Science: Doing it Wrong

Greenhouse? What greenhouse?

Take over a century’s worth of climate science and bin it! A new paper posted at the website of “Principia Scientific, International” purports to demonstrate that there is no such thing as an atmospheric greenhouse effect by ushering in a “21st century paradigm in atmospheric physics”. This is not the first time this site has published a paper with that aim. They’re using a ridiculous substitute for peer review called “Peer Review in Open Media”. That is, they publish the paper with no review, and promise to change it if anyone points out flaws. We’ll see about that…

Now, the greenhouse effect was postulated as far back as the 1820s by Joseph Fourier, who noticed that the surface air temperature on Earth was warmer than solar radiation alone could explain. In the 1850s, John Tyndall discovered that water vapor and carbon dioxide absorbed infrared radiation, and voila, we had ourselves a rudimentary answer. Most gases in the atmosphere don’t interact with the wavelengths of light radiated by the Sun (mostly the visible portion of the spectrum, plus a little UV and a little infrared). That radiation reaches the surface, where it’s absorbed by the Earth. Energy that’s emitted back out by the Earth, however, is in the longer infrared portion of the spectrum. Greenhouse gases absorb some of that radiation (you can think of them as opaque to infrared, rather than transparent). Some energy is temporarily waylaid near the surface, raising surface temperatures, but eventually it’s all emitted outward into space.

Not so, says Douglas J Cotton, the author of a new paper at Principia Scientific. As the abstract states, “The paper explains why the physics involved in atmospheric and sub-surface heat transfer appears to have been misunderstood, and incorrectly applied, when postulating that a radiative ‘greenhouse effect’ is responsible for warming the surfaces of planets such as Venus and our own Earth.” He believes that energy from the surface moves outward to space primarily through, essentially, conduction (collisions between molecules). Curiously, he recognizes that carbon dioxide and water vapor will emit radiation when warmed, but states that they only emit to space, resulting in a cooler atmosphere than one with no greenhouse gases.

Ignoring nearly all radiative transfers and the well-known physics of the adiabatic lapse rate, Cotton declares (also in a related YouTube video) that the gradient in atmospheric temperature (warm at the surface, cold at high altitude) is simply due to the conservation of potential and kinetic energy. Like a ball sitting on a high shelf, molecules in the upper atmosphere have high potential energy but low kinetic energy. Imagine the ball has rolled off, and is falling towards the floor- potential energy will be increasingly traded for kinetic energy along the way. Since temperature is really the average kinetic energy of molecules, this explains it all.

On this view, the atmosphere is a conduction blanket that slows surface cooling following warming by the Sun (and the Earth’s core, apparently), and it does that because gravity causes the air at the bottom of the atmosphere to be warmest. (Nevermind that the ozone layer is warmer due to to absorption of incoming UV.)

Now, you might be thinking, that’s a bit silly- warm air below cool air makes an instability, causing the warm air to rise. Citing a perpetual energy machine website that outlines a rewriting of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, Cotton argues that’s not really the case. (Of the paper’s 30 references, incidentally, 13 are from Wikipedia, 1 from a dictionary, 3 are from other Principia Scientific papers, and 3 are from blogs.)

As crazy as all this sounds, it’s nothing new. The idea has its source in an argument between physicist Josef Loschmidt, on one side, and Ludwig Boltzmann and James Maxwell on the other. Loschmidt thought a fluid gradient of cold above hot could exist in equilibrium, and the others showed why this was not the case. The seed of that idea was recently excavated by Hans Jelbring, who used it to argue against the existence of the greenhouse effect in the same manner as Douglas Cotton’s paper. Jelbring’s paper was published in the (dubiously) peer-reviewed journal Energy & Environment. That name may sound familiar- after the Soon and Baliunas paper appeared in Climate Research (amidst the resulting resignation of a number of editors at the journal), a longer version was quickly published in Energy & Environment.

Cotton’s rejection of the physics of the adiabatic lapse rate stems from Jelbring’s paper. (A debunking of that paper even appeared at the hyper-contrarian Watts Up With That? site.) Jelbring is an interesting character and an active presence on many climate blogs. He’s often referenced as a “Swedish climatologist”, having apparently gotten a PhD at Stockholm University in the “Paleogeophysics and Geodynamics” unit, Nils-Axel Mörner’s program. Mörner is a prominent skeptic of sea level rise who appears to take dowsing quite seriously.

But enough On the Interestingness of Rabbit Holes. There are a couple other noteworthy things about Cotton’s paper.

He spends part of the paper discussing Venus, classic example of the greenhouse effect that it is. Cotton intimates that if the greenhouse effect were real, Venus’ atmosphere would be hottest at the top, since the incident solar radiation is greatest there. I’m not sure if this comes from not understanding that carbon dioxide’s absorption lines are in the infrared portion of the spectrum, or from not knowing that the upper atmosphere of Venus actually does absorb a lot of incoming solar radiation.

To dispatch experimental evidence for the greenhouse effect, Cotton compares daily maximum temperatures to rainfall for Southern Hemisphere 15 cities. Because water vapor is a potent greenhouse gas, Cotton surmises that cities with more rainfall should be warmer. (Stay with me now…) Seeing no such correlation, he declares, “There is clearly no indication of any warming effect related to water vapour, and so no evidence for the assumed positive feedback, which is a fundamental building block for the greenhouse conjecture. Rather, the opposite appears to be the case, and water vapour does in fact appear to have the cooling effect anticipated by the hypothesis in the main body of this paper.”

Finally, Cotton concludes that, “The greenhouse conjecture will inevitably take its brief place in history as the biggest and most costly mistake ever in the field of human scientific endeavour.” If that’s not enough to sooth your anxiety, he helpfully predicts that “the world can expect a period of about 500 years of cooling to start within 50 to 200 years from now.”

In short, the paper reeks of the dorm-room-philosophy sort of thinking that arises all too often from casual physicists seeking to overthrow all of climate science. Rather than take on 150 years of accumulated experimental evidence or do the hard work of collecting their own, they appeal to some twisted misunderstanding of the laws of thermodynamics and atmospheric physics. Another example of the “science as a house of cards” mindset.

“The greenhouse effect is just, like, your opinion, man. Open your mind to a new paradigm.”


2 thoughts on “Greenhouse? What greenhouse?

  1. What’s your opinion on effect of following on global warming:
    – Reduction in albedo from Arctic ice melting causing feedback loop
    – Global Dimming
    – Water Vapor feedback


    1. I think these are all things with physical answers, so I would only give you a quick and dirty summary of the research. The loss of Arctic sea ice is a significant (but not only) contributor to the fact that the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the planet. Water vapor is a net-positive feedback, between the raw greenhouse effect impact and the influence on cloud coverage and characteristics. These are both part of the projections of future warming, and part of the apparent climate sensitivity seen in past events.

      For global dimming, I can point you to the recent IPCC 1.5C report, because they estimated that ceasing all emissions today would likely result in <0.5C additional warming “in the pipeline”. That’s partly why they concluded it is still physically possible to limit warming to 1.5C if we try hard enough.


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