London

Fact check: Michael Van Holst's climate claims are 'false or misleading'

A missive from Coun. Michael Van Holst urging city staff to 'take a second look' at the science of climate change wastes 'a great deal of time and money' and is drawing criticism from many.

Coun. Michael Van Holst is urging staff to 'take a second look at the science' of climate change

A protester shows a placard during a climate demonstration Sept. 20, 2019 in Paris. In Canberra and Kabul, Cape Town and Berlin, and across the globe, hundreds of thousands of people took the streets Friday to demand that leaders tackle climate change in the run-up to a U.N. summit. (Francois Mori/The Associated Press)

A missive from Coun. Michael Van Holst urging staff to "take a second look" at the science of climate change wastes "a great deal of time and money" to reduce carbon emissions, and is drawing criticism from many. 

It's also full of misinformation, say scientists and those who call Van Holst's anti-climate change direction "dangerous."

"It's dangerous because we are facing a very major impact on the planet, caused by climate change. We're seeing more floods, more heat, more of those kinds of things, and if you start saying that all this science that is highly documented, highly valid is wrong, we're not going to change direction," said Canadian climatologist Gordon McBean, a professor at Western University who is the chair of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. 

"In my opinion, climate change is an issue of intergenerational and international equity and ethics." 

Van Holst's letter is on the Strategic Priorities and Policy Committee, which meets Monday night and will be discussing steps that can be taken to reduce the city's net-zero greenhouse gas emissions goal.

London city council declared a climate emergency in April, and wants to launch an action plan that would consider the impact on the environment when implementing services and plans for the city. 

CBC News asked to several people who have dedicated their lives to the study of climate science to take a look at Van Holst's claim. They include: 

  • Gordon McBean, Western University professor and chair of the Canadian Foundation for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences
  • Matto Mildenberger, a Canadian climate policy researcher currently working at the University of California in Santa Barbara
  • Carol Dyck, a London Green Party candidate who holds several Masters degrees in environmental law, environmental policy and biodiversity
  • Michael Ranney, a psychologist from the University of California (Berkeley) who has studied climate denial and published a series of short videos about global warming.

Fact check

Van Holst asks people to visit projectpetition.org. However, that website does not exist. 

Petitionproject.org does. It's a website that claims there's no scientific evidence for human-made climate change, and that an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide produces beneficial effects on plants and animals.

The online petition dates back to 1998 and the claim that 31,000 US scientists have signed it has been debunked, mainly because there is no guarantee that the signatories have any knowledge of how climate works. 

People who have no credibility in the science field are ones who should not themselves be ridiculing the real scientists- Gordon McBean

The claim: CO2 concentrations have been much higher

Fact check: It's true that carbon dioxide concentrations have been much higher, including in the Devonian, Jurassic and Cretaceous Period. However, people weren't around then, says Dyck, and CO2 concentrations are growing at a much faster pace than plants and animals can adapt to, which is increasing diseases and invasive species. Human cognition starts to be negatively affected around 700 ppm, says Ranney, so increasing CO2 is not great for humans. 

The claim: Plants benefit from higher concentrations of CO2

Fact check: It's true, plants do grow faster and larger in high concentrations of carbon dioxide, but they also have lower concentrations of nutrition, Dyck says, and therefore couldn't help feed humanity. Plants move further north or south or to higher altitudes to adapt to the changing climate, but they can't do it fast enough and so succumb to disease and invasive pests.  

The claim: CO2 makes the earth greener

Fact check: "This is infuriating," says Dyck. The earth might be getting greener, but that's not a good thing." Greener means a melting of the rapid melting of ice fields and glaciers and decreasing of the albedo effect, which is the ability of the earth to deflect heat. When ice melts, the earth absorbs more heat, and the cycle of warming speeds up. 

The claim: Deserts are greening and droughts are being prevented 

Fact check: In fact, deserts are expanding, many places are becoming more arid, and weather patterns have caused massive fires, such as those in Australia, California and British Columbia. Reports by the World Food Program show people are starving because of droughts, and plants and trees are dying because they're not getting enough water. "This is the silliest thing I've ever heard," Dyck told CBC News. 

The claim: Climate is and always has been changing

Fact check: This is true. It's just never changed this much this quickly before, says McBean. "Warming to a certain extent is peachy. But the warming we're doing now is not beneficial. The amount of warming we are seeing is causing sea levels to rise and more and more hot days that are literally killing people. Adds Dyck: "We're talking about human survival. Talking about 70,000 or 90,000 years ago, we weren't here. Plants and animals will survive. The rest of the earth will survive. This is about human survival and making sure that we can still be here." 

Smoke and steam billows from Belchatow Power Station, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant operated by PGE Group, at night near Belchatow, Poland December 5, 2018. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

The claim: We are not experiencing anything unexpected or extraordinary

Fact check: "We have more intense storms, more frequently, massive floods, pests and diseases travelling north such as Lyme Disease and West Nile, the transfer of water-borne diseases on the eastern seaboard. These are things that are unexpected and extraordinary and if they continue for the next 30 years, they will get more intense and more frequent," Dyck says. 

The claim: There has never been a CO2 climate catastrophe

Fact check: True. But just because there hasn't been, doesn't mean there won't be. 

The claim: We were warming before fossil fuels were burned

Fact check: Scientists think a "little ice age" in the 1700s could have been caused by the mass-deaths of Indigenous people and the subsequent take-over of their cities by trees and plants. Things have been warming very slightly since then with a very sudden, more rapid increase 150 years ago, due to human fossil fuel burning, Dyck says. 

The claim: There is only so much heat to be trapped (so higher CO2 concentrations don't make a significant difference to temperatures)

Fact check: Higher concentrations of CO2 do make a significant difference, including oceans warming, coral bleaching, plants and animals unable to survive in their particular biomes, and many other consequences.  

The claim: Temperatures stopped increasing in 1998

Fact check: According to the NASA Global Climate Change Vital Signs of the Planet report, 18 of the 19 warmest years since the 1880s have occurred since 2001. 2016 is the warmest year on record, according to NASA. 

The claim: CO2 concentrations rise whenever the oceans get warmer

Fact check: Oceans absorb 30 per cent of human-made emissions, and this increase in carbon dioxide causes acidification, which threatens entire species, and puts the oceans under extreme pressure. The melting ice caps also affects ocean ecosystems, Dyck said. 

The claim: Water vapour is the most significant greenhouse gas

Fact check: Water vapour is the most abundant greenhouse gas by weight and volume, and it does contribute to warming, however, it stays in the atmosphere for a much shorter amount of time than other greenhouse gasses. Vapour stays in the atmosphere for days, while carbon dioxide or methane stay for years or centuries. Water contributes to warming because its concentration is part of the feedback process (and not directly attributable to humans). 

The claim: IPCC computer climate models aren't very scientific

Fact check: The models put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) "are based on the fundamental laws of physics and climate systems as we understand them. The models have been tested and they've been tested again," says McBean.  "You can go through the IPCC reports or you can go through the papers through the open scientific research, that show simulations of the last 100 years or million years, and they show us the best estimations we have, the best simulation of the climates of the past." 

The rest of the earth will survive. This is about human survival and making sure that we can still be here.- Carol Dyck

The claim: There is no consensus on climate change among scientists

Fact check: There is consensus. "I would wager the people on this petition have no scientific credibility whatsoever," says McBean. Dyck says "there is consensus, but those who choose to ignore the data are very vocal." Van Holst's claim that scientific abstracts didn't express an opinion on climate change is false. "It's like expecting a physicist writing an abstract about gravity to include a sentence roughly like this: 'By the way, I also accept that gravity is happening,'" says Ranney. 

The claim: Climate change is helping but climate policy is hurting

Fact check: Climate change is not helping humans, nor is it helping plants or food production. "Small states will disappear. Resources become more scarce and there is more violence, there is the spread of disease, there are forest fires," Dyck says. "What we're saying with climate change policy is, if you're going to subsidize oil and gas, why not subsidize the thing that will improve water and air quality instead?" 

***

Each of the people CBC News spoke to said they were concerned about Van Holt's insistence that city staff rethink the science of climate change. 

"I ask that this entire matter be referred back to staff to investigate what parts of the climate change narrative stand up to scrutiny. I think it is time that the skeptics are listened to and not ridiculed." 

But Ranney, whose group has researched just how much people know about climate change, says the public is not well informed about the global warming, and that "everything in (Van Holst's) letter is either false or misleading, and follows what comes out of nonscientific advocates of the burning of fossil fuels." 

Dyck says that she hopes the letter doesn't lead to "more stalling" on climate policy at a time when we need to move quickly, and McBean, who has been studying climate change since 1960, said he's frustrated with continued opposition to real science. 

"If there are bona fide skeptics with true scientific credentials, we do listen to them and we should listen to them, they're not ridiculed. But people who have no credibility in the science field are ones who should not themselves be ridiculing the real scientists by their statements such as the ones that are in this document," McBean said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Dubinski

Reporter/Editor

Kate Dubinski is a radio and digital reporter with CBC News in London, Ont. You can email her at kate.dubinski@cbc.ca.

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