Climate change denial: 6 common myths, debunked

Posted on: 1 November, 2023

What are the biggest climate change denial myths, where do they come from, and how do they affect the built environment?

In 2020, the United Nations (UN) declared a climate emergency – a message that has been echoed by governments and countries around the world. Today, sea levels and temperatures are increasing globally, and the effects of climate change are creating extreme weather events that displace communities, endanger species, and destroy the environment.

Man-made greenhouse gas emissions have been identified as one of the chief culprits of the climate crisis. Since 1880 and the Industrial Revolution, the combined land and ocean temperature has risen at an average rate of 0.08 degrees Celsius per decade. This increase has been over twice as fast since 1981, at 0.19 degrees Celsius.

What’s more, in 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claimed in a report that there was a 95-100% probability that ‘over half’ of the increase in global average surface temperature ‘was caused by human activity’.

Learn more: Climate chaos, societal change and the shifting role of the built environment

Yet despite the wealth of evidence of our impact on the environment, a vocal minority continues to refute the validity of these warnings and deny the existence of climate change. Climate change scepticism and denial is a very real and common position that threatens to destabilise and undo the work of governments, businesses and everyday people to combat global warming.

What is climate change denial, and where does it come from?

Put simply, climate change denial is the dismissal of human-caused climate change and its effects on the environment. This is often in spite of the wealth of evidence and recent climate disasters that prove its existence.

Learn more: Building climate resilience into the built environment

Climate change deniers also include people that deny there’s a solution for global warming, or that we have any control over it.

What causes climate change denialism?

Despite the scientific consensus, many political, ideological, and industrial parties continue to challenge the existence and science of climate change.

Historical propaganda are largely to blame for the lack of confidence in climate science. Fossil fuel lobbies and think tanks work to influence governmental policy and, in some cases, protect the commercial or ideological interests of certain groups.

The concept of climate scepticism first emerged in the 1970s, when oil companies such as Mobil and Exxon set up climate change denialism campaigns to combat growing awareness of global warming. This messaging has continued through the millennium and even to the present day. According to Greenpeace, Exxon have spent over $30 million on anti-climate change think tanks in this time. These campaigns have been compared to the efforts of tobacco companies to refute the negative impacts of smoking in the 60s and 70s.

From a cognitive standpoint, many simply find climate change hard to reconcile with fluctuations in weather. Take, for example, the Snowball in the Senate incident in 2015, where Sen. James Inhofe brought a snowball in an attempt to prove that climate change didn’t exist.

Denialism itself is also a common reaction to distressing situations. In the case of climate change – a phenomenon that will require widespread action and change – it’s understandable that people lean on denial as a coping mechanism, even if that itself inhibits their ability to deal with the problem in the first place.

Learn more: What is COP28 (and why is it so controversial)?

6 common climate change denial myths, debunked

Here are some of the most common arguments against the existence of climate change you may encounter, and why they aren’t correct.

1. The Earth is always changing – it’s part of a cycle

While it’s true that the Earth’s climate is prone to changing and shifting, this has happened over large periods of its 4.5-billion-year history. The accelerated nature of the change in the last two centuries can’t be put down to purely natural causes, and the fact that this warming corresponds with higher levels of carbon dioxide can only point to one logical conclusion – that it is a result of human activity.

2. Climate models are unreliable

Another argument used by climate change sceptics is to question the accuracy of climate models. However, these models are famed for their accuracy – global climate models formulated 50 years ago have accurately predicted average surface temperatures across the planet.

3. There isn’t a scientific consensus on climate change

While some contrarian scientists may attract the headlines, a study in 2016 found that between 97% of climate scientists agree that humans are the chief cause of global warming. This is just one example of multiple studies into the consensus of climate scientists, with the majority falling between 90% and 100%.

4. There’s nothing we can do to stop climate change

This is one of the most common positions climate change deniers tend to fall into, but while the picture does look bleak, we still have a chance to reverse some of the damage and avoid the biggest risks of climate change. For instance, if we limit the increase of temperature to under 1.5 degrees, we can halve the sea level rise by the end of the century.

5. It’s still cold, so how is global warming real?

As with Sen. James Inhofe’s snowball, there are examples abound of people using weather events to attempt to disprove the science of climate change. However, weather isn’t the same as climate – weather is prone to change frequently over short periods, whereas climate is a pattern or trend in weather in specific regions and longer time periods. An unexpected instance of snow can’t be used to disprove the existence of a changing pattern of weather.

6. The impact of climate change is being exaggerated

It might seem small, but a minimal increase in global temperatures can have a catastrophic impact on the environment across the globe. Scientists predict that if we don’t take action on climate change and temperatures surpass the 1.5 limit, we can expect an increase in large-scale drought, extreme flooding, famine, wildfires, and loss of species and ecosystems, among many other impacts.

Climate change denial and the built environment

As an annual contributor of around 40% of global CO2 emissions, the built environment has the opportunity to position itself at the forefront of a sustainable future in the battle against climate change. However, while there’s a strong business case for sustainability, there’s plenty of hesitance and, unfortunately, denialism within our sector.

Emissions from buildings have only fallen by 10% over the last decade, and recent public episodes like the rejected M&S Oxford Street demolition have come to epitomise the lack of a uniform strategy, at least in the UK, towards realising a sustainable built environment.

However, as Kiel Moe, visiting professor at MIT, noted in an article in The Architect’s Newspaper, the problem may be even deeper still:

“Schools of architecture are still structured forms of climate change denial. They are not doing nearly enough to address the issues and prepare another generation of architects to contend with these issues.”

With the 2050 net zero target looming, all sectors, industries, and organisations need to work together to ensure we minimise further, irreversible damage to our planet, but perhaps none more so than the built environment. While education is improving on the science of climate change, our sector is one in particular that cannot afford to turn a blind eye on our environmental impact until it’s too late.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want to inspire and action change in your career, UCEM’s MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments will give you the skills you need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: MSc Innovation in Sustainable Built Environments – University College of Estate Management