Climate Change Misconceptions (and Associated Realities)

(Information compiled from NOAA National Ocean Service climate education website)

Misconception 1: Scientists cannot agree about the existence or causes of global climate change.
Reality: The vast majority of scientists agree that climate is being changed by human activity. A recent poll of earth scientists demonstrated that there is strong agreement that emissions of heat-trapping gases from the burning of fossil fuels make a significant contribution to global warming.

Misconception 2: The atmosphere is huge and carbon dioxide makes up only a small percentage of the total gases. We are not adding enough carbon dioxide to make a difference in global climate.
Reality: Most atmospheric gases do not trap heat, and greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide) do trap heat. Even though they make up a relatively small percentage of the atmosphere, the way in which greenhouse gases trap heat adds up to a large effect. Greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere because of human activities include carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. Even small changes in the atmosphere’s composition or temperature can have a large effect.

Misconception 3: The ozone hole causes global warming because the hole lets in more solar radiation.
Reality: Global warming is caused by increased atmospheric greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide and water vapor) which trap infrared radiation from the earth’s warmed surface. The ozone layer protects the planet from the sun’s harmful radiation. A depletion of ozone allows more UV light to reach the earth’s surface, but it is not an important factor leading to increased temperatures. Banning CFCs from refrigerators, air conditioners, and aerosol spray cans has caused the ozone hole to stop growing.

Misconception 4: Recent warming is just part of natural change. Climate has changed many times in the distant past, before humans began burning coal and oil, so the current warming cannot be caused by humans burning fossil fuels. Recent warming is caused by the sun.
Reality: While it’s true that climate has changed throughout earth’s history, the large and sudden changes happening to our climate today are not due to natural causes. Natural variations occur over time frames of millions of years. Over the past 100 years, our climate has started to change rapidly and dramatically, with increases in global temperatures and extreme weather.

Both natural and human drivers can cause climate to change. Recent increases in global temperatures result mostly from higher levels of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere, which have been increasing because of human activities (Pew Center on Global Climate Change).

The output of energy from the sun has been monitored by scientists for decades and has not increased during the last thirty years of rapid global warming (Pew Center on Global Climate Change).

Misconception 5: The last few years have been cooler, so global warming can’t be real; or the world has been cooling for the past decade.
Reality: Climate is defined by long-term averages in global temperatures and other climate metrics, and these measures are still increasing. Temperature records clearly show the world has continued to warm over the past 100 years. The intensity of this warming varies but the trend is upwards. This warming is projected not only to increase global temperatures, but change patterns of rainfall and increase extreme climate events.

Misconception 6: Unusual or unexpected weather events can be used as evidence for or against climate change.
Reality: While there is a link between climate change and weather, a particular weather event cannot prove or disprove that climate change is happening. Remember that weather describes conditions that last a short period of time, while climate can be thought of as the average weather for a region over a long period of time.

NOAA Ocean Service Education
Common Misconceptions about Climate and Climate Change
Common Misconceptions about Polar Weather and Climate
Climate Misconceptions:  A Top 10 List
Greenhouse Gas Overview
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Page Updated on March 7, 2016