Why I Remain Uncertain about Global Warming and Climate Change — Part 2 of 4

This is Part 2 of 4 parts, continuing my elaboration of why I remain uncertain about the science behind the theory of global warming and climate change.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as primary U.S. government agency for climate science

Although NASA gets some attention, and is discussed in a subsequent section, much of the meat and potatoes and bread and butter of climate falls under the purview of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA.)

Their web site:

I periodically check up on their monthly and annual State of the Climate (SOTC) reports that give the official numbers for global temperature. The web site is:

I mention this information here simply for completeness, convenient reference, and to indicate that I am aware of ongoing work in this area of climate and climate science.

I’ll have a lot more to say about NOAA (and NASA) in coming sections of this paper.

NOAA is a standalone agency, but it is organizationally part of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Climate.gov

For general interest, NOAA operates the Climate.gov web site:

It’s mission, in their words:

NOAA Climate.gov provides science and information for a climate-smart nation. Americans’ health, security, and economic well-being are closely linked to climate and weather. People want and need information to help them make decisions on how to manage climate-related risks and opportunities they face.

NOAA Climate.gov is a source of timely and authoritative scientific data and information about climate. Our goals are to promote public understanding of climate science and climate-related events, to make our data products and services easy to access and use, to provide climate-related support to the private sector and the Nation’s economy, and to serve people making climate-related decisions with tools and resources that help them answer specific questions.

The site provides news, maps, data, and teaching materials.

Personally, I usually go directly to the specific NOAA web sites which produce the data and information that gets published on Climate.gov. I present it here mainly to indicate that I am aware of it and for convenient reference and completeness.

National Climatic Data Center (NCDC)

National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) is the old name for what is now known as the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). It’s part of NOAA.

The old web address still gives you access to all NCEI climate data:

National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) as primary source for climate data

Previously known as the National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) is the primary source for environmental and climate data in the U.S. Their web site:

Technically, NCEI also includes what were previously known as the National Geophysical Data Center, and the National Oceanographic Data Center, which includes the National Coastal Data Development Center.

The climate-related data is still available at the old NCDC web address:

NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL)

The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) is the core part of NOAA’s research efforts. As they say:

Welcome to the Earth System Research Laboratory. ESRL was formed to pursue a broad and comprehensive understanding of the Earth system. This system comprises many physical, chemical and biological processes that need to be dynamically integrated to better predict their behavior over scales from local to global and periods of minutes to millennia.

At ESRL we are working toward a greater stewardship of the Earth through a number of themes aimed at understanding the Earth system processes and changes.

Understanding atmospheric mechanisms that drive the Earth’s climate.

Assuring the continuing health and restoration of atmospheric resources.

Improving predictions through expanded climate and weather products.

Advancing national research capabilities.

As they say about their mission:

At NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), scientists study atmospheric and other dynamic processes that affect air quality, weather, and climate variablility. ESRL researchers monitor the atmosphere, investigate the physical and chemical processes that comprise the Earth system, and integrate those findings into environmental information products. Our work improves critical weather and forecasting tools for the public and private sectors, from hourly forecasts, drought and air quality predictions, to international science assessments with policy-relevant findings. By better understanding the Earth system, we can better understand what drives this afternoon’s haze, next month’s hurricanes, and our variable climate.

I include this information here for convenient reference, completeness, and to indicate that I am aware of it.

NOAA/ESRL Global Monitoring Division

A significant portion of NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) is their Global Monitoring Division (GMD). As they say:

Providing the best possible information on atmospheric constituents that drive climate change, stratospheric ozone depletion, and baseline air quality.

Their detailed mission:

NOAA/ESRL’s Global Monitoring Division (formerly CMDL) of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, conducts sustained observations and research related to source and sink strengths, trends and global distributions of atmospheric constituents that are capable of forcing change in the climate of Earth through modification of the atmospheric radiative environment, those that may cause depletion of the global ozone layer, and those that affect baseline air quality.

GMD accomplishes this mission primarily through long-term measurements of key atmospheric species at sites spanning the globe, including four fully-equipped Baseline Observatories. These key species include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, methane, nitrous oxide, surface and stratospheric ozone, halogenated compounds including CFC replacements, hydrocarbons, sulfur gases, aerosols, and solar and infrared radiation.

The measurements are of the highest quality and accuracy possible, and document global changes in key atmospheric species, which are all affected by mankind, identifying sources of interannual variability. In addition, research programs in key regions, utilizing an array of platforms including aircraft, balloons, ocean vessels and towers, complement the land-based information.

GMD’s data are used to assess climate forcing, ozone depletion and baseline air quality, to develop and test diagnostic and predictive models, and to keep the public, policy makers, and scientists abreast of the current state of our chemical and radiative atmosphere.

GMD’s vision and mission support the broader objectives of NOAA’s Strategic Plan and are aligned with the vision and mission of the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (OAR).

I initially became aware of ESRL when I found their Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) when searching for monitoring of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As they say:

Mauna Loa Observatory (MLO) is a premier atmospheric research facility that has been continuously monitoring and collecting data related to atmospheric change since the 1950’s. The undisturbed air, remote location, and minimal influences of vegetation and human activity at MLO are ideal for monitoring constituents in the atmosphere that can cause climate change. The observatory is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL) — Global Monitoring Division (GMD).

Their latest data on carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (403.16 parts per million as I write this on October 18, 2017):

I include this information here for convenient reference, completeness, and to indicate that I am aware of it.

Satellite record

Sometimes you will see the phrasing “satellite record” or even “long-term satellite record”, especially with regard to global temperature. NOAA started collecting temperature data via satellite beginning in 1978. Or 1979. Or 1981, depending on the specific data series.

According to the Wikipedia:

Since 1978 microwave sounding units (MSUs) on National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration polar orbiting satellites have measured the intensity of upwelling microwave radiation from atmospheric oxygen, which is related to the temperature of broad vertical layers of the atmosphere. Measurements of infrared radiation pertaining to sea surface temperature have been collected since 1967.

Similar information from NOAA:

Since 1978 Micowave [SIC] Sounding Units (MSU) measure radiation emitted by the earth’s atmosphere from NOAA polar orbiting satellites. The different channels of the MSU measure different frequencies of radiation proportional to the temperature of broad vertical layers of the atmosphere. Channel 2 mainly measures tropospheric temperatures, while Channel 4 measures temperatures in the lower stratosphere. The analysis of the satellite temperature record represented here begins in 1979.

Overview of NOAA satellite data:

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) manages a constellation of geostationary and polar-orbiting meteorological spacecrafts. These satellites are distributed among three operational programs: the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (S-NPP), the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite Program (GOES), and the Polar Operational Environmental Satellite Program (POES). The U.S. Department of Defense operates the satellites of the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) and NCEI archives and distributes the data under the Shared Processing Program.

Geostationary and polar-orbiting satellites provide raw radiance data that are collected by ground stations and archived by NCEI. These continuous global environmental observations are then derived to produce various geophysical variables that help to describe the Earth’s atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial domains.

Geostationary satellites help monitor and predict weather and environmental events including tropical systems, tornadoes, flash floods, dust storms, volcanic eruptions, and forest fires. Polar-orbiting satellites collect data for weather, climate, and environmental monitoring applications including precipitation, sea surface temperatures, atmospheric temperature and humidity, sea ice extent, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, global vegetation analysis, as well as search and rescue. NOAA’s satellite data improve the Nation’s resilience to climate variability, maintain our economic vitality, and improve the security and well-being of the public.

NOAA atmospheric datasets:

I present this information here for convenient reference, completeness, and simply to indicate that I am aware of it.

NOAA Climate Data Record (CDR) Program

Climate data records are data series for climate data which are considered to be robust enough to accurately represent some aspect of climate.

As per NOAA:

The mission of NOAA’s Climate Data Record Program is to develop and implement a robust, sustainable, and scientifically defensible approach to producing and preserving climate records from satellite data.

WHAT ARE CDRs?

The National Research Council (NRC) defines a CDR as a time series of measurements of sufficient length, consistency, and continuity to determine climate variability and change.

For the first time, NOAA is applying modern data analysis methods, which have advanced significantly in the last decade, to these historical global satellite data. This process will unravel the underlying climate trend and variability information and return new economic and scientific value from the records. In parallel, NCEI will maintain and extend these Climate Data Records by applying the same methods to present-day and future satellite measurements.

WHY ARE CDRs IMPORTANT?

The results will provide trustworthy information on how, where and to what extent the land, oceans, atmosphere and ice sheets are changing. In turn, this information will be used by energy, water resources, agriculture, human health, national security, coastal community and other interest groups. Our CDR data will improve the Nation’s resilience to climate change and variability, maintain our economic vitality and improve the security and well-being of the public.

Sounds good. In theory.

But in practice, individual satellites have a relatively short lifetime, and as newer satellites use newer technology, the issue of consistency and continuity becomes rather murky.

In short, it’s good that NOAA is doing this, but I’m not so convinced that it’s good enough to justify too terribly high a confidence in the resulting data.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as a secondary U.S. government agency for climate science

Personally, I think it is odd that NASA is in the climate science business at all, especially since climate is obviously under the purview of NOAA, but NASA’s space mission creeped into science, notably earth science, and climate science is part of Earth science. I consider it more of a historical artifact than careful design.

NASA’s web site for climate change:

Personally, I find their public presentation of the alleged science to be much too focused on slick presentation than being able to address any of my questions and concerns.

It comes across as being a bit too defensive.

Science should be able to stand on its own, and not require being propped up.

I have also looked closely at climate information from NASA, especially the GISTEMP global temperature data series from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) which is located at (near) Columbia University. Their web site:

The GISTEMP global temperature data series:

Personally, I’d be much happier if NASA just stuck to space missions, like launching payloads into orbit and running space stations, and leave climate science to NOAA, where it belongs. Exactly what is in those payloads or what happens in those space stations should be beyond NASA’s mission.

The whole NASA Science Mission Directorate (SMD) seems more than a bit of overreach to me. Back in the early 1960’s when the Soviets were making us look stupid it may have made a lot more sense, but now with NOAA, NSF, DARPA, DOE National Laboratories, and NIST heavily involved in science programs, the NASA science mission seems in desperate need of review, refocus, and redesign, if not outright elimination. And with a host of commercial companies engaged in satellite design, production, and even launch, NASA is at risk of losing control of their space mission as well, but that’s a story for another paper, although this pair of trends strongly suggest that NASA’s entire mission should be reconsidered. Their web site:

In any case, for now, NASA has a role in climate science, but I consider it a secondary role, both in terms of their own overall space mission and the overall climate mission for the country.

NOAA has the lead in climate science, at least from where I sit. The folks at NASA SMD may chafe at that, but NOAA owns the climate “ark”, so to speak.

What is the minimal set of scientific papers needed to prove the theory of global warming and climate change?

The science behind climate science is so incredibly fragmented that I don’t think anyone could provide a definitive answer, but the question is important to me.

To be more explicit, what sequence of published, peer-reviewed hard science (physical science) papers fully define the logic chain to get from human combustion of fossil fuels to a significant rise in global temperature?

I’ll defer on the matters of climate change other than temperature alone (or maybe ocean heat as well.)

Is there a key, single paper that unlocks the entire logic chain? A handful? Ten? A dozen? 25? 50? 100? 1,000? Or more? There must be some number of peoples that definitively make the case for the theory of anthropogenic global warming. Or… maybe not.

I’ll be openminded. I await an answer. But until then I will continue to be skeptical about the firmness of the scientific basis for the theory of anthropogenic global warming and climate change.

I’m actually a little surprised that even the IPCC doesn’t offer such a list. Or… maybe no such list exists!

For the record, I don’t accept accumulation as a valid form logic. The raw, total number of papers published in climate science (12,000?) doesn’t prove anything other than that there is a lot of interest in the field. And a lot of funding.

Evidence vs. proof

A lot of people consider evidence to be the same as proof, but there is a difference.

As per the Wikipedia article on Evidence:

Scientific evidence consists of observations and experimental results that serve to support, refute, or modify a scientific hypothesis or theory, when collected and interpreted in accordance with the scientific method.

Evidence can support (or refute) a proposition, claim, theory, or hypothesis, but support does not necessarily prove the matter under investigation. A given piece of evidence may be necessary but may not be sufficient to serve as proof.

Proof requires that evidence not only support a scientific claim, but must satisfy the condition that the claim necessitates the given evidence. Proof also requires that supporting evidence be supplied for all necessary preconditions of the claim. No matter how solid, one piece of evidence may not be sufficient.

There is also the matter of falsification, where a piece of evidence may effectively disprove a proposition, but that’s beyond the scope of this section. I see falsification as a shortcut, to quickly eliminate bad theories, but not to prove a theory.

What is the definitive proof of global warming and climate change?

That’s the big question. Sure, there is an incredible amount of evidence offered in support of the theory of anthropogenic global warming and climate change, but the ultimate question is whether that evidence is sufficient to definitively prove the theory.

What is the definitive proof for the theory of anthropogenic global warming and climate change?

We know what the narrative is, but narrative is neither proof nor even necessarily or even typically evidence.

Assessment vs. proof

IPCC provides very extensive assessments that provide a wealth of evidence, but do they constitute proof of the theory of global warming and climate change? I am not persuaded.

The IPCC assessments, plus other forms of assessment from NOAA and NASA certainly provide a lot of evidence as well as arguments and judgments, but how do we arrive at the stage where we can definitively conclude that the theory is proven?

Good question. Ultimately, it may simply be a matter of how confident we are in the assessment, the evidence, the arguments, and the judgments.

For now, my big concern is the degree of heavily-caveated weasel wording that IPCC feels obligated to use in their assessments with regards to confidence and likelihood. For example, in the Summary for Policymakers for their AR5 assessment report for Physical Science Basis, IPCC says on page 5:

In the Northern Hemisphere, 1983–2012 was likely the warmest 30-year period of the last 1400 years (medium confidence).

Only medium confidence? Wow! That should be the single period with which they have the greatest confidence, but they only have medium confidence.

In any case, the point of this section is that assessment and proof are not the same thing — assessment does not necessarily imply proof.

Is a change in climate proof of global warming?

Some people will treat any change in climate as proof of global warming. They appear to be presuming causality, or treating correlation as causality.

In any case, I personally do not accept climate change as necessarily proof of global warming.

In many cases the purported climate change is some regional effect, so it is not reasonable to leap from a regional effect to a global cause.

Is change in climate proof that carbon dioxide is the cause?

As above, some people will treat any change in climate as proof that carbon dioxide and the combustion of fossil fuels is the cause. They appear to be presuming causality, or treating correlation as causality.

In any case, I personally do not accept climate change as necessarily proof that carbon dioxide and the combustion of fossil fuels is is the cause of global warming.

As above, in many cases the purported climate change is some regional effect, so it is not reasonable to leap from a regional effect to a global cause.

Complex adaptive systems (CAS)

The climate of the Earth has very little in common with an old-fashioned mechanical watch or clock where there is a precise set of components, precise relationships between components, the initial conditions are clear, and everything proceeds like… clockwork.

The climate is not a static system of fixed components.

About the only aspects of climate that proceed like clockwork are the general concept of seasons with regular precession of the axis of the planet, the diurnal cycle (day and night) rotation of the planet on its axis, and the revolution of the planet around the sun. That’s it.

Everything else in climate is horribly complex and complicated, and so very unpredictable.

There are a moderate number of natural cycles as well, such as the solar cycle, various ocean current oscillations including El Niño that home some degree of regularity, but there is too much variability to treat them like clockwork.

And the rest of climate is even more variable and unpredictable.

The number of molecules of the Earth may be essentially fixed, save for the occasional meteorite hit and satellites and space probes that we launch that don’t return, but the arrangement of those molecules is anything but fixed.

Continents and major geologic formations are relatively fixed — ignoring tectonic plates, volcanoes, and earthquakes for the moment, but just about everything else is very dynamic and very un-fixed.

People and animals move around and interact with plant life.

Weather patterns are constantly changing even if aspects of those patterns may have some similarity over extended periods of time, or they do until… they don’t.

Air, winds, clouds, storms, rain, fog, snow, and other precipitation are constantly changing and very, very dynamic.

Temperature, air pressure, humidity are constantly changing. Highly variable and very dynamic.

The sun beats down in a quasi-consistent manner, but subject to solar cycles, sunspots, and cloud cover. And two very significant disruptions to that pseudo-consistency: the day-night diurnal cycle, where half the time the sun beats down and half the time heat is radiated back into space, and the change of seasons where the angle of incidence of sunlight changes, varying as the season progresses. In fact, at any given moment, exactly half the Earth is illuminated with sunlight which the other exact half is in darkness, except that the two halves are shifting every moment. Somewhat like clockwork, except… not exactly.

The Earth also has a lot of internal heat, but very little is known about how that internal heat affects the surface of the planet.

In short, the energy in the climate as a system is anything but fixed.

Back in the mid to late 1980’s, mathematicians and (some!) scientists finally came to grips with the fact that a wide variety of systems in nature and in human activities were anything but precisely methodical and deterministic like clockwork. They came up with chaos theory and the concept of complex adaptive systems.

There is no precise definition of a complex adaptive system (CAS), but they have these general characteristics:

  • Complex interactions between components.
  • Interactions are nonlinear.
  • Dynamic components.
  • Feedback loops between components.
  • Difficult to understand.
  • Difficult to plan.
  • Difficult to control.
  • Very sensitive to initial conditions.
  • Very difficult to characterize initial conditions.

Our climate is such a system.

But try to find a climate scientist that acknowledges that simple fact.

Society as a whole and virtually every organization or institution in our society is a complex adaptive system.

Complex adaptive systems are notoriously difficult to model and almost impossible to forecast very far into the future.

My problem is that I don’t get much of a sense that climate scientists, activists, or politicians (or science communicators!) recognize that our climate is a complex adaptive system.

They speak with a vocabulary of definitive certainty and determinism that is wholly out of character for a complex adaptive system.

Sorry, but there is very little chance that I will begin having any significant confidence in the theory of anthropogenic global warming and climate change until the scientists accept and adapt to the fact that climate is a complex adaptive system.

Oversimplified theory of global warming and climate change

I’ll offer a more sophisticated elaboration of the theory of global warming and climate change in the next section, but as a starting point, I’ll offer this oversimplified version, especially since it comports with popular conceptions:

  1. Man burns fossil fuels.
  2. Combustion of fossil fuels emits carbon dioxide, which is a greenhouse gas.
  3. Carbon dioxide cause the atmosphere to warm, globally.
  4. Warming of the atmosphere causes the climate to change, globally
  5. Climate change causes negative impacts on human life.

Just to briefly note some of the oversimplifications:

  1. There are other greenhouse gases than just carbon dioxide, such as methane .
  2. There are other sources of carbon dioxide.
  3. There are other human sources of carbon dioxide, including farming and cement production.
  4. Land use can reduce natural withdrawal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, having the effect of a net increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  5. Climate changes can impact natural habitats and animals as well as human life.
  6. Climate change includes changes to weather patterns, such as storms, that can impact human life.
  7. Climate impacts also include sea level, temperature, drought, flooding, erosion.
  8. Climate impacts also include human social, economic, and political impacts.
  9. Attempts to mitigate both global warming and climate change.

Theory of global warming and climate change

Just for the sake of completeness and clarity, I will simply and plainly state my understanding of the theory of global warming and climate change in as plain language English as is humanly possible. Put simply:

  1. Human activities cause the emissions of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide from combustion of fossil fuels.
  2. Human generated greenhouse gases cause the atmosphere and oceans of the Earth to warm.
  3. Warming of the atmosphere and oceans causes changes in the climate of Earth.
  4. Changes in the climate of Earth have a negative impact on human society.

The primary greenhouse gases are:

  1. Water vapor (H2O)
  2. Carbon dioxide (CO2)
  3. Methane (CH4)
  4. N2O
  5. CFC-12
  6. Halocarbons

The IPCC concedes that water vapor is “is the primary greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere” and that “The contribution of water vapour to the natural greenhouse effect relative to that of carbon dioxide (CO2) … can be considered to be approximately two to three times greater”, but nonetheless does not consider water vapor to be an anthropogenic greenhouse gas since so much of the existing water vapor is from natural sources, with water vapor from human activities being relatively modest and tending to precipitate out within days.

So, the IPCC list of the primary anthropogenic greenhouse gases is:

  1. Carbon dioxide
  2. Methane (CH4)
  3. N2O
  4. CFC-12
  5. Halocarbons

Sources of increases of anthropogenic greenhouse gases include:

  1. Combustion of fossil fuels.
  2. Land use, including deforestation.
  3. Farming — methane (CH4) and N2O from fertilizer use.
  4. Cement production. Chemical reaction producing carbon dioxide in addition to being energy-intensive.
  5. Use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) in refrigeration systems.
  6. Use of CFCs and halocarbons for fire suppression systems and manufacturing processes.

Another list and discussion of greenhouse gases from the American Chemical Society:

I won’t go into longer term warming and climate impacts here since my main focus is on causes of climate change and causes of global warming in particular.

What gases aren’t greenhouse gases?

Generally, a greenhouse gas has at least three (3) atoms per molecule.

Generally, a molecule consisting of two identical atoms will not be a greenhouse gas.

Generally, monatomic gases (a single atom per molecule), such as Argon (Ar) are not greenhouse gases.

I won’t go into the physics here, but it has to do with absorbing infrared radiation. Infrared equals heat.

In particular, the two most common gases in the atmosphere, nitrogen (N2) and oxygen (O2) are not greenhouse gases:

However, the vibrations of many gas molecules, such as the major gases in the atmosphere oxygen and nitrogen, are invisible to the electromagnetic field. They don’t shine light or absorb infrared light; we say they are not infrared active. Oxygen and nitrogen are not greenhouse gases, because they are transparent to infrared light. These molecules are invisible because when you stretch one, it doesn’t change the electric field. These are symmetric molecules, made of two identical atoms whose electric fields just cancel each other out. Neither atom can hold the electrons any more tightly than the other. In general, symmetrical molecules with only two atoms are not greenhouse gases.

That reference has a lot of other interesting discussion of the physics of greenhouse gases.

Argon (Ar), the third most common gas in the atmosphere is also not a greenhouse gas since it is unaffected by infrared radiation since a molecule of it consists of only a single atom:

The major atmospheric constituents, nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2), and argon (Ar), are not greenhouse gases because molecules containing two atoms of the same element such as N2 and O2 and monatomic molecules such as argon (Ar) have no net change in the distribution of their electrical charges when they vibrate. Hence they are almost totally unaffected by infrared radiation. Although molecules containing two atoms of different elements such as carbon monoxide (CO) or hydrogen chloride (HCl) absorb infrared radiation, these molecules are short-lived in the atmosphere owing to their reactivity and solubility. Therefore, they do not contribute significantly to the greenhouse effect and often are omitted when discussing greenhouse gases.

Technically, carbon monoxide could or should be considered a greenhouse gas, but is considered too short-lived to be considered a significant greenhouse gas:

Carbon monoxide is a short-lived greenhouse gas and also has an indirect radiative forcing effect by elevating concentrations of methane and tropospheric ozone through chemical reactions with other atmospheric constituents (e.g., the hydroxyl radical, OH.) that would otherwise destroy them. Through natural processes in the atmosphere, it is eventually oxidized to carbon dioxide. Carbon monoxide is both short-lived in the atmosphere (on average about two months) and spatially variable in concentration.

More info on carbon monoxide:

Carbon monoxide (CO) is only a very weak direct greenhouse gas, but has important indirect effects on global warming. Carbon monoxide reacts with hydroxyl (OH) radicals in the atmosphere, reducing their abundance. As OH radicals help to reduce the lifetimes of strong greenhouse gases, like methane, carbon monoxide indirectly increases the global warming potential of these gases.

Carbon monoxide in the atmosphere can also lead to the formation of the tropospheric greenhouse gas ‘ozone’.

More on carbon monoxide from section 2.2.2.4 of chapter 2 of the IPCC AR5 Physical Science Basis assessment report:

Emissions of carbon monoxide (CO), non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and NOx (NO + NO2) do not have a direct effect on RF, but affect climate indirectly as precursors to tropospheric O3 and aerosol formation, and their impacts on OH concentrations and CH4 lifetime.

RF stands for radiative forcing, which is the technical term for the greenhouse effect which is the cause of global warming.

Ozone (O3) is a greenhouse gas. Three atoms does the trick.

Now, I’m just reporting what I’ve read here. How much of it is true? I honestly couldn’t say. The story sounds good and sounds credible, but whether it would really hold up to careful scrutiny is simply unknown. To a significant degree, beliefs are being reported, but beliefs are not quite the same as sound science.

Why aren’t nitrogen and oxygen greenhouse gases?

That’s correct, nitrogen and oxygen are not greenhouse gases.

In fact, none of the three most common gases in the atmosphere (nitrogen, oxygen, and argon) are greenhouse gases.

Why not? Read the preceding section for more details, but briefly:

The major atmospheric constituents, nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2), and argon (Ar), are not greenhouse gases because molecules containing two atoms of the same element such as N2 and O2 and monatomic molecules such as argon (Ar) have no net change in the distribution of their electrical charges when they vibrate. Hence they are almost totally unaffected by infrared radiation.

Once again, I’m just reporting what I’ve read here. How much of it is true? I honestly couldn’t say. The story sounds good and sounds credible, but whether it would really hold up to careful scrutiny is simply unknown. To a significant degree, beliefs are being reported, but beliefs are not quite the same as sound science.

Short-term impacts of global warming and climate change

As far as I can tell, the near-term impacts of global warming and climate change are limited to:

  1. Increase in global temperature.
  2. Increase in storms.
  3. Increase in droughts.
  4. Increase in flooding.
  5. Rise in sea level.
  6. Increase in ocean temperature and heat.
  7. Increase in ocean acidification.
  8. Reduction in polar sea ice.
  9. Melting of glaciers.
  10. Changes in animal habitats in upper latitudes.

There may be other short-term climate impacts, but those are the most significant.

Carbon dioxide as the primary greenhouse gas

Technically, water vapor is the most prevalent greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, but for various reasons scientists prefer to refer to carbon dioxide as the dominant greenhouse gas.

More specifically, carbon dioxide is considered the dominant anthropogenic greenhouse gas.

Not to either agree or disagree with that posture, but this paper will work with the presumption that carbon dioxide is being referred to whenever greenhouse gas is mentioned.

Methane is a greenhouse gas as well

Yes, technically methane is indeed a greenhouse gas, and a potent greenhouse gas at that, but carbon dioxide remains the dominant greenhouse gas, so this paper will once again focus on carbon dioxide whenever greenhouse gas is referred to, and vice versa.

CFCs are greenhouse gases as well

As with methane, this paper acknowledges that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) are considered potent greenhouse gases, but carbon dioxide remains the dominant greenhouse gas, so this paper will once again focus on carbon dioxide whenever greenhouse gas is referred to, and vice versa.

Is all global warming anthropogenic?

I haven’t found any solid analysis of whether or not all global warming is caused exclusively by human activity, or what fraction is indeed definitively attributed to human activity.

As a semantic nit, scientists tend to infer that anthropogenic global warming is implied whenever the simpler term global warming is used.

Even so, I think it still makes sense to always speak of total global warming as being the sum of anthropogenic global warming plus non-anthropogenic global warming.

Further I think it makes sense to refer to the baseline global warming before the human industrial-era, and then speak of total global warming beyond that baseline.

In short, I really want to see the fraction of total global warming that is due to water vapor that was not present in the pre-industrial era. That would include any additional water vapor forced directly into the atmosphere by human activity as well as the incremental water vapor absorbed by the atmosphere as a result of the air being warmer.

I want to see the science for how this is measured or deduced.

I want to see the math for how it is calculated.

And I want to see empirical validation.

The various numbers I want to see are:

  1. Total greenhouse effect.
  2. Total global warming since the pre-industrial era.
  3. Total warming directly attributable to human activity.
  4. Total warming directly attributable to carbon dioxide. And other greenhouse gases, but primarily carbon dioxide.
  5. Total warming directly attributable to combustion of fossil fuels.

I need to have this information to achieve any strong sense of confidence in the theory of anthropogenic global warming and climate change.

Causality vs. correlation

Just because one number goes up when another number goes up does not mean that the number was the cause of the other number going up.

If the numbers in two data series go up or down in tandem, the technically correct characterization is to say that there is a correlation between the two data series.

Just because there is a correlation does not mean there is causation, also known as a causal link.

The existence of a link between two data series does not imply that it must be a causal link — it may simply be correlation.

In order to establish causation, the underlying phenomena responsible for the data being captured need to be observed, studied, and analyzed very carefully to understand the nature of the one or more phenomena that are causing the results that the data series are capturing. This can be a very hard or even impossible task.

Even if there is a causal link between two or more data series, the question of which causes which, which is the cause and which is the effect, is a very thorny problem.

Correlation is relatively easy to establish — there is a basic mathematical process to calculate directly from two data series the numeric value of any correlation, which will be a number between -1.0 and +1.0, with 0 being no correlation, 0.5 being weak correlation, 1.0 being strong correlation, and negative values meaning inverse correlation — one goes up when the other goes down and vice versa.

Unfortunately, there is no simply mathematical calculation that can establish causation. That’s a manual, mental, judgmental, and experimental process.

In many cases it is so difficult to establish causation that people either simply accept that correlation is the best that can be achieved, or even worse, resort to dubious hand-waving and rhetorical argument to allege causation. Or, they simply fall back on saying the data are linked or strongly linked, neither of which is definitively causation, but sound like causation to unsophisticated observers.

Cause of correlation

Is correlation mere coincidence? Possibly, especially for smaller data series, but more likely there is some third phenomenon that is causing both phenomena that are correlated.

So, frequently, the challenge is not to determine which of two phenomena cause the other, but what other phenomena is causing the observed correlation between two (or more) data series.

Sometimes the underlying phenomenon that is causing observed data is not so obvious at all.

And even if you do manage to identify this third phenomenon, it remains a great challenge to determine the causal relationships between all three.

Even worse, sometimes it can be the combination of two phenomena that is producing a third phenomenon. And the observed and presumed correlation could simply be a result of making observations that happen to be timed to the occurrences of the third phenomenon which may be the main phenomenon of interest.

What a tangled mess this can be.

Remind me again why I have such great confidence in climate science!

Direction of a causal link

Even when it becomes clear that there is a causal link between two data series or phenomena, it remains quite problematic to determine in which direction causation flows. Does X cause Y or does Y cause X?

Does the chicken cause the egg, or does the egg cause the chicken? Unfortunately, many natural phenomena are not even as clear as chickens and eggs.

The good news is that if you really have done a credible job of understanding the underlying phenomena, the direction of causation will be more obvious. Unfortunately, many natural phenomena, especially when they involve complex adaptive systems — like climate, cannot be so easily analyzed or understood.

Correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature

The core of the theory of global warming as I understand it is the assertion that the rising level of carbon dioxide is causing global temperature to rise.

I’m oversimplifying here for brevity — the alleged correlation is between all greenhouse gases and temperature, which includes methane, CFCs, and other greenhouse gases, but carbon dioxide is considered the dominant anthropogenic greenhouse gas, so I am treating it here as a fair proxy for all greenhouse gases.

Scientists, activists, and others promoting the theory of global warming produce graphs that appear to show a credible correlation between level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperature.

I’m not going to argue against (or for!) a correlation between carbon dioxide and global temperature, but simply note that the theory of global warming is relying on this alleged correlation.

I find it interesting that the mathematical value of the purported correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature is not published or reported widely, let alone its variability from year to year and decade to decade. If the correlation was so clear, why not put the number out there?

All of that said, for the purposes of discussion, I am willing to accept and concede that there may well be at least an apparent rough correlation between the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and global temperature. Note that there is additional carbon dioxide held by seawater and in the soil, and trapped in glacier ice as well.

But is there a causal link from carbon dioxide to temperature?

This is one of my primary stumbling blocks with the alleged theory of global warming — an apparent correlation is shown, but then people are leaping to the conclusion of both a causal link and a direction of that causal link. That’s a couple of very big causal leaps from a simple correlation.

In all of my poking around in the purported science behind climate science and the theory of global warming, I still haven’t encountered any evidence or reasoning even remotely close to certainty as far as identifying causation and causal direction when it comes to carbon dioxide (or any other greenhouse gas) and global temperature.

Even if we accept that there is a correlation between carbon dioxide and global temperature, where is the evidence of causation?

Sound of crickets.

I really do need to see some incredibly solid data and equally sound reasoning in this matter for me to have any hope of achieving a reasonably high level of confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Is the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature causal or just correlation?

Just rephrasing the previous question a little to make it more clear about causation vs. correlation.

My position, not an absolute conclusion per se, is that climate scientists, activists, and proponents of the theory of global warming have focused too strongly only on correlation and have failed to establish a credible justification for believe that the relationship between carbon dioxide and temperature is distinctly causal rather than being at most mere correlation, and that causation really does flow from carbon dioxide to temperature.

To be clear, couldn’t temperature cause an increase in carbon dioxide? After all, it is claimed that temperature causes a rise in water vapor, so why not a similar phenomenon for temperature and carbon dioxide? There may well be a belief, even a consensus belief, that carbon dioxide causes temperature to rise and not vice versa, but belief is not proof.

To concede, I personally do not know the absolute truth of the matter, but I can say that the case presented publicly by scientists, activists, and other proponents of the theory of global warming is not very persuasive on the causation front.

I really do need to see some incredibly solid data and equally sound reasoning in this matter for me to have any hope of achieving a reasonably high level of confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

If carbon dioxide is not causing global warming then what is?

The implied logic seems to be that if no alternative explanation is offered, then carbon dioxide must be the cause of global warming.

Sorry, but that is not valid logic. Lack of alternative justification is not valid justification.

Sure, I and others could come up with alternative explanations, but that would be besides the point.

The point is that everything hinges on those who believe in carbon dioxide as the cause needing to make their case for carbon dioxide being the dominant cause of global warming. And correlation is not sufficient to establish causation.

I’m a positivist at heart — we don’t need to go around trying to disprove every theory; it’s up to believers in theories to make their case.

I really do need to see some incredibly solid data and equally sound reasoning in this matter for me to have any hope of achieving a reasonably high level of confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Is there a causal link between water vapor and temperature?

Water vapor is a greenhouse gas as well. Scientists don’t consider it an anthropogenic greenhouse gas since so much of it is produced from traditional, natural evaporation and other non-human natural processes, but it is a greenhouse gas nonetheless, and in fact it is known to be the dominant greenhouse gas, responsible for more of the greenhouse effect than even carbon dioxide or all other greenhouse gases combined.

As far as I can tell, scientists don’t even bother trying to measure or calculate the correlation between water vapor and temperature, but it seems safe to presume that there is some significant correlation between the two.

Two scientific facts we do know for sure:

  1. Warmer air can hold more water vapor.
  2. Cooler air holds less water vapor.

If there was no such thing as global warming, the causality and direction of the causal link would be clear — temperature causes water vapor.

But we do know — or at least we think or believe we know — that water vapor is a greenhouse gas, which directly implies a causal link between water vapor and temperature, with the direction of causation flowing from water vapor to temperature.

So, this now means that we have causation flowing in both directions. How can that be?

Welcome to the world of complex adaptive systems.

The world of feedback loops.

Could temperature cause carbon dioxide to rise?

If temperature can cause one greenhouse gas to rise, why couldn’t it cause other greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide, to rise as well?

If the climate were not a complex adaptive system, we might be able to quickly answer the question, but climate is a complex adaptive system, so very few questions of causation have simple and clear answers.

The flows of carbon dioxide into and out of the atmosphere get very complicated very quickly.

And since scientists cannot separate out the impacts on temperature of individual greenhouse gases, the effects of methane and water vapor have to be considered in the same soup.

For example, higher temperature can cause greater growth of plants, and then decaying plants can generate more methane.

So, how do you draw the causality arrows — in both directions — in a way that would show that there is a net causal link from carbon dioxide or any greenhouse gas to temperature rather than from temperature to a greenhouse gas?

In all my poking around in the climate science, I haven’t encountered evidence and reasoning to persuade me that the theory of global warming is necessarily true — or necessarily false.

Most disturbing, I hear a dramatic amount of handwaving, rhetorical, and moralistic arguments, typically devoid of anything even remotely resembling real science.

I don’t seriously doubt for one moment that climate scientists, activists, and proponents of the theory of global warming won’t argue that carbon dioxide causes global warming, but it does concern me that they either unable or unwilling to acknowledge and factor in feedback loops and the simple fact that our climate and atmosphere are complex adaptive systems.

Their willingness to resort to handwaving and speculation is a major concern. And it does contribute to preventing me from having any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Does carbon dioxide cause ocean heating?

Even if there were a credible causal link from carbon dioxide to global warming, whatever physical mechanisms are at work in the gaseous atmosphere are not relevant to explaining ocean heating.

I’ve seen a fair amount of handwaving, speculation, and rhetorical argument concerning ocean heating, but I have yet to encounter any credible evidence or sound reasoning to adequately and fully explain how carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gas could be causing warming of the oceans.

So, this will remain a massive stumbling block preventing my acceptance of the theory of global warming and climate change.

What is the response rate of temperature to carbon dioxide?

Assuming for the moment that carbon dioxide does cause global warming, how big a rise in temperature will a given increment of carbon dioxide cause?

In particular, if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rises by one part per million (1 ppm), how many degrees celsius should we expect the temperature to rise, on average?

Curiously, I was unable to find this obvious fact in all my poking around in the alleged climate science.

Scientists focus a lot on emissions, which cannot easily be measured and is difficult to estimate with any sense of accuracy.

I’m simply asking about the temperature response for carbon dioxide that is actually in the air at this moment, this year.

So, I decided to do my own calculation.

1958 seems like a good base year to start with. That’s when truly serious measurements of atmospheric carbon dioxide began, by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography from the top of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii in 1958. That effort has continued reliably to today. This research and monitoring effort is under the aegis of NOAA.

The NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory Mauna Loa carbon dioxide web site:

The NOAA Mauna Loa carbon dioxide annual data can be found here:

For example the annual mean values for carbon dioxide for the past ten years and for the first few years at the start of their operation, measured in parts per million are:

  • 1959–315.97
  • 1960–316.91
  • 1961–317.64
  • 1962–318.45
  • 1963–318.99
  • 2007–383.79
  • 2008–385.60
  • 2009–387.43
  • 2010–389.90
  • 2011–391.65
  • 2012–393.85
  • 2013–396.52
  • 2014–398.65
  • 2015–400.83
  • 2016–404.21

The monthly data starts in 1958, but the first year they report annual data for is 1959, so I’ll use that year in my calculations.

The NOAA global temperature data can be found here:

For obscure reasons, scientists have difficulty with absolute temperature, so instead of giving the temperature as you and I would recognize it they deal with the difference of the temperature from some arbitrary benchmark temperature, which is the average of temperatures from 1901 to 2000. They call this a temperature anomaly.

For example, the temperature anomalies (in degrees celsius) from the first few early years of the data series, which began in 1880, the five years after the 1958 starting date to match the Mauna Loa carbon dioxide data, and the most recent ten years are:

  • 1880 — -0.12
  • 1881 — -0.07
  • 1882 — -0.07
  • 1883 — -0.15
  • 1884 — -0.21
  • 1959–0.06
  • 1960–0.02
  • 1961–0.08
  • 1962–0.09
  • 1963–0.11
  • 2007–0.61
  • 2008–0.54
  • 2009–0.64
  • 2010–0.70
  • 2011–0.58
  • 2012–0.62
  • 2013–0.67
  • 2014–0.74
  • 2015–0.90
  • 2016–0.94

Okay, that’s the data. Now some calculations.

The net temperature change from 1959 to 2016 is 0.94 minus 0.06, which is 0.88 degrees celsius.

The change in carbon dioxide from 1959 to 2016 is 404.21 minus 315.95, which is 88.24 parts per million.

In short, an increase of carbon dioxide of 88.24 ppm in 57 years led to a global temperature increase of 0.88 celsius.

0.88 divided by 88.24 gives us 0.01 degrees celsius as the incremental temperature change for each part per million that carbon dioxide rises.

This calculation presumes that carbon dioxide and carbon dioxide alone leads to a rise in temperature. That is an assumption in these calculations, which isn’t necessarily true, but is assumed to calculate a presumed temperature response rate.

How fast is carbon dioxide rising?

Good question!

But… there is no clear answer.

Seriously, nobody really knows.

I pointed to the dataset above and gave some of the actual data.

NOAA ESRL has a page dedicated to growth rate of carbon dioxide:

The bottom line is that there is no bottom line, single number for growth rate that has held over time.

Of course, if carbon dioxide is rising due primarily to human activity, the lack of any predictable rate of increase in human activity of necessity would mean that carbon dioxide would not be rising at some predictable rate.

So, let’s simply make some simplifying assumptions for the purpose of making rough, ballpark estimates. Granted, such assumptions could take us a significant distance from actual reality.

From that ESRL page, the changes in carbon dioxide level in the past ten years based on change from January 1st to December 31st, in parts per million, plus my own calculation of the percentage change from the annual mean, and in parentheses my own calculation based only on annual mean:

  • 2007–2.27 0.59% (1.89 0.49%)
  • 2008–1.57 0.41% (1.81 0.47%)
  • 2009–2.02 0.52% (1.83 0.47%)
  • 2010–2.32 0.60% (2.47 0.64%)
  • 2011–1.92 0.49% (1.75 0.45%)
  • 2012–2.61 0.67% (2.2 0.56%)
  • 2013–2.02 0.51% (2.67 0.68%)
  • 2014–2.17 0.55% (2.13 0.54%)
  • 2015–3.03 0.76% (2.18 0.55%)
  • 2016–2.98 0.74% (3.38 0.84%)

Whether you calculate from between annual means or from beginning of year to the end of the year probably doesn’t have any great cosmic significance.

If I then average those annual differences over the past ten years I get these average annual growth rates for carbon dioxide:

  • For NOAA annual growth rates: 0.58%
  • My calculated growth between annual means: 0.57%

Those two growth rates are close enough for my interest here of rough, ballpark estimates.

How fast will carbon dioxide and temperature grow in the next 10, 20, 50 years and by the end of the century?

So, now I have two remaining questions:

  1. What is the level of carbon dioxide projected to be in 10, 20, 50 years, and at the end of the century (2100)?
  2. What would temperature be in those years given a temperature response rate to carbon dioxide of 0.1% (calculated above)?

My calculations, using the average growth rate I calculated from the NOAA annual growth rates:

  • 430.76 ppm in 10 years (2027) — a rise of 26.54963245 ppm = 0.27 C
  • 456.41 ppm in 20 years (2037) — a rise of 52.19596371 ppm = 0.52 C
  • 542.88 ppm in 50 years (2067) — a rise of 138.6655084 ppm = 1.39 C
  • 657.03 ppm in 2100 — a rise of 252.818308 ppm = 2.53 C

Oops… that’s actually 11, 21, and 51 years from the 2016 data since the starting year was 2016, which was last year. Details!

Those are temperature changes from 2016, the most recent full year as of the time this paper was written.

These numbers are based on significant assumptions, so they should not be construed as accurate in any way. They are for illustration purposes only.

When will temperature exceed the IPCC targets of 1.5 and 2.0 degrees celsius?

Given the NOAA temperature anomaly of 0.94 celsius in 2016, the twin limits of 1.5 and 2.0 celsius, would be exceeded in 2039 with an increase in temperature from 2016 of 0.58 celsius and 2057 with a temperature increase of 1.08 celsius from 2016.

Yikes!!!

That’s if my calculations and assumptions are indeed valid. My calculations may indeed be valid, but I certainly am not asserting that any of my assumptions are valid.

Caveats on forecasts for growth of carbon dioxide and temperature

Now, is that proof that global warming and climate change are real?

Well, now come the caveats which make it difficult for me personally to fully accept such a proof.

  1. As mentioned and shown with the actual data, there is no clear annual growth rate for carbon dioxide.
  2. As mentioned, there is no reliable known response rate for temperature and carbon monoxide.
  3. My own calculation of a response rate for temperature and carbon dioxide is dubious at best.
  4. Nobody has a perfect crystal ball forecast of population growth, economic growth, or human activity over the forecast period.
  5. Linear projections are very dubious at best. Especially for a complex adaptive system.
  6. The climate is a complex adaptive system with complex feedback mechanisms, so we have no idea how climate will respond as carbon dioxide or temperature rise.
  7. The pace, scope, and impact of coming technological innovations is… completely unknown, especially more than five or ten years into the future.

I have no firm idea about how carbon dioxide and temperature will rise over the coming decades

That’s my bottom line. I can do all the calculations I want, as can the IPCC scientists, but they’re all based on assumptions that have little in the way of certainty.

Okay, I actually am certain that the climate is a complex adaptive system, but that doesn’t eliminate or even reduce the uncertainty for any of the other assumptions.

I trust that my own assumptions and calculations are as reasonable and as accurate as possible, but even then I don’t gain any significant comfort that I can forecast the future with any reasonable level of certainty.

The IPCC, scientists in general, activists, and any other proponents of the theory of global warming and climate change are not offering me any significant improvement of certainty over my own efforts. Now that’s a very, very scary thought.

Ideal gas law

The behavior or modeling of any gas, which is what the atmosphere is, is traditionally expressed using the ideal gas law. Here it is:

PV = nRT

That’s it.

In plain English, the pressure times the volume is proportional to the number of molecules times the average temperature of those molecules. “R” is a magic number that balances the equation.

For more technical details, consult the Wikipedia article on Ideal gas law:

Ideal gas law — not even mentioned by IPCC

Any scientific treatment of heating of a gas surely needs to make reference to the ideal gas law, but I could find no mention of it in the IPCC AR5 Physical Science Basis assessment report.

Amazing.

And people wonder why some of us are unpersuaded by the consensus science!

Adaptation of the ideal gas law to a planetary body

What I would have hoped the IPCC would have done is identify changes to make to the ideal gas law reflect the specific situation of the Earth.

I haven’t worked out a complete model for such an adaptation of the ideal gas law, but I have identified a number of factors which I believe need to be taken into account:

  1. Earth is not a closed system.
  2. Volume (V) of the atmosphere is not constant. There is no fixed container.
  3. Half the planet is in the sun and half in darkness at any moment, and the portion of the planet being warmed or cooled is constantly and continuously changing.
  4. The precession of the Earth rotating on its axis is continuously changing the pattern of the area of the planet being warmed or cooled from day to day.
  5. Clouds impact temperature in a wildly varying and unpredictable manner.
  6. In short, there is never any clean and simple value of temperature (T) to plug into the ideal gas law.
  7. Gravity causes a pressure gradient, so that pressure is not constant — higher closer to the surface of the planet, and lower as altitude increases, ultimately declining to essentially zero at the edge of space.
  8. Air pressure varies widely dependent on local weather.
  9. In short, there is never any clean and simply value of pressure (P) to plug into the ideal gas law.
  10. Evaporation of surface water and precipitation from the atmosphere keeps the number of molecules in the atmosphere (n) constantly changing.
  11. Emissions of gases from human activity is constantly increasing the number of molecules in the atmosphere.
  12. We simply don’t have any estimate of how many molecules are in the atmosphere.
  13. In short, we have no idea what n is.
  14. In summary, we have no robust values of P, V, n, or T to plug into the ideal gas law.

In short, without stable values of P, V, n, and T to plug into the ideal gas law, “PV = nRT” simply cannot be evaluated with any sort of precision.

That could explain why the IPCC doesn’t bother using it.

But that doesn’t obviate the need to use it. The critical need to use it.

I see this as a major flaw in the theory of global warming and climate change.

My concern will have to be adequately addressed to my satisfaction in order for me to have any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Temperature vs. heat

In my mind, the focus on temperature is sorely misplaced. Heat is the real issue. Heat is synonymous with energy, and energy is where the real action is.

Temperature means very little without some sense of the volume, mass, and density of the body being heated.

Without access to an adaptation of the ideal gas law coupled with the parameters needed by the adapted ideal gas law, there’s no way to get to heat.

But the main point here is that both the public discourse as well as the narrative provided by NOAA, NASA, and the IPCC focuses exclusively on temperature rather than heat.

To be fair, there is some attention by IPCC and climate scientists to ocean heat, but it’s a small minority and a minimum of focus, and virtually nonexistent in the public discourse.

Is atmospheric temperature a valid surrogate for atmospheric heat?

Is atmospheric temperature or even sea surface temperature a reasonable surrogate for atmospheric heat?

Maybe, or maybe not. I personally don’t have the answer.

What we do need is specific, solid science that answers that question.

Not so minor nit: 70% of the surface of the planet is covered by water, implying that 70% of the atmosphere lies over water, but we don’t have atmospheric temperatures for the air over water, instead we use sea surface temperature. Personally, I’m not so confident that sea surface temperature (SST) is the right measure of temperature for the portion of atmosphere that lies over water. Interesting issue.

Given that water covers 70% of the surface of the planet, we can’t use land temperature only as a surrogate for the totality of atmospheric heat.

This is a major concern to me. Without it being adequately addressed, I will be unable to have any significant level of confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Temperature in the atmospheric column

One of the things I haven’t found in the IPCC discussion of climate science is a decent model of temperature by altitude, as well as temperature at milestone altitudes.

So we have measures of temperature, but that begs the question of the temperature of what and how to get the temperatures of everything in the atmosphere, all portions of the atmosphere.

This is a major concern to me. Without it being adequately addressed, I will be unable to have any significant level of confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Heat in the atmospheric column

The main reason I want to see the temperature distribution in the atmospheric column is so that I can understand heat in the column. But if you don’t have temperature, you’re not going to be able to measure or calculate heat.

This is a major concern to me. Without it being adequately addressed, I will be unable to have any significant level of confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Is global warming all about the atmosphere or is ocean heating relevant as well?

The traditional narrative of global warming, dating back to Al Gore’s tenure, was focused on atmospheric heating, with very little if any attention to ocean heat, but gradually over the past decade or so ocean heat has taken on a more significant role. Still, many people either don’t talk about it or are not aware of it as being very significant to global warming and climate change.

In my view, the narrative and public discourse needs to be updated to be a lot more clear about the relevance of ocean heat.

As an example of the relevance, hurricanes get their energy from warm water. Warmer water means more energy. More energy means bigger hurricanes with stronger winds.

Ocean heat is included in the IPCC assessment reports, but that doesn’t directly translate into popular public discourse.

Ocean heating

As per the IPCC AR5:

Ocean warming dominates the increase in energy stored in the climate system, accounting for more than 90% of the energy accumulated between 1971 and 2010 (high confidence).

Just to emphasize what they are claiming, most of the global warming between 1971 and 2010 occurred in the ocean, not the atmosphere. That’s very interesting.

Now is that really true? I couldn’t say. I can’t and won’t dispute their assertion at this time, but I can’t confirm it either.

But what I can say is that few of the activists and public proponents of the theory of global warming and climate change ever talk about ocean heat, while even the IPCC indicates that ocean heat is a whopping 90% of heating in recent decades. Correction, make that over 90%.

To be clear, some of the experts occasionally refer to ocean heat, but it is uncommon and the dearth of reference does nothing to help educate the public about this key aspect of global warming.

This highlights the distinction between temperature and heat. The term global warming puts the emphasis on temperature when heat is where the real action is.

What role geothermal heating has on ocean temperature and heat also remains unclear. How well is it measured and characterized, especially over time?

How exactly heat gets into the ocean and whether carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases are really the cause of ocean heating is not so clear.

This is an area of climate science that needs a lot more attention.

But with so much of the attention on the atmosphere, ocean heat is not getting the attention it deserves.

I need to see some significant improvement in the treatment of ocean heating before I can have any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Might fertilizer runoff be contributing to ocean heating?

To what extent might some degree of the increase in ocean heat be due to an increase in absorption of solar energy due to particulates that flow into the ocean as a result of human activity such as erosion and fertilizer from runoff?

Either the particulates directly, or algae or microorganism growth fed by the fertilizer.

This is a concern that needs more attention before I can have any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

How much of ocean heating can be directly attributed to greenhouse gases?

Exactly what the pathways are for energy into the ocean remain a bit vague, especially when it comes to the effect of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Where exactly does the heat come from and how does it get there?

How much of the increase in ocean heat can be directly attributed to warming due to greenhouse gases, as opposed to other sources?

This is a concern that needs more attention before I can have any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Is any greenhouse gas-induced heating detectable below the immediate surface of the ocean?

Even if sea surface temperature (SST) can be shown to be affected by global warming in the atmosphere, how deep does that effect go in the ocean? That we can prove, not just speculate?

I personally haven’t found any publicly-accessible science that discusses and resolves this matter.

This is a concern that needs more attention before I can have any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

How deep in the ocean can solar-induced heating be detected?

Even if ocean heating can be detected at significant depth, the question remains whether that heating was induced by greenhouse gas warming or due to solar warming of particulates in surface currents. Again, how much can we prove as opposed to merely speculate?

I personally haven’t found any publicly-accessible science that discusses and resolves this matter.

This is a concern that needs more attention before I can have any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Ocean surface temperature vs. total ocean heat

As with the atmosphere, I have concern about focusing too much attention on temperature when total heat should be the main focus.

So, my concern is whether ocean temperature, particularly sea surface temperature (SST), is a reasonable proxy for total ocean heat.

The initial problem is that ocean temperature is so variable.

I won’t delve too deeply into the topic here.

I do need help from the scientists to achieve a greater level of comfort and confidence in the depth of our knowledge about ocean heat before I can reach any significant level of confidence concerning global temperature and the whole theory of global warming and climate change.

Sea level rising?

Has the global sea level risen? I couldn’t say with any certainty, but the topic is not as relevant to this paper which focuses on causes of global warming and climate change rather than impacts.

I would offer a few cautions when sea level is being discussed:

  1. Water expands when heated, so an increase in ocean heat or temperature would necessarily cause the sea level to rise. A rise would not have to be caused by more fresh water flowing into the oceans from melting glaciers, for example.
  2. Unless you have stable rock formations as a reference, measurements of sea level can be dubious. Local erosion, subsidence, and sinking structures can make sea level measurements very problematic.
  3. As far as satellite measurements of sea level, I’m a little dubious of the accuracy of measuring very small differences from such great heights. Seriously, does anybody believe that any satellite can measure a measly 3 millimeters — a single eighth of an inch from hundreds of miles (over 800 miles) up in space, moving at the same time, and with waves in the ocean? I can’t.

The most recent data from the NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry (I checked on 9/24/2017) indicates that global sea level is rising at a steady trend of 3 millimeters per year, with a margin of error of 0.4 millimeters. That would be an inch every 8.5 years or 9.8 inches (249 millimeters) by the turn of the century, 83 years from now. Time to panic? Doesn’t seem so to me.

The Wikipedia page for the Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM) AKA Jason-2 says that the satellite can “measure the distance between the satellite and the ocean surface to within a few centimeters.” A few centimeters corresponds to about an inch. That’s actually fairly decent resolution for such a great distance, but to me that doesn’t seem sufficient to get the claimed 3 millimeters per year with a margin of error of 0.4 millimeters. Really! Somebody has some explaining to do. That’s an awfully big gap between 0.4 millimeters and several centimeters.

The NASA web page for Jason-3, the successor to Jason-2, says “surface altitude can then be derived within a few centimeters”, which is the same or close to Jason-2.

In short, the science of measuring sea level changes seems a bit shaky, so I would need to have my expressed concerns addressed fully before I could have any significant level of confidence in this particular impact from climate change.

Sea level questions I have

Before I can gain any confidence in NOAA and NASA’s ability to actually measure sea level with any accuracy there are some questions I would need answered — to my satisfaction:

  1. Generally, how is sea level measured with respect to tides, storms, and waves in general? In other words, how is a raw distance to the water adjusted to take those factors into account?
  2. How is Arctic and Antarctic sea level measured during winter, when covered with ice and snow?
  3. How is overall global sea level calculated when the Arctic and Antarctic are frozen?
  4. Ditto for ice shelves in the polar regions, although maybe statistically might be too small an area to matter. Either way, show the math.
  5. How exactly is tide-adjusted sea level measured or adjusted?
  6. How is global sea level calculated or adjusted when tidal effect is continuously varying across the globe?

Until I get solid answers to all of my questions and concerns, I will be unable to have any significant confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Importance and value of the greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases

Sometimes people talk as if the greenhouse effect or greenhouse gases in particular were an absolute negative and did nothing but harm the planet.

As the Wikipedia article for Greenhouse effect puts it:

The greenhouse effect is the process by which radiation from a planet’s atmosphere warms the planet’s surface to a temperature above what it would be without its atmosphere.

If a planet’s atmosphere contains radiatively active gases (i.e., greenhouse gases) they will radiate energy in all directions. Part of this radiation is directed towards the surface, warming it. The intensity of the downward radiation — that is, the strength of the greenhouse effect — will depend on the atmosphere’s temperature and on the amount of greenhouse gases that the atmosphere contains.

Earth’s natural greenhouse effect is critical to supporting life.

Just to reemphasize that last sentence, Earth’s natural greenhouse effect is critical to supporting life.

As with everything in life, moderation is essential. The concern raised with greenhouse gases is that an excess of greenhouse gases could result in global warming. As the Wikipedia article notes:

Human activities, primarily the burning of fossil fuels and clearing of forests, have intensified the natural greenhouse effect, causing global warming.

The issue is whether the effect from human activities is significant enough to be noticeable, significant, and notably harmful to human life and the environment.

In any case, the point here is that the greenhouse effect and greenhouse gases in general are a good thing, even if some level of excess could be a bad thing.

Well-mixed greenhouse gases (WMGHG)

Some greenhouse gases are short-lived and rather quickly removed from the atmosphere, while others are rather long-lived and eventually spread uniformly through the atmosphere. The latter are known as well-mixed greenhouse gases or using the shorthand of WMGHG.

GHG is the shorthand for Greenhouse Gas, which includes both the short-lived and long-lived greenhouse gases.

Common greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane are long-lived, so they are classified as well-mixed greenhouse gases (WMGHG.)

The two most common greenhouse gases which are not well-mixed greenhouse gases (WMGHG) are water vapor and ozone. Water vapor tends to precipitate out within days and ozone breaks down within weeks. From the IPCC in Chapter of the AR5 Physical Science Basis assessment report:

2.2.2.3 Tropospheric Ozone

Tropospheric ozone is a short-lived trace gas that either originates in the stratosphere or is produced in situ by precursor gases and sunlight (e.g., Monks et al., 2009). An important GHG with an estimated RF of 0.40 ± 0.20 W m–2 (Chapter 8), tropospheric ozone also impacts human health and vegetation at the surface. Its average atmospheric lifetime of a few weeks produces a global distribution highly variable by season, altitude and location. These characteristics and the paucity of long-term measurements make the assessment of long-term global ozone trends challenging. However, new studies since AR4 provide greater understanding of surface and free tropospheric ozone trends from the 1950s through 2010.

Well-mixed greenhouse gases are also referred to or generally equivalent to long-lived greenhouse gases.

Role of water vapor as a greenhouse gas

First and foremost, water vapor is a greenhouse gas.

In fact, it’s the most significant greenhouse gas, in that the vast bulk of the greenhouse effect is the result of water vapor.

Even the IPCC concedes that water vapor is “is the primary greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere” and that “The contribution of water vapour to the natural greenhouse effect relative to that of carbon dioxide (CO2) … can be considered to be approximately two to three times greater”, but nonetheless does not consider water vapor to be an anthropogenic greenhouse gas since so much of the existing water vapor is from natural sources, with water vapor from human activities being relatively modest and tending to precipitate out within days.

To reemphasize, water vapor has two to three times a larger impact on the greenhouse effect than even carbon dioxide.

The chapter 8 of the IPCC AR5 Physical Science Basis report has an FAQ question relevant to water vapor:

FAQ 8.1 | How Important Is Water Vapour to Climate Change?

As the largest contributor to the natural greenhouse effect, water vapour plays an essential role in the Earth’s climate. However, the amount of water vapour in the atmosphere is controlled mostly by air temperature, rather than by emissions. For that reason, scientists consider it a feedback agent, rather than a forcing to climate change.

Water vapour is the primary greenhouse gas in the Earth’s atmosphere. The contribution of water vapour to the natural greenhouse effect relative to that of carbon dioxide (CO2) depends on the accounting method, but can be considered to be approximately two to three times greater.

Currently, water vapour has the largest greenhouse effect in the Earth’s atmosphereWater vapour is not a significant initial forcing, but is nevertheless a fundamental agent of climate change.

In short, water vapor is a larger factor in the greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide or any other greenhouse gas.

This is a curious distinction that scientists make: “Water vapour is not a significant initial forcing.” Meaning that water vapor does contribute to the greenhouse effect, but just that there is some distinction from carbon dioxide. The relevance of whether the forcing is initial or not is never really explained very well at all. To me, that evokes the old saying of a distinction without a difference.

That FAQ question goes on to say:

However, other greenhouse gases, primarily CO2, are necessary to sustain the presence of water vapour in the atmosphere. Indeed, if these other gases were removed from the atmosphere, its temperature would drop sufficiently to induce a decrease of water vapour, leading to a runaway drop of the greenhouse effect that would plunge the Earth into a frozen state. So greenhouse gases other than water vapour provide the temperature structure that sustains current levels of atmospheric water vapour. Therefore, although CO2 is the main anthropogenic control knob on climate, water vapour is a strong and fast feedback that amplifies any initial forcing by a typical factor between two and three.

Just to be clear, any attempt to remove all of the carbon dioxide, methane, etc. from the atmosphere would have catastrophic consequences to life on this planet. So, be very, very careful with geoengineering.

We have an interesting semantic nit: global warming is technically not considered to be the same as the greenhouse effect. Global warming is generally considered to be the excess of the total greenhouse effect over the natural greenhouse effect. Not that scientists even have the ability to actually measure the distinction.

Another semantic nit: Even though water vapor is technically a greenhouse gas, scientists treat it as if it were not a greenhouse gas since it is not considered an anthropogenic greenhouse gas — human-generated, even though some fraction of vapor vapor in the atmosphere actually is generated by human activity. Not that scientists even have the ability to actually measure the distinction. Scientists will say that water vapor is a natural greenhouse gas, but insist that it shouldn’t be treated as a greenhouse gas in the context of the theory of global warming and climate change. Sometimes a random scientist will go off the reservation and admit that water vapor is a greenhouse gas, but generally they will stick to the official narrative. Got it? Yeah, kind of confusing, but welcome to the world of climate science!

Why isn’t water vapor considered a greenhouse gas?

Emphasizing the previous section, yes, water vapor is a greenhouse gas and the primary and dominant portion of the greenhouse effect, but isn’t treated as a greenhouse gas by the IPCC and most scientists. Kind of confusing and bizarre, but they have their reasons, or essentially only one reason: water vapor is not classified as an anthropogenic greenhouse gas since so much of the existing water vapor is from natural sources such as evaporation from bodies of water and transpiration from plants, with water vapor from human activities considered relatively modest and tending to precipitate out within days. Or so the hand-wave goes.

So, water vapor contributes to the greenhouse effect, but is not considered relevant to anthropogenic global warming (AGW) which focuses on the incremental warming due to long-lived greenhouse gases generated from human activity, with water vapor treated as being short-lived.

Kind of a silly distinction, if you ask me, one which smacks of a bias towards focusing on the impact of combustion of fossil fuels.

In any case, the distinction does nothing to boost my confidence in the theory of global warming and climate change.

Why not develop a theory that focuses on net effect rather than focusing on only one aspect?

More on water vapor — from the scientists

The American Chemical Society (ACS) has this to say about water vapor:

It’s true that water vapor is the largest contributor to the Earth’s greenhouse effect. On average, it probably accounts for about 60% of the warming effect. However, water vapor does not control the Earth’s temperature, but is instead controlled by the temperature. This is because the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere limits the maximum amount of water vapor the atmosphere can contain. If a volume of air contains its maximum amount of water vapor and the temperature is decreased, some of the water vapor will condense to form liquid water. This is why clouds form as warm air containing water vapor rises and cools at higher altitudes where the water condenses to the tiny droplets that make up clouds.

To reemphasize: “water vapor does not control the Earth’s temperature, but is instead controlled by the temperature.” Yuck — that’s partially right, but partially wrong. It is true that temperature influences water vapor, but it is false to imply that water vapor is not the dominant factor in the greenhouse effect. As even the IPCC concedes, water vapor has two to three times the impact on the greenhouse effect as the next most significant greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

Also, the ACS says:

The most important and most abundant atmospheric greenhouse gas is water vapor. Human sources have only a small direct influence on tropospheric water vapor concentrations, because they are largely controlled by local temperatures. The water vapor concentration can be several percent over warm tropical seas and very low over frigid ice fields at the poles. As planetary warming occurs, water vapor concentration increases and adds to the warming effect.

That last sentence is very significant:

As planetary warming occurs, water vapor concentration increases and adds to the warming effect.

Again, an increase in global temperature will automatically result in an increase in water vapor, further increasing the global warming effect. Or at least that’s the theory.

More on water vapor in FAQ 8.1 from the IPCC:

Water vapour behaves differently from CO2 in one fundamental way: it can condense and precipitate. When air with high humidity cools, some of the vapour condenses into water droplets or ice particles and precipitates. The typical residence time of water vapour in the atmosphere is ten days. The flux of water vapour into the atmosphere from anthropogenic sources is considerably less than from ‘natural’ evaporation. Therefore, it has a negligible impact on overall concentrations, and does not contribute significantly to the long-term greenhouse effect. This is the main reason why tropospheric water vapour (typically below 10 km altitude) is not considered to be an anthropogenic gas contributing to radiative forcing.

To a significant extent I believe IPCC is playing word games, trying to play down water vapor relative to other greenhouse gases. I mean, water vapor doesn’t care what source it comes from, whether it is anthropogenic or not. It’s the net effect that counts, not the precise source.

Ultimately, IPCC does end FAQ 8.1 with this sentence:

Water vapour is not a significant initial forcing, but is nevertheless a fundamental agent of climate change.

Initial forcing? Really, does that truly matter? Not really if… water vapor is “nevertheless a fundamental agent of climate change” as the finally admit.

Seriously, it is frequently hard to take the IPCC too seriously when they play such word games, trying to hide behind distinctions that ultimately do not really matter.

How long does water vapor stay in the atmosphere?

Water vapor stays in the atmosphere for up to about ten days, according to FAQ 8.1 from chapter 8 of the AR5 Physical Science Basis assessment report from the IPCC:

When air with high humidity cools, some of the vapour condenses into water droplets or ice particles and precipitates. The typical residence time of water vapour in the atmosphere is ten days.

But stratospheric water vapor is considered a greenhouse gas

Curiously, water vapor in the stratosphere is considered a greenhouse gas. Part of that is natural, but since some of it comes from chemical reactions involving gases which are considered anthropogenic, the water vapor then gets classified as anthropogenic rather than natural. Got it? Such heavy reliance on nuance is quite disheartening.

As per Chapter 2 of the IPCC Physical Science Basis AR5 assessment report:

2.2.2.1 Stratospheric Water Vapour

Stratospheric H2O vapour has an important role in the Earth’s radiative balance and in stratospheric chemistry. Increased stratospheric H2O vapour causes the troposphere to warm and the stratosphere to cool (Manabe and Strickler, 1964; Solomon et al., 2010), and also causes increased rates of stratospheric O3 loss (Stenke and Grewe, 2005). Water vapour enters the stratosphere through the cold tropical tropopause. As moisture-rich air masses are transported through this region, most water vapour condenses resulting in extremely dry lower stratospheric air. Because tropopause temperature varies seasonally, so does H2O abundance there. Other contributions include oxidation of methane within the stratosphere, and possibly direct injection of H2O vapour in overshooting deep convection (Schiller et al., 2009). AR4 reported that stratospheric H2O vapour showed significant long-term variability and an upward trend over the last half of the 20th century, but no net increase since 1996. This updated assessment finds large interannual variations that have been observed by independent measurement techniques, but no significant net changes since 1996.

From the Technical summary:

RF [radiative forcing] for stratospheric water vapour produced from CH4 oxidation is 0.07 [0.02 to 0.12] W m–2. Other changes in stratospheric water vapour, and all changes in water vapour in the troposphere, are regarded as a feedback rather than a forcing.

I haven’t delved deeply into stratospheric water vapor, so I only mention the topic here for reference, completeness, and to indicate that I am aware of the topic.

Stratospheric ozone

I haven’t delved deeply into stratospheric ozone yet.

Ozone is a greenhouse gas.

Most ozone is in the stratosphere (90%), which is referred to as the ozone layer. A smaller fraction (10%) occurs in the troposphere.

Ozone depletion has a small cooling effect on global warming. But scientists expect that depletion to recover. Expect, but is that based on hard science, or simply judgment and speculation?

I only mention this topic here for convenient reference, completeness, and to indicate that I am aware of the topic.

Global warming due to jet contrails

Combustion of jet fuel by jet aircraft causes emissions of both carbon dioxide and water vapor, both of which are greenhouse gases. Technically, that’s no different than terrestrial vehicles, cars and trucks, but flying high in the sky causes emissions up in the stratosphere, where these emissions have a somewhat different effect.

The IPCC has special commentary on jet contrails — those white, cloud-like lines trailing behind high-flying jets, caused by the condensation of the water vapor emitted as a result of the combustion of jet fuel.

Not all of the water vapor from jet fuel combustion condenses. Sometimes you see very long and persistent contrails, but frequently they are very short — only a fraction of the emitted water vapor condenses, and quickly evaporates back to water vapor.

Some quotes from the chapter 8 of the IPCC AR5 Physical Science Basis assessment report:

RF [radiative forcing] from the current aircraft fleet through stratospheric water vapour emissions is very small. Wilcox et al. (2012) estimate a contribution from civilian aircraft in 2005 of 0.0009 (0.0003 to 0.0013) W m–2 with high confidence in the upper limit. Water vapour emissions from aircraft in the troposphere also contribute to contrails which are discussed in Section 8.3.4.5.

8.3.4.5 Contrails and Contrail-Induced Cirrus

AR4 assessed the RF of contrails (persistent linear contrails) as +0.01 (–0.007 to +0.02) W m–2 and provided no estimate for contrail induced cirrus. In AR5, Chapter 7 gives a best estimate of RF due to contrails of +0.01 (+0.005 to +0.03) W m–2 and an ERF estimate of the combined contrails and contrail-induced cirrus of +0.05 (+0.02 to +0.15) W m–2. Since AR4, the evidence for contrail-induced cirrus has increased because of observational studies (for further details see Section 7.2.7).

That’s an interesting phenomenon that hasn’t gotten much attention in the public discourse to date: Contrail induced cirrus [clouds].

I personally haven’t delved too deeply into the climate science of jet contrails yet.

I have three concerns which must be addressed before I can have any significant confidence in the science of global warming and climate change:

  1. The overall impact of jet aviation on high-altitude carbon dioxide and water vapor.
  2. The net impact of high-altitude greenhouse gases on the greenhouse effect relative to low-altitude greenhouse gases.
  3. Issues related to chemical reactions that occur in the stratosphere that cause various greenhouse gases to behave somewhat differently than at lower altitudes. This includes ozone.

An open issue in the public discourse of global warming is whether or not jet aviation is a big deal or not. The science from the IPCC seems to suggest that it is not, that it is a relatively minor effect.

Non-condensable greenhouse gases

Just to note a technical terminology issue, I’ve seen references to non-condensable greenhouse gases. What’s a condensable greenhouse gas? That would be water vapor, which commonly condenses into rain, snow, sleet, hail, clouds, and fog. Jet contrails as well. The general wisdom is that water vapor tends to condense and precipitate out of the atmosphere within 10 days.

So, a non-condensable greenhouse gas is simply any other greenhouse besides water vapor.

Water vapor produced from combustion of fossil fuels

Many people don’t realize it, but water vapor is one of the primary gases produced from combustion of fossil fuels or non-fossil fuels as well. The name “hydrocarbon” is the telltale clue — hydrogen and carbon are both present in hydrocarbons such as fossil fuels, and combining hydrogen and oxygen produces H2O, also known as water.

We generally only notice when we see the white cloud coming out of a vehicle exhaust tailpipe on a very cold day. The very cold air cannot hold very much water vapor, so the water vapor condenses into very tiny droplets, which is essentially all a cloud or fog is.

How much water vapor is produced from the combustion of fossil fuels? More on that later.

Fossil fuels and hydrocarbons

For most purposes, the terms fossil fuels and hydrocarbons are essentially interchangeable synonyms, but there is a difference.

A substance is a hydrocarbon if it consists primarily of carbon atoms bound to hydrogen atoms.

A substance is a fossil fuel if it is fossilized organic matter, dead plants and microorganisms from millions of years ago.

Not every hydrocarbon is a fossil fuel, and not every fossil fuel is a hydrocarbon.

Biofuels, ethanol, alcohol, cellulose, and wood are examples of hydrocarbons that are not fossil fuels.

Coal is an example of a fossil fuel that is not a hydrocarbon since it is primarily carbon that is not bound chemically to hydrogen, although coal commonly contains water and some minor hydrocarbons as well. Coke is coal that has been heated to drive off that water and hydrocarbons (coal tar), so that the remaining substance is essentially pure carbon.

Charcoal is an interesting substance, being essentially pure carbon with no hydrogen bound to it. Technically, it is neither a fossil fuel nor a hydrocarbon. But its combustion will generate plenty of carbon dioxide, but no water vapor.

In summary:

  • If you refer to fossil fuels,you exclude non-fossil hydrocarbons such as biofuels and pure carbon such as charcoal.
  • Biofuels are hydrocarbons but not fossil fuels.
  • If you refer to hydrocarbons, you include both fossil fuels and non-fossil fuels, but exclude coal and charcoal.
  • Coal will generally be treated as if it were a hydrocarbon even though that is technically not true.
  • Coked coal is a fossil fuel that is not a hydrocarbon.
  • Charcoal is a curious anomaly, neither a fossil fuel nor a hydrocarbon.

Amount of water vapor and carbon dioxide produced by combustion of fossil fuels

Just for my own interest I endeavored to find out exactly how much water vapor and carbon dioxide are produced by various fossil fuels and other hydrocarbons.

To do this requires finding the equations for the chemical reactions involved in combustion of various materials.

Coal

Anthracite coal is mostly carbon, with little hydrogen or water.

Bituminous coal may be 20–40% water, but no hydrogen or hydrocarbon.

There are some hydrocarbons in coal, nominally coal tar, but for the most part coal is treated as pure carbon. And coked coal is even closer to pure carbon.

So, burning coal drives off any water that is present, and turns carbon into carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide, but doesn’t chemically generate any water vapor other than from the original water content.

Coal is commonly coked to drive off volatile chemicals, such as in coal tar, and water, so that more pure carbon will then be burned.

In short, a given amount of coal molecules produced a comparable amount of carbon dioxide molecules. Although some of the carbon becomes carbon monoxide instead.

Very little water vapor is generated for anthracite, and a moderate amount more for bituminous coal, but it is simply released during combustion rather than being formed as part of a chemical reaction. Although coal that has not been coked will produce some water vapor from the chemical combustion of the coal tar.

Methane

One methane molecule (CH4) produces one CO2 and two H2O molecules. In other words, twice as much water vapor.

Natural gas

Natural gas is essentially methane.

Kerosene

Kerosene produces slightly more than one water molecule for each CO2, a 13 to 12 ratio:

Jet fuel

Jet fuel is essentially kerosene, although there are a variety of formulations.

Gasoline

Gasoline is similar to kerosene, producing slightly more than one water molecule for each CO2, by a 9 to 8 ratio:

Those are numbers of molecules, which is what matters for gases.

Weight of a CO2 molecule is more than twice the weight of H2O, by a 22 to 9 ratio:

  • CO2: 12 + 2 x 16 = 44
  • H2O: 2 x 1 + 16 = 18

Ethanol

Combustion of ethanol produces two CO2 and three H2O, 50% more H2O than CO2:

Cellulose (wood)

Burning wood or similar plants produces six CO2 and five H2O, slightly more CO2 than H2O:

Charcoal

Charcoal is essentially pure carbon, all of the water vapor and volatile hydrocarbons driven off, so combustion produces almost pure carbon dioxide and maybe some carbon monoxide, but no water vapor. Technically it is not a hydrocarbon.

In short, combustion of fossil fuels and hydrocarbons does indeed produce a significant amount of water vapor.

Granted, an individual molecule or a more substantial pulse of water vapor may have a short lifetime in the atmosphere, but the continuous stream of pulses of water vapor is likely increasing the water vapor content of the atmosphere.

And since water vapor is a greenhouse gas, any short-term increase of water vapor is likely to have a warming effect, which further increases the capacity of the atmosphere to hold even more water vapor.

Radiative forcing (RF)

Radiative forcing is the heart, the real meat of global warming. This is the technical measure of the energy effect of a greenhouse gas.

I won’t delve deeply into the topic here. Just a little. A very little.

The units of RF are watts per square meter. The watt is a unit of power, which is joules per second, where a joule is the unit of energy. So RF is measuring the amount of energy flowing through a square meter of the atmosphere each second.

According to the Wikipedia, “One square metre of the Earth receives about 1.4 kilojoules of solar radiation every second in full daylight”:

A joule is also known as a watt-second since a watt is a joule per second.

As per the Wikipedia:

Radiative forcing or climate forcing is the difference between insolation (sunlight) absorbed by the Earth and energy radiated back to space. Positive radiative forcing means Earth receives more incoming energy from sunlight than it radiates to space. This net gain of energy will cause warming. Conversely, negative radiative forcing means that Earth loses more energy to space than it receives from the sun, which produces cooling.

Typically, radiative forcing is quantified at the tropopause in units of watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface. Positive forcing (incoming energy exceeding outgoing energy) warms the system, while negative forcing (outgoing energy exceeding incoming energy) cools it. Causes of radiative forcing include changes in insolation and the concentrations of radiatively active gases, commonly known as greenhouse gases, and aerosols.

As per the glossary of the IPCC AR5 Physical Science Basis assessment report:

Radiative forcing — Radiative forcing is the change in the net, downward minus upward, radiative flux (expressed in W m–2 [watts per square meter]) at the tropopause or top of atmosphere due to a change in an external driver of climate change, such as, for example, a change in the concentration of carbon dioxide or the output of the Sun. Sometimes internal drivers are still treated as forcings even though they result from the alteration in climate, for example aerosol or greenhouse gas changes in paleoclimates. The traditional radiative forcing is computed with all tropospheric properties held fixed at their unperturbed values, and after allowing for stratospheric temperatures, if perturbed, to readjust to radiative-dynamical equilibrium. Radiative forcing is called instantaneous if no change in stratospheric temperature is accounted for. The radiative forcing once rapid adjustments are accounted for is termed the effective radiative forcing. For the purposes of this report, radiative forcing is further defined as the change relative to the year 1750 and, unless otherwise noted, refers to a global and annual average value. Radiative forcing is not to be confused with cloud radiative forcing, which describes an unrelated measure of the impact of clouds on the radiative flux at the top of the atmosphere.

More details can be found in the Technical Summary of the IPCC AR5 Physical Science Basis assessment report:

I only mention this topic here for convenient reference, completeness, and to indicate that I am aware of the topic.

Climate forcing

Just to emphasize that climate forcing and radiative forcing (RF) are synonyms, but with radiative forcing being the technically proper term. Climate forcing being the more popular term for the non-physical science community.

See the preceding section for discussion of radiative forcing.

Global Warming Potential (GWP)

See metrics for impact of specific greenhouse gases on global temperature below.

Global Temperature change Potential (GTP)

See metrics for impact of specific greenhouse gases on global temperature below.

Metrics for impact of specific greenhouse gases on global temperature

Two concepts or measures are used by scientists when assessing the impact of a particular greenhouse gas on the global temperature of the planet:

  1. GWP = Global Warming Potential
  2. GTP = Global Temperature change Potential

I won’t dive into the technical meaning here, but simply note:

  • GWP and GTP are ratios for each greenhouse gas, relative to the warming potential for carbon dioxide.
  • By definition, carbon dioxide has a GWP of 1 and a GTP of 1.
  • The short-term warming potential of a particular gas is weighted by the expected lifetime of the gas in the atmosphere, in years.
  • GWP measures the total impact over a period of time.
  • GTP measures the impact AT a designated point in time.

For more details:

Section 8.7 of Chapter 8 of the IPCC AR5 Scientific Basis report has great detail on this.

My only point of covering this topic here is to note that I am aware of the concepts and for convenient reference and completeness.

Continued in Part 3 of 4

Continue to Part 3 of 4.

Jump to Part 4 and Conclusion.

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Freelance Consultant

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