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Climate Change: Myths, Facts, and A Way Forward

By Steven Booty


In a time when elected officials are throwing snowballs on the Senate floor, affirming that they ‘aren’t scientists’ whilst being more than eager to opine on scientific issues, appointing coal lobbyists to head the EPA, and telling NASA how to do its job, it is becoming increasingly more important to understand the science behind climate change. With CO2 concentrations now consistently above 400 parts per million (ppm), something the Earth hasn’t seen in more than a million years, the cause for concern is rising. No matter what your current view on climate change, I invite you to continue reading. I especially insist you read on if you are unconvinced or unsure about the science behind climate change. With this post, I hope to explain the science behind it and clear up some misconceptions. I am compelled to write because societies work best with a well-informed population.


Figure 1 Human fingerprints are all over rising temperatures. Source: Skeptical Science

Global warming is not a very useful term for the general public because it tends to confuse the subject. For example, Joe Public may interpret a cold winter as evidence against global warming while ignoring the warmer temperatures they experience throughout the year (confirmation bias, anecdotal evidence). Scientists tend to use ‘climate change’ and ‘global warming’ interchangeably because they are causally related. The best way to understand it is that global warming causes climate change. In other words, a rise in Earth’s overall average temperature is causing average weather patterns (climate) to change in non-uniform ways all over the world. For the remainder of this post, I will use the term ‘anthropogenic global warming’ (AGW), that is, global warming caused by humans, to refer to this phenomenon rather than ‘global warming’ or ‘climate change’ to help avoid confusion.

The Problem

What does AGW look like?  Warmer everywhere all the time, right? Sadly, it’s not that simple. It’s much, much more complicated than that. Instead, one can expect an increase in the number of record high temperatures and a decreased number of record low temperatures. Nights and winters are warming faster than days and summers; the poles are warming faster than lower latitudes (Figure 1). There is an increasing incidence of extreme weather. Animal migration/hibernation patterns and habitat are changing due to climate change, which is one way we can observe the effects of climate change without even using a thermometer.


Figure 2 The Greenhouse Effect. Source: Skeptical Science

At the heart of the existential threat of AGW is the greenhouse effect – a physical phenomenon that has been established for well over a century (Figure 2).  About 90 percent of the solar energy that reaches Earth’s surface is visible and infrared light (Faure, 1998). Once this radiation hits the surface, some of it is converted into heat which is, in turn, given off in the form of infrared (long wave) radiation. Most atmospheric gases, such as nitrogen and oxygen, do not absorb infrared light. However, some minor gases, including water vapor, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, and ozone (O3), can absorb this energy which is then reemitted in the infrared wavelength. These are referred to as greenhouse gases. These gases sort of act as pinball bumpers that keep the infrared radiation (heat) in the atmosphere, preventing it from radiating back into space (see the MinuteEarth video linked above). Without the greenhouse effect, Earth would be a frozen wasteland due to its distance from the sun, but greenhouse gasses help trap more heat that would otherwise be reflected into space, allowing for a relatively temperate planet. However, when greenhouse gas concentrations increase, atmospheric temperatures will also increase. (See: Venus’ runaway greenhouse effect). Though, it’s not just the atmosphere that gets warmer! Figure 3 shows where the rest of the heat goes (spoiler alert: over 90% goes to the ocean!).

Figure 3 The distribution of excess heat buildup due to the greenhouse effect. Source: Skeptical Science

Figure 3 The distribution of excess heat buildup due to the greenhouse effect. Source: Skeptical Science

Diminishing sea ice decreases albedo (the amount of light reflected) of the ocean causing it to absorb more solar energy which increases the rate of warming overall and serves as a positive feedback loop. Not only that, but this melting land ice will contribute to sea level rise. There are three major factors controlling sea level: thermal expansion, land ice, and rate of sea floor spreading. (These factors control eustatic, or global, sea level. Other factors, such as isostasy, can affect sea level in localized areas.)  Thermal expansion of water is pretty straight forward – warmer water takes up more space than colder water.  Accumulation of land ice is the most dramatic of the three since it’s the one we can see with our own eyes. Remember, melting sea ice, while a problem in its own right, does not contribute directly to sea level rise (Jon Stewart comically demonstrates the difference here). It is the ice sheets in places like Greenland and Antarctica and glaciers in places like Argentina and Glacier National Park that are of concern to us because glaciers and ice sheets are not already displacing water like sea ice is.

Rising temperatures will enhance the effects of various positive feedback loops that Earth’s systems rely on to keep relative balance. A positive feedback loop is when a particular cause has an effect that, in turn, enhances that first cause. For example, increased CO2 causes warming which causes the oceans to give up more CO2, causing more warming.  This video shows some more examples of positive feedback loops including the melting of permafrost and of arctic sea ice.

The rate of seafloor spreading affects sea level by displacing water with rock. Divergent plate boundaries (where plates are pulling apart) in the ocean produce mountain ranges that stretch across the globe like stitches on a baseball. These underwater mountains are tall (averaging 1,000 meters!), however, like mountains on the land, they weather and erode with time, eventually flattening with distance from the spreading center (older rocks are found farthest from the spreading center). The faster the plates spread apart, the more magma is exposed, the higher the mountains, and therefore, the more water that is displaced.

We have observed ~20 cm (7.9 inches) of sea level rise since 1880. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projects [PDF] average sea level to be 0.5 meter (nearly 20 inches) higher by 2100 in their low projection and up to 1 meter (3.2 feet) higher in their high projection. Currently, sea level is rising at a rate of 3 mm per year. The rate of sea level rise will almost certainly increase into the 21st century.

Increasing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere are causing the ocean to absorb more CO2. When CO2 dissolves in water, it binds with free hydrogen to become carbonic acid. (Remember: Acids have pH values lower than 6 while bases have pH values higher than 8; between 6 and 8 is considered neutral). An increase in carbonic acid production will decrease the pH causing ocean acidification.  Now, this isn’t to say that the ocean’s pH will drop below 6 – that is a myth. Though, marine life is very sensitive to pH conditions and even the slightest decrease in pH will cause additional bleaching of coral reefs, in which many marine species spend at least a portion of their lives.  The normal pH for the ocean is 8.2. However, due to absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ocean pH has dropped by 0.1 (or 30%) over the past 25 years. A drop of 0.1 may seem small, but remember that the pH scale is logarithmic. Ocean pH has not been this high in millions of years [PDF].

Making matters worse, a relatively cool area has been identified in the Northern Atlantic Ocean and has been getting even cooler, setting a 136 year record low, despite warming temperatures. The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, and subsequent influx of cool, fresh water has been identified as one of the causes of this anomaly. This threatens to disrupt the thermohaline circulation (of which the Gulf Stream is a part) and could potentially lead to at least 15 cm (6 inches) of sea level rise for New York City basically overnight if it were significantly slowed (for a more in-depth explanation, check out here and here).

Systemic Denialism

Solving problems is easy if you’re an engineer – you assess the scope of the situation and lay out a viable path to achieving a resolution to that situation. Politics is not involved. Few would argue that a rickety, unsafe bridge is in need of repair. Instead, the argument would come in how it would be paid for. Unfortunately, we do not have such a luxury with AGW, for there is a widespread misunderstanding of the demonstrable facts behind it and even of the fact that it’s occurring at all! Some AGW dissenters (usually calling themselves ‘climate skeptics’) are simply misinformed or under-informed at no fault of their own. However, there is a group of people, distinct from dissenters, who have a special interest in keeping the status quo. These are the AGW deniers. The discussion about AGW we should be having is what we’re going to do about it and how, but we can’t have that conversation until we agree that there is a problem that can be dealt with if we work together to fix it.

The scientific method (or, more accurately, The Nature of Science) is founded on the principle that evidence determines what we consider to be factual.  Science denial (or denialism) is always driven by something other than the science itself and uses logical fallacies instead of the scientific method. Diethelm and McKee (2009) [PDF] identify five characteristics of denialism: fake experts, logical fallacies, impossible expectations, cherry picking, and conspiracy theories. (See also Skeptico’s break down). Science deniers of all kinds use these methods to confuse the public about the science of AGW, purposely misinforming them. In the media, false equivalence (also known as amplifying the minority) is perhaps the most prevalent fallacy. This is when, for example, a climate change expert is put on the air alongside a climate change denier, giving the false impression that there is an equally viable opposing viewpoint. This creates what has been called a manufactroversy. John Oliver demonstrates this phenomenon quite well.

Science denial should not be confused with skepticism as they are very different methods of thinking. A good scientist considers all of the available evidence and comes to a conclusion based on that evidence. Science deniers (of all types) start with a conclusion and find evidence that supports it while ignoring evidence against it. Pseudoscience (which is a form of science denial) works in the same way.

Being skeptical is part of being a good scientist – one shouldn’t go around believing every claim that hits his or her eardrums without sufficient evidence to support it, but holding onto preconceived conclusions in the face of contradictory evidence is taking part in denialism.  Carbon intensive industries (such as oil and gas, automotive) are actively and knowingly spreading misinformation about AGW through organized campaigns, much like the tobacco industry did in the past. Below, I offer valuable tools in being able to distinguish between climate fact and climate fiction.


Winston Churchill once said “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” This has never been more true than it is today with the Internet. Social media is rife with misconceptions about all kinds of topics ranging from climate change, to evolution, to chemtrails, to, more recently, the shape of the Earth. With information now able to spread faster than ever before, this also means that misinformation can be spread just as fast. The vaccine against being infected with misinformation is not only being informed, but knowing how to distinguish between a reputable source and a non-reputable source. This is an acquired skill that one must work on every day. It is not perfect – we all fall for the occasional ‘Onion-esque’ headline.

Skeptical Science is a very comprehensive and informative website run by University of Queensland Global Change Institute climate communication fellow, John Cook. (He also coordinates a free introductory online course on climate change which you can sign up for here). The site has compiled a list of 196 misconceptions on climate change ordered by how commonly they are used by opponents of anthropogenic climate change. I implore you to look through some of the myths you may have heard and see what the science says about them. I will discuss and debunk a select few here:

MYTH: “But It’s Freakin’ Cold Today!”

FACT: Local cold snaps do not disprove the long-term trend of increasing global temperatures

Average global temperatures have been increasing for decades. The operative word there is ‘average.’ An increasing trend does not mean very low temperatures can’t happen. The upward trend only means there will be fewer extreme cold temperature days and more high temperature days. In other words, more record highs; fewer record lows. This dovetails into the next misconception:

MYTH: “Scientists can’t even predict the weather, so why should they be able to predict the climate?”

FACT: Climate is much easier to predict than the weather – the models are accurate

Remember when meteorologists predicted a huge snow fall but only a small amount actually fell? This happened the last two years in the greater New York City area – we were promised snow but the storm tracked a few dozen miles off of what was expected. Does this mean the meteorologists have no idea what they’re doing? No, they rely on good measurements and predictive statistics to produce accurate models. Slight changes in conditions can skew the whole weekend forecast.

AGW deniers use situations like this in an attempt to point out that scientists don’t really know what they’re doing. What the deniers have actually done is proven that they don’t know the difference between weather and climate. Weather is the variation of temperature, wind, precipitation and the like on a day to day basis in a given location while climate is the average weather, or the weather you expect over a long periods of time. Neil DeGrasse Tyson explains the difference between weather and climate quite simply on an episode of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

MYTH: “The climate has changed in the past, so there is nothing we can do/to worry about”

FACT: The Earth’s climate has changed in the past, but now humans are the driving force

This is one of the most common misconception about climate change. Unlike some of the other myths, however, this one is technically correct.  As a geologist, I know this is true as part of my thesis dealt with the effect of Milankovitch Cycles on Earth’s climate. In short, these cycles describe the variation in solar energy input (insolation) as it relates to Earth’s position to the sun (but is independent of the sun). These cycles have periods of various lengths (22k, 41k, 100k years) and are responsible for controlling glacial and interglacial periods. Learn more by clicking here for a brief tutorial on Milankovitch Cycles. One US Congressman referred to this as ‘global wobbling.’ The reason climate scientists don’t include these effects in their models is because the rate of change is too slow (i.e., ~22,000 years) to matter over a short period of time (i.e., ~150 years).

Over the past 800,000 years, average global temperatures have risen when concentrations of CO2 and methane in the atmosphere were high and fallen when concentrations were low. Carbon dioxide does not precede temperature rise, but rather triggers it. The rising temperatures cause the oceans to release dissolved CO2, serving as a positive feedback loop.

So yes, the climate has changed before, and has been very different over millions of years.  But there’s the rub. In the past, climate has changed slowly over millions, thousands, and even several hundreds of years. The problem with the change observed today is how fast it is occurring compared to the past. Rapidly changing climate does not allow enough time for species to adapt to their changing environments (including us!) as migrations and weather patterns become more irregular which ultimately lead to mass extinction events and hardships for people living in low lying areas.

What about the Medieval Warm Period? Wasn’t that hotter than it was today?

No, it wasn’t. Only specific parts of the northern hemisphere (such as Europe) were as warm as today.

MYTH: “Arctic/Antarctic sea ice has been growing in area”

FACT: Arctic sea ice is diminishing in volume, but Antarctic sea is expanding

This myth has two parts: Arctic sea ice and Antarctic sea ice. Let’s start in the northern hemisphere. Arctic sea ice volume fluctuates annually with the seasons (Figure 4). It provides polar bears with a platform on which to hunt seals and has a high albedo, reflecting most of the sun’s energy that hits it back into space. Satellite data from the Polar Science Center show a downward trend in arctic sea ice from at least 1980 to 2017. In March 2015, Arctic sea ice maximum was observed at the lowest extent ever recorded. Not only is the ice not covering as much area, it is also thinning [PDF]. To say that it’s recovering is to ignore the long-term downward trend (Figure 5). Remember that melting sea ice doesn’t contribute directly to sea level rise, but it does reflect less of the sun’s heat, causing the surrounding water to warm faster than it would otherwise. The National Center for Atmospheric Research predicts an ice-free north pole by 2040.


Figure 4 How “Skeptics” View Arctic Sea Ice Decline. Source: Skeptical Science

Antarctic sea ice has been expanding. Climate change deniers will often use the observed expansion as evidence against global warming. However the Southern Ocean’s average air temperature has been increasing. So what’s going on here? Well, it’s complicated, but one contributing factor is an increase in fresh water near the surface resulting from melting land ice and changes in ocean circulation [PDF]. In other words, fresh water is staying near the surface, displacing the warmer, saltier water below. Land ice in Antarctica, however, has been melting at an alarming rate, especially the western ice sheet. Current estimates indicate that melt water from the western ice sheet alone has increased sea level by 3 mm since 1992. This completely ignores the fact that the Greenland ice sheet is also melting from the bottom up, further contributing to sea level rise.

Figure 5 – Average Monthly Artic Sea Ice Extent. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Figure 5 Average Monthly Arctic Sea Ice Extent. Source: National Snow and Ice Data Center

MYTH: “There is no scientific consensus on climate change”

FACT: Over 97 percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is happening and is caused by humans

This is the most commonly used climate change myth. Using phrases like this muddy the water to make it seem like there is a debate among scientists when there really isn’t. The news media are particularly notorious for perpetuating this myth by implementing false balance – showing two differing points of view, even though a 50/50 split completely misrepresents the disagreement among scientists. The split isn’t even 80/20 but more like 99.99% to 0.01%. A study by Cook et at. (2013) found that out of nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed papers published between 1991 and 2012, only 0.7% (83) reject AGW. In other words, 97% of climate scientists agree that climate change is real and is caused by humans. John Oliver represented this majority on his HBO show Last Week Tonight.  Another study done by James Lawrence Powell found that of the 54,195 peer-reviewed papers published between 1991 and 2015 (using different methodology), only 31 rejected CO2 as the cause of AGW. Figure 6 shows the results of other studies that have come to the same conclusion: Oreskes 2004, Doran and Zimmerman (2009), Anderegg et al. (2010).


Figure 6 The Scientific Consensus on Climate Change. Source: Skeptical Science.

The myth of no consensus is likely fed by the over 31,000 signatures on a petition denying humans’ role in warming the Earth. However, the only credentials one needs is a bachelor’s degree in almost any science in order to be able to sign the petition. What does a nurse or a computer scientist or civil engineer know about climate change that the climate scientists don’t?  The answer is most likely nothing. The number of signatures sounds like a lot but it actually only represents about 0.3% of all science graduates since 1970. The percentage drops to 0.1% if you take out all of the non-scientists. The 2-3% of papers that reject climate change very likely have “methodological flaws like cherry picking, curve fitting, ignoring inconvenient data, and disregarding known physics.

MYTH: “It’s the sun”

FACT: The sun has been cooling down while climate continues to warm

The sun most certainly warms our planet – we would freeze to death without it. But its effect on Earth is very well studied and models show that solar irradiance (insolation) has actually been decreasing [PDF] since 1960 (Figure 7). One of the biggest proponents of this myth of blaming the sun for recent warming is Willie Soon, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics and policy advisor to the Heartland Institute. It is prudent to point out that Soon has received over $1.2 million from Exxonmobil, the Charles G Koch Foundation, and the American Petroleum Institute and others that would monetarily benefit from confusing the climate change issue. More recently, a study done by a mathematician was interpreted by ‘news’ sources to mean the sun is cooling down and there will be an ice age in 2030. As Phil Plait explains, this is a load of malarkey. It is only a decrease in magnetic activity, which has a relatively small effect on solar energy output.  At best, it may slow global warming, but any decrease in solar output would be offset by other contributing factors.

Figure 7 Temperature vs Solar Activity 1880 to 2015. Source: Skeptical Science.

MYTH: “Volcanoes emit more CO2 than humans ever could”

FACT: Volcanoes emit a tiny fraction of the CO2 that humans do

No, they don’t. It’s not even close. Mike Huckabee, seeking the Republican nomination for president at the time, said in an interview with Katie Couric “a volcano in one blast will contribute more than a hundred years of human activity” but this claim is ‘laden with fertilizer. Total anthropogenic CO2 emissions in 2010 was 33.6 billion metric tons (Gt/y) compared to the highest estimate of total volcanic CO2 emissions of 0.26 Gt/y (Figure 8). That’s almost 130 times more!  The production of cement alone emits more CO2 than volcanoes do.

Figure 8 – The rock cycle as it relates to the carbon cycle. Source: Skeptical Science

Figure 8 The rock cycle as it relates to the carbon cycle. Source: Skeptical Science

Volcanoes do affect the climate, however. It is believed that eruptions just before year 1300 contributed to the Little Ice Age. Ash and sulfate aerosols both cool the planet by reflecting sunlight back into space. The sulfur aerosols play the more lasting role as the ash quickly dissipates. In fact, volcanic eruptions caused 1816 to become known as the year without a summer.

MYTH: “But it’s actually cooling!”

FACT: The Earth is warming

This myth stems from several publications in the 1970s that predicted a cooling trend, rather than warming. One of the more famous (infamous?) articles is the 1975 Newsweek article The Cooling World which suggested cooling global temperatures would cause a decline in food production. Rasool and Schneider’s 1971 paper predicted a decrease in surface temperature of over 3 degrees C due to an increase of aerosols in the atmosphere. These predictions were not totally unreasonable, however, as aerosol trends had been increasing [PDF] and temperatures had ostensibly plateaued or had been falling in the 30 years leading up to these publications. These, along with a few other outliers, became fodder for AGW deniers to cherry pick information from.

Peterson and Fleck (2008) surveyed scientific papers from 1965 to 1979 and found [PDF] that only seven, or 10%, of the scientific studies published concerning AGW predicted global cooling, while 42, or 62%, papers predicted global warming. The remainder of the surveyed papers held no stance. Despite this finding, the global cooling myth continues to be peddled by climate deniers like Don Easterbrook, a Professor Emeritus of geology at Western Washington University. He has been accused of academic dishonesty where he misrepresented IPCC predictions, and altered data and graphs to fit his preconceived conclusion that global warming is not occurring.

MYTH: “It hasn’t warmed in the past 17 years”

FACT: The hottest years on record have been in the past decade

We know this myth isn’t true because three of the hottest years on record were 2005, 2010, 2014, 2015, and, the hottest yet, 2016 (UPDATE: 2017 is set to be one of the hottest three years on record). Additionally, four separate studies have debunked the myth of the ‘global warming pause.’ The rise in surface temperature has indeed slowed down though it is not zero. Temperatures have been increasing by 0.11 to 0.12*C per decade from 1997-2012. More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that the world’s oceans absorbed more than 90% of the energy gained between 1971 and 2010 while only 1% of that energy was stored in the atmosphere (IPCC, 2014). New research from NASA finds that the Pacific and Indian Oceans absorbed extra heat from greenhouse gases and are responsible for the apparent slowdown in atmospheric warming over the past decade.

Additional Resources: | on Huckabee’s volcano claim | The Debunking Handbook | Breitbart misrepresents research from 58 scientific papers to falsely claim that they disprove human-caused global warming

Putting It All Together

Why Are People Skeptical of Climate Change Science?

In order to understand why certain people are skeptical of AGW, it would benefit us to first understand who these skeptics are. There is a strong correlation between AGW denial and possessing political ideology that emphasizes the free-market, which includes more right-leaning people. Political ideologies can create mental blocks to opposing information for both the Right and Left. In fact, one’s political biases may cause them to completely misinterpret a scientific study or even become less able to do math! In this case, this prevents Conservatives/right-leaning Libertarians from accepting AGW because the answers to that problem go against their ideologies of free-market capitalism and individualism. Furthermore, those who are most Conservative and religious are more likely to be skeptical of AGW and other sciences (like evolution).

“Doubt is our product” – tobacco companies.

When the science doesn’t agree with preconceived conclusions, AGW deniers, such as Exxon-Mobil, manufacture doubt. We have been here before with the tobacco and lead paint industries. Giving the illusion that there is still debate among scientists is the best way to muddy the water and confuse people. Tobacco companies have perfected the art of impossible expectations, where they’ll ask for ‘more research’ no matter how many studies are produced showing the harms of smoking. This is really a political debate being made to look like a scientific debate. (Anti-GMO groups use this same tactic).

Doubt-peddlers such as large corporations and political talking heads (who are sometimes just paid to represent an opposing viewpoint) have clear reasons to muddy the debate over AGW: it is in their best interest. Therefore, we should not put much effort into changing their minds per se but rather debunking their talking points.

How do we convince the AGW dissenters?

According to a study conducted in Australia (which has the highest percentage of climate dissenters), climate dissenters only make up 7% of the population. Instead, we, as science communicators, should be concentrating on convincing the 48% who are the fence-sitters and those who think climate change is natural (but not caused by humans). While talking to someone from this 48%, keep two things in mind: presenting evidence contrary to people’s deeply held beliefs can actually reinforce those incorrect beliefs in what’s called the worldview backfire effect; and, that semantics matter. For example, instead of saying ‘tax’ use the term ‘offset’ or emphasize the positive effects of AGW mitigation such as a stronger economy and society.

The best way to change someone’s mind on an issue is to first treat the person you’re talking to as a person. In today’s political climate this, unfortunately, needs to be said. Recently, I’ve noticed that the most vocal AGW proponents seem to bombard people they perceive as AGW dissenters (they usually call these people deniers in order to ‘other’ them, placing them in an outgroup, thus removing their humanity to a degree) with a religious furor. These ‘climate evangelists’ treat climate science as dogma, and those who don’t fully subscribe to it as heretics. This behavior is hardly limited to climate science as it is utilized throughout politics is a type of litmus test.

In chemistry, litmus paper can be used to roughly gauge the pH of a substance, but while it is a low-resolution test it is also low-cost. Political litmus tests are a type of cognitive heuristic, a mental shortcut, we use to make low-resolution, low mental-cost judgments about people and where they stand politically. While there are high correlations between and stances on particular issues and certain political ideologies, making assumptions about individuals based on these correlations are not productive, and increasingly so. Someone’s view on abortion should not tell you anything about their perspective on AGW, gun control, or their favorite beer.

Finding out what people believe and why is more important than trying to change their mind because you can’t change their mind if you don’t know what is in it! Assuming won’t help as it makes you come across as ‘the enemy’ rather than an honest interlocutor (see the Worldview Backfire Effect).  Don’t expect to see an ‘ah ha’ moment either. People tend to not change their minds on the spot; it takes time for them to think it through. To maximize persuasion, you should focus on having an honest, civil conversation (no assumptions or name calling) while planting mustard seeds of doubt which might nudge their beliefs toward that of the scientific consensus.

Additional Resources:

Worldview backfire effect | When Evidence Backfires | The Backfire Effect | Correcting Misinformation While Avoiding the Backfire Effect | The False Consensus Effect | Why People Believe Invisible Agents Control The World | Communicating the Science of Climate Change | Don’t believe everything you think | We Are all Confident Idiots | List of Logical fallacies


AGW is happening and it’s due to human activity. It will have far reaching consequences for centuries. Reasonable people can disagree about the nature of and degree to which some of these consequences will negatively affect plants and animals in the future, but to flat out deny them is to be misinformed. Knowing the common myths and the facts behind them can help move conversations about AGW forward, as long as both sides honestly engage each other. That means having a conversation about the science behind AGW separate from the political implications of such findings, to the degree that is possible, rather than conflating the two. Failure to make this distinction can very quickly shut down the conversation or worse, devolve into a bitter argument. There are no ‘winners’ then.

Engage in honest conversation with those having differing opinions than you. This probably should not include calling up Willie Soon or the CEO of Exxon to try to convince them AGW is happening and that they need to do something about it immediately! Instead, create a triage, focusing more on those that surround you who are amenable to such conversations. Place those who are not willing to engage with ideas, and would rather sling mud, at the bottom of said triage. And above all else, treat the person you are talking to like they have their own reasoning, thoughts, and feelings. You know, like a person.

Where NOT to get information on climate change science:

List of climate science misinformers | List of websites that actively deny climate change


Faure, Gunter, 1998, Principles and Applications of Geochemistry: New York, Prentice Hall, 625 p.

IPCC, 2014: Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, 151 pp.


* When I use ‘denier,’ I keep it narrowly aimed at corporations and their paid representatives and NOT someone with whom I disagree.


I’d like to thank Matt Bokey, Andrew Bentley, PhD, and Jason Bracken for their help in editing this article.

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Granite countertop? Think again! Photo: HGTV

What is Granite?

We often hear many speaking highly of granite for use as counter tops in high-end kitchens and bathrooms, as accent pieces, and much more. But, what is granite?

What is Granite?

Granite is one of the Earth’s most typical rock and an essential building block of the continents. Granite is a light-colored intrusive igneous rock with a distinct granular texture. Simply put, it’s a light-colored rock with a unique grain texture. Since granite forms below the Earth’s surface, cooling slowly, large crystals form within the rock. Generally, granite consists of 20% quartz and two types of feldspar (a rock forming mineral) – plagioclase and alkali feldspar in relatively equal amounts.

Because it’s so hard to determine the amount of quartz and the difference between the types of feldspar, many medium-grained light-colored igneous rocks -rocks formed by the cooling of molten magma on Earth’s surface – are called granite.

So those fancy countertops you see at your local hardware store being sold as granite? Probably not granite!

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Constellations - Image: NASA

What are Constellations?

Over the millennia, humans have teased out shapes of animals, mythological figures, and objects from patterns of stars in the night sky. These star patterns are called constellations.

How Many Constellations Are There?

The International Astronomical Union, or IAU, recognizes 88 official constellations. Included in this list are the 48 original constellations listed by Ptolemy in the second century A.D. This includes constellations of 14 humans, 9 birds, two insects, 19 land animals, 10 water creatures, two centaurs, one head of hair, a serpent, a dragon, a flying horse, a river, and 29 inanimate objects!

Would Constellations Look The Same On A Different Planet

Because all the stars are at different distances, the constellations would look totally different to inhabitants of another planet orbiting another star!

What Are Constellations Used For?

One of the original uses of constellations was for agriculture. Before proper calendars existed, people had no way of determining when to plant and harvest their crops except by the stars. Constellations made the patterns of the stars easy to remember. For example, it was known that when the constellation Orion becomes visible, winter was coming. Or they could look at the Summer Triangle to know when Summer or Spring was arriving. The stars allowed farmers to plan ahead and constellations made it easier to recognize and interpret the patterns in the sky.

Constellations were also used by sailors to help navigate their ships across seas. For example, it is fairly easy to spot Polaris (The North Star) once you’ve found Ursa Minor (Little Dipper constellation). One can figure out his or her latitude (North/South) just by looking at how high Polaris appears in the night sky. This allowed for ships to travel across the globe. It allowed for the discovery of America, the spread of European culture, and civilization as we know it today.

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Production of Tesla Model 3 Set to Begin Feb 20th

FILE PHOTO - A prototype of the Tesla Model 3 is on display in front of the factory during a media tour of the Tesla Gigafactory which will produce batteries for the electric carmaker in Sparks, Nevada, U.S. July 26, 2016.  REUTERS/James Glover II/File Photo

FILE PHOTO – A prototype of the Tesla Model 3 is on display in front of the factory during a media tour of the Tesla Gigafactory which will produce batteries for the electric carmaker in Sparks, Nevada, U.S. July 26, 2016. REUTERS/James Glover II/File Photo

After some delays, Tesla has announced that pilot- production of its highly anticipated Model 3 is set to begin February 20th.

If all goes well the company anticipates production of consumer models to begin as early as this July.

Even though the vehicle’s design is complete, some have expressed doubt that any will be delivered to consumers in 2017 at all. Tesla anticipates it will have a more clear answer pending the results of the initial pilot-production.

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A ground of carbon crystals magnified on the screen allow scientists to better examine their results.

Photo by Tom Cruise of the Daily Beacon

Scientists Find Way to Capture Carbon Dioxide in Crystals

Neil Williams, a UT graduate research assistant in the Department of Chemistry, along with scientists from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, have stumbled upon a method to pull carbon dioxide from the air and trap the carbon in crystalline form.

With the threat of climate change looming, it is becoming increasingly more important to find innovative ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere with as little energy input as possible. While similar capture techniques require temperatures of up to 800 degrees Celsius, this technique is a step in that direction, requiring only about 120 degrees to capture carbon.

A ground of carbon crystals magnified on the screen allow scientists to better examine their results. Photo by Tom Cruise of the Daily Beacon

A ground of carbon crystals magnified on the screen allow scientists to better examine their results.
Photo by Tom Cruise of the Daily Beacon


Transferring carbon from the atmosphere into a solid form is ideal because it is the same way the Earth does it! But of course that takes a lot more time.

The scientists plan to hone their newly discovered method in future research by tweaking parameters to find the ideal conditions for carbon capture.

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No, Bees Aren’t Going Extinct

Image result for Hylaeus anthracinus

One species of yellow-faced bee – Hylaeus anthracinus Source:

By Steve Booty

If you’ve been on social media lately, you have probably noticed a steady stream of stories about how bee populations are diminishing at alarming rates and how it’s all Monsanto’s (or any other boogeyman’s) fault. All this, even though the number of bee producing colonies are at a 20 year high. I usually ignore these stories until I came across a story on NPR’s website with the surprisingly click baity title of Bees Added To U.S. Endangered Species List For 1st Time.

My first thought was ‘well, there’s no way THAT’S true.’ So I actually read the article (crazy, I know but pleaseImage result for technically true statements, try this at home) and found that, while annoying, the headline is technically true (which is the best kind of true!). Firstly, bees are NOT on the endangered species list because ‘bees’ aren’t a single species but rather the colloquial name given for about 4,000 different species in North America alone. The word ‘bees’ in the title refers to specific species of bee. However, I doubt the average person actually took the time to read it. Rather, most opt for the “See? I told you so! It was all <insert preferred boogeyman here>’s fault!>.”

It turns out that a total of seven bee species, native to Hawaii, have been given protection under the Endangered Species Act. This is seven species out of the state’s 63 known different species of bee. Islands in general tend to be nichy so even slight changes in environment (by any metric) can have drastic effects. The NPR article also mentions that “11 new native species have been found in the past 15 years.” In other words: it’s not ALL bees (#NotAllBees), just seven out of the 63 on one island chain alone; and, it could be a largely natural (though, not without human influence) process of better adapted species taking over niches of poorly adapted species.

Now, I don’t want to diminish the facts here – any species being pushed to the verge of extinction is (probably) a bad thing, but one has to look at the context. Ask yourself some questions before you come to a conclusion:

  • Does this headline fit the story?
  • How many species of bee are now endangered?
  • Is that a lot?
  • Why is that happening?

There is click bait out there. Remember to be skeptical of headlines until you read the article.

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New Target Discovered for HIV Vaccine

Earlier this week a team led by scientists at the Vaccine Research Center, a part of the  National Institutes of Health (NIH), discovered an area on the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) for a vaccine to target!

HIV works by attacking and killing vital cells within our immune system known as T-helper cells. These cells play an important role in the immune system by supporting other immune system cells that help suppress or regulate immune system responses. T-helper cells also kill cells that have been infected with germs.

Without T-helper cells, many other immune system cells cannot work properly, including B-cells that are responsible for making antibodies. Over time, the number of T-helper cells drops so low that the risk of infection and disease greatly increases, and the symptoms of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) appear.

The new target, called the fusion peptide, is part of HIV that helps the virus fuse with a cell. The fusion peptide has a much simpler structure than other sites on the virus that HIV vaccine scientists have studied.

 The research team first examined the blood of an HIV-infected person to explore its ability to stop the virus from infecting other cells. The blood was good at neutralizing HIV but did not target any of the vulnerable spots on the virus where broadly neutralizing HIV antibodies were known to bind.

The researchers isolated a powerful broadly neutralizing HIV antibodies in the blood that they named VRC34.01, and found that it binds to the fusion peptide and a sugar molecule. The scientists then crystallized the antibody while it was bound to the virus. This allowed them to characterize in atomic-level detail how VRC34.01 attaches to HIV and revealed that the antibody stops the virus from infecting a cell by binding to a key cell-surface molecule!

Researchers also screened the blood of 24 other HIV-infected volunteers and found that blood samples from 10 people targeted a similar binding site as VRC34.01.

The scientists and research team at the Vaccine Research Center are now working to create a vaccine designed to elicit antibodies similar to the VRC34.01 antibody.

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NASA Finds 1,284 New Planets, 9 ‘Potentially Habitable’

On May 10th, NASA announced that their Kepler mission verified 1,284 new exoplanets – the single largest finding of planets to date.

According to NASA’s press release, prior to the launch of NASA’s Kepler space observatory in March of 2009, “[scientists] did not know whether exoplanets were rare or common in the galaxy. Thanks to Kepler and the research community, we now know there could be more planets than stars,” said Paul Hertz, Astrophysics Division director at NASA Headquarters.

Kepler’s job is to study a portion of the Milky Way to search for planets, staring at over 100,000 stars. Kepler is able to discover these planets by detecting decreases in brightness that occur when planets pass in front of, or transit, their stars. A great example of this is when Mercury passed across the Sun earlier this week.

“In the newly-validated batch of planets, nearly 550 could be rocky planets like Earth, based on their size. Nine of these orbit in their sun’s habitable zone, which is the distance from a star where orbiting planets can have surface temperatures that allow liquid water to pool. With the addition of these nine, 21 exoplanets now are known to be members of this exclusive group,” according to NASA’s press release.


Image: NASA/W. Stenzel
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Credit:LA Johnson/NPR

Let’s Get Real With Climate Change – Part 1

Peru's Quelccaya ice cap is the largest in the tropics. If it continues to melt at its current rate—contracting more than 600 feet (182.8 meters) a year in some places—it will be gone by 2100, leaving thousands who rely on its water for drinking and electricity high, dry, and in the dark. Photograph by Peter Essick (Source: National Geographic)

“Peru’s Quelccaya ice cap is the largest in the tropics. If it continues to melt at its current rate—contracting more than 600 feet (182.8 meters) a year in some places—it will be gone by 2100, leaving thousands who rely on its water for drinking and electricity high, dry, and in the dark.”
Photograph by: Peter Essick | Source: National Geographic

Now more than ever it is paramount that we understand the facts about climate change. Without realizing it, most of us have seen the effects climate change has already had on our environment. Many glaciers have started to shrink. The ice on rivers and lakes are breaking up earlier in the year. Plant and animal ranges have shifted. And some areas are starting to experience unusually extreme high and low temperatures. Unfortunately, 97% of all climate scientists agree that this trend will continue. But what can we do? GOOGLE IT!

If you search for climate change, Google finds 143,000,000 results on the topic. Unfortunately, many of these articles, websites, communities, and social media outlets are riddled with misconceptions and misinformation. As great as the Internet can be, one of its downsides is how rapidly misinformation can spread, further complicating the issue. Adding insult to injury, we see some of the highest ranking (and influential) elected officials dismissing many of the truths that surround climate change. (A classic example is Senator Jim Inhofe’s snowball “experiment.”)

Our goal is not to change your opinion on climate change. But to present the facts that surround climate change in a way that’s easy to understand, clearing up some of the most common misconceptions. By having a well-informed, global conversation about climate change we can come together and solve this problem! (more…)

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