Climate Change: CO2 is insignificant? I think not.

Well here comes my first crack at responding to Papa Don’s arguments. First, I gotta say I am ecstatic and honored that Don is willing to take the time to express his opinions and share knowledge. It means a lot to me to hear what he thinks, and though largely I do not agree with his argument, I am still able to learn from it, and appreciated its worth. I have been thinking about the best way to approach this, and here is how it’s gonna work. Don makes several different points in his article, and lays them out in a logical fashion. I think I will respond to each point individually by paraphrasing it, and then giving my opinion and sources, and putting it as a separate post here. If you are an avid reader and actually make it through all of this, please comment and give us your opinions as well, lively discussion is always welcome here. On to the show…


Don’s first argument goes something like this…CO2 levels have indeed been rising since the 19th century, but they are still just a plink in the bucket, therefore how can CO2 levels have such an impact on global temperature rise. Don uses the analogy that the CO2 concentration rise is equivalent to just 2 barrels of oil (how appropriate a metaphor huh?) in a 1.13 million gallon tank:

“You know those oil storage tanks that you see at refineries? Take one of those tanks 80 feet in diameter and 30 feet high. That is about 1,127,000 gallons…Now place two more 55-gallon drums next to the first five. Do you really think those two additional drums could have that large of an effect compared to the million gallons in the big tank?”

Don is right about the CO2 concentrations and how little a part it is of the ‘pie’ in regards to the chemistry of our atmosphere. However, just because CO2 makes up very little of the atmosphere does not mean it doesn’t play an important role as a greenhouse gas and radiation absorber. Several studies have shown the effect of CO2 on trapping radiation in Earth’s atmosphere, and this data has been out there for awhile. A good and easily understandable example of this is given in an elementary Atmospheric Chemistry textbook by Richard Wayne published in 1985 (Most Atmospheric Chem. Texts have similar info, this is just the one I had handy)…..W Here is an interesting table from Chapter 2 of this text:

Table 2.2  Contributions of atmospheric radiation absorbers
to thermal trapping
Species removed                       % trapped radiation remaining
All                                             0
H2O CO2 O3                           50
H2O                                         64
Clouds                                      86
CO2                                         88
O3                                            97
None                                         100
Data from Rev. Geophys. & Space Sci. 16 (1978) 465


Now let’s consider what this table is saying. The basic gist is that depending on what gas you remove from the atmosphere, a given amount of thermal radiation would still be trapped without said gas. First, a quick and dirty explanation of the Earth’s heat budget is necessary. Electromagnetic Radiation (EMR) from the sun drives the heat budget. The sun radiates mostly shortwave (basically visible light) EMR towards the earth. This shortwave EMR reacts with the Ozone layer, and the atmosphere, but is mostly absorbed by the Earth’s surface. This EMR is then reradiated from the surface as longwave EMR (thermal energy or heat). The atmosphere traps some of this heat, and this trapping is what scientists are refereeing to when they talk about the Greenhouse Effect. Obviously if one removed all of the gas, no thermal trapping would occur and therefore there would be no heat trapped by the atmosphere. Another way to consider it is that if you removed all of the H2O, according to the table, only 36% of the trapped heat would escape. From the table, we can read the 12% of the radiation is trapped by CO2 directly. Here is a quote from the book about the table:

“Carbon dioxide adds 12 % to the trapping of the present atmosphere, that is, it is a less important trapping agent than water vapor or clouds. On the other hand, on its own CO2 would trap three times as much <36%> as it actually does in the Earth’s atmosphere.”

This means that CO2, though having a very small percentage of or atmosphere, is not an insignificant player in the role of trapping heat. The argument of CO2 not having an affect is untrue. We cannot relegate CO2 based only on its percentage contribution to the chemistry of the atmosphere. Similar results, give or take a few percent can be found in several sources. If you’re curious to find more, I recommend using the ISA’s Web of Science Database, it’s a good search engine for scholarly works.


8 responses to “Climate Change: CO2 is insignificant? I think not.

  1. Their models seem to be wrong. As I pointed out, when the CO2 was produced at a maximum from 1940 until 1976, the temperature went down. You are trying to compare models and charts based on math, to actual readings. It seems to me that the actual readings should hold sway.

  2. Another example, more recent is the fact that the CO2 has continued to climb since 1998 (The hottest year on record), and yet the temperature has dropped since then. ??

  3. A few points. First, the table given is based on real data, not models. Atmospheric chemistry analysis if often done by taking samples, replicating them in a lab and testing there properties as certain elements are taken out, etc. That table is an example of this sort of approach. Also, models seem to correlate well to these results, so both the empirical experiments and models seem to agree. Second, though you are right that CO2 was produced at a maximum between 1940 to 1976, and that the mean temperature went down, there is a more complex answer to this than just the level of CO2 in the atmosphere. H20, average cloud cover, and a multitude of other factors are involved. Also, we cannot and should not base our theory of CO2 reaction and properties on such a short period of record (36 years). Again, this is why Atmos. Chem. scientists test the properties of the air in a lab setting, then infer implications for the atmosphere as a whole.

    In my next post, I will discuss issues you have pointed out like CO2/Temp. lag and the dropping temperature issue.

  4. That’s a lot of what I’m trying to point out. It’s all done in the lab. You said, “Also, models seem to correlate well to these results, so both the empirical experiments and models seem to agree.”. Models and experiments are both man-made, and models amount to not much more than massaging numbers until you get the results you want. And I’m saying that the models and the experiments do not match the empirical data collected in real life. There is no instance shown yet where the CO2 has lead temperature. In an experiment, you can increase the CO2 manually to see what the results will be, and the result might be a raise in temperature. BUT!! you had to do it manually in an experiment because in real life it hasn’t happened that way yet. The experiments don’t include cloud cover, and all the other things you just mentioned. They just raise the CO2 to see what the change is in temperature. I’m sure they enter figures for cloud cover and all the rest, but it does not match real life.

  5. This is a common argument: Lab results and real world results are not comparable. This is not true. We perform experiments in the lab based on dimensional scaling. This is where we can use dimensionless physical relationships in a real world way, but perform it at any scale we wish (such as in a lab situation) so we can better observe what is occurring. For instance, I use a lab flume on occasion to study fluid mechanics and sediment transport in rivers. Through dimensional analysis, I can know that certain variables such as the flow rate, size of the rocks, and flume slope, though not being exactly what the real world might be, are still comparable. The point of lab research is actually hinged on the wonderful fact that physics and chemistry processes work in this manner.

    Also, you are relying on real world data from only 36 years for your argument. It is this limitation of data in all deep time science (geology, climate research, etc.) that prompts dimensionless approaches and dim. analysis. The lab IS real world process, just without dimensions, alleviating some of the issues with observing ‘real world’ climate data from before human existence, etc.

    As far as the CO2 lag issue, I am getting to that also, but not here. It deserves its own post, to come soon…

  6. Not so fast!! We haven’t finished with this part yet. I am familiar with dimensionless experiments, but almost every scientist that has worked with weather on both sides of the CO2 argument, has said that there are just too many variables to do any serious experimenting. For instance, let’s take moisture in the air. Humidity depends on temperature, wind, where the wind is coming from (over ocean water, over dry land, in front of a storm, up draft, down draft, etc. etc.). CO2 (Temperature, measuring in an industrial city, over the ocean, during an el nino, during a la nina, in the winter, in the summer.) And all of it in daylight, or night time, cloudy or sunny, activity level of the sun, up-welling of deep ocean waters, etc., etc.
    I found a good web site for my side of the argument.

    The Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine is a small organization, founded by the discoverer of Carbon 14. There aren’t too many different areas to look into on this site, but each area is powerful!!


  7. I can’t really speak to any of the dimension / dimensionless analysis comments, but I will say that an argument that starts with the relatively small percentage that CO2 accounts for in the atmosphere as proof that it ‘couldn’t possibly have that big of an effect’ is asking for skepticism at the remainder of the argument. There are plenty of things that comprise a fantastically small percentage of a larger system and still have drastic effects. I’m thinking of the ridiculously small does of cyanide needed to kill a person, etc. – I see the “there just isn’t that much CO2” argument as appealing to a basic audience that may be prone to committing the first grade offense of only allowing their personal subjective experience to explain what might or might not be able to occur.

  8. Allowing for the fact that I probably “just don’t get it”. Are you accounting for the overall climate changes from the initial start? How does today’s CO2 level (or levels) and the current pattern of climate we are experiencing compare to past climactic CO2 level perplexities? I am refering to the atmospheric levels of CO2 affecting planetary flora and fauna adaptive to environment arguments. Namely, what effect have these levels been during changes in overall global climate throughout earth history. Today’s global temps and weather are completely different than what scientists believe they were during, say, the Jurasic Period. (I have heard that O2 levels were 20 odd % higher then than today) Why have areas that were once lush and tropical rain forrest become harsh dessert climes? Is CO2 to blame? It seems to me that the argument about CO2 is lacking… at least at the base level. I’d like to see the two of you argue a little deeper into the atmospheric delima than just a simple molecule of CO2. Don’t get me wrong, the debate is gloriously fun to watch, I just can’t sit idly by while I could just as easily stir the pot.

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