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How to respond to climate crisis deniers

While more people are waking up to the reality of climate crisis, vested interests are proliferating misinformation. Can the truth gap be bridged?

Samuel Webb
Thursday 06 October 2022 12:39 BST
Jordan Peterson tells Joe Rogan there's no such thing as climate

It’s tempting to write off climate deniers as scientifically-illiterate cranks when evidence overwhelmingly shows that the climate crisis is caused by human behaviour, largely the burning of fossil fuels.

But climate misinformation is insidious, proliferating across social media and some news sites. How many of us can honestly say we’ve never been taken in by a lie?

A report by the advocacy group Stop Funding Heat found that climate misinformation gets viewed up to 1.36 million times every day on Facebook alone, though it’s been found on all social platforms, from TikTok to Pinterest. So assume that it’s slipping through the cracks onto your feeds too.

Fossil fuel companies, other major polluters, and their allies have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to spread climate misinformation on social media. One 2021 analysis found that 16 of the world's biggest polluters were responsible for placing more than 1,700 of these ads on Facebook in 2021, generating roughly 150 million impressions.

Climate propaganda can also provide false comfort to those struggling with the enormity of the threat so it’s understandable that people would want to bury their head in the sand as a coping mechanism.

Below are some of the most common climate lies - and how to respond.

‘The earth’s temperature has always changed. It’s just geology’

Geological records show that there have been large shifts in the earth’s climate over millennia, caused by factors including volcanic eruptions, variations in the earth’s orbit, and shifting levels of carbon dioxide.

However, there is a stark difference between an anthropogenic, or man-made, climate crisis and ancient climate changes which have occurred very slowly, over thousands or millions of years.

The current climate crisis is being driven by human actions, largely the burning of fossil fuels, and has happened in a dramatically shorter period of time.

Science shows that the average global temperature has risen about 1.1-1.2C over the past 150 years, since industrial times began.

‘Renewables are too expensive’

A common refrain from fossil fuel lobbyists is that renewables are too expensive. However, globally, renewables are significantly undercutting coal, oil and gas as the world’s cheapest source of power, says the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), an intergovernmental organisation that supports the transition to sustainable energy.

“Almost two-thirds of newly-installed renewable power in 2021 had lower costs than the world’s cheapest coal-fired option in the G20,” IRENA’s report stated.

Costs of clean energy have plummeted due to technological advances across many of the components. A new type of battery for energy storage is six times cheaper than conventional lithium-ion batteries, for example.

And as more communities adopt renewables, the economies of scale drive costs down even further.

‘Electric cars are pointless when powered by fossil fuel power stations’

A disputed report, covered by The Australian newspaper, has claimed that electric vehicles (EVs) produce more carbon emissions than those fuelled by gasoline.

It is true that charging up EVs still relies on large-scale grids which are heavily reliant on fossil fuels in many countries. However, a study by the universities of Exeter and Cambridge and Nijmegen in the Netherlands concluded that electric cars lead to lower carbon emissions overall, even if the electric power still relies on fossil fuels.

A separate analysis by Transport & Environment (T&E), a European umbrella for non-governmental organisations in the field of transport and the environment, found that fossil fuel-powered cars waste hundreds of times more raw materials over their lifetime than their electric counterparts.

‘Everyone was terrified about the ozone layer in the Nineties, and nothing came of that’

In July Right-wing commentator and Daily Wire columnist Matt Walsh tweeted: “Remember when they spent years telling us to panic over the hole in the ozone layer and then suddenly just stopped talking about it and nobody ever mentioned the ozone layer again?”

Twitter being Twitter, it was quickly pointed out that the ozone layer, a protective shield in the earth’s stratosphere which absorbs most of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun, was saved by unified environmental international action.

In the past, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were used in the manufacture of aerosol sprays, solvents, and refrigerants. But they caused such catastrophic damage to the ozone layer that an international treaty, called the Montreal Protocol, was adopted to ban them in 1987.

In short, it worked: the ozone layer is continuing to heal and has the potential to fully recover, scientists have confirmed.

‘Solar and wind are useless when it’s dark or not windy’

The US Republican congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that solar and wind energy don’t work at night, prompting online mockery.

She said: “Lord please God don’t make me scrub clothes in a bucket and have to hang them out on a line when we switch over to wind turbines and solar panels.

“I’m gonna be really pissed off about that. I mean, how absurd is this? I like the lights on. I wanna stay up later at night. I don’t wanna have to go to bed when the sun sets. It’s so silly! I mean, all of this is insane.”

Solar and wind power can be intermittent but so is all energy production. Fossil fuel power stations are out of action more than you think. Energy expert Amory Lovins estimates that the average coal plant is unavailable to supply power about 15% of the time, while the average nuclear plant and gas plant are unavailable about 9% and 5% of the time, respectively.

But solar and wind power can be restored in batteries - and as noted above, the cost of battery technology is dropping while the capacity increases. Battery energy storage systems (BESS) are devices, usually lithium-ion batteries, that enable energy from renewables, like solar and wind, to be stored and then released when customers need power most.

A mix of renewable energy sources, including tidal, geothermal, and biomass, will also maintain power levels, as can linking energy grids between different countries.

‘It was cold today, so global warming is a myth’

Former US president Donald Trump has amplified this lie on social media - one of his many zingers of climate denial including that “climate change is a hoax invented by China” and “wind turbines cause cancer”.

He said: “If you have a windmill anywhere near your house, congratulations your house just went down 75 per cent in value. And they say the noise causes cancer, you tell me that one, okay?”

The climate crisis and weather are not the same - cold snaps and winter seasons are still happening in places all over the world.

However, it is the rise in the average global temperature that is driving extreme and devastating climate impacts such as flooding, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, and more.

In fact, there is evidence that global heating at higher latitudes is forcing the polar jet stream to dip farther south, causing more intense bouts of winter weather.

Since the 1980s, each decade has been hotter than the last. The warmest seven years have all been since 2015, with 2016, 2019 and 2020 in the top three, according to the Met Office.

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