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Throwing Stones at the Greenhouse Effect

Posted on 18 October 2010 by gpwayne

Some climate change skeptics dispute the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’, which keeps the surface temperature of the Earth approximately 30 degrees C warmer than it would be if there were no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In other words, without the greenhouse effect, the Earth would be largely uninhabitable.

How do we know for sure this effect is real? The principle is demonstrated through basic physics, because a bare rock orbiting the sun at the distance of the Earth should be far colder than the Earth actually is. The explanation for this observation was based on the work of John Tyndall, who discovered in 1859 that several gases, including carbon dioxide and water vapour, could trap heat. This was the first evidence for what we know now as greenhouse gases. Then, towards the end of the same century, a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius proved the relationship between greenhouse gas concentrations and surface temperatures.

Empirical Evidence for the Greenhouse Effect

We only have to look to our moon for evidence of what the Earth might be like without an atmosphere that sustained the greenhouse effect. While the moon’s surface reaches 130 degrees C in direct sunlight at the equator (266 degrees F), when the sun ‘goes down’ on the moon, the temperature drops almost immediately, and plunges in several hours down to minus 110 degrees C (-166F).

Since the moon is virtually the same distance from the sun as we are, it is reasonable to ask why at night the Earth doesn’t get as cold as the moon. The answer is that, unlike the Earth, the moon has no water vapour or other greenhouse gases, because of course it has no atmosphere at all. Without our protective atmosphere and the greenhouse effect, the Earth would be as barren as our lifeless moon; without the heat trapped overnight in the atmosphere (and in the ground and oceans) our nights would be so cold that few plants or animals could survive even a single one.

The most conclusive evidence for the greenhouse effect – and the role CO2 plays – can be seen in data from the surface and from satellites. By comparing the Sun’s heat reaching the Earth with the heat leaving it, we can see that less long-wave radiation (heat) is leaving than arriving (and since the 1970s, that less and less radiation is leaving the Earth, as CO2 and equivalents build up). Since all radiation is measured by its wavelength, we can also see that the radiation being trapped in the atmosphere is at the same wavelengths as those absorbed by greenhouse gases.

Disputing that the greenhouse effect is real is to attempt to discredit centuries of science, laws of physics and direct observation. Without the greenhouse effect, we would not even be here to argue about it.

This post is the Basic Version (written by Graham Wayne) of the skeptic argument "The greenhouse effect has been falsified". It's worth bringing up that the Intermediate Version was written by Chris Ho-Stuart, co-author of the peer-reviewed paper Comment on "Falsification of the atmospheric CO2 Greenhouse Effects within the frame of physics" (Halpern et al 2010).

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 98:

  1. I still can't understand how anyone could dispute such basic science facts, unless it's a trend among some to reject all science unless they themselves can prove results by personal experience alone.
    Some even seem to think that they are more intelligent than anyone else and are able to discard scientific proof because they know the 'true facts' - as opposed to the facts produced by 'elitist' scientists who are only out to enrich themselves and help governments enslave us all, apparently.

    The reality is, of course, that such people - deniers of any science they don't like, not just AGW - are arrogant, self-deluding and blind to reality.
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  2. JMurphy, there can be only two ways of life: What we do and what we must do. Unfortunately what we do makes us feel good and what we must do does not. Why are nearly 75% of Americans, American news media, and American politicians deniers? Because acknowledging the truth would make us feel guilty for not doing what we must. Make us feel guilty for condemning our offspring to unimaginable futures.

    But that's not all. What are the other 25% of non deniers doing? Mostly a lot of lip service and hand waving? Are we really changing our lifestyles, or could we even if we tried? What significant changes and sacrifices are we making to lead the way? 350.org is a great concept, but it barely scratches the surface. The world will need thousands of proactive groups like 350.org if we are to overcome the momentum of life as it is.
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  3. I am not aware of anyone saying there is no greenhouse effect. I certainly agree that there is a greenhouse effect. The atmosphere certainly keeps the Earth much warmer than it would be otherwise.

    It is the importance that CO2 plays in the greenhouse effect that we disagree about. The total greenhouse effect includes all energy going into the atmosphere. Convection and evaporation also play an important role in transferring energy into the atmosphere.

    I will gladly mock anyone that says the atmosphere doesn't insulate the Earth and keep it warmer. However, this article is inaccurate as I am not aware of anyone claiming that the atmosphere doesn't have an effect.

    This article seems intentionally written to insult people that disagree with the theory that the currently increasing CO2 is going to significantly alter the Earth's climate. They are separate and independent issues in every way.
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    Response: Sadly, there are many who deny the greenhouse effect and there have been many comments on this site to that effect. Just the other day, someone emailed me an article purporting to disprove the greenhouse effect. There are various levels of climate skepticism and unfortunately, we have the job of addressing them all.
  4. Thanks for the excellent example: MOON ... it is just striking, and actually it would be nice to know about the distribution of temperature on the surface of the moon. Does anybody know where to find those data?

    What is the heat capacity of the rocks of the moon? Anybody knows??
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  5. TIS #3: Your lack of awareness of people who deny the greenhouse effect is not the same as them not existing. It is an exceedingly common claim amongst 'skeptics'. Indeed, I thought you'd been on some of the threads where people were claiming that the greenhouse effect contradicts the first and/or second law of thermodynamics.

    If not, just do a search on 'thermodynamics' and you'll get more than your fill. Might have been something to try BEFORE accusing the author of making up an "inaccurate" straw man argument that no one really uses.
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  6. TIS #3

    A quick Google search pulls up 31,000+ pages with people claiming that the greenhouse effect is bunkum because (they claim) it violates the second law of thermodynamics.

    I feel insulted by your pretence at feeling insulted.
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  7. Craig,

    I apologize for causing you to feel insulted by my feeling insulted. :-D

    I suppose that this website would see plenty of claims that the GHE isn't real. I accept the need for articles like as a result.

    Three cheers for Calculus!!!
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  8. I teach climate change science to college undergraduates, and give climate change presentations to interested public groups. I have had success explaining the 'Greenhouse Effect' as the 'blanket effect'. Most people understand that blankets impede the movement of heat from your skin to the cold room and raise your skin temperature, and making the analogy between carbon dioxide levels and the thickness of a blanket seems to provide many people with a mental image they can work with. Also, I have found it useful when explaining the greenhouse effect to avoid the word 'radiation', as in 'solar radiation', as anyone not a physical scientist is likely to associate 'radiation' with nuclear decay, and not electromagnetic radiation. As soon as you say 'radiation', you have lost a large part of the audience.

    I am a great fan of Skeptical Science's work to present complex scientific concepts in a way that makes those concepts accessible to a wider audience. I steer people to this website often. My thanks to John and all the contributors to this site.
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  9. An underused feature of this Skeptical Science site is the collection of links to claims for and against the existence of anthropogenic global warming, categorized into Pro, Skeptic, and Neutral. Click the "Links" link in the blue horizontal bar at the top of this page. The red numbers are the number of skeptic articles linked. Additions to the list are very welcome.
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  10. The Inconvenient Sceptic, have a look at two of the pages on Skeptical Science here and here (as suggested by Tom Dayton) - although the second page appears to have quite a few spurious links, for some reason. Read the so-called skeptical 'arguments' and wonder.

    Also, see this paper from Gerlich & Tscheuschner, and this blog post from Roy Spencer.
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  11. My subterranean house has no furnace or air conditioner, but relies on natural means such as solar heating and energy storage to maintain comfortable temperatures year round. Its many south-facing windows have high incoming solar heat gain and high resistance to outgoing heat flow. What does that mean? The sun's powerful high frequency ultraviolet radiant energy can easily pass through the windows to warm the house, but the house's and my low frequency infrared radiant energy cannot easily pass back out through the windows to make us feel cold.

    Since a significant percentage of energy transfer is by radiation, how can one teach energy transfer concepts without introducing the radiant energy concept? Maybe replacing "radiation" by "energy transfer through electromagnetic wave propagation" would be useful. The whole issue is, what happens as different electromagnetic waves propagate through mass. Most of us know what a microwave oven does to water. It's electromagnetic energy excites the H2O molecules and warms them and the food containing them. Other electromagnetic waves are no different. Higher frequency/higher energy ultraviolet waves from the sun have little effect on CO2 molecules, but they do excite most solid and liquid atoms and molecules in the earth. These excited atoms and molecules, in turn, emit lower frequency/lower energy infrared waves that do excite CO2 molecules, causing them and the atmosphere to heat up.

    The real issue for debate ought to be, does every CO2 molecule have the same chance of being heated by the outgoing infrared electromagnetic waves? That is, if 10% more CO2 molecules are added to the atmosphere, will 10% more energy be absorbed with a similar change in atmospheric temperature, or will a smaller or larger percentage of energy be absorbed with less or more effect on temperatures? The answer to this question might hinge on the percentage of infrared energy currently being absorbed by CO2. If that percentage is low, then one might expect increasing CO2 levels to have a higher impact on atmospheric temperatures. If that percentage is high, then increasing CO2 levels would likely have a smaller impact on atmospheric temperatures.
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    Moderator Response: The "real issue" you raised is addressed in the Argument CO2 effect is saturated.
  12. Strangely enough, one of the best resources on the greenhouse effect is on Dr Ray Spencer's blog. He is a skeptic, but only on feedbacks, not on the greenhouse effect. See here
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  13. Overall, this is a good post. Yet oddly, after making its basic point so well, the post suffers from a fit of diffidence that deprives it of much of its potential vigor.

    I refer to the 'might' in "What the Earth might be like without an atmosphere that sustains the greenhouse effect".

    'Might'? Isnt' the whole point of the post that the greenhouse effect has NOT been falsified? Isn't the whole point that there is no serious doubt about it? For this reason, it should read 'would' not 'might.

    Look yourselves at how much more vigorous it is with this change (and a minor tense change, too):

    "We only have to look to our moon for evidence of what the Earth would be like without an atmosphere that sustains the greenhouse effect. While the moon’s surface reaches 130 degrees C in direct sunlight at the equator (266 degrees F), when the sun ‘goes down’ on the moon, the temperature drops almost immediately, and plunges in several hours down to minus 110 degrees C (-166F). "
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  14. It seems a simple question, but teh question of the Moon's temperature does come up.

    It usually takes the form: "You tell us that without the greenhouse effect, Earth would be -18C average temp. But the moon has no atmosphere and is roughly the same distance from the sun. Its temperature varies wildly from extreme cold to extreme heat. Earth would be the same if it had no atmosphere, so the greenhouse effect must be false".

    SoD has a long explanation involving averages and heat capacity. Is there a shorter explanation for the non-physics major?
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  15. "By comparing the Sun’s heat reaching the Earth with the heat leaving it, we can see that less long-wave radiation (heat) is leaving than arriving (and since the 1970s, that less and less radiation is leaving the Earth, as CO2 and equivalents build up). Since all radiation is measured by its wavelength, we can also see that the frequencies being trapped in the atmosphere are the same frequencies absorbed by greenhouse gases."
    This is not accurate. One needs to compare the sun's and the earth's radiant intensities across their respective spectra. I can imagine the earth as a converter of higher frequency, shorter wavelength solar photons into lower frequency longer wavelength terrestrial photons.
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  16. Just out of curiousity, who is disputing the Greenhouse Effect to point where it is in dispute?
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  17. @Roger (20): "Why are nearly 75% of Americans, American news media, and American politicians deniers?"

    Take comfort in knowing that, outside the US, the proportions are pretty much reversed.
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  18. Also: "The sun's powerful high frequency ultraviolet radiant energy can easily pass through the windows to warm the house"

    Not all windows let through UV rays. However, since a lot of the radiated energy is transmitted through visible light, your overall point still stands.
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  19. TOP,

    JMurphy linked to the section of this site that answers your question, but here it is more explicitly.
    Links for 'Greenhouse effect has been falsified'

    One of those links is to Jennifer Marohasy's blog where she talks about "fictitious atmospheric greenhouse effects".
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  20. For the benefit of those who aren't familiar with Dr. Marohasy, her PhD is in Biology from the University of Queensland and she has over a decade of peer-reviewed field research under her belt.
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  21. Good to the point article, but being a bit pedantic, i would agree with alkemist in regards to this paragraph.

    "By comparing the Sun’s heat reaching the Earth with the heat leaving it, we can see that less long-wave radiation (heat) is leaving than arriving (and since the 1970s, that less and less radiation is leaving the Earth, as CO2 and equivalents build up). Since all radiation is measured by its wavelength, we can also see that the frequencies being trapped in the atmosphere are the same frequencies absorbed by greenhouse gases."

    The climate may never be in perfect equilibrium, And the instrumental record certainly does suggest a build up of energy in the system, but energy in will equal energy out approximately . Energy is not trapped, its path length out of the atmosphere is increased, increasing the amount of energy in the system... Just with the way thats written it sorta comes across as suggesting that proof of the GHE is that less energy leaves than comes in... only during transition to a higher equilibrium is this true, and in something as chaotic as climate, its more a case of on "average".
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  22. Some net amount of energy is trapped or lost over time, Joe, or the collective ocean/atmosphere system could not become warmer or cooler over time.
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  23. doug_bostrom at 09:04

    I dont disagree, equilibrium can and does change, its the first sentence that just reads to me as though its saying proof of the GHE is that less energy leaves than enters the system... The proof is in the amount of energy contained in the system. Im being pedantic, i admit it, but that first sentence is misleading.
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  24. I shall clarify my position.
    During a hot house period, where the average surface T may be 20k, or a glaciation when the surface T maybe around 12k, at equilibrium, the amount of energy leaving the top of the atmosphere will be the same, and equal to the amount of energy entering the system. During transitions between these states there will be an imbalance between incoming and out going, with more leaving than entering during a decline in T, and more entering than leaving during a rise in T.

    The difference in the surface T is a result of the amount of energy contained in the system at their respective equilibriums, and is a result in a shift in the amount of energy in the system, but the "quantity" of energy leaving the system, on its own, is not necessarily representative of the energy contained in the system(T o the climate).
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  25. AHHH 12C or 20C
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  26. Bibliovermis "she has over a decade of peer-reviewed field research under her belt" eh? Care to elaborate?
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  27. Roger A. Wehage,

    The relationship between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and the effect it has in terms of direct retention of energy is logarithmic. A fair number of 'skeptics' become aware of this and try to argue that it means that the effects will be minimal. However, it's no secret to anyone who knows anything about the science. Remember, the central prediction is that, with feedbacks included, there will be a roughly 1% change in the earth's absolute temperature with doubling of CO2. That's 3 Kelvin / ~300 Kelvin which in about 1%.
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  28. TIS:

    However, this article is inaccurate as I am not aware of anyone claiming that the atmosphere doesn't have an effect.

    Logically speaking, your (admitted) ignorance does not and cannot make this article "inaccurate."
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  29. Shouldn't

    "Some climate change skeptics..."

    be

    "Very few climate change skeptics..."
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  30. @HR: do you have figures that would justify this change in terminology to show us? After all, "Very Few" is more precise than "Some", so you must be basing this on some kind of empirical evidence, right?
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  31. gpwayne
    "Some climate change skeptics dispute the so-called ‘greenhouse effect’, which keeps the surface temperature of the Earth approximately 30 degrees C warmer than it would be if there were no greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

    Hmmm. No water vapor means no clouds. So with an open sky consisting only of N2 and O2 after millions of years of steady sunshine, you are saying that the oceans would remain frozen? No water vapor also means no snow or rain, so the land is now a dry powder as on the Moon. The dry air in contact with the dry land would receive heat via convection and rise and mix. This air has no GHG, so it cannot radiate heat... only accumulate it via convection with the surface, or release it back via convection to cooler locations on the surface. But this convection is limited to only the cooler air that has circulated downward. The hot air would rise and the stratosphere would get warmer and warmer.

    All this may sound like nonsense, yet it is no better than the picture you have painted.
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  32. You appear to be missing some key concepts, RSVP. Baffling, considering how much time you spend arguing here.

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  33. Also, I'm really tired of "skeptics" patting themselves on the back for accepting the reality of the greenhouse effect while denying its logical consequences. The basic argument seems to be "When climate scientists say A, B, C, D and E about the greenhouse effect, of course I believe them. It's only when they claim that F follows logically from A through E that I see them as fanatics, liars or dupes."

    It's a bit like the creationists' equally tenuous distinction between "microevolution" and "macroevolution," where the latter is supposedly some ludicrous extrapolation beyond the evidence, rather than the logical consequence of facts that the creationist claims to understand and accept.
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  34. RSVP,
    Your picture sounds like nonsense because you do not understand the basic science of heat transfer in the atmosphere. Re-read the 200+ posts in the waste heat thread again and see if you can begin to understand it.

    In the absence of CO2 the ocean would freeze. Most of the surface heat would be radiated into space without warming the atmosphere. The remainder of the atmosphere is capable of radiating heat, just not as efficiently as CO2. The temperature of the atmosphere would be much lower than it is now.

    Just because your picture is nonsense does not mean that gpwaynes picture is also nonsense.
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  35. Sorry, forgot to credit that transmission image. It's from Global Warming Art.
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  36. @Bibliovermis
    Thanks for the link. I think this response is talking past what was meant in the links you gave. In the links you gave the writer is incorrectly assigning the term greenhouse effect to the so called AGW and not to the total effect of the atmosphere on regulating the temperature on the surface where people live. The OP on this discussion is then taking that incorrect use of the term greenhouse effect very broadly to mean the effect of the entire atmosphere on maintaining surface temperature.

    @doug_bostrom
    Glad you posted that graph again. It's the global thermostat. The hotter it gets, the less the effect of CO2. The colder it gets, the stronger the greenhouse effect.

    @Phila
    Interesting you bring up Creationists. They also believe in global warming. Read Genesis 9:13.
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  37. TOP

    @Phila
    Interesting you bring up Creationists. They also believe in global warming. Read Genesis 9:13.


    You've managed to cram a surprising number of logical errors into a very brief comment. First, the Bible is not a reliable guide to what "creationists" believe, since different creationists interpret it in very different ways. Second, Genesis 9:13 has nothing to do with climate science, obviously. Third, modern creationists -- of the activist type, especially -- have had a pretty strong tendency to deny AGW.

    Perhaps you're taking a stab at the tired old "AGW is a religion" pseudo-argument. If so, this is an exceptionally incoherent version of it. If not, it's hard to see what your point is, or how it's relevant.
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  38. TOP, leaving aside meta-denial, you're speaking of saturation, presumably. Unfortunately that's insufficient to qualify as the miracle we need.
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  39. Re: TOP (36)
    "Interesting you bring up Creationists. They also believe in global warming. Read Genesis 9:13."
    Try Revelation 8:8 and translate the mountain as a phrase describing the amount of fossil-fuel-derived CO2 absorbed as bolus by the oceans. The effects on the sea that follow are directly related.

    Too bad we don't have a dedicated post on this topic to properly discuss it.

    The Yooper
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  40. michael_sweet
    "In the absence of CO2 the ocean would freeze."

    Now you are saying CO2 is necessary for life. Can you make up you mind? Not to long ago you were telling me it was pollution.
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    Moderator Response: Please refrain from being purely argumentative. Feel free to disagree, but do so in a positive, non-baiting fashion.

    If you want to discuss the matter of CO2 as a pollutant, try "Carbon Dioxide - Everyone's Favorite Pollutant"
  41. @RSVP at 40: if that's not flamebait, I don't know what is.

    All kinds of things are necessary for life, but become pollution if there's too much of it, or in the wrong place. Ozone comes to mind.
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  42. michael_sweet
    "Most of the surface heat would be radiated into space without warming the atmosphere."

    What about convection? Can the atmosphere not pick up a little heat this way. And afterwards, without any "green house gas", it would be interesting to know how exactly it should emit heat???
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    Moderator Response: This line of reasoning would be more appropriately discussed on the waste heat thread. Please take further comments on this subject there.
  43. RSVP @ #40

    Now you're playing games. You know very well that Michael is entirely consistent. YOU are the one who keeps changing his argument in an attempt to score points. Some CO2 is helpful, too much CO2 is detrimental. Comments like your last do not contribute to the conversation and appear intended to annoy.
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  44. @RSVP: the more you act in such a childish manner, the more you admit you don't actually have an argument.
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    Moderator Response: Let's try and take the high road here. We value your contributions here too much to lose some to the deletion bin.
  45. Moderator #42
    "This line of reasoning would be more appropriately discussed on the waste heat thread."

    This is not about waste heat. I am talking about solar energy heating the Earth, and that portion of heat entering the atmosphere via convection. This mechanism has been around since creation, and if there were no GHGs, it is hard to see exactly how this heat would be released by the atmosphere as hot air rises. The fact that CO2 and water vapor emit energy as easily as they absorb energy is rarely mentioned.
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  46. @Moderator: Sorry for jumping the gun, I should have waited for your moderation first.
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  47. The fact that CO2 and water vapor emit energy as easily as they absorb energy is rarely mentioned.

    What a surprising remark, really quite remarkable, even stunning.

    Somehow RSVP has failed to note that this entire site, hundreds of others like it regardless of stance, the IPCC and indeed vast amounts of research conducted by a large army of scientists all hinge precisely on the notion that CO2 and water vapor absorb and emit energy. Here we have the notable phenomenon of a person who visits this site nearly daily, is not the slightest bit shy about making assertions, but now says this matter of absorption and emission of energy by CO2 and water vapor is "rarely mentioned." Apparently, during all this time and through endless comments RSVP has not even understood what the fundamental discussion is about, as is I suppose hinted at by his remark above.
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  48. RSVP at 06:58 AM

    This is something ive also pondered... but its one o those things that is dependent on the exact makeup of the hypothetical atmosphere... If we just strip out the persistent ghg and assume all others stop absorbing and emitting(so no O3 creation through UV and water vapor no longer interacts with long wave) The amount of energy reaching the surface would increase substantially, due to the UV and NO CLOUDS... Now, the Q is, as the surface interacts with SW, water vapor will still convect, and there will be convection through conduction with the surface, there will be no way for the energy to escape, and over time i would imagine it would lead to a relatively homogeneous atmosphere.(im not even going to try and think about adiabatic compression possibilities, driven by latitudinal T differentials etc)

    The energy transfer being through conduction would mean it couldnt get above the maximum surface T... but thats the max, not the average, it would conduct back down to the surface when it was colder than the atmosphere, so it would probably end up with a stratified profile at night, but moderate energy loss, although no where near like radiation does, with convection working against conduction back down to the surface....

    This is headache material... i dont know...
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  49. Joe Blog and RSVP,

    All matter above 0 degrees K emits thermal radiation. The atmosphere will continue emitting radiation into space whether GHG's are there or not. You are tying yourself in knots imagining unphysical scenarios, please stop.
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  50. David,

    Jennifer Marohasy - In Summary
    Jennifer has a Bachelor of Science and a PhD from the University of Queensland, worked for twelve years as a research scientist for the Queensland government based in Kenya and Madagascar
    Pardon any confusion from me not clarifying that her scientific expertise and the breadth of her experience do not validate her claims. The purpose of presenting it was to show that she isn't just some random incompetent tapping out blog entries.


    HR,

    Arguing semantics does not further a discussion. I am also curious to see any empirical evidence for using the more precise terminology.


    TOP,

    Yes, Dr. Marohasy was explicitly denying the existence of any greenhouse effect that keeps the planet's surface ~30°C warmer, not just "so called AGW". The topic of this page was responding to that specific claim.

    What relevance does
    I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.
    have to global warming, much less to a discussion about the greenhouse effect? Did you just type "clouds" into a bible search engine & post the first entry it returned?


    RSVP,

    "The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy." - Philipus Aureolus Paracelsus

    This concept has been repeatedly hashed out in every relevant page on this site, such as Carbon Dioxide - Everyone's Favorite Pollutant. Please respect the moderation of this site and discuss this over there.

    Solar energy does not enter the atmosphere through convection. Convection is the movement of molecules within fluids. In the realm of thermodynamics, it is heat transfer through the movement of molecules within fluids. Solar energy enters the atmosphere through radiation, is absorbed by the planet and radiated in a different wavelength band that is more readily moved in the atmosphere through convection. Heat leaves the atmosphere in the exact same method, with or without greenhouse gases, through radiation.

    The fact that water is wet is also rarely mentioned.
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