Environment Forum

Hot Air From Weathermen

July 28, 2008

Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. ThomsonReuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.

A general view of a chemical factory during dawn in Xiangfan, Hubei province, November 28, 2007. Rapidly growing China is emerging as the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas from factories, farms and vehicles blamed for climate change. REUTERS/StringerOften when seeing anti-environmental commentary about global warming in the media, I feel like the first question I would like to ask these commentators is: “Why do you deny that carbon dioxide (CO2), which is increasing in an unprecedented way in the atmosphere, is a greenhouse gas?”

If they were to start their answer: “I don’t deny it …” I would think “Good, we’ve made some progress.” However, as I think would often be the case, if they start their answer: “Because …” we should be ready to pounce on the ensuing nonsense.

Here’s a key example of such nonsense from a former weatherman:

Now allow me to talk a little about the science behind the global warming frenzy. I have dug through thousands of pages of research papers, including the voluminous documents published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I have worked my way through complicated math and complex theories. Here’s the bottom line: the entire global warming scientific case is based on the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the use of fossil fuels. They don’t have any other issue. Carbon Dioxide, that’s it.

Here is the deal about CO2, carbon dioxide. I estimate that this square in front of my face contains 100,000 molecules of atmosphere. Of those 100,000, only 38 are CO2; 38 out of a hundred thousand. That makes it a trace component. Let me ask a key question: how can this tiny trace upset the entire balance of the climate of Earth? It can’t. That’s all there is to it; it can’t”.

This might be funny if it weren’t for the fact that editorial pages like the Wall Street Journal and conservative news sources such as Fox News treat such individuals as scientific authorities on climate change.

Leaving aside the fact that it is the molecular structure of CO2 that is the basis for its greenhouse effect with respect to absorbing heat radiation from the Earth’s surface and warming the climate, or that with no CO2 in the atmosphere our planet would freeze over, the numbers argument above is just unforgivable. The current and future higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere are precisely accounted for in climate models that simulate present and future warming.A seemingly small concentration of a gas in the atmosphere is not a measure of its potential environmental or health impact. Indeed, if anything, the more trace level a gas is in the natural atmosphere, the more powerful its environmental impact is likely to be.

For example, I would ask any reader that accepts the above argument, with all its hubris (“…that’s all there is to it …” !!) to consider this: Would you mind if there were just 38 molecules of carbon monoxide (CO) out of 100,000 molecules of atmosphere in ‘front of your face’? If you don’t mind, you should know that, after a few hours of exposure, you would probably be dead.

Similarly weather reporters surely should know that dangerous air pollution levels of gases like ozone (O3) are measured in very low concentrations of 100 molecules per billion molecules of atmosphere! After all, ozone levels are a routine part of weather forecasts today.

12 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

The “numbers” the alleged meteorologist used here are measured in dollars, pounds, and euros, not in parts per Nth. The reason the WSJ and Fox are helping to dampen the “global warming frenzy” is change. Why? Because change costs money, and these are the publications that cater to the haves, not the have-nots. Hasn’t anyone other than me noted that all of the critics of man-made climate change theory are old men who have a lot to lose if gov’ts are forced to act to help the situation. These guys made a lot of money at the expense of the environment, and to admit that man-made climate change is real, would be the same as admiting they were wrong. Do you think they are gonna do that anytime soon? I, for one, have given up on convincing the passing generation of the impact of global warming. I try to focus my efforts on people who will actually be alive when the severe effects of these changing weather patterns will truly be felt.

Posted by Ptrizzle | Report as abusive

Great points.

Pollutants of many kinds are measured in ppm. Impact on a given system is a function of chemistry and physics, not just concentration.

This is an example, I think, of a need for a centralized repository of information for those of us who might battle the anit-environmentalists or doubters. What arguments can be made, how to battle the nonsense and repel the stupidity. Google is easy to use but for some soting through the chaff takes more time than we have.

Any good centralized sources of info out there?
Common myths to be aware of?
Keys to effective argumentation on these issues?
Anyone? :-)

Keep up the fight!

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

(sorry for the double post)

Don’t forget Methane.

Posted by Greg | Report as abusive

Why isn’t water vapor talked about by the Al Gore types? Water vapor is by far the largest global green house gas! What about the fact that CO2 levels have been rising steadily for the past…100,000 years (as per the last IPCC report)?

And the Arctic ice cap melting? Um, wasn’t it NASA or NOAA that said a large part was due to the jet streams over the Arctic shifting and now the ice gets blown into th Atlantic instead of getting stuck in the Arctic Ocean and forming an ice pack? Wasn’t it just recently found out that there’s a large undersea vent in the Arctic that’s been much more active recently?

What about the sun-spot cycle nearing an end? Or the fact that other planets in our solar system have also been warming?

Oh, but its only human based activities that is causing the Earth to warm? Maybe I wouldn’t be more skeptical if these other issues were addressed? At a minimum, just awknowledged that the debate isn’t ‘over’.

Heck, some ‘scientists’ also think the Earth is headed for another ice age! We ought to be happy that we’re keeping ourselves artifically warm them.

Look, I agree with not polluting the Earth and being environmentally friendly. I’m all for that. But at what cost? and exactly for what? I think there’s a lot that has not been explained properly or thoroughly.

Posted by tom | Report as abusive

In response to Tom (#4)

All of the issues you raise have been addressed. In order:

1) Climate scientists already take into account the effect of water vapor in global circulation models. The reason that you don’t hear about water vapor is because its concentration is a function of temperature only. If you put more water vapor in the atmosphere it rains, if you remove water vapor, evaporation from the oceans restores it to its original amount.

2) CO2 has not been steadily increasing for 100,000 years. The primary mechanism for removing it from th atmosphere is weathering of crustal rocks. When ice sheets cover the continents, you get less weathering and CO2 buildup. In addition, volcanism is episodic. Large volcanic eruptions like the Deccan Traps or Siberian Traps put huge amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere. These large eruptions are anomalies, however. The average contribution of volcanism is 50 times smaller than human contributions.

3) Heat flow from any underwater seamounts, volcanic ridges, etc. is miniscule compared to solar radiation. This is rather easy to estimate. Temperatures 400 m below the surface show no appreciable warming in the Arctic.

4) Variations in sunspot activity account for a 0.1% change in forcing. While the sun does play a part in any climate model, solar forcing is not the main player. CO2 forcing and associated feedbacks are.

5) There is no proof that other planets have been warming. Do we have a network of temperature sensors on the surface? No. Satellite records may give you some indication, but the errors are large.

6) If you look in the scientific literature, only a few scientists ever predicted that an ice age would occur. They were certainly in the minority.

There is nothing wrong with skepticism, but rehashing the same tired theories doesn’t represent some sort of “debate.”


Posted by Jeff | Report as abusive

Although several highly qualified physicists reject the greenhouse hypothesis altogether, I’m prepared to accept it on the basis that it really isn’t that big a deal. After all, the maximum temperature increase associated with a doubling of CO2 is reckoned to be about 1 degree C using the Stefan Boltzmann radiative theory equations that the IPCC uses. Any extra increase in projected temperatures rely on positive feedback mechanisms which have never been observed and only exist in the climate models. These models however were unable to predict the current warming hiatus since 2002 and indeed the present cooling observed both in the atmosphere and the oceans.

Even so, I’ll accept the CO2 warming hypothesis because one degree here or there is inconsequential and would not be outside natural climate variation. It might even be welcome if the natural variation cools the planet any further, which is equally possible.

Posted by Tim | Report as abusive

Its amazing how the skeptics are so incredibly knowledgeable and expert when it comes to climate change!.. I’m in absolute awe. Tell ya, who needs the climate scientists when you have such expertise at the layman level! We should simply let all the self proclaimed experts and skeptics here to lead us on… Darn, I should have known climate change and all the so-called observed facts are only illusions and the vast majority of scientists a bunch irrational, fear mongerers or outright liars. Terribly sorry, how dumb of me to have thought otherwise!

Now, kidding aside, continued skepticism when confronted with the overwhelming scientific consensus backed by the observations in the real World really boils down to this one glaring fact: barring complete intellectual ineptitude – a definite possibility for many of them – the skeptics that remain are not really skeptics at all.. they are morally bankrupt individuals who are too selfish and self-centered to be willing to face the prospect of making ANY effort and sacrifice that is needed to counter man-made climate change and are not honest enough to admit it. I believe the applicable term is “socio-paths”?

Posted by JF Chalmers | Report as abusive

I personally do not know too many facts about the effects of CO2 on the atmosphere but what I do know is that it couldn’t hurt to reduce some of our wasteful habits. I know that a natural balance is required in every aspect of life. So, my vote is for whatever will fight to maintain and enforce that balance.

Posted by Natalie | Report as abusive

The earth has cooled and heated to different temperatures since the beginning of time. I think it’s pretty arrogant of some to think that man can actually alter the temperature of this planet by his actions. Besides, there is no proof that man is causing global warming. Just how would you go about proving that anyway? This global warming hype is just a way for liberals to gain control over people’s lives by making more laws and taxation.

Posted by Ron | Report as abusive

There is proof that man is causing climate change. There is also proof that co2 is a greenhouse gas. I encourage everyone to visit the Scripps Institution of Oceanography website sio.ucsd.edu/. There is wealth of data and published papers as well as external links to other research centers. This information is accesible and can be easily understood by average folks. The science has been in for 40 years Ron. We all have a responsibility to become well informed before we formulate opinions and plans of action(or inaction).

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Arguments over the “cost” of environmental action are a weak defense when so many taxpayer dollars are blatantly wasted on ill-advised war and govt. bail-outs of greedy, short-sighted industry. But, that is the fact of life. My father was once the mayor of a fairly large southern metro city in the early 80′s. I asked him to please consider simple recycling efforts (curbside pick-up). His response was that it wasn’t economically feasible and resulted in net cash outflow for the city. He didn’t get it either.


Does human activity have an impact on the climate and the globe, and are methane, water vapor, and carbon dioxide greenhouse gases? Undoubtedly.

Has rapid and catastrophic climate change occured in the earths history when humanity was not present? Undoubtedly.

The big question is, what causes drastic climate changes? Models that have been developed face a host of very complex variables which naturally reduces their accuracy. We can see from ice cores a record of gases present in the atmosphere throughout time and we know that large sea level fluctuations and temperature swings have occured numerous times in the past. So what causes global warming? We don’t know for sure.

However, it would be foolish of us as humans to continue to waste resources like we have been. This is why I whole-heartedly support the push to reduce fossil fuel use and reduce resource use in general. But taking the bus because you think that will somehow keep the planet at some constant temperature? That’s not scientifically realistic.

The biggest problem we face is not climate change. It will naturally change even if we emitted zero green house gases in our day to day activities, and it will change due greenhouse gases in addition to many other factors beyond what we can comprehend.

The biggest problem we face, hands down, is overpopulation and the associated overuse of the earth’s resources. Do take the bus, do recycle, do use less water keeping your grass green (after all, somehow having a green lawn that you’ll rarely ever use is important.. that was sarcasm). Stop wasting time believing that the planet needs to be maintained in some constant state, because that’s like believing you can keep a three year old from making a mess eating spaghetti.

Posted by Nate | Report as abusive

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