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The greenhouse effect and the 2nd law of thermodynamics

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

The 2nd law of thermodynamics is consistent with the greenhouse effect which is directly observed.

Climate Myth...

2nd law of thermodynamics contradicts greenhouse theory


"The atmospheric greenhouse effect, an idea that many authors trace back to the traditional works of Fourier 1824, Tyndall 1861, and Arrhenius 1896, and which is still supported in global climatology, essentially describes a fictitious mechanism, in which a planetary atmosphere acts as a heat pump driven by an environment that is radiatively interacting with but radiatively equilibrated to the atmospheric system. According to the second law of thermodynamics such a planetary machine can never exist." (Gerhard Gerlich)


Skeptics sometimes claim that the explanation for global warming contradicts the second law of thermodynamics. But does it? To answer that, first, we need to know how global warming works. Then, we need to know what the second law of thermodynamics is, and how it applies to global warming. Global warming, in a nutshell, works like this:

The sun warms the Earth. The Earth and its atmosphere radiate heat away into space. They radiate most of the heat that is received from the sun, so the average temperature of the Earth stays more or less constant. Greenhouse gases trap some of the escaping heat closer to the Earth's surface, making it harder for it to shed that heat, so the Earth warms up in order to radiate the heat more effectively. So the greenhouse gases make the Earth warmer - like a blanket conserving body heat - and voila, you have global warming. See What is Global Warming and the Greenhouse Effect for a more detailed explanation.

The second law of thermodynamics has been stated in many ways. For us, Rudolf Clausius said it best:

"Heat generally cannot flow spontaneously from a material at lower temperature to a material at higher temperature."

So if you put something hot next to something cold, the hot thing won't get hotter, and the cold thing won't get colder. That's so obvious that it hardly needs a scientist to say it, we know this from our daily lives. If you put an ice-cube into your drink, the drink doesn't boil!

The skeptic tells us that, because the air, including the greenhouse gasses, is cooler than the surface of the Earth, it cannot warm the Earth. If it did, they say, that means heat would have to flow from cold to hot, in apparent violation of the second law of thermodynamics.

So have climate scientists made an elementary mistake? Of course not! The skeptic is ignoring the fact that the Earth is being warmed by the sun, which makes all the difference.

To see why, consider that blanket that keeps you warm. If your skin feels cold, wrapping yourself in a blanket can make you warmer. Why? Because your body is generating heat, and that heat is escaping from your body into the environment. When you wrap yourself in a blanket, the loss of heat is reduced, some is retained at the surface of your body, and you warm up. You get warmer because the heat that your body is generating cannot escape as fast as before.

If you put the blanket on a tailors dummy, which does not generate heat, it will have no effect. The dummy will not spontaneously get warmer. That's obvious too!

Is using a blanket an accurate model for global warming by greenhouse gases? Certainly there are differences in how the heat is created and lost, and our body can produce varying amounts of heat, unlike the near-constant heat we receive from the sun. But as far as the second law of thermodynamics goes, where we are only talking about the flow of heat, the comparison is good. The second law says nothing about how the heat is produced, only about how it flows between things.

To summarise: Heat from the sun warms the Earth, as heat from your body keeps you warm. The Earth loses heat to space, and your body loses heat to the environment. Greenhouse gases slow down the rate of heat-loss from the surface of the Earth, like a blanket that slows down the rate at which your body loses heat. The result is the same in both cases, the surface of the Earth, or of your body, gets warmer.

So global warming does not violate the second law of thermodynamics. And if someone tells you otherwise, just remember that you're a warm human being, and certainly nobody's dummy.

Basic rebuttal written by Tony Wildish

Update July 2015:

Here is the relevant lecture-video from Denial101x - Making Sense of Climate Science Denial


Update October 2017:

Here is a walk-through explanation of the Greenhouse Effect for bunnies, by none other than Eli, over at Rabbit Run.

Last updated on 7 October 2017 by skeptickev. View Archives

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Further reading

  • Most textbooks on climate or atmospheric physics describe the greenhouse effect, and you can easily find these in a university library. Some examples include:
  • The Greenhouse Effect, part of a module on "Cycles of the Earth and Atmosphere" provided for teachers by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR).
  • What is the greenhouse effect?, part of a FAQ provided by the European Environment Agency.



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Comments 1101 to 1125 out of 1393:

  1. With indulgence:
    "If in the interior of the same solid we imagine a plane M parallel to those which bound it, we see a certain quantity of heat flows across this plane during unit of time..."
    (My emphasis) Joseph Fourier, "The Analytical theory of Heat", 1878; p 105.
    "The concept of heat 'flowing' went out with the 'fluid' concept of heat i.e. caloric."
    Damorbel's theory of pedantary, 2011.
    "Did Fourier get it wrong?"
    "Title: Heat flow in the solidification of castings Author: Adams, Clyde M Advisor: Howard F. Taylor. Department: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Metallurgy Publisher: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Issue Date: 1953"
    "Title: Heat flow over the equatorial mid-Atlantic ridge. Author: Folinsbee, Robert Allin Advisor: Gene Simmons. Department: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Geology and Geophysics Publisher: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Issue Date: 1969"
    "Title: Heat flow in solidification of alloys. Author: Campagna, Alan John Advisor: Merton C. Flemings. Department: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dept. of Metallurgy and Materials Science Publisher: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Issue Date: 1970"
    Heat flow and material degradation during laser metal forming 1985 16.5 Steady Quasi-One-Dimensional Heat Flow in Non-Planar Geometry So not only is "heat flow" a concept used in various MIT dissertations throughout the 20th century, it is a concept used in MIT lectures on Thermodynamics in 2007.
    Response: [mc] Closed italics tag. Link to '16.5 Steady Quasi' missing.
  2. damorbel#1098: "If this 'ignorance of source temperature' on the part of photons is the basis of your science then I suggest you think again. " Please, not that again. You've already contradicted yourself on the topic of 'photon temperature' on this thread.

    [DB] Perhaps a new rule: Damorbel's Law (ala Godwin's Law).

    When someone repeats/resurrects a point already refuted on the same thread by that selfsame poster, Damorbel's Law is invoked declaring the argument forfeit and all subsequent comments by that poster on that thread may be safely ignored.

    One may safely then consider it already invoked on this thread.

  3. Thankyou mc. The link should be
  4. Must be a slow news day if everyone's willing to re-heat (ha ha) this thread. May I suggest a new article: "Heating up the Lexicon of Physics" or "HaIRNET: Heat and Infrared Radiation / Net Energy Transfer -- Could Be Important" or the new skeptical argument "GHE doesn't exist because you don't accept my definition of 'heat'."
  5. Damorbel, it turns out that your history of science is almost as bad as your science:
    By 1800, alternatives to the caloric hypothesis appeared and, in 1811, Joseph Fourier (1768-1830) published a mathematical theory of heat conduction that was entirely independent of the caloric hypothesis. Fourier's first step was to avoid speculation about "caloric." In this way, Fourier set the study of the theory of heat in the tradition of rational mechanics, basing it on differential equations that characterized the transmission of heat, equations that were independent of all physical hypotheses. In contrast to Poisson (who was, as mentioned above, a devoted Laplacian, committed to physical mechanics and to the existence of caloric), Fourier focused on heat flow, using differential equations to express how much heat diffused from a substance over time. The heat transmitted between two molecules was proportional to the difference in their temperature and a function of the distance between them, which of course varied with the nature of the intervening substance. Though formally (that is, mathematically) equivalent to Poisson's model, Fourier did not rely upon any speculation about the nature of heat. For Fourier, what was important was not what heat was, but what it did, in a given experimental setting."
    (source, emphasis added) So, Fourier made not commitment to calorific theory, for which there where alternatives at his time. What is more he directly declared his agnosticism on the issue:
    "Of the nature of heat uncertain hypotheses only could be formed, but the knowledge of the mathematical laws to which its effects are subject is independent of all hypothesis; it requires only an attentive examination of the chief facts which common observations have indicated, and which have been confirmed by exact experiments."
    (Joseph Fourier, Theory of Heat, p 26) Further, if the the independence of mathematical theory of heat flow was not independent of calorific theory, then calorific theory would be established as true, for certainly his mathematical treatment of heat flow is. As it stands, his theory is independent of calorific theory (contrary to your claims) but consistent with the metaphor of heat flow (again contrary to your claims) as is established by his use of that very metaphor. What is more, as is established by the actual practice at MIT, that metaphor is alive and well in physics today, and causes no confusion. Except, perhaps to small minded pedants.
  6. Re #1103 Tom Curtis, you give a link - This link is about heat tranfer in solids with various shapes - hollow shells, cylinders etc. under the general title "16.5 Steady Quasi-One-Dimensional Heat Flow" The explanation seems quite good to me but the title, as so ften is the case, is not really correct. What the author is describing is diffusion. Later in the article (perhaps an editor chose the title) he writes:- "The heat transfer rate per unit length is given by...." and give a formula that I can't copy here. The article is rather strange because further down it has :- "The steady-flow energy equation (no fluid flow, no work) tells us that....." Yet further it has:- "The heat transfer rate per unit length is given by... " with another formula that doesn't copy All very confusing and not really helpful for understanding the fundamental physics. You can check what Wikipedia has on this here :- Derivation in one dimension In your link the equation (16..25) corresponds to the last one in the 'one dimensional section' of the Wiki article where it adds helpfully :- "which is the heat equation. The coefficient k/(cpρ) is called thermal diffusivity and is often denoted α." You will also notice that the article refers to these equations as 'Fourier's law'.
  7. Re #1105 Tom Curtis, you cited a very nice article on Victorian Science which I intend to read fully. But it is quite clear that the author is not entirely clear about the diffusion equations that Fourier famously derived. Your citation has:- "Fourier focused on heat flow, using differential equations to express how much heat diffused from a substance over time" This is exactly the kind of confused thinking one finds today (and in history). Fourier is justly famous for his diffusion equations, I was taught them in my thermal physics course too. But his equations are about diffusion, a process found in solids not 'flow' which requires fluids. Flow is covered by Fluid dynamics which is also a relevant subject to the 2nd Law of thermodynamics but it is quite separate from diffusion.
  8. damorbel Speaking of heat flow does not necessarily imply adherence to caloric thory. One can talk metaphorically about there being a flow without the supposed existence of a fluid. For instance in information theory it is perfectly reasonable to talk of the flow of information through a channel, but information isn't carried by a fluid. It is just a metaphor.
  9. Re #1108 Dikran Marsupial, you wrote:- "Speaking of heat flow does not necessarily imply adherence to caloric thory" I know that too. But thermodynamics is rather complicated so it is essential to be quite certain of the meaning of words. There is all the difference in the world between processes involving transport of fluids and diffusion in solids. The 'flow' problem is not the only one. Frequently diagrams are drawn shoing the GHE where the authors do not distinguish betwen the reflection (as with a mirror) and the absorption/emission of radiation. These two processes are completely different, it isn't possible to even think of a CO2 GH effect unless the two processes are clearly separated.
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] In that case, as you know that nobody in the discussion is talking about caloric theory when they speak of "flow", any further mention of "caloric" on this thread is off-topic and will be deleted, likewise any further general discussion on the meaning of the word "flow". As you apparently recognise that "flow [of heat]" is being used as a metaphor for "transfer [of energy]" this should be no hurdle to communication.
  10. 1107, damorbel, Your obsession with semantics and word choice is crippling you. The rest of us understand exactly what is meant by "diffusion," "transfer" and "flow" without the need to apply only certain terms to gases, solids or fluids... as do the learned men who wrote the referenced papers and used those terms to begin with. You have a whole lot of studying to do before you can contribute to a discussion like this. In particular, I suggest that you try to get away from what you think you know and understand (traditional thermodynamics) and begin to study more modern quantum and molecular level physics and radiative transfer (or diffusion or flow or emission/absorption for whatever term you'd like to use). Until you do, you're trying to both understand and argue from a too limited perspective. You're like one of the blind men trying to describe an elephant.
    So oft in theologic wars, The disputants, I ween, Rail on in utter ignorance Of what each other mean, And prate about an Elephant Not one of them has seen!
  11. damorbel @1109, it is rather more important to keep clear about the content of the physical laws you are appealing to, something you continually fail to do. But your just keep on plugging away drawing attention to the use of a metaphor as a substitute for actually learning the topic on which you expound so frequently.
  12. Damorbel, your attempts at distracting from your poor comprehension of the subjects on which you would pretend to comment, and even lecture, are amusing. I note that you fail to defend your IR photon thermometer/temperature of the source idea; not suprising, since it is not defensible. "thermodynamics is rather complicated" Well, it's not so bad, really. Reflect on the following long and deep and you will eliminate a lot of the confusion that has been plaguing you during this astoundingly tedious exchange: You have to play. You can't win. You can't break even. That's enough for anyone to understand thermodynamics better than what transpires from your comments.
  13. Philippe - This has been a pattern with damorbel from the beginning. When a bit of nonsense is firmly refuted, he skips to the next argument in a Gish Gallop. The original bit of nonsense will then re-emerge weeks later, perhaps to a different visitor, in a sort of never-ending zombie manner. And damorbel has shown no compunctions against contradicting himself, if it continues the argument. I've yet to see actual discussions of science with this poster - just arguments. DNFTT.
  14. I am aware of the pattern KR. To my knowledge, nobody has ever been banned from SkS. Damorbel's actions, so transparent and so consistent over time, have certainly earned him the right to set a precedent in the matter. However, considering how John has conducted this site so far, I doubt that he will do that; yet we will continue to endure the whining of pseudo-skeptics about being silenced when nonsense is called out. In thermodynamics, by respect to energy and entropy, we "can't win." It seems to be like that too in the parody of debate maintained by pseudo-skeptics.

    [DB] In the spirit of transparency, a select few have "crossed the line".  Damorbel may yet indeed set a precedent; that remains to be seen.  As an alternative, I earlier proposed "Damorbel's Law", for those who wish to consider it.

  15. Re #1108 Sphaerica, you wrote:- "Your obsession with semantics and word choice is crippling you." I don't think so. Science is not just about accurate measurement but also about clear explanation i.e. using words as precision tools to minimise misunderstanding. "The rest of us understand exactly what is meant by "diffusion," "transfer" and "flow" without the need to apply only certain terms to gases, solids or fluids..." I suggest "the rest of us" is not sufficient. I merely point to the text in a link given by Tom Curtis in #1105 which did not distinguish between 'diffusion' and 'flow', clearly not understanding Fourier's great theory. you wrote:- "as do the learned men who wrote the referenced papers and used those terms to begin with." The link was to a paper written by a historian. I do not regard historians as a reliable source, they do not generally use the scientific method.
    Response: [Dikran Marsupial] This line of discussion is off-topic. No more quibbling about terminology, damorbel has made his point, he knows what is meant by "flow of heat/energy" so there is no problem with communication, and so no reason to discuss this any further. This applies to everybody.
  16. If you look up the Second Law of Thermodynamics in Wikipedia for example you will see that it requires an "isolated physical system" which the atmosphere is not. Furthermore, one of the results of it acting is, not only that it produces uniform temperature, but also uniform pressure. Neither of these is seen between the top and bottom of the atmosphere. The pressure difference causes warmer air to rise as is well known. That said, the theory relating to the "greenhouse effect" recognises that we are not supposing that warmed air is physically being trapped and somehow warming the surface. Instead it is all about radiation. Incoming high energy radiation passes straight through GH gases, whereas low energy (low frequency infra-red) radiation which comes from a solid or liquid surface can be captured by GH gases. The photons are delayed and then others emitted. If, and only if, the ones emitted have less energy than the ones captured then the GH gas molecule will be warmed a little. This will mean that it is more likely to emit its next photon sooner, with consequent cooling, and/or it may pass on some of its heat to other air molecules. The issue is, to what extent does this happen? There are two very different sets of figures - one used by the IPCC and the other sourced from NASA. The NASA based diagram shows much more heat being transferred by conduction from the earth surface to the adjacent air, and less by radiation. When feedback calculations are applied to the NASA based one the results relating to radiation feedback are less than 30% those that the IPCC claimed. In fact, the IPCC figures indicate radiation coming down out of the air from GH gases far exceeds the radiation received from the sun. This means that, just after sunset, you should shield yourself with an umbrella to avoid feeling the heat. ( -Snip- )

    [DB] Endless self-promotion of website snipped.

  17. Doug, what are you trying to achieve here, by jumping to another thread and repeating the same assertions (that "NASA" and "IPCC" are in contradiction), when this has already been explained and referenced for you on other threads? We have measurements of DLR. Greenhouse theory predicts its magnitude and spectrum. What does your theory predict this measurement to be?
  18. scaddenp @1117, the purpose is obvious. His claims are being refuted on the other threads very convincingly. He needs to thread hop so that he can hopefully gull some naive reader who does not see the counter arguments. No matter how much he thread hops, however, he still needs to answer some questions. Why, for example, does he assert that atmospheric radiation from O2 and N2 eclipses that from CO2 even though he has seen no data to that effect, and there is data to the contrary: And why does he insist surface radiation is so low that, given the Stefan-Boltzmann law, the surface emissivity for IR radiation must be 0.18, even though the surface is known to have an emissivity greater than 0.9 in those wavelengths? Indeed, the crucial question he needs to answer is why we are required at every turn in his theory to take his mere assertion in preference to well established scientific laws, and copious empirical observations that contradict it?
  19. As the Earth heats up - it would lose more energy through radiation - except for the insulation provided by the CO2. This blanket of CO2 will result in a rise in temperature - until the energy being radiated away reaches equilibrium with the energy being received. Then our temperature will stabilize. The thicker the blanked of CO2, the warmer it gets before this equilibrium is reached. I wonder what the lag is between CO2 levels stabilizing and temperature increase ceasing.
  20. I return to this thread to present a theory of greenhouse warming which appears all over the blogs, and in some text-books, to defend a position I took in the “After McClean” thread. If we accept the Stefan-Bolzmann fourth power law of radiation, and ignore other means of heat transfer it can be done very simply. Start with a bare rock earth radiating back to the sun the incoming radiation of W watts per square meter. In order to radiate this energy back, the earth will acquire a mean temperature of 255 degrees K. Now build up an atmosphere capable of absorbing and re-radiating part of the outgoing radiation. It will radiate equal intensities, up and down. To avoid typing algebra, I will pause the analysis when the atmosphere can absorb half of the outgoing radiation.. The atmosphere will then radiate W/2 to space, and the surface (directly to space) also W/2. This means that the atmosphere must receive W from the surface (half out, half back) and the surface will receive W (from the sun) and W/2 from they atmosphere. The surface must consequently be warmed (by the sun) to radiate W + W/2. Now continue the build-up until all (100%) of the outgoing radiation is being absorbed. At that point everything reaches “goldilocks” equilibrium. The earth radiates 2W, the atmosphere receives 2W, and radiates W to space, W back to the surface. What is the ratio of the new surface temperature to the bare rock temperature? It is the fourth root of the radiant energy ratio, 2W/W. The fourth root of 2 is 1.19, so we would expect a greenhouse temperature of 1.19 x 255, or 303 degrees K. The effective radiative temperature must be 255 degrees K (goldilocks again). Why pay more?

    [DB] "Why pay more?"

    If by this you mean:

    Q.  Why have a more complex and robust model that explains fairly well everything we can observationally measure when we can opt for something far simpler that explains very little? 

    A.  Because life and physics seldom contort themselves to simple models.  Why have a faux relationship when the real thing is so much richer?.

  21. Fred Staples @1120: 1) The atmosphere will only radiate equal amounts up and down if there is no change of temperature with altitude. That is only a reasonable approximation for very thin slices of atmosphere, although it is a common simplifying assumption for unrealistic models used only to explain basic concepts. If you are trying to prove the "un-physicality" of the greenhouse effect, you are not entitled to use an un-physical model to do so. 2) Your first model state not in equilibrium. The surface is said to receive 1 W radiation from the sun, and 0.5 W radiation from the atmosphere. Therefore it should radiation 1.5 W radiation, of which half (0.75 W) is absorbed by the atmosphere. That means at the TOA the outgoing radiation is 0.5 W from the atmosphere and 0.75 W from the surface, which is 0.25 W greater than the 1 W incoming radiation. Meanwhile the atmosphere is absorbing only 0.75 W, but is radiating 1 W (0.5 W up, and the same down), making a shortfall of 0.25 W. Hence, in your model as specified, the atmosphere is rapidly loosing energy to space. These models do have equilibrium states, and they can be found, but you can't avoid the algebra if you wish to do so. 3) Your description of a perfectly absorbing, optical depth 1 atmosphere with uniform temperature is correct. The model is, of course, unphysical, and only used to explain basic concepts. Having said that, I do not know what point you are trying to make by describing it, nor by your final comment.
  22. I seem to recall noting to damborel some time ago a simpler variant of the below: The atmospheric greenhouse effect: (1) was postulated theoretically; (2) then confirmed experimentally; (3) and has since been observed empirically. Trying to argue it doesn't exist by means of the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a fool's errand.
  23. 1120, Fred, I actually think you've done a pretty good job of creating a simple model that demonstrates exactly the effect and mirrors real life (i.e. the temperature of the surface is clearly not 255K, although it's not quite 303K). As Tom pointed out, your simple model has flaws (it is, after all a simple model), so you can't expect to have used it to compute an accurate surface temperature. To elaborate a bit on what Tom said, the "half up/half down" simplification is good for a thought model but grossly flawed for a quantitative analysis. The atmosphere is more complex than that, with varying density and behavior from the surface upwards, so working with a single-slab with a half-up/half-down rule really is a gross simplification. But still, all in all, I think you have something that you can work with for understanding what is happening at a very high level. [Like Tom, I am baffled by your "why pay more?" comment. Can you explain?]
  24. Thanks for the comment, Sphaerica, but my post was intended to be a simplified version of so much that is posted about “back-radiation” theories. (You will find a complicated version in Eli Rabetts rebuttal of the original G and T paper). As such, it is not remotely realistic. There is no reason to believe that outgoing radiation will be absorbed only once. If we add another absorbing layer, radiating W to space at a temperature of 255 degrees K, we fill find that the surface temperature must rise to radiate 3W, at a temperature ratio of the fourth root of 3, or 335K. The absorption distance in the atmosphere means that there will be many such layers, and every layer will absorb the incident energy and re-emit half downwards. Repeat the calculation and you will find: One layer – Fourth root of 2 = 1.19. Tsurf = 1.19 x 255 = 303K Two Layers - Fourth root of 3 =1.315 T surf = 1.315 x 255 = 335K Three Layers - Fourth root of 4 = 1.415 Tsurf = 1.415 x 255 = 360K Four Layers - Fourth root of 5 = 1.495 Tsurf = 1.495 x 255 = 381K and so on. These results are absurd, but they are derived from the original greenhouse “explanation”. As I and several others posted here long ago,(1000) the only plausible theory of “greenhouse” warming which supports AGW is the “higher is colder” theory. The temperature difference from the surface to the 255 K effective emission level then depends on the lapse rate, which in turn depends on gravity and specific heat; it has nothing to do with radiation. AGW is then a top-of-atmosphere effect. The argument is that adding CO2 (or any other absorbing gas) will elevate the emission level to higher, and therefore colder, temperatures, so reducing the outgoing radiation, and allowing the sun to warm the entire system. We are, in fact, conducting a global experiment to test this theory. We are on course to double the CO2 content of the atmosphere. We have some evidence, satellite and radio-sonde troposphere temperatures, which we can relate to the increasing CO2 levels. In my opinion, DB, this is what is important, not more and more expensive attempts to model the heat transfer (conduction, convection, radiation, and evaporation) from the surface through the chaotic weather systems. It might be instructive to return to the McClean thread and see what can be learned from the available data.
  25. "We have some evidence..." Fred, you might want to add to that evidence, the observations from surface, aircraft and satellites of longwave radiation being scattered at GHG-specific wavelengths (some presented in the Intermediate tab). Add to that the observations of an increase in downwelling and a decrease in outgoing LW radiation at GHG-specific wavelengths observed over the past few decades. Where does the increase in downwelling radiation from GHG-specific wavelengths go?

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