- Rachel Schraer & Kayleen Devlin
- BBC Reality Check
As world leaders gathered at the COP26 summit in Glasglow, Scotland to debate how to tackle climate change, misleading claims and falsehoods about the climate rose on social media.
The BBC has analyzed some of the allegations that have gone viral over the past year and what they can tell us now about the denial of climate change.
Statement 1: The sun will cool, halting global warming
People have long incorrectly claimed that the temperature changes of the last century are just part of the Earth’s natural cycle and not the result of human behavior.
In recent months, we’ve seen a new version of this argument.
Thousands of posts on social media, reaching hundreds of thousands of people in the last year, claim that a “Large Solar Low” will lead to a natural drop in temperatures without human intervention.
But that’s not what the evidence shows.
A large solar minimum is a real phenomenon when the Sun emits less energy as part of its natural cycle.
Studies suggest that the Sun may well go through a weaker phase sometime this century, but that would lead, at most, to a temporary cooling of 0.1 – 0.2 °C of our planet.
That doesn’t even come close to offsetting human activity, which has already warmed the planet by about 1.2 °C over the past 200 years and will continue to increase, possibly reaching 2.4 °C by the end of the century.
We know that the recent temperature rises were not caused by changes in the Sun’s natural cycle because the layer of the atmosphere closest to the Earth is warming, while the layer closest to the Sun — the stratosphere — is cooling.
Heat that would normally be released into the stratosphere is being trapped by greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide released by burning fuel.
If the temperature changes on Earth were caused by the Sun, we would expect the entire atmosphere to warm up (or cool down) at the same time.
Claim 2: global warming is good
Several posts circulating on social media claim that global warming will make parts of the Earth more habitable and that cold kills more people than heat.
These arguments often select favorable facts, ignoring anyone who contradicts them.
For example, it’s true that some inhospitable and cold parts of the world can become easier to live in for a while.
But in these same places, warming can also lead to extreme rains, affecting living conditions and growing capacity.
At the same time, other parts of the world would become uninhabitable as a result of rising temperatures and rising sea levels, such as the heavenly Maldives Islands.
We may have fewer cold-related deaths. But according to a study published in the scientific journal Lancet, between 2000 and 2019, more people died from the cold than from heat.
However, an increase in heat-related deaths should offset all the lives saved.
The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) broadly says “climate-related health risks [e] livelihoods…should increase with global warming by 1.5 degrees”.
Any small local benefits of fewer cold days are expected to be outweighed by the risks of more frequent periods of extreme heat.
Claim 3: climate change actions will make people poorer
A common assertion made by those opposed to efforts to combat climate change is that fossil fuels have been essential to driving economic growth.
Therefore, limiting its use, the argument goes, will inevitably slow this growth and increase the cost of living, harming the poorest.
But this isn’t the full picture.
Fossil fuels powered vehicles, factories and technology, allowing humans in the last century to do things at a scale and speed that were previously impossible. This allowed many people to produce, sell and buy more things and get richer.
But stopping using charcoal doesn’t mean going back to the days of ox-drawn carts and crank machines — now we have other technologies that can do a similar job.
In many places, renewable electricity — powered by wind or solar power, for example — is now cheaper than electricity powered by coal, oil or gas.
On the other hand, studies predict that if we do not act on climate change by 2050, the global economy could shrink by 18% because of damage caused by natural disasters and extreme temperatures to buildings, lives, businesses and food supplies.
This damage would hit the world’s poorest the hardest.
Claim 4: renewable energy is dangerously unreliable
Misleading posts claiming that renewable energy failures led to blackouts went viral earlier this year, when a massive power grid failure left millions of Texans in the dark and cold.
These posts, which were picked up by several conservative media outlets in the United States, wrongly attributed the blackout to wind turbines.
“Blackouts are an artifact of the mismanagement of electricity generation and distribution,” said John Gluyas, executive director of the Durham Energy Institute in the United States.
He says the claim that renewable energy causes blackouts is “absurd … Venezuela has a lot of oil and frequent blackouts”.
According to Jennie King of the ISD Global think tank, this discrediting of renewable energy “is a “key line of attack for those who wish to preserve oil and gas dependence and subsidies.”
Critics of renewable energy schemes also claim that the technology kills birds and bats, ignoring studies that estimate that fossil-fuel-powered plants kill many more animals.
There is no doubt that some wild animals, including birds, are killed by wind turbines.
But according to the Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the University of London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in London, UK: “The wildlife benefits of climate change mitigation are considered by NGOs of preservation… to offset the risks, as long as the correct planning safeguards are put in place, including careful site selection.”
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