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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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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)


At a glance

Although this topic may have a highly technical feel to it, thermodynamics is a big part of all our everyday lives. So while you are reading, do remember that there are glossary entries available for all thinly underlined terms - just hover your mouse cursor over them for the entry to appear.

Thermodynamics is the branch of physics that describes how energy interacts within systems. That interaction determines, for example, how we stay cosy or freeze to death. You wear less clothing in very hot weather and layer-up or add extra blankets to your bed when it's cold because such things control how energy interacts with your own body and therefore your degree of comfort and, in extreme cases, safety.

The human body and its surroundings and energy transfer between them make up one such system with which we are all familiar. But let's go a lot bigger here and think about heat energy and its transfer between the Sun, Earth's land/ocean surfaces, the atmosphere and the cosmos.

Sunshine hits the top of our atmosphere and some of it makes it down to the surface, where it heats up the ground and the oceans alike. These in turn give off heat in the form of invisible but warming infra-red radiation. But you can see the effects of that radiation - think of the heat-shimmer you see over a tarmac road-surface on a hot sunny day.

A proportion of that radiation goes back up through the atmosphere and escapes to space. But another proportion of it is absorbed by greenhouse gas molecules, such as water vapour, carbon dioxide and methane.  Heating up themselves, those molecules then re-emit that heat energy in all directions including downwards. Due to the greenhouse effect, the total loss of that outgoing radiation is avoided and the cooling of Earth's surface is thereby inhibited. Without that extra blanket, Earth's average temperature would be more than thirty degrees Celsius cooler than is currently the case.

That's all in accordance with the laws of Thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant - while energy can be transformed from one form to another it can be neither created nor destroyed. The Second Law does not state that the only flow of energy is from hot to cold - but instead that the net sum of the energy flows will be from hot to cold. That qualifier term, 'net', is the important one here. The Earth alone is not a "closed system", but is part of a constant, net energy flow from the Sun, to Earth and back out to space. Greenhouse gases simply inhibit part of that net flow, by returning some of the outgoing energy back towards Earth's surface.

The myth that the greenhouse effect is contrary to the second law of thermodynamics is mostly based on a very long 2009 paper by two German scientists (not climate scientists), Gerlich and Tscheuschner (G&T). In its title, the paper claimed to take down the theory that heat being trapped by our atmosphere keeps us warm. That's a huge claim to make – akin to stating there is no gravity.

The G&T paper has been the subject of many detailed rebuttals over the years since its publication. That's because one thing that makes the scientific community sit up and take notice is when something making big claims is published but which is so blatantly incorrect. To fully deal with every mistake contained in the paper, this rebuttal would have to be thousands of words long. A shorter riposte, posted in a discussion on the topic at the Quora website, was as follows: “...I might add that if G&T were correct they used dozens of rambling pages to prove that blankets can’t keep you warm at night."

If the Second Law of Thermodynamics is true - something we can safely assume – then, “blankets can’t keep you warm at night”, must be false. And - as you'll know from your own experiences - that is of course the case!

Please use this form to provide feedback about this new "At a glance" section. Read a more technical version below or dig deeper via the tabs above!

Further details

Among the junk-science themes promoted by climate science deniers is the claim that the explanation for global warming contradicts the second law of thermodynamics. Does it? Of course not (Halpern et al. 2010), but let's explore. Firstly, we need to know how thermal energy transfer works with particular regard to Earth's atmosphere. Then, we need to know what the second law of thermodynamics is, and how it applies to global warming.

Thermal energy is transferred through systems in five main ways: conduction, convection, advection, latent heat and, last but not least, radiation. We'll take them one by one.

Conduction is important in some solids – think of how a cold metal spoon placed in a pot of boiling water can become too hot to touch. In many fluids and gases, conduction is much less important. There are a few exceptions, such as mercury, a metal whose melting point is so low it exists as a liquid above -38 degrees Celsius, making it a handy temperature-marker in thermometers. But air's thermal conductivity is so low we can more or less count it out from this discussion.



Figure 1: Severe thunderstorm developing over the Welsh countryside one evening in August 2020. This excellent example of convection had strong enough updraughts to produce hail up to 2.5 cm in diameter. (Source: John Mason)

Hot air rises – that's why hot air balloons work, because warm air is less dense than its colder surroundings, making the artificially heated air in the balloon more buoyant and thereby creating a convective current. The same principle applies in nature: convection is the upward transfer of heat in a fluid or a gas. 

Convection is highly important in Earth's atmosphere and especially in its lower part, where most of our weather goes on. On a nice day, convection may be noticed as birds soar and spiral upwards on thermals, gaining height with the help of that rising warm air-current. On other days, mass-ascent of warm, moist air can result in any type of convective weather from showers to severe thunderstorms with their attendant hazards. In the most extreme examples like supercells, that convective ascent or updraught can reach speeds getting on for a hundred miles per hour. Such powerful convective currents can keep hailstones held high in the storm-cloud for long enough to grow to golfball size or larger.


Advection is the quasi-horizontal transport of a fluid or gas with its attendant properties. Here are a couple of examples. In the Northern Hemisphere, southerly winds bring mild to warm air from the tropics northwards. During the rapid transition from a cold spell to a warm southerly over Europe in early December 2022, the temperatures over parts of the UK leapt from around -10C to +14C in one weekend, due to warm air advection. Advection can also lead to certain specific phenomena such as sea-fogs – when warm air inland is transported over the surrounding cold seas, causing rapid condensation of water vapour near the air-sea interface.


Figure 2: Advection fog completely obscures Cardigan Bay, off the west coast of Wales, on an April afternoon in 2015, Air warmed over the land was advected seawards, where its moisture promptly condensed over the much colder sea surface.

Latent heat

Latent heat is the thermal energy released or absorbed during a substance's transition from solid to liquid, liquid to vapour or vice-versa. To fuse, or melt, a solid or to boil a liquid, it is necessary to add thermal energy to a system, whereas when a vapour condenses or a liquid freezes, energy is released. The amount of energy involved varies from one substance to another: to melt iron you need a furnace but with an ice cube you only need to leave it at room-temperature for a while. Such variations from one substance to another are expressed as specific latent heats of fusion or vapourisation, measured in amount of energy (KiloJoules) per kilogram. In the case of Earth's atmosphere, the only substance of major importance with regard to latent heat is water, because at the range of temperatures present, it's the only component that is both abundant and constantly transitioning between solid, liquid and vapour phases.


Radiation is the transfer of energy as electromagnetic rays, emitted by any heated surface. Electromagnetic radiation runs from long-wave - radio waves, microwaves, infra-red (IR), through the visible-light spectrum, down to short-wave – ultra-violet (UV), x-rays and gamma-rays. Although you cannot see IR radiation, you can feel it warming you when you sit by a fire. Indeed, the visible part of the spectrum used to be called “luminous heat” and the invisible IR radiation “non-luminous heat”, back in the 1800s when such things were slowly being figured-out.

Sunshine is an example of radiation. Unlike conduction and convection, radiation has the distinction of being able to travel from its source straight through the vacuum of space. Thus, Solar radiation travels through that vacuum for some 150 million kilometres, to reach our planet at a near-constant rate. Some Solar radiation, especially short-wave UV light, is absorbed by our atmosphere. Some is reflected straight back to space by cloud-tops. The rest makes it all the way down to the ground, where it is reflected from lighter surfaces or absorbed by darker ones. That's why black tarmac road surfaces can heat up until they melt on a bright summer's day.


Figure 3: Heat haze above a warmed road-surface, Lincoln Way in San Francisco, California. May 2007. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Energy balance

What has all of the above got to do with global warming? Well, through its radiation-flux, the Sun heats the atmosphere, the surfaces of land and oceans. The surfaces heated by solar radiation in turn emit infrared radiation, some of which can escape directly into space, but some of which is absorbed by the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, mostly carbon dioxide, water vapour, and methane. Greenhouse gases not only slow down the loss of energy from the surface, but also re-radiate that energy, some of which is directed back down towards the surface, increasing the surface temperature and increasing how much energy is radiated from the surface. Overall, this process leads to a state where the surface is warmer than it would be in the absence of an atmosphere with greenhouse gases. On average, the amount of energy radiated back into space matches the amount of energy being received from the Sun, but there's a slight imbalance that we'll come to.

If this system was severely out of balance either way, the planet would have either frozen or overheated millions of years ago. Instead the planet's climate is (or at least was) stable, broadly speaking. Its temperatures generally stay within bounds that allow life to thrive. It's all about energy balance. Figure 4 shows the numbers.

Energy Budget AR6 WGI Figure 7_2

Figure 4: Schematic representation of the global mean energy budget of the Earth (upper panel), and its equivalent without considerations of cloud effects (lower panel). Numbers indicate best estimates for the magnitudes of the globally averaged energy balance components in W m–2 together with their uncertainty ranges in parentheses (5–95% confidence range), representing climate conditions at the beginning of the 21st century. Figure adapted for IPCC AR6 WG1 Chapter 7, from Wild et al. (2015).

While the flow in and out of our atmosphere from or to space is essentially the same, the atmosphere is inhibiting the cooling of the Earth, storing that energy mostly near its surface. If it were simply a case of sunshine straight in, infra-red straight back out, which would occur if the atmosphere was transparent to infra-red (it isn't) – or indeed if there was no atmosphere, Earth would have a similar temperature-range to the essentially airless Moon. On the Lunar equator, daytime heating can raise the temperature to a searing 120OC, but unimpeded radiative cooling means that at night, it gets down to around -130OC. No atmosphere as such, no greenhouse effect.

Clearly, the concentrations of greenhouse gases determine their energy storage capacity and therefore the greenhouse effect's strength. This is particularly the case for those gases that are non-condensing at atmospheric temperatures. Of those non-condensing gases, carbon dioxide is the most important. Because it only exists as vapour, the main way it is removed is as a weak solution of carbonic acid in rainwater – indeed the old name for carbon dioxide was 'carbonic acid gas'. That means once it's up there, it has a long 'atmospheric residency', meaning it takes a long time to be removed. 

Earth’s temperature can be stable over long periods of time, but to make that possible, incoming energy and outgoing energy have to be exactly the same, in a state of balance known as ‘radiative equilibrium’. That equilibrium can be disturbed by changing the forcing caused by any components of the system. Thus, for example, as the concentration of carbon dioxide has fluctuated over geological time, mostly on gradual time-scales but in some cases abruptly, so has the planet's energy storage capacity. Such fluctuations have in turn determined Earth's climate state, Hothouse or Icehouse – the latter defined as having Polar ice-caps present, of whatever size. Currently, Earth’s energy budget imbalance averages out at just under +1 watt per square metre - that’s global warming. 

That's all in accordance with the laws of Thermodynamics. The First Law of Thermodynamics states that the total energy of an isolated system is constant - while energy can be transformed from one component to another it can be neither created nor destroyed. Self-evidently, the "isolated" part of the law must require that the sun and the cosmos be included. They are both components of the system: without the Sun as the prime energy generator, Earth would be frozen and lifeless; with the Sun but without Earth's emitted energy dispersing out into space, the planet would cook, Just thinking about Earth's surface and atmosphere in isolation is to ignore two of this system's most important components.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics does not state that the only flow of energy is from hot to cold - but instead that the net sum of the energy flows will be from hot to cold. To reiterate, the qualifier term, 'net', is the important one here. In the case of the Earth-Sun system, it is again necessary to consider all of the components and their interactions: the sunshine, the warmed surface giving off IR radiation into the cooler atmosphere, the greenhouse gases re-emitting that radiation in all directions and finally the radiation emitted from the top of our atmosphere, to disperse out into the cold depths of space. That energy is not destroyed – it just disperses in all directions into the cold vastness out there. Some of it even heads towards the Sun too - since infra-red radiation has no way of determining that it is heading towards a much hotter body than the Earth,

Earth’s energy budget makes sure that all portions of the system are accounted for and this is routinely done in climate models. No violations exist. Greenhouse gases return some of the energy back towards Earth's surface but the net flow is still out into space. John Tyndall, in a lecture to the Royal Institution in 1859, recognised this. He said:

Tyndall 1859

As long as carbon emissions continue to rise, so will that planetary energy imbalance. Therefore, the only way to take the situation back towards stability is to reduce those emissions.

Update June 2023:

For additional links to relevant blog posts, please look at the "Further Reading" box, below.

Last updated on 29 June 2023 by John Mason. View Archives

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Comments 1326 to 1350 out of 1393:

  1. No, it just reduces the rate of cooling, it cant warm it up.
  2. YOGI I didn't say that it would warm the surface up, I said it would be warmer than it would if there were no water vapour in the atmosphere (and therefore no back-radiated IR). Do you agree that the back-radiated IR from the water vapour in the atmosphere would cause the surface to be warmer than it would be if the water vapour were not there?
  3. #1325 Solar near IR is forty something % of the heat input from the Sun. You never heard of IR blocking windows ? its the solar thermal IR they are blocking, not DLR.
  4. #1327 No it causes it to cool down slower.
  5. Can I suggest we ignore YOGI's comment above until we have reached the end of the discussion about deserts. The errors in YOGI's post about solar IR are pretty obvious and begging for an answer, but it would be better if the answer were delayed for a while.
  6. YOGI O.K. well lets revisit the original question, which was: "So what happens in a desert at night, does the CO2 back-radiation turn off when the sun goes down ?" We now know the answer, it isn't that the CO2 back-radiation turns off when the sun goes down, it cools more quickly because there is less back-radiation from water vapour because the atmosphere above the desert is drier. In fact the rapid cooling of the desert at night is a common example used to demonstrate the existence of back-radiation. Now your most recent post is essentially just blatant rhetorical evasion. If the back-radiation from water vapour causes the surface to "cool down slower", then at any point in time after nightfall it will be warmer than it would be if the water vapour were not there, precisely because of the difference in the rate of cooling. The reason why you want to evade admitting that the back-radiation causes the surface to be warmer than it would be if the water vapour were not there is obviously because you would then be forced to concede that the surface would be warmer than it would otherwise be if not for the back-radiation from CO2. Frankly getting to this point has been like getting blood out of a stone, and I can't see why you should think anyone will be willing to engage in a scientific discussion with you if you are going to behave in this manner. I am sorry to have to strongly suggest to everybody "DNFTT".
  7. #1325 There are some absorption bands in the solar IR but plenty gets through. And IR penetrates into the surface of land like radio waves do. [Snipped]
  8. YOGI - you can verify some of this by actually comparing the measured backradiation in a desert compared to somewhere humid. Remember this is measurable properties here. Eg look at the SoD articles on DLR. In part one, you see the spectra for incoming versus outgoing. In part two, there is DLR measurements for Alice springs versus Billings OK. Read and understand.
  9. #1331 If I agree that the back-radiation from the water vapour causes the ground to be warmer than it would otherwise be, that is paramount to saying that it heats the ground. It does not and cannot, as it is colder than the ground, it merely slows the rate of cooling, not warms it.
  10. YOGI Sorry, nobody can say I haven't been extreemly patient with you, but again you are playing word games. Nobody has said that back-radiation makes the surface warmer, just that it makes the surface warmer than it would otherwise be. Are you warmer if you cover yourself in a blanket than you would be without the blanket? Yes of course you are, because the blanket back-radiates some of your body heat. Likewise the back radiation from GHGs causes the earth to loose the heat it gains from absorbing visible and UV light from the sun more slowly by returning some of the out-bound IR back to the surface. I have had more than enough of this discussion; had you behaved better I would continue, but life is just too short.
  11. Yogi, Let me state this clearly. You are wrong and confused. You are religiously clinging to a misunderstanding of the science. You do not need Dikran or anyone else to walk you, step by painful step, through the thought process. What you need is to simply say to yourself "gee, maybe I don't understand all this, and I should open my mind, and go read and learn, and then come back when I have a better understanding of things." Trying to convince everyone else that you know better than all of science is a waste of everybody's time.
  12. #1333 S.O.D. article: "Notice that DLR does not drop significantly overnight. This is because of the heat capacity of the atmosphere – it cools down, but not as quickly as the ground." Thats bigger than some of the seasonal variation !
    Response: [JH] Your propensisty to post factoids without context is wearing very thin. It's like someone throwing gobs of paint against a wall and hoping that some will stick. At the end of the day, the wall is a complete mess. Please cease and desist.
  13. #1336 "Are you warmer if you cover yourself in a blanket than you would be without the blanket? Yes of course you are, because the blanket back-radiates some of your body heat." Unlike the Earth I am internally heated so the analogy is not safe, but if the blanket is bright white, it could be handy to reflect the sunshine on a really hot day. But for an externally heated system such as Earth, to have 235W/m go in and out, but to reach 390 watts within the system is impossible: [link]

    [DB] You are advised to read the entire thread above, as your fallacy has been corrected several times already.

    Additionally, you would be wise to read this guest post by Dr. Trenberth for yet further exposition into the subject.  It contains this updated version of the graphic you link:

    Click to enlarge

    [RH] Hotlinked url that was breaking page format.
  14. Response: [JH] Your propensisty to post factoids without context...... It was not out of context. I was commenting on the SOD link at #1333. And the data shows that daily min/max soil temp`s range less than the atmosphere.
    Response: [JH] You are skating on very thin ice. Please cease and desist.
  15. "[DB] You are advised to read the entire thread above, as your fallacy has been corrected several times already." Nutshell it for me now if you can, unless you can link me to the relevant comment, I`m not going to read all the comments for it.

    [DB] If you cannot be bothered to read work already done, there for inspection, then why should anyone here engage you?  Perhaps if you succinctly narrow down your objection to the one thing you want to hang your hat on then someone here will be able to help you.

    Unless your goal is to simply waste the time of others.  As also has been evidenced on this thread.

  16. Yogi 1338, If, hypothetically speaking, the source of heat on earth is internally generated, would you, in this case, agree that the earth will be warmer with water vapour present compared to the case without?
    Response: [JH] Please do not feed the troll.
  17. I will read the Trenberth guest post and comment later, thank you.
  18. Ahem... Um, is this the Dunning-Kruger thread?
  19. YOGI wrote: "Unlike the Earth I am internally heated so the [blanket] analogy is not safe" which clearly shows that YOGI has not the slightest familiarity with how the greenhouse effect works, which is not a good position from which to be questioning it. The atmosphere is largely transparent to visible and UV light, which makes up the majority of the Sun's radiation. Thus most of the Suns radiation is absorbed by the surface, which heats up as a result, and re-radiates this energy as IR radiation. Thus as far as the atmosphere is concerned, it is being heated from below by the surface, which is why the blanket analogy is perfectly reasonable, provided it is not extended beyond this most basic point. Now anybody who has made the slightest effort to understand the way in which the greenhouse effect works will know that already. Sadly the WWW is full of Dunning-Kruger sufferers who think that a few things they have read on climate blogs means they know more than scientists who work on this for a living. Generally all they manage is to make themselves look silly, as YOGI has done on this thread (he/she is not the first and I suspect will not be the last). The basic idea of the greenhouse effect goes back to the 1820s at the very least, so it would be extremely unusual for a physical theory to have survived this long if it contradicted a fundamental law of thermodynamics! Of course it doesn't. The error is to assume that the second law says that heat cannot flow from a cooler body to a warmer one. It doesn't, essentially the net flow of heat must be from the warmer body to the cooler one, and even then it is only true in a statistical sense after the exchange of a sufficiently large number of IR photons. To see this is true, consider a thought experiment, where there are two identical bodies, separated by a small gap, both of which are only slightly above absolute zero. One is warm enough to emit photons of IR at random at an average rate of one per year (365 days). The other is a little cooler, so that it radiates a photon at an average rate of one per 366 days. If you observed them for a month, then assuming one photon was emitted by one body and absorbed by the other in that month, it is almost as likely to have gone from the cooler body to the warmer body, thus making the warmer body a little warmer. However this is not in contradiction of the second law of thermodynamics. If you observe the bodies for long enough, you will find that slightly more IR photons from the warmer body are absorbed by the cooler body than vice versa, and hence the net flow of heat is from warmer to cooler. Anyway, I hope my exchange with YOGI has demonstrated that he/she is not here for rational discussion of the science, and is not worth the effort. DNFTT.
  20. 1343, Rob, No, this is the Galileo thread. The Dunning-Kruger thread overloaded and exploded.
  21. There's always the Poptech thread...the Valhalla of mythic D-K.
  22. With regard to the Blanket analogy, it is worth pointing out that the heat humans (and other organisms) produce is derived from the respiration of foodstuffs, and so is not an internal source of energy and typically pass through a blanket unimpeded (unless you happen to have it over your head :-) ). Incoming Solar radiation is thus analogous to food in the Blanket analogy.
  23. Dikran Marsupial OK cover the Earth with a blanket (FULL CLOUD COVER) and see how cold it gets. I really did mean your blanket analogy was not safe, and if you want to continue pushing it, I have no problem with de-bunking it at every step. Solar IR makes up a significant proportion of insolation. Your thought experiment proves that beyond a single photon or so, the second thermo law must also apply between the Earth`s atmosphere and surface.
  24. Phil#1347 We create our body heat internally from the calorific value of the food we eat. Excess heat may be lost through respiration or evaporation of perspiration, and body heat is continually lost in IR radiation from the body surface (when the surrounding air temperature is lower than the body temperature). Now as you know a blanket will reduce the IR emmission from your body in cold air by insulating it, and enable you to maintain your body temperature easier.
  25. Daniel @ 1346... Actually, I think that's officially called the "He who must not be named" thread.

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