Climate Misconceptions: A Top 10 List

This column typically focuses on misconceptions that elementary students might have about scientific principles and concepts. This month, we’ve chosen to take a slightly different approach and examine some misconceptions that are widespread – even among adults – regarding climate and climate change. This column is adapted from Mark’s April 8, 2010, post “Top 10 List – Missed Climate Concepts” on the Climate Literacy blog.

Climate science (and seemingly everything related to it) can be confusing, confounding, complex. In a word, climate is a conundrum. But, given what is at stake, we need to loosen the knot, a strand at a time, so we can individually and collectively be as adaptive and prepared as possible for the knowns and unknowns of climate change.

Let’s put aside for now the deliberately sown doubt and drama that have contributed to the derailment of our having an adult conversation about climate in our society. Let’s focus for a moment on where climate science and, especially, related climate education have frankly failed.

We know from research that there are certain concepts that are particularly difficult to grasp. In some cases they are nonintuitive and difficult to master. In some cases, they have not been well taught in traditional science courses, falling through disciplinary cracks or missing in action from science standards and graduation competencies.

Some of these concepts may not be crucial for making informed decisions relating to climate adaptation and preparedness. But some are absolutely crucial. Do any sound familiar?


10. Seasons

Misconception Correct concept
Earth gets closer to the sun in summer and is further away in winter. The tilt of Earth’s axis is the “reason for the seasons.”

9. Gases

Misconception Correct concept
Gas makes things lighter. Air has no weight, color or odor and is in effect invisible and inconsequential. Gas (air) has mass, takes up space, and is affected by energy.

8. Plants

Misconception Correct concept
Plants gain their mass (i.e., grow) from water and nutrients taken in through their roots. Plants acquire mass from carbon dioxide through the process of photosynthesis.

7. Fossil Fuels

Misconception Correct concept
Fossil fuels have been around since the origins of Earth and are not connected to organic life or photosynthesis. Fossil fuels are “buried solar energy” originally captured by living organisms.

6. Solar Radiation

Misconception Correct concept
The sun’s energy is reflected or bounced off the surface of Earth. Incoming UV radiation is absorbed by the surface of Earth and transformed into outgoing infrared energy.

5. The Greenhouse Effect

Misconception Correct concept
Human activities alone are what cause the greenhouse effect. The greenhouse effect is caused by certain molecules that trap and amplify the outgoing infrared energy. It allows liquid water and life to exist on Earth. Human activities, especially releasing carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels, are further increasing or amplifying the natural greenhouse effect.

4. The Ozone Layer

Misconception Correct concept
Global warming is caused by the ozone hole, which was created by chemicals like hair spray. The ozone layer in the stratosphere protects the planet from the sun’s harmful radiation. Holes in the ozone, caused by chemicals released by humans, let more harmful radiation from the sun reach the surface of Earth. This is not the same phenomenon as global warming.

3. Climate

Misconception Correct concept
Climate is simply long-term weather and therefore can’t really be predicted. There are significant differences between weather and climate and how they are studied and forecast.

2. Changes in the Atmosphere

Misconception Correct concept
The atmosphere is large and small amounts of carbon dioxide or a few degrees of temperature change can’t make much difference. Small changes in atmospheric composition or temperature increases can have a large effect.

1. Carbon and the Climate System

Misconception Correct concept
Carbon is destroyed when fossil fuels are burned. Carbon released from combustion and other human activities doesn’t really have any adverse impact on the climate system (in fact, it’s good for plants!). If warming is occurring, it is the result of a natural cycle we can’t do anything about. Because of the role of organic carbon in the climate system, decarbonization of economies and energy systems is necessary and imperative to minimize the impact of human activities on the environment in general and the climate in particular.

It is hoped that the plethora of climate education programs recently initiated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Science Foundation, and other agencies and foundations will help us reduce climate confusion and, ideally sooner than later, graduate climate-literate, energy-aware individuals.

Civic scientific literacy and climate literacy are, indeed, imperative. While effective policies and technologies are important, without an informed citizenry able to help shape policies and choose the best technologies we are collectively up a well-known tributary without a viable means of locomotion. So to speak.

We can do this. We have improved our civic scientific literacy from 18 to 28 percent in recent years, and we can increase it again by another ten points or more if we are methodical, strategic and, yes, scientific about it.

This article was written by Mark S. McCaffrey. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site.

Copyright June 2010 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.


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