For years, oil companies and special interest groups have financed campaigns to make people doubt the reality and seriousness of climate change, funneling money into conservative non-profits, think tanks, politicians, and climate-denial front groups. Let’s take the industrial businessmen and political moguls, the Koch brothers, who have invested tens of millions of dollars over the last fifteen years in efforts to deny climate change.
With the support of Big Oil companies and their allies, a small but vocal group of climate deniers has become as pesky as mosquitos on a summer night. The mystery is how. After all, the facts are clear and when you consider that 97 percent of climate scientists agree that man-made climate change is real, it’s hard to believe that anyone could claim anything else with a straight face.
So how have a few well-funded voices managed to mislead – or at least confuse – millions and block progress on one of the most important issues of our time? One thing these deniers have been good at is cherry-picking facts and misrepresenting data to tell a story with some of the most important points conveniently left out. Imagine a guy buying drinks for everyone at the bar – without mentioning he just mugged a stranger for the cash. You get the picture.
We decided to take a closer look. We hope that by calling out deniers’ strategies, we can begin to debunk their myths and get back to the reason we’re all here: to spread truth and implement climate change solutions.
1. Misrepresenting Data
A common climate denier tactic is focusing on a specific year in a data set, usually one that happens to be an outlier. A great example of this is the year 1998.
Nineteen-ninety-eight was one of the hottest years on record thanks to an unusually strong El Niño. That means when you pull a subset of climate data from 1998–2012 (as deniers often do), you’re starting at a record high point. And when you look at the years that follow – years that vary naturally in temperature with some falling well below the 1998 peak – the upward trend in temperatures wasn’t as visually obvious.
Visual data can be purposefully skewed or misrepresented. Let’s look at the chart below, which shows the global air temperature changes from 1998–2012. The red trend line on the chart isn’t a trend at all — it’s simply connecting the two dots on either side of the chart that show two yearly averages of global air temperature change. A trend line on this chart should, in fact, trend upwards. And if we started this chart with the year 1999, it would look quite different.
Or if we zoom out even further, we see an even more obvious increase in average temperatures over time.
2. Cherry-Picking Facts
This is an especially tough one to crack because climate deniers often cite factual statistics. And factual statistics are factual statistics, right? Except when the statistics are taken out of context or missing pertinent information, making it hard to have an informed rebuttal ready.
Let’s take this statistic that’s often cited out of context: “The global mean temperature was 58.3 degrees Fahrenheit in 1998 (14.6 degrees Celsius) according to NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. In 2012, it was 58.2 degrees (14.56 Celsius).”
The obvious conclusion here is that global warming stalled or even stopped during this period. And if you look at changing temperatures in just these 14 years, it does look like they rose at a slower rate than they did over the longer period from 1951—2012.
But remember, 1998 was an unusually hot year, which skews the analysis. Plus, when scientists looked at the data again in 2014 after two more years of rising temperatures, the overall picture changed. With a higher average temperature as an endpoint in 2014, the graph shows that overall average temperatures from 1998—2014 rose at nearly the same rate as in the second half of the twentieth century.
The bottom line: global warming didn’t stop between 1998—2012. Far from it. And if someone cites 1998 temperatures to make a point about climate change, chances are there are some missing facts.
That’s why it’s important to remember that when climate statistics are cited, context and complete data are necessary to understanding the full picture.
3. Dwelling on the Weather
Everyone loves to talk about the weather. It’s a safe-zone, and people care about it because it has a direct impact on our feelings and mood. One especially common tactic is for climate deniers to dwell on weather patterns over the course of a few days or even a year to make the case that climate change isn’t happening.
“You know its freezing outside, right?” they might say, or “How can there be global warming when there’s a polar vortex?”
Weather patterns will always vary, causing temperatures to be higher or lower than average from time to time, depending on factors like El Niño and other ocean processes, cloud variability, volcanic activity, and other natural cycles.
It’s the long-term range (30-plus year cycles) that scientists look at to determine real changes in the climate system, and the changes scientists see are unmistakable. It’s time for climate deniers to stop focusing on the day-to-day weather as an excuse for why the Earth isn’t warming. This will only harm us in the future.
Now You Know
So the next time you hear someone stating climate statistics that attempt to show the Earth isn’t warming or harping on the blizzard outside, you’ll be able to recognize if they are cherry-picking facts or skewing data. Just remember: all the data you need to prove them wrong can be found in the blink of an eye on reputable websites like NASA and NOAA. Or, if you really want to get your point across, you can always send them this article (just don’t expect a holiday card next year).