result of people burning fossil fuels, which seriously threatens human welfare.
MYTH 5: There’s nothing we can do about climate change, so why bother.
FACT: Scientists have repeatedly declared that humanity already has the tools and technologies to stop climate change and avoid its worst impacts. The IPCC Synthesis Report ranks the five key approaches that can limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
- EXPLANATION: Humans are going to have to live with today’s hotter temperatures for many years to come, but we can still dramatically limit future damage, if we take strong action now. Climate solutions are abundant, common sense, and often economically superior to today’s practices. Many governments and businesses are already implementing green energy, mass transit, coastal resilience, and climate smart agriculture solutions. Project Drawdown also has a long list of specific solutions to reduce emissions.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Despite all the bad news, scientists emphasize that we have the technologies and know how needed to tackle this problem.
MYTH 6: We can’t live without oil.
FACT: Modern societies cannot quit oil overnight, but the plummeting costs and rapid expansion of solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources shows that we can leave fossil fuels behind, if we choose.
- EXPLANATION: The notion that a healthy economy and a healthy environment can’t go together is a pernicious myth that fossil fuel companies and other special interests have long promoted.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Today’s economy still runs largely on oil, but in many cases, solar and other renewable energy sources now cost less than fossil fuels.
MYTH 7: What about China? Other countries are worse.
FACT: The US has emitted more greenhouse gasses than any other country in history. China recently overtook the US as the top annual emitter. But what matters in the atmosphere is cumulative, not annual, emissions, making the US the most responsible for climate change.
- EXPLANATION: Climate change is by definition a global challenge. It can only be tackled if all countries, and especially the biggest emitters like the US and China, rapidly phase out fossil fuels.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Although annual US emissions have fallen slightly in recent years, the US is still the biggest climate polluter in history, followed by China.”
MYTH 8: A temperature increase of 1.5 degrees C is no big deal.
FACT: Global temperatures today are roughly 1.2 degrees C (2 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels. That increase has already intensified the extreme weather seen around the world. Impacts will intensify the closer we get to 1.5 degrees C.
- EXPLANATION: A temperature difference of 1.2 degrees C doesn’t sound like much to the average person. But the climate system doesn’t work that way. Look at the punishing impacts already unfolding around the world after “only” 1.2 degrees C of temperature rise.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Two degrees of temperature rise may sound trivial, but scientists say that even today’s 1.2 degrees C of increase are driving the extreme weather now afflicting much of the planet.
MYTH 9: Humans, plants, and animals can adapt to climate change.
FACT: Adaptation has been a hallmark of successful species for hundreds of millions of years. But there are strict limits on how quickly — and to what extent — people, plants, and animals can adapt.
- EXPLANATION: Today’s rapidly increasing temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns are already making it very difficult for many species to adapt. A 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services warned that one million animal and plant species are at risk of extinction, thanks to climate change and destruction of habitats.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: Adaptation is imperative in the era of climate change, but it can only help so much if we don’t stop overheating the planet.
MYTH 10: Nobody cares about climate change.
FACT: People around the world are increasingly worried about climate change, and want to know how to stop it.
- LANGUAGE FOR JOURNALISTS: More and more survey data indicates that most people do care about climate change, and especially want to know how to fix it.
- EXPLANATION: The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 66% of Americans are “somewhat worried” or “very worried” about climate change. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey done across 16 countries found that 72% of people are “somewhat” or “very” concerned that climate change will harm them personally. What’s more, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that most people in the US — especially people under age 40 — want more news about climate change.