The Fourth National Climate Assessment — the work of 13 federal agencies and more than 350 scientists, including myself — is clear: Earth is warming faster than at any time in human history, and we’re the ones causing it. Climate change is already affecting people, and the more carbon we produce, the more dangerous the impacts over the coming century. Nevertheless, many people continue to believe and propagate misleading myths. Here are the five I hear most frequently.
Myth No. 1: Climate scientists are just in it for the money: When the second volume of the National Climate Assessment was released on Nov. 23, Rick Santorum, a Republican and former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, took to CNN to proclaim that climate scientists “are driven by the money that they receive.” Former House majority leader Tom DeLay, a Texas Republican, appeared on the network the next day declaring the report to be “made by scientists that get paid to further the politics of global warming.”
I was one of the report’s authors. How much did I earn for the hundreds of hours I spent on it? Nothing. Nearly every day, climate scientists are accused of venality. Our other purported sins include fabricating data, selling out to “big green” — which supposedly tethers our grant money to doom-and-gloom findings — and fanning the flames of hysteria to further our nefarious agenda.
The reality is that nearly every climate scientist could make at least the same amount of money — and often much more — in a different field, including the oil industry. And the money we do receive in grants doesn’t go into our pockets. A $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation provided me with a mere $37,000 a year, all of which went to paying for the proposed work, including a graduate researcher, a computer and publication fees. (In summer, I do some climate-focused consulting with cities and water districts to cover my salary when I’m not teaching.)
Rick Santorum, meanwhile, receives a substantial income from serving as a consultant to Consol Energy, a coal company; and according to OpenSecrets.org, Tom DeLay has received nearly $740,000 from the oil and gas industry.
Myth No. 2: The climate has changed before. It’s just a natural cycle: Last fall, when the first volume of the National Climate Assessment was released, White House spokesman Raj Shah responded that “the climate has changed and is always changing.” President Donald Trump himself has embraced this position, claiming that the climate “will change back again.” This line is a popular one with people who dismiss climate change by maintaining that we’ve had ice ages before, as well as warm periods, and so the warming we’re seeing now is just what the earth has always done.
But we can look at the natural factors that affect the climate. First, over the past few decades, energy from the sun has been going down, not up, so if changes in the sun’s energy drove our temperature, we should be getting cooler, not warmer.
Others argue that we’re getting warmer because we’re recovering from the last ice age. But ice ages — and the warm periods in between — are caused by the Earth’s orbital cycles, and according to those cycles, the next event on our geologic calendar is another ice age, not more warming.
We can also rule out volcanoes, which do produce heat-trapping gases, but less than 1 percent of the CO2 that humans produce. And big eruptions, when they happen, cool the earth instead of warming it. In other words, the climate change we’re experiencing now definitely isn’t natural.
Myth No. 3: Climate scientists are split on whether it’s real: We often hear that climate scientists are split 50-50 when it comes to whether global warming is occurring. “Each side has their scientists,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, told Politico in 2014. Trump echoed that rhetoric on “60 Minutes” this October, telling Lesley Stahl: “We have scientists that disagree” with human-caused global warming.
In reality, more than 97 percent of climate scientists agree that global warming is happening and that humans are causing it. At least 18 scientific societies in the United States, from the American Geophysical Union to the American Medical Association, have issued official statements on climate change. And it’s been more than 50 years since U.S. scientists first raised the alarm about the dangers of climate change with the president — at the time, Lyndon Johnson. The public confusion has been manufactured by industry interests and ideologues to muddy the waters.
Myth No. 4: Climate change won’t affect me: We often think the most widespread myth is that the science isn’t real. But according to public opinion polls by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the most prevalent misconception — one that the majority of us have bought into — is that climate change just doesn’t matter to us. While 70 percent of American adults agree that climate change is happening, only 40 percent of those surveyed believe it will harm them personally. Sure, it’ll hurt polar bears, and maybe people who live on low-lying islands in the South Pacific. But the world has warmed by just 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, since 1900. What’s the big deal?
Climate change is a threat multiplier that touches everything, from our health to our economy to our coasts to our infrastructure. It makes heat waves stronger, heavy precipitation events more frequent and hurricanes more intense, and it nearly doubles the area burned by wildfires. It supercharges natural disasters like devastating Hurricane Harvey along the Texas Coast and the Camp Fire in California, as those suffering the effects of these events know firsthand. Climate change is no longer a distant issue in space or time: It’s affecting us, today, in the places where we live.
Myth No. 5: It’s cold outside — global warming can’t be real: Whenever a cold snap brings out our winter parkas, some politician or pundit says, “Global warming? Global cooling, more like!” Trump has done so repeatedly, tweeting just before Thanksgiving: “Brutal and Extended Cold Blast could shatter ALL RECORDS — Whatever happened to Global Warming?” In 2015, Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, brought a snowball to the Senate floor in an attempt to reject the reality of climate change.
But cold weather doesn’t rebut the data that shows the planet is warming over climate time scales. Think of it this way: Weather is like your mood, and climate is like your personality. Weather is what occurs in a certain place at a certain time. Climate is the long-term average of weather over decades. The fact it was cold and snowy one day last week? That’s weather. Global warming or not, cold days still occur, particularly in winter. But since 2000, we’re seeing far more new hot-temperature records than cold ones. In fact, in 2017 we saw more than 10,000 cold-temperature records broken at weather stations across the United States. And more than 36,000 high-temperature records were broken the same year.
Katharine Hayhoe is a professor and director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. She is a lead author on Volumes 1 and 2 of the Fourth National Climate Assessment.