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Climate Hustle

CO2 is just a trace gas

Posted on 30 August 2011 by Sarah

ink in water

CO2 makes up 390 ppm (0.039%)* of the atmosphere, how can such a small amount be important? Saying that CO2 is "only a trace gas" is like saying that arsenic is "only" a trace water contaminant. Small amounts of very active substances can cause large effects. 

Some Examples of Important Small Amounts:

  • He wasn't driving drunk, he just had a trace of blood alcohol; 800 ppm (0.08%) is the limit in all 50 US states, and limits are lower in most other countries).
  • Ireland isn't important; it's only 660 ppm (0.066%) of the world population.
  • That ibuprofen pill can't do you any good; it's only 3 ppm of your body weight (200 mg in 60 kg person).
  • The Earth is insignificant, it's only 3 ppm of the mass of the solar system.
  • Your children can drink that water, it only contains a trace of arsenic (0.01 ppm is the WHO and US EPA limit).
  • Ozone is onlytrace gas: 0.1 ppm is the exposure limit established by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends an ozone limit of 0.051 ppm.
  • A few parts per million of ink can turn a bucket of water blue. The color is caused by the absorption of the yellow/red colors from sunlight, leaving the blue. Twice as much ink causes a much stronger color, even though the total amount is still only a trace relative to water. 

"Traces" of CO2 

Although percentage is a convenient way to talk about the amount of gas in the atmosphere, it only tells how much is there relative to everything else; percentage doesn’t give an absolute amount.

For example, you have trouble breathing on top of Mount Everest even though the atmosphere still contains 21% oxygen just like at sea level. The percentage isn't important, you need a certain number of oxygen molecules with each breath, regardless of how much or little they are diluted by inert gases. At an altitude of 8000 m the whole atmosphere is diluted.

The total number of CO2 molecules above our heads in the atmosphere is more important than their percentage in the atmosphere. If the amount of inert nitrogen gas (N2) in the atmosphere were to be cut in half then the percentage of CO2 would jump (to about 600 ppm; 0.06%) without a change in the absolute amount of CO2 and no substantial change in the energy balance of the Earth. Adding a huge number of energy-absorbing CO2 molecules to the atmosphere doesn’t change its percent number very much, only because it's being added to a vast inert N2 background.


We know the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased because we have measured it. We know the climate has warmed from current and historical data. The link between increasing greenhouse gases and increasing temperature is clear: just as ink makes water more colored, CO2 makes the atmosphere more absorbing. The extra CO2 in our atmosphere is trapping energy that would otherwise escape to space. The measured global warming matches closely with the amount of energy trapped from the greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere.

A doubling of the trace molecule CO2 from 280 ppm to 560 ppm is still a trace, but just like with arsenic, the difference between a small trace and a larger trace is fatal.

* To convert ppm to percentage divide by 10,000.

Photo credit:

Note: This post is the Basic rebuttal to "CO2 is just a trace gas"

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 104:

  1. 200 mg of arsenic is considered fatal, so 3 ppm is a fatal dose.
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  2. If "The total number of CO2 molecules above our heads in the atmosphere is more important than their percentage in the atmosphere", being able to compare the ppm, tons, and temperature shift would be helpful.

    In Hansen's Earth's Energy Imbalance and Implications there is a tempting description of "An equation for climate forcing as a function of CO2 amount is given in Table 1 of Hansen et al. (2000)." I was not able to find the 2000 paper.
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  3. H2SO4 cannot induce nucleation mediated by GCR: too low concentration in atmosphere: 200pptv (!) in the lower troposphere.

    ;-) ;-)
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  4. SocialBlunder The total number of CO2 moleclues above our head is closely related to the percentage. The mass of atmospheric carbon (not CO2) in Pg is 2.127 times the the concentration expressed in ppm. I'm sure you could work out the number of molecule from that, Avogadros constant, the radius of the Earth and a two atomic weights. However the point of the article is that you can't tell whether something is significant just by looking at the amount of it lying around, and often the units in which something is measured can give a misleading impression.

    The single figure that is most worth knowing is 1 degree C, which (ignoring feedbacks) is the direct effect on equilibrium global temperatures of a doubling of CO2. If CO2 is only 0.039% of the atmosphere, it only needs to be 0.078% of the atmosphere to raise global temps by 1 degree C (all things being otherwise equal). If 0.039% isn't much then it won't take much to double it - the "skeptics" can't have it both ways! ;o)
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  5. Note that a dose of elemental iron of only 120mg/kg of body weight is "potentially fatal", which works out to 120ppm by weight, assuming I'm not playing too fast and loose with orders of magnitude.

    So much for the "iron is people food, the more the better" meme.
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  6. By the way, it maybe worthwhile to explain why CO2 is so important. The whole idea is that electromagnetic radiation need a little antenna to be emitted or absorbed (a dipole). This can be described a pair of positive and negative electric charge. Di-atomic molecules, N2 and O2, which making most of the atmosphere, are very symmetric and hence poor antenna. Next comes Argon, which is a noble gaz, which suffer from a similar problem. This leaves water vapour and C02, which a polyatomic molecule and asymmetric, which make them good antenna.
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  7. Good article, Sarah. I noticed recently another writer used the blood alcohol analogy against the 'tragedy of the commons' argument (our county's emissions are so small a percentage of the total that our stopping them would not change the overall result).

    It went that I may as well drink as much as I like before I drive because any people I killed as a result of my driving would make no significant difference to the national road fatality statistics.
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  8. Thanks for this post. When talking to scientists, I typically use ozone in the stratosphere to deflate this argument, as it is also a case where "trace" amounts of a chemical in the atmosphere plays a vital role to life on Earth, and not due to direct exposure. The example works really well, though it is perhaps not as familiar to the general public.

    Also, I'm astounded by the argument that an increase of "only 100 ppm" cannot possibly be harmful. Having studied outdoor air quality for 20+ years, my experience has been that it's highly unusual to find part per *billion* level statistically significant changes in *local* outdoor air quality for many pollutants. But, a 100+ part per *million* increase in *global* pollution levels over this time frame? That's actually an astounding increase, in my experience. I usually remind people that those 100 ppm result from many billions of tons of cumulative CO2 emissions.

    Of course, all of this is important not due to the large magnitude of the increased concentrations, but due to the forcing that it represents.
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  9. I have used a very effective demonstration of the significance of the trace concentration of 0.03%.

    Take 2 x 500ml beakers of water, add 3 drops of blue food colouring dye to one of the beakers. (each drop is approximately 0.05ml or 0.01%) This makes a 0.03% solution of the blue food dye.

    Shine a low power red laser pointer through the clear water, then the 0.03% solution. The reduction in the emergent beam is quite extraordinary.

    The final killer demonstration is to add another 'insignificant' drop (0.01%) to the blue solution, increasing the concentration to 0.04%, similar to current levels of atmospheric CO2. The attenuation is now almost complete!
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  10. More great ideas for a pirate to use to actually teach his students the science, and why it matters (as opposed to sort of kind of glossing it over - especially as these students will be the ones to pay the price for our current profligacy).
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  11. There is approximately 1 kilogram per square centimeter of atmosphere sitting above us. In comparison to that, a minuscule smear of sunburn cream is remarkably effective at stopping the UV light that was not stopped by all that gas.
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  12. A little bit of the atmosphere is quite a lot! Using Hydrogen NOW! Journal's method of calculating the weight of the atmosphere, it is 4,410,000,000,000 tons. 1 CO2 ppm of that is 4,410,000 tons.
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  13. If you want to delve into the nitty-gritty details of this topic, check out:

    "CO2 – An Insignificant Trace Gas?" an 8-part series posted on the Science of Doom website.

    To access part 1, click here.
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  14. Many readers of articles like the one above would benefit from the addition of two tabs:

    1. "Related SkS Articles"
    2. "Further Reading"

    The first tab would be the titles/links for stuff posted on SkS. The second for stuff posted and/or published elsewhere, especially chapters of currently used climate science textbooks.
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  15. (Rats! As I tap this comment in, SocialBlunder @ 12 steals my idea - although I make it 2.2Gt Carbon per 1ppm. That's times 3.67 for Gt CO2, or 8Gt Co2 per 1 ppm.)

    At 390 parts per million by volume, there is still a lot more CO2 floating about than there is of other significant stuff. There is about 3,000 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere. We complaint of this poor old planet being over-crowded by today's human population yet the total mass of all us humans is way less than a single billion tons. It's probably still less than 1 billion tons if you count everybody who ever lived since we first evolved as homo sapiens 200,000 years ago.
    Still, that billion ton's worth of humans has proved enough to convert a third of the planet's land area (indeed the majority of the fertile bits)into monocultures of pasture & arable crop. And just for good measure we've kick off the sixth mass extinction event in the planet's entire 4.6 billion year history. So no one should be dismissing us as some insignificant trace substance!
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  16. @MA Rodger #15:

    Excellent post! Would you be interested in fleshing it out into a guest-post article for SkS?
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  17. We might think up a few "removal" analogies as well. What happens when 300 ppm of X is removed from system Y? We know what would happen in the case of the Earth atmosphere. Unpleasant.
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  18. 15, MA Rodger,

    A good point, and a good argument... just watch out for the denial point of view that they'll use to twist your logic to fit with their belief system, which is to say that the human race is too insignificant to possibly affect the climate of the earth.
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  19. AT @ 10
    I appreciate the support you have for my teaching career. Would you be willing to write a lesson plan for me that I can present to my classes? We have 90 minute block classes, but the lesson plan would not have to be that long.
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  20. actually thoughtful:

    I think your post #10 crosses the line by personalizing it with regards to apiratelooksat50.

    Any science teacher, whatever their personal views on AGW, would find a discussion of trace components and how they are often disproportionately important, useful in class.
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  21. Botulinum toxin: Intravenous 1ng/kg is fatal

    1 ng/kg = 0.000001 ppm
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  22. @Stevo, #7:

    More to the point: If the elite people of the richest part of the world are not willing to undertake a little economic pain to save the planet, how can we convince the bulk of the people in the poorer parts of the world to do so?

    Europe is trying; Australia is trying to try; but if the US doesn't act, it's hard to see how we can apply any moral pressure on China and India.
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  23. Actually how many skeptics that understand the importance of CO2 as being more than a trace gas, tackle the errors of other skeptics that keep quoting this trace gas meme?

    Letting them get away with it does not seem to be morally acceptable.
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  24. Here's a short youtube I made on just the "Only 0.038 percent" meme. Real skeptics wouldn't use it, but people wanting to create (fear) uncertainty and doubt would.
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  25. Social blunder@12
    Did no one read our post 11?
    Calculations by Trenberth give 5.148 x1018 kg, which we will round to 5.1 x1018 kg. (You can roughly check this by taking sea level air pressure and multiplying by the area of the Earth).

    1 part per million (ppm) of this atmospheric mass is 5.1 x1012 kg (5.1 billion tons), but this does not take into account the fact that CO2 molecules are heavier than other molecules in the atmosphere. Most of the atmosphere is nitrogen (78%) and oxygen (21%). Nitrogen (N2) has an atomic mass of 28 and oxygen (O2) has a mass of 32. Thus, we can say the 'average' molecule in air has a relative mass of about 29. CO2 however has a mass of 44.

    So, 1 ppm of CO2 thus has a mass of (44/29) x (5.1 x1012) kg = 7.7 x1012 kg = 7.7 billion tons. If the calculation is done more carefully then the answer is 7.8 billion tons of CO2. (The FAQ at the US government Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center says 1 ppm CO2 = 2.13 Gt C, but we recall from post 5 that we can convert that to Gt CO2 by multiplying by 3.67: 2.13 x 3.67 = 7.8)

    So MA Rodger is (almost) right.
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  26. In looking at the significance of a "trace gas," I find it illuminating to look at each individual's contribution to the total. For instance, here in the U.S. the average person drives a car about 12,000 miles with an average fuel economy of about 20 miles per gallon. The CO2 emissions from burning a gallon of gasoline weigh about 19.4 pounds (8.79 kg). So the average person driving a car in the U.S. produces 11,640 pounds (5,279.8 kg or 5.82 tons) of CO2 per year.

    It is, I think, more difficult to think of one's contribution to CO2 in the atmosphere as insignificant if it amounts to almost 6 tons per year.
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  27. @apiratelooksat50 #19

    You will want to check out the lessons embedded in:

    Module 1: Climate Science Basics

    produced by the Pacific Institute of Climate Solutions.
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  28. nealjking @22 I agree wholeheartedly.
    The arguments based around the "its not enough to make any difference" meme are many and dangerous.
    The two blood alcohol (800ppm and you cannot safely drive, and if you kill someone due to drunk driving it'll hardly affect the overall road toll) analogies bring us back to fact based argument for the first and a moral position for the second.
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  29. About 200ppm of Potassium in the blood stream is about normal. 400ppm is fatal.

    Patient: "Doctor, my heart arrhythmia, bradycardia and ventricular fibrillation can't possibly be due to a trace electrolyte."
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  30. And yet the heat produced to create CO2 is of no consequence.
    It is a contributer. In many areas and forms from absorbed in the day time or form stored in liquids such as car fluids vasts amounts are released in heat(BTU's).
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    Moderator Response: [mc] Refer such discussion to waste heat thread; we're talking ~1% waste heat, 99% greenhouse warming here.
  31. 30 Joe Lalonde:

    That's where doing the physics comes in. You have to run through the numbers...

    They show that waste heat is not a major global contributor, but CO2 absorption is.

    Avoiding the physics wherever requierd is a great talent of the 'skeptics'.
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  32. I was just thinking that Bowdawg @ #26 was using numbers that were a bit too low for my liking. Then it occurred to me to look up how big US gallons are (or should I say, how small they are). British gallons are about 20% bigger than their US cousins (4,546 litres against 3.785 litres) and contain about 3kg of carbon (petrol slightly less, diesel slightly more) & burning one creates 11kg CO2.
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  33. There are many other examples. The generally accepted safe limit for lead in soil is around 300 ppm.

    More at ClimateBites.
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  34. Badgersouth @ 13 (link to sod) - The commenters there show Dunning Kruger anger (tm). Evidently sod attracted them from a certain other place, and takes it all calmly.

    Meanwhile here at Skeptical Science this post is quite good and ought to answer the point. For my part I always thought the "It's a trace gas" argument to be dense. Nature has no feelings, so calling something a belittling name has no physical effect.

    But perhaps the underlying problem is that some people have no idea how CO2 has its effect. Then when certain professional miscreants get them angry, they are not able to learn. Sod's detailed explanation had no effect on those who think they already know science, but are now (without realizing it) ruled by their anger.

    Finally, I wonder if a better approach is to just show that our surface environment is much warmer than the Stefan-Boltzmann law predicts, and ask how they explain it.
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  35. How about some complete science here!
    What happened to water vapor on Table 1? Water vapor does represent 95% of the greenhouse gases and without it we would not be living here. Or am I missing something here and someone has determined that water vapor no longer transports energy around the globe through the heat of vaporization. I have yet to see this included in any atmospheric model or discussion. Also, what has happened to the percentages of N, O2, Argon and the other gases if CO2 has to be measured to the fifth decimal place. Atmospheric gases have never been shown to these accuracies in the CRC handbook as far back as my first copy in 1960. I hope you do not think that analogies to poisons are scientific statements. Newton and others warned about overstating your hypothesis before you have conclusive data. Lets get this dialog back on track.
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  36. Ken Water vapour is not a long-lived GHG, it has a residence time of about a week (for water vapour the residence and adjustment times are the same), thus it is irrelevant to a discussion of greenhouse forcing as it only acts as a feedback. The complete science leaves out water vapour from the table for that reason. N, O2 Argon etc are not GHGs, which explains why they are not in the table. Both of these facts are well known to those who have taken the effort to read the litterature, so yes lets get the dialog back on track by leaving discussion of water vapour to a more appropriate thread.
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    Moderator Response: Ken, use the Search field at the top left of this page to search for water vapor.
  37. Ken, what is the atmospheric residence time of water vapor?

    If you haven't seen it in any atmospheric model, you're not looking.
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  38. 37, DSL,

    "You're not looking."

    How often does that need to be said, especially when it comes to how models are constructed?

    A favorite denial meme seems to be to insist that the models have failed to account for something any layman is aware of, as if climate scientists are literally that blinded by their love of CO2.

    Just amazing.
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  39. Ken:

    With regards to your statement:
    I hope you do not think that analogies to poisons are scientific statements.

    I do not claim to speak for the author(s) of this article. However, I see the comparison to poisons as a rhetorical rebuttal to an unscientific, rhetorical attack on climate science: the argument from low CO2 concentration.

    Quite simply, the argument itself is a non sequitur, not an empirical argument. As such, all one is obliged to do to rebut it is to demonstrate that there exist in nature other cases where seemingly-insignificant (or even infinitesimally small) quantities can have effects entirely disproportionate to their concentrations (botulism toxin being a perfect example).
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  40. Ken @ #35
    "How about some complete science here!
    What happened to water vapor on Table 1? Water vapor does represent 95% of the greenhouse gases and..."

    For completeness, 95% of what? It isn't 95% of the natural greenhouse effect as CO2 provided 20% of that (7oC of 35oC).
    Are we then back again to the 'biggest volume matters most' argument? If so, it's ironic because that is the exact opposite of what is up for discussion here.
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  41. Ken, I don't understand the 95 percent figure but we do have an interesting greenhouse environment that depends on both CO2 and H2O. H2O by itself tends to turn from vapor to liquid to solid. When it does this it drops out of the atmosphere and provides no greenhouse warming at all. CO2 stays in the air and provides enough warming to keep H2O evaporating and precipitating out in a cycle. See
    CO2: The Thermostat that Controls Earth's Temperature.

    However, as long as water is kept warm enough to keep our familiar water cycle going, it is in the air in much greater quantity than CO2 and provides about half the total greenhouse warming. Since CO2 and H2O intercept some of the same wavelengths one must be careful in calculating how much greenhouse effect to attribute to each. See
    The attribution of the present-day total greenhouse effect.
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  42. @Pete Dunkelberg #34:

    Other SkS authors are crafting the Intermediate and Advanced versions of this rebuttal argument. I'm not certain when they will be posted.

    The person behind the screen of the Science of Doom's website delves into this matter in excrutiating detail. Some readers of this comment thread may find the information posted on it to be of interest. The comment thread exchanges are also very illuminating.
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  43. Great post Sarah.

    I must admit this particular skeptical argument does my head in. The most extreme possible example must be that of atomic weapons. It is estimated that no more than 1000 milligrams of matter was converted to energy during the detonation of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. That is, even by my most conservative rough estimate, no more than 0.0000000004ppm of the combined weight of land and buildings destroyed by the blast.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] According to Wikipedia Little Boy (the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) weighed 4,400 kg, of which 64 kg was uranium, less than 1kg of which underwent nuclear fission, of which 600 mg was transformed into energy, which if I have calculated correctly is about 100 ppb of the mass of the bomb alone.
  44. Let me state up front I am not a scientist, so my comments are based on a layman's view of the issue. CO2 IS a trace gas with regards to overall content of the atmosphere.

    The rebuttal used, is to compare aspects of trace elements that have an impact on a closed system, i.e. a persons body.

    Comparing a closed system to an open system to make your point only allows that much skepticism to rests its head on.

    Whilst they seem to make good rhetoric, they do NOTHING to support your contention that CO2 is in by itself NOT a trace gas.

    Conflating false examples does not make for an effective argument.

    Furthermore, please keep in mind that a skeptic on this issue is not debating the physics of the greenhouse-gas theory, or that a slowing in cooling attributed to the 2nd law isn't happening with more CO2 in the atmosphere, we are simply scratching our heads and wondering why such a dynamic, non-linear chaotic system rises and falls on one minor gas? Negative feedback anyone?

    This doesn't mean that the climate isn't in a warming phase, or disparate behaviors aren't affecting the climate as a whole, but to place it ALL at the doorstep of CO2 seems a leap. Ask yourself why we don't seem to have a runaway thermal affect due to this increase of CO2 alone?


    Also, it seems that the CO2 being a trace gas is never affected by convection. How can a theory which assumes no convection and a "grey atmosphere" (=no change in absorption properties with wavelength) can
    be used to explain something significant about the real atmosphere?
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  45. Dan69... Reading through your comments it looks to me you're basing your thinking on a lot of assumptions. I would highly suggest you watch an online AGU lecture by Dr Richard Alley called "The Biggest Control Knob." If you google his name and that title it should pop up.

    CO2's role in moderating the climate system over time is really pretty well understood, so laying MOST (not ALL) at the doorstep of CO2 is not unreasonable. Note though, that no climate scientist says that it's all about CO2. As the Alley lecture title suggests, CO2 is merely the biggest control knob on climate. This is well accepted and backed up by many thousands of research papers.

    The point to this article is to say to people, yes, trace amounts of things can and do obviously have profound effects. CO2's affect on climate is merely one of the many.

    If you get through Alley's lecture I would also suggest you spend some time reading the many articles here at SkS. Everything is backed up with published literature so you don't even have to take any given authors word on faith. You are welcome to look at the actual research and make up your own mind if the scientific community is getting it right.
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    [DB] Alley's talk can be found here.

  46. Dan69
    my impression is that there's some misunderstanding.
    For example, who is claiming that CO2 is not a trace gas? The point of this post is that the concentration of a trace element matters.
    Another example, who is assuming no convection and a grey atmosphere? One may sometime use highly simplified models to easily show some foundamental behaviour, but radiative-convective models has been developed in the '60s, almost fifty years ago. Your claim is simply untrue, due to a misunderstanding or a lack of knowledge of the matter.
    If any weakness will be found in our current understanding of the climate system, be sure it won't be on the radiative properties of CO2 or any other foundamental aspect of this well know atmospheric physics.
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  47. Dan69... "Ask yourself why we don't seem to have a runaway thermal affect due to this increase of CO2 alone?"

    Think of it this way... When you put one more blanket on your bed on a cold night why don't you get a runaway thermal effect? It's works the same with CO2.
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  48. Dan69 wrote "we are simply scratching our heads and wondering why such a dynamic, non-linear chaotic system rises and falls on one minor gas?"

    It doesn't (and nobody claims it does, "skeptics" claim that the climatologists claim it does, but that doesn't make it true, try reading the IPCC WG1 scientific basis report for example).

    Consider a double pendulum, like this one borrowed from wikipedia

    Thsi is a dynamic non-linear chaotic system. Now imagine putting an electromagnet to one side which can attract the pendulum, which happens to be made of iron. If you turn up the current passing through the electromagnet, the pendulum will still swing back and forth as before, but it will be biased towards the side the electromagnet is placed. Turn the current down again and the pendulum will be centered on average back in the middle. This is a simple analogy for the climate. It has internal variability (the weather, ENSO etc) represented by the chaotic oscillation of the pendulum, and it has forcings such as CO2, aerosols, solar etc (represented by the electromagnet), which bias the oscillations a bit up or a bit down depending on how strong the forcing is (how much current is applied to the electromagnet). The difference lies in the specific details, but the underlying concepts are essentially the same. Juts because weather is chaotic, that doesn't mean climate (long term statistical behaviour of the weather) is also chaotic.

    Ask yourself why we don't seem to have a runaway thermal affect due to this increase of CO2 alone?

    Most of us here have never needed to ask such questions becuase it is based on the incorrect assumption that anybody thinks CO2 alone controls the climate. The Stephan-Bolzmann law is one reason.

    "Also, it seems that the CO2 being a trace gas is never affected by convection. "

    Can you provide some evidence to support that premise? I rather doubt it as it is quite obviously false (ask yourself how CO2, which is heavier than normal air is well mixed in the atmosphere, vertically as well as horizontally).
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  49. Dikran @48,

    I just wanted to compliment you on your post. That was fantastic-- it could (should) perhaps even be expanded into its own blog post IMHO.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Cheers! Sorting out a blog post is on my to-do list (I have used the double pendulum analogy before), but I need to learn about Lagrangian dynamics so I can write the applet!
  50. Dirkran @ 48... That really would be cool if you could model the pendulum exactly the way you've said with outside forcings. Add a couple of little knobs so the user could interact with the forcings. It would be a great learning tool for people who want to better understand the dynamics of climate systems.
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