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Scientists understood the climate 150 years ago better than the EPA head today

Posted on 31 March 2017 by John Abraham

The current head of the US Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt does not believe or understand long-known principles of climate science and basic physics. Recently he claimed on CNBC that carbon dioxide is not a primary contributor to global warming:

I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact. So, no, I would not agree that’s a primary contributor to the global warming that we see. But we don’t know that yet. We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis.

There are two undeniable ironies in this statement. First, taken at face value it would suggest that we actually need to do more analysis – but the current administration is proposing draconian cuts in our climate science research budget. They are doing just the opposite of what he recommends.

The second irony is that scientists have known about the importance of carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas for well over 100 years. There is no debate among any reputable scientists that carbon dioxide is the most important human emitted greenhouse gas. Furthermore, humans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 43%. These are facts.

So, I wanted to revisit some of the first studies on carbon dioxide and its effect on the climate to put into perspective how backwards Pruitt is. One of the first works, and certainly a seminal study was completed in 1827 by Jean Baptiste Fourier. An excellent summary of the contributions of his work is provided here

While Fourier produced multiple publications, my favorite is the one from 1827. From his work, scientists were able to describe how heat entered and left a planet’s system. He described heat loss by infrared radiation from the Earth and other planets. He correctly concluded that energy transferred within the Earth was negligible compared to that transferred by radiation. He also recognized the important nature of the atmosphere – that it is transparent to visible light but not to infrared light. This is why the greenhouse analogy to our atmosphere is so apt. Shockingly, Fourier knew more about climate change than does the current head of the EPA.

So what was happening in the world back then? Well, both Beethoven and William Blake died that year. The first African American newspaper was published. The Russian-Persian war was ongoing. The Stockton and Darlington railway had just opened in England. Life expectancy in the UK was approximately 40 years, and less than that elsewhere in the world. I would have shown a photograph of what the world was like in 1827, but photography had not yet been invented.

Another major discovery occurred in the 1860s by researcher John Tyndall. He studied various gases and their ability to absorb radiant heat. Among the gases he studied were oxygen and nitrogen which he found were virtually transparent to radiant heat. On the other hand, he found that some gases like water vapor and carbon dioxide can absorb heat, even though they are present in small amounts. 

The genius of Tyndall was his measurement device. He used a galvanometer with a tube that he could fill with various gases. He couldn’t use glass to make the walls because glass is a radiant heat absorber. In fact, his original paper was filled with a detailed description of his experiment and the issues he had to address to ensure quality results. But, in the end he was able to quantify the importance of trace gases on the energy absorptivity of our atmosphere. A nice review of his work is available here. Shockingly, Tyndall knew more about climate change than does the current head of the EPA. 

What was the world like when Tyndall did his work? Well, America was at war – with itself – in the most deadly US war to date (the US Civil War). Russian serfs were freed by Tsar Alexander II. Oil refining had begun and soon whale oil would be replaced. Telegraph lines connected the East and West coasts of the USA. Victor Hugo published Les Miserables. A terrible Indian/settler conflict brewed in my home state of Minnesota. The Emancipation Proclamation became law, and the Gatling gun was invented.


1861 photograph of a log kitchen. Photograph: National Archives and Records Administration

The final stop on our way-back trip brings us to 1896 and Swedish researcher Svante Arrhenius. He became the first person (that I know of) to make predictions about how much the Earth temperature would change as we add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The title of his work, “On the Influence of Carbonic Acid in the Air upon the Temperature of the Ground” says it all. 

Using measurements of the energy incoming from the moon, Arrhenius showed that changes to trace gases in the atmosphere can dramatically affect the temperature of the planet. He also discussed how gases are able to absorb specific wavelengths of light. Using experimental data from other preceding studies, he predicted global temperatures would rise approximately 5–6C in response to a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. 

Arrhenius also noted that humans were increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. One significant part of his work is that he was able to make predictions without the use of high-power supercomputers. In fact, there are many ways to make climate predictions – using techniques like those from the 1800s, using the history of temperature changes of the Earth to predict the future, using computer climate models, and others. It is a fallacy to say that our current predictions rely totally upon computer models. Of course, during his age, the rate of increase of carbon dioxide was very very slow. Shockingly, Arrhenius knew more about climate change than does the current head of the EPA.

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Comments 1 to 16:

  1. An interesting sidelight to John Tyndall's work...Eunice Foote, an American scientist:

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    Moderator Response:

    [TD] I made your link a link. You can do that yourself when you write the comment.

  2. Alpinist @1, Eunice Foote was close.  She observed the differences in rates of increase in, and final temperatures for various gases, noting that moist air and carbonic acid (CO2) achieved higher temperatures than did dry air (or pure hydrogen, or oxygen).  However she attributed that difference to "the thermal action of the rays of light that proceed from the sun".  That is not the greenhouse effect, as proposed by Tyndal, which is a consequence of the reduced ability of thermal energy to escape from the Earth rather than increased absorption of thermal energy from the Sun. 

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  3. Scott Pruitt's belongs to an administration that wishes to almost entirely defund climate science.  Consequently, his statement that "We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis" is entirely hypocritical, for while he presents himself as wanting to continue that debate, he is attempting to defund the collection of any data bearing on the debate.  Personally I think that is because he knows what that data shows, and his statement is not just hypocritical, but deceitful.

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  4. Tom@3,

    I think it's even possible to prove that we are talking about the deceit rather than hypocrisy here.

    In his lawsuit against EPA as reported by Ecowatch:

    Scott Pruitt filed a lawsuit to overturn the endangerment finding, which he and his fellow litigants characterized as "arbitrary and capricious." Believe it or not, Pruitt's primary argument was that the EPA should not have relied upon the multiple reports on climate change issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (established by the United Nations which synthesizes the work of thousands of scientists), the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) (a Bush administration body of 13 federal agencies that issued 21 reports on climate change) and the National Research Council (NRC) (the research arm of the National Academy of Sciences).

    Pruitt's legal brief never quite explains what is wrong with relying upon the world's most prominent experts, but it claimed that the EPA in effect wrongly delegated its decision-making to these bodies.

    (my emphasis)

    Pruitt argued that the decision about about CO2 being declared pollutant cannot be made from the findings of the scientific bodies with highest expertise (IPCC) and highest organisation importance (NAS). At the same time, his statement quoted by this OP "We need to continue the debate and continue the review and the analysis" can only be interpreted as a willful lie because it's in 100% contrast with the intent of the lawsuit where he wanted to e.g. suppress the IPCC analysis as an input to EPA. Of course it's difficult to prove a deceit in a court. In case of Pruitt, he can always claim that he meant the "alternative science" (i.e. denialist organisations such as NIPCC) as debaters in his last statement, and claim ignorance to refute the charges. But it can be argued that at his level, he must understand the reality that the main participants in his "debate" are the ones he wanted to suppress. With just a minimum level of responsibility, one cannot possibly claim that he does not understand such basics.

    Sadly, I think Pruitt would win such lawsuit in US court: just as his boss won the presidency: on the grounds of utter ignorance and disconnection form reality. How sad, how miserable is the state of US politics that led the absurd outcome we're witnessing.

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  5. 1) I heard that Trump has applied for a permit to build a sea wall at Mar-A-Lago to protect it from rising sea level. Can anyone confirm that? Seems like that would be an important point to use against his policies. It shows that his assertions that he doesn't believe the science to be totally phony.

    2) Trump says he is helping energy workers, but I haven't seen anyone in the media point out that those in the wind and solar industries are also energy workers. Again, this is about politics, not about jobs or the economy or the science.

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  6. BBYH @5, apparently Trump is required to have a sea wall at Mar-A-Lago as a result of local ordinances.  I saw no reporting that he was seeking to extend those walls due to fears about sea level rise.  Of course, he probably should take some measures to combat sea level rise at Mar-A-Lago given that sea level rise is likely to face flooding in 210 days per year by mid century, although most of that will be in lower lying parts of the property away from the main buildings:

    What I did find reported is that Trump applied for a permit for a sea wall to protect an Irish golf course he owns, citing increased risk of erosion due to sea level and more frequent storms, both of which are attributed to climate change in the application.  Not too much should be read into that, however, as there is substantial evidence Trump does not read relevant documents submitted in his name and the citation may reflect the activities of an underling executing due dilligence, without reflecting Trump's actual views.

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  7. I am writing a book on managing stupid: Here is a key element.

    Unable or unwilling to learn anything new except from an authority figure that you recognize and accept

    note that this definition includes not only those with learning disabilities which puts their IQ in the room temp range, but also people who have IQ's in the mensa range.

    For example, we have Donald Rumsfeld and his stupidity vis-a-vis the Iraq War. We have he Rocket Scientists who were responsible for the destruction of the Columbia, because they failed to learn from the destruction of the Challenger and failed to address the root causes the Explosion.

    And we have After Long Term Capital Management imploded in 1997, and almost took down the world economic system. Two of the prinnciples of LTCM were Myron Scholes and Robert Merton who won a nobel prize for their economic theories which were the basis of LTCM. So not exactly dummies. Unfortunately, they proved to be unable to see when the environment had changend, and their theories no longer applied.




    holding to traditional attitudes and values and cautious about change or innovation, typically in relation to politics or religion.

    synonyms: traditionalist, traditional, conventional, orthodox, old-fashioned, dyed-in-the-wool, hidebound, unadventurous, set in one's ways; More



    a person who is averse to change and holds to traditional values and attitudes, typically in relation to politics.

    synonyms: right-winger, reactionary, rightist, diehard; More

    I do not know how to fix this. I am fairly certain that the solution lies in putting together a log to psychologists and marketing people, backed with money and working with a principle that I just discovered called MAYA which is used in design. This is Most Advanced Yet Acceptable bearing in mind that what is acceptable to a stupid conservative will be -— well limited.

    I can say with a fair amount of certainty that logic and reason will have all the effect of trying to teach algebra to a fish.

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  8. #4 Chriskoz  - Believe it or not, Pruitt's primary argument was that the EPA should not have relied upon the multiple reports on climate change issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) (established by the United Nations which synthesizes the work of thousands of scientists),

    The statute for making the endangerment finding by the EPA is that the EPA is required to make an independent scientific inquiry.  Relying on an outside group doesnt satisfy the statutory requirement.  

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  9. joe @8, the statute in question (Clean Air Act, Sect 202 a 1; USC 7521 a 1) reads:

    "The Administrator shall by regulation prescribe (and from time to time revise) in accordance with the provisions of this section, standards applicable to the emission of any air pollutant from any class or classes of new motor vehicles or new motor vehicle engines, which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare. Such standards shall be applicable to such vehicles and engines for their useful life (as determined under subsection (d) of this section, relating to useful life of vehicles for purposes of certification), whether such vehicles and engines are designed as complete systems or incorporate devices to prevent or control such pollution."

    In particular, the Administrator may only promulgate regulations regarding pollutants which "...which in his judgment cause, or contribute to, air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare".  That appears to be the basis of Pruitt's challenge, but it does not require an independent study by the EPA.  Rather, in requires the Administrator to form an opinion, while placing no restrictions on how that opinion is formed.  Clearly, regulations based on opinions not formed rationally would not stand against legal challenge, but an opinion formed by reading peer reviewed reviews of the evidence, whether in scientific journals, or from major scientific bodies, are formed rationally.  Therefore, prima facie, Pruitt's case was based on bullshiting.  That is especially the case given that the endangerment finding was not based simply on the IPCC, but on "...the Synthesis and Assessment Products of the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (CCSP) published between 2006 and 2009, the 2009 USGCRP scientific assessment, National Research Council (NRC) reports under the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) 2009 State of the Climate in 2008 report, the 2009 EPA annual U.S. Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, and the 2009 EPA assessment of the impacts of global change on regional U.S. air quality", two of which are the EPA's own products.  They further relied on their own independent review of more recent literature.  In short, even had Pruitt been correct in law, he was incorrect in fact with regard to the EPA's proceedure.  These facts are likely to have been know to Pruitt before commencing the litigation, which served the purpose of sending a political signal to voters (and, as it happens, to Trump), rather than any real expectation of overturning the EPA endangerment finding by litigation.

    This judgement of the argument (though not of the strategic reasons for the litigation) is not just mine.  The US Court of Appeals determined, with regard to this argument, that:

    "This argument is little more than a semantic trick. EPA did not delegate, explicitly or otherwise, any decision-making to any of those entities. EPA simply did here what it and other decision-makers often must do to make a science-based judgment: it sought out and reviewed existing scientific evidence to determine whether a particular finding was warranted. It makes no difference that much of the scientific evidence in large part consisted of “syntheses” of individual studies and research.  Even individual studies and research papers often synthesize past work in an area and then build upon it. This is how science works. EPA is not required to re-prove the existence of the atomevery time it approaches a scientific question."

    (My emphasis.)

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  10. Factotum @7, I agree with your definition of stupid, and comments on Donald Rumsfeld. 

    One reason people with high IQ's do weird or dumb things sometimes might be a lack of "emotional intelligence" which is empathy. 

    Long term creative thinking and planning also requires a strong imagination which is not the same as IQ. Einstein is believed to have an IQ of about 175, but also a highly developed imagination, and ability to visualise. It was a potent combination.

    Neo-conservatism and extreme conservatism seems extremely retrograde and dangerous to me, but extreme liberalism has downsides as well. It's often (although not always) the extremes we need to be most worried about.

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  11. I don't think Scott Pruitt was completely doubting the greenhouse effect. He was more doubting whether we can quantify how much recent warming is the greenhouse effect, and how much is from natural influences. So the article is factually correct, but missed the target a little for me.

    My understanding is most research says the warming since the 1970's is at least 90% due to human causes including fossil fuels and methane etc. I totally accept this evidence. This leaves the question of why Pruit would doubt the vast weight of evidence.

    Instead  he chooses to believe someone like Judith Curry or Richard Lindzen who minimise human contributions to climate change. It's hard to figure people like Pruitt out. Maybe they are just pig headed stubborn, (and definitely hypocrites)

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  12. BBHY at 5:

    I strongly agree with you.  Recent DOE reports claim that 600,000 people in the USA work in renewable energy.  Only 174,000 worked in coal counting transportation and energy production plants.  The people who work in renewable energy need to increase their visibility.

    Paul Krugman in the New York Times suggested that many voters in coal country voted against their own best interest because they have always thought that coal was critical for their economy.  It is their mindset.  The reality is that coal is only a small fraction of jobs.  Even in West Virginia, one of the most coal dependent states, only a few percent of workers have coal related jobs.  Many more have health insurance from Obama care.

    Hopefully the renewable energy workers can get organized.  Currently the fossil fuel executives dominate the politicians.

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  13. Tom Curtis @6,

    While I am sure you are correct that Trump did not read the application for sea walls because of sea level rise, I think it is still appropriate to cite this application as if he did read it.  If his corporation is concerned about sea level rise it is a strong argument that he should take action to help the rest of us.

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  14. Michael Sweet @12 and 13, a couple of things occur to me.

    I have seen similar numbers, that  many more work in renewable energy in America than coal. I think the net effect of Trump's coal policies will be to shift a few people from renewable energy back coal, which is no real gain for the country as a whole.

    It's possible Trump also has visions of more coal export, but that will not be an easy road, given other countries are starting to embrace renewable energy. His whole coal plan is badly considered, and will crash into various economic realities, just as his other policies have crashed into various realities. There's a common theme happening.

    I can understand coal miners wanting to protect their jobs. I mean its really important to have some empathy, (Im sure you would have) but times do change. I remember Margaret Thatcher closing down state owned coal mines,due to inefficiency and the discovery of north sea oil. It had to be done (although I'm not a fan of her general world view, and over zealous belief in markets).

    The thing is for the government, and all of us, to help the people displaced from jobs, with appropriate assistance.

    You know what Trump will say about the sea wall. He will say he doesn't doubt sea level is rising, just what the cause is. These people always have some slippery answer. I just pray he is voted out in 4 years.

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  15. michael sweet@13,

    We can generalise that and say T-man does not read (or if he does he does not understand) most documents and applications he signs, eitheir as a head of his corporation or as POTUS. But we still acknowledge that all documents signed by current POTUS are valid and legally bound, as if he understood what he signed.

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  16. Even Fox News slams EPA chief’s climate denial: ‘All kinds of studies contradict you’

    Chris Wallace utterly debunks Scott Pruitt’s lies about the central role carbon pollution plays in warming.

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