Myths about climate change and renewable energy, and how to debunk them

MythsMyths peddled by opponents of climate action

1. It’s not happening

Yes it is. The fact that this winter has been cold for parts of the northern hemisphere signifies nothing. Weather is not the same as climate. Some years will always be warmer or colder than others. A decade is a better period to judge significant change and the decade from 2000 to the end of 2009 was the warmest on record.

This is well explained in an article in Science Daily:

A new analysis of global surface temperatures by NASA scientists finds the past year was tied for the second warmest since 1880. In the Southern Hemisphere, 2009 was the warmest year on record.  Although 2008 was the coolest year of the decade because of a strong La Nina that cooled the tropical Pacific Ocean, 2009 saw a return to a near-record global temperatures as the La Nina diminished, according to the new analysis by NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York. The past year was a small fraction of a degree cooler than 2005, the warmest on record, putting 2009 in a virtual tie with a cluster of other years – 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, and 2007 – for the second warmest on record.

‘There’s always interest in the annual temperature numbers and a given year’s ranking, but the ranking often misses the point,’ said James Hansen, GISS director. ‘There’s substantial year-to-year variability of global temperature caused by the tropical El Nino-La Nina cycle. When we average temperature over five or ten years to minimize that variability, we find global warming is continuing unabated.’

January 2000 to December 2009 was the warmest decade on record. Looking back to 1880, when modern scientific instrumentation became available to monitor temperatures precisely, a clear warming trend is present, although there was a levelling off between the 1940s and 1970s. In the past three decades, the GISS surface temperature record shows an upward trend of about 0.36 degrees F (0.2 degrees C) per decade. In total, average global temperatures have increased by about 1.5 degrees F (0.8 degrees C) since 1880.

(See Science Daily: Last Decade Was Warmest on Record, 2009 One of Warmest Years, NASA Research Finds.)

2. It’s nothing to do with human activity

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said, in its Fourth Assessment Report in 2007, that “There is very high confidence that the global average net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming” (see IPCC: Human and Natural Drivers of Climate Change).

IPCC defines “very high confidence” as more than more than 90%. So it is not certain that human activity is changing the climate, but very, very likely. A useful analogy: if you were going on a journey and were told that a crash wasn’t certain, but more than 90% likely, would you go anyway? I wouldn’t.

3. The science is junk

It isn’t perfect. Scientists make mistakes, like the rest of us. The IPCC has accepted that it was wrong to include a prediction about Himalayan Glaciers disappearing by 2035:

A paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.

(See IPCC: IPCC statement on the melting of Himalayan glaciers.)

The issue is whether scientists should ever use literature that has not been peer-reviewed, which is usually called ‘grey’ (or ‘gray’ in the American spelling) literature. Sometimes, it is necessary to use such literature, but this should always be acknowledged and the source identified. This is where the IPCC went wrong on the Himalayan glaciers, as the following from Solve Climate explains:

The IPCC cites 18,000 references in the AR4; the vast majority of these are peer-reviewed scientific journal papers. The IPCC maintains a clear guideline on the responsible use of so-called ‘gray’ literature, which are typically reports by other organizations or governments. Especially for Working Groups 2 and 3 (but in some cases also for 1) it is indispensable to use gray sources, since many valuable data are published in them: reports by government statistics offices, the International Energy Agency, World Bank, UNEP and so on. This is particularly true when it comes to regional impacts in the least developed countries, where knowledgeable local experts exist who have little chance, or impetus, to publish in international science journals.

Reports by non-governmental organizations like the WWF can be used (as in the Himalaya glacier and Amazon forest cases) but any information from them needs to be carefully checked (this guideline was not followed in the former case).

(See Solve Climate: IPCC Errors: Fact and Spin.)

However, to dismiss all climate science as junk because of one mistake is ridiculous.

Myths peddled by opponents of renewables

1. They’re too unpredictable

The sun doesn’t always shine; the wind doesn’t always blow, or blows too hard. Hydro requires rainfall.  Weather forecasts are notoriously unreliable. It is true that renewables, other than biomass, have an element of intermittence. (Tidal power is also intermittent, but is entirely predictable). However, that does not make them inadequate or unreliable. It is possible to use large hydro as a store by pumping water back above the reservoir when the electricity is not needed. Norway uses pump storage extensively, but large hydro has its own problems, as land has to be flooded and people moved from their homes. New ways of storing electricity are being developed – batteries on electric vehicles that can feed electricity back to the grid when it is not needed for transport; using electricity to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then storing the hydrogen to use in a fuel cell when electricity is needed. And smart grids will also help, particularly if built over extensive distances. The sun will generally be shining or the wind blowing over one part of the grid.

Intermittency is not a problem until such renewables account for about 30% of total power. Most countries are a long way from reaching that point, but the need for electricity storage is a matter that must be addressed.

2. They’re dangerous to wildlife

This is most often a criticism of wind turbines, which have sometime been described as ‘bird shredders’. Hydro schemes are sometimes said not to be ‘fish-friendly’ (usually by anglers, who are clearly very ‘fish-friendly’!). However, the greatest threat to birds, fish and all other animals, including humans, is uncontrolled climate change. The UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds recognises this, and said last year that it would support most wind farm applications. Most, not all:

The available evidence suggests that wind farms can harm birds in three possible ways – disturbance, habitat loss or damage (both direct or indirect), and collision. Poorly sited wind farms have caused some major bird casualties, particularly in Tarifa and Navarra in Spain, and the Altamont Pass in California. At these sites, planners failed to consider adequately the likely impact of putting hundreds, or even thousands, of turbines in areas that are important for birds of prey. Tragically, killing many hundreds of birds as a result. If wind farms are located away from major migration routes and important feeding, breeding and roosting areas of those bird species known or suspected to be at risk, there is a strong possibility that they will have minimal impact on wildlife. The environmental impact of wind farms needs to be monitored and analysed as they operate – and policies and practices will need to adapt as we learn more about the impacts of wind farms on birds closer to home. We scrutinise hundreds of wind farm applications every year to determine their likely wildlife impacts, and object to about 7%, because they threaten bird populations. We are also calling for a more strategic and long-term planning approach to wind development than is currently being taken, including a closer examination of the effects of interactions among wind farms and between wind farms and other forms of development. Wind power has a significant role to play in the UK’s fight against climate change. With the right strategic approach and planning safeguards, it can be expanded without significant detrimental effects on birds of conservation concern or their habitats. We will work with Government and developers to ensure this outcome.

(See RSPB: Wind farms.)

3. They’re ugly

This isn’t, strictly speaking, a myth, just a matter of opinion. Many people (including me) find wind farms beautiful as well as symbolic of the future. However, some people object on visual, landscape grounds, and it is almost always the case that those who oppose something speak out more strongly than those who support it. Those of us concerned about climate change, and so supportive of wind energy, must speak out loudly, underlining that the greatest threat to the landscape is uncontrolled climate change.

4. They’re too expensive

They are more expensive than dirty coal power stations. However, if the full costs of burning coal – including the costs of treating damage caused by air pollution, and the economic and health costs of climate change – are included, renewables are much more economically-desirable. And if the costs of the diplomatic and military results of relying on oil and gas are included, renewables seem very good value.

5. They’re just one fuel source

Some opponents say that we shouldn’t ‘put all our eggs in one basket’. However, renewables include wind, wave, tidal, solar photovoltaic, solar thermal, hydro, biogas from sewage and manure, and heat pumps. Add in geothermal, which is not strictly speaking renewable as the centre of our planet isn’t re-heating but which will last for many millions of years, and we have nine forms of renewable. Putting all our eggs in nine baskets seems a pretty safe bet.

6. They’re not as good as other low-carbon energy options

Some opponents argue that nuclear is better or, alternatively, CCS. However, renewables offer great energy security, as they are well spread across the globe, and are fully sustainable – the fuel will never run out. And many renewables are lower in carbon than nuclear or fossil fuels with CCS (see How low-carbon are different generating technologies?). Nuclear also has obvious proliferation risks. Nuclear power and CCS are needed as bridge technologies until we can be 100% renewable, but that is no reason to support them instead of renewables.

7. They will never be popular

They are already popular, it’s just that the antis speak out and those in favour often do not. To make them even more popular, surrounding communities should be given greater financial incentive to support them.

Inaccurate claims by some supporters of renewables

1. Anything called ‘renewable’ is good

Calling something renewable doesn’t make it good for the climate. Biofuels are the most obvious example of this, but some forms of biomass are also worse for the climate than fossil fuels are. And some things are good for the climate but not sensible for social or economic reasons – the social and economic cost will not be justified by the climate benefit. Solar photovoltaics in high northern or southern latitudes probably fall into this category.

2. All energy should be decentralised

Anything which involves combustion should be done with combined heat and power (CHP) technology, so that the heat can be used rather than wasted up the chimney. CHP usually requires decentralisation, although Scandinavian countries manage to transport heat in district heating networks for over a hundred kilometres. There is also a need to give communities and local councils a greater role in low-carbon energy. However, not everything should be decentralised. A large, smart electricity grid will help overcome the problem of intermittence. And large renewable capacity such as offshore wind will never be constructed by communities. Therefore, we need greater decentralisation, but we also need an enormous expansion of renewables, and some of this will have to be co-ordinated from the centre.

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