Climate change has been a hot topic of the year, with environmentalists like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg leading the charge for a better future. Her speech at a United Nations summit sternly criticised world leaders for not taking action to save the Earth, despite knowing the adverse effects their inactivity could bring. Many praised her for courageously speaking about such a prominent issue in front of the world leaders, even despite how young she was. Yet, there were still some who remained unconvinced: instead asserting that climate change isn’t as severe as the media makes it out to be and going as far as to claim that climate change isn’t real! So, is this true? Is climate change really that big of a deal?
Before we delve into whether climate change truly is a threat, it is crucial to understand what climate change is. The Environmental Protection Agency defines climate change as “a significant change in the measures of climate, such as temperature, rainfall, or wind, lasting for an extended period – decades or longer”. The reason why it’s become such a major talking point is because it can lead to adverse consequences such as a rise in sea level, extreme weather events, the spread of insect-borne diseases and global warming. If you’re not already alarmed, let me tell you why you should be.
With all of the potential dangers that climate change could bring, it might seem absurd to deny how big a threat the issue is. While the topic of climate change has only been brought into scrutiny recently, the effects of climate change have been happening for a while. Since 1906, the global average surface temperature has increased by more than 0.9 degrees Celsius (1.6 degrees Fahrenheit) — and it has surged even more in sensitive polar regions. The melting ice caps in these colder regions have only exacerbated the issue of rising sea levels, leaving low-lying regions, such as Venice, under the constant threat of being submerged. Venice is composed of more than 100 small islands surrounded by a sea water lagoon that is protected by a group of longer islands, known as the ‘barene’, with several narrow channels open to the Adriatic Sea. Therefore, the rise in sea levels by 50m last year severely impacted the city, causing the worst flood since 1966!
2019 was truly a year of new lows for the climate, and amidst all this climate catastrophe, it’s laughable that people still attempt to deny its severity. However, it’s still worth examining some of the key arguments presented by climate change deniers in order to understand why they feel that way.
The most common argument is that predictions made regarding the climate and its detrimental effects are not accurate. 30 years ago, the United Nations claimed that the World needed to take immediate action or else entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by 2000. It is 2019, and despite the fact that there haven’t been any drastic movements to save the planet, nations of the world still remain intact. Well, climate-wise at least. It is claims like these that lead them to believe that the impact of climate change is exaggerated to such an extent that they are not believable. Some also mention that this exaggeration could be done to trigger action from the general public as the actual statistics are not dramatic enough.
Another argument placed forward by climate change deniers is their claim that it is natural and not really influenced significantly by humans. For example, I mentioned earlier that the global surface temperature has increased by 0.6 degree Celsius since 1906, which is over a 100 years ago. The small change has led them to believe that the increase in temperature is probably a result of nature rather than anthropogenic factors (human factors). These claims are typically followed up with assertions that the greenhouse effect, the process by which radiation from a planet’s atmosphere warms the planet’s surface, occurs naturally. Though this argument completely ignores the fact that the greenhouse gases we produce enhances the effect significantly, climate change deniers are known to be awfully selective when it comes to their evidence.
Other climate change skeptics choose to argue that global warming itself is not real. This was further perpetuated by the President of the United States, Donald Trump, with his climate denying rhetoric. He tweeted the following, “It’s cold outside, they are calling it a major freeze, weeks ahead of normal. Man, we could use a big fat dose of global warming”. When someone with authority and a big following like Donald Trump denies climate change, it is natural for climate change deniers to hook onto it.
Climate change deniers also argue that, oddly enough, climate change carries benefits! A paper published by Nature Climate Change showed that there is a “persistent and widespread increase of growing season integrated LAI (greening) over 25% to 50% of the global vegetated area” and “Factorial simulations with multiple global ecosystem models suggest that carbon dioxide fertilization explains 70% of the observed greening trend”. Since plants require carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, they claim that global warming is indeed beneficial as it aids plant growth. Moreover, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration mentioned that, “When carbon dioxide CO2 is released into the atmosphere, approximately 50% remains in the atmosphere, while 25% is absorbed by land plants and trees, and the other 25% is absorbed into certain areas of the ocean.” Since a portion of the carbon dioxide released is being absorbed by the ocean and plants, climate change deniers claim that carbon dioxide emissions are not a cause of concern. In the words of Patrick Moore, a paid spokesman for the nuclear industry, the logging industry, and genetic engineering industry, “Carbon dioxide is actually the main fertilizer and building block for life. The climate change narrative is not just fake news; it’s fake science.” It is people like Moore that climate change deniers quote time and time again, citing him as an authority figure that ought to know what he is talking about. Comparing that to the example of Trump in the previous paragraph, it seems a trend emerges as to where these anti-environmentalists get their facts from.
Now that we have looked through some of the key arguments of climate change deniers, let’s see how accurate they really are.
While it is true that certain predictions made are not always accurate such as the one made by the UN, climate models designed by scientists have been getting more reliable. Climate models analyze longer time spans than they used to, and predict how the average conditions will change in a region not just the next few days, but even over the coming decades! They’ve become more thorough too: including a variety of important processes such as atmospheric, oceanic and land processes. These models are typically generated from mathematical equations that use thousands of data points to simulate the transfer of energy and water that takes place in climate systems. Since it is not realistic to wait for thousands of years to see if the model is accurate, scientists test the reliability of their models using past events. A study conducted by NASA examined 17 climate models over the past 5 decades and found out that 14 out of the 17 models were able to precisely predict climate events such as global warming — and it can only get better from there.
Some climate change deniers claim that man has little to no impact on climate change which can also be debunked. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that it is “extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature” from 1951 to 2010 was caused by human activity”. The recent US fourth national climate assessment also found that between 93% to 123% of observed 1951-2010 warming was due to human activities. While the greenhouse effect is natural, the enhanced greenhouse effect which is the impact on the climate from the additional heat retained due to the increased amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases is not. Human activities have significantly increased the proportion of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, resulting in global warming. Mere observation can also show that climate change has been influenced significantly by human activities. When comparing the severity and extent of past climate events to now, it is clear that man plays an important role in driving climate change, and it is not a responsibility that we can simply shirk off.
The view that climate change can be beneficial often tends to avoid all the facts, and makes broad, sweeping claims about these ‘boons’. While carbon dioxide can increase plant growth as suggested in one of the earlier paragraphs, plants do not live on carbon dioxide alone. Richard Norby, a corporate researcher in the Environmental Sciences Division and Climate Change Science Institute of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, addressed this argument by stating that in the vastly more complex world outside, many other factors are involved in plant growth in untended forests, fields and other ecosystems. For example, nitrogen is often short in supply and hence it is one of the limiting factors that determine the rate of photosynthesis rather than carbon dioxide. He mentions that it is not logical for climate change skeptics to look at carbon dioxide alone. Moreover, carbon dioxide brings about many harms. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas and traps radiation at ground level, creating ground-level ozone. This atmospheric layer prevents the earth from cooling at night. This can result in global warming which can result in rising sea levels. The severity of global warming is also evident from recent events such as the Venice floods which were discussed earlier and the Australian bushfires. When comparing this to the minute benefits that carbon dioxide can bring to plants, it is clear that the dangers weigh much heavier.
Despite the numerous scientific research papers proving the existence of climate change, anti-environmentalists prefer to emphasise on statements that endorse their viewpoint without putting them into the context of the real world. And worse, with the advent of the Internet, they gather data from unreliable sources without checking its credibility. According to Climate Feedback, a site where scientists rate the accuracy of articles from mainstream media, approximately one big fake news story is shared millions of times in the English-speaking press each month. Most fake news, however, comes from climate skeptics who spread false claims on social media. It’s crucial to tackle the spread of these hoaxes as people could be susceptible to this information and make uninformed decisions based on them.
So how do we ensure that we get climate information from reliable sources?
- Research the creator: Pay attention to who is writing. Is it actually a journalist, or a blogger? Is it a news outlet that has a clear bias? Much of this information can be easily found by a quick search on the Internet.
- Verify the sources through cross-referencing: A reliable climate change paper would refer to numerous, and varied sources, which should be credited in the article. Are there any sources at all? Are the sources just outliers that contradict the majority of other research done on the subject? Or do the sources originate from someone without credible knowledge on the topic? These are potential red flags that you should be weary of when reading on the issue, which can be avoided by verifying the credibility of the sources with a second source.
- Be critical: Look at the structure of argumentation, and whether it’s backed by sources Is the article up-to-date, or is it old? Are the claims based on peer-reviewed articles? Ask yourself who has interests at stake in what you’re reading about.
It is also very important that we all accept the extent of climate change and harm that it could bring. If people believe that climate change is not real and is not severe, they would not be willing to do anything about it. This would cause the situation to be worse with more fatal climate events occurring. While the world leaders have the power and authority to implement measures that can reduce the impact of climate change, it should not be left to them completely. As individuals, we should also play our part. Some of the things we can do include reducing plastic usage, using public transport more frequently and reducing energy use — which I’m sure you’ve all heard time and time again from various sources. These are undoubtedly important steps we can take, but one crucial way of fighting climate change that we tend to neglect is to combat the fake news threat. Uninformed perceptions of climate change impact the way people interact with their environment, which could lead to them taking things for granted. In this dire climate situation, we cannot afford to sit back because of ignorance. When you see fake news about climate change, be sure to report the article, and advise others not to be swayed. If we all play our part, we can combat climate change in our own small ways.
Swathi Ravi Sivashankar, 19S30
Alisha Ganesh, 19A11