My thanks to Talkshop commenter and now guest author ‘Magic Turtle’ for this short essay expressing concern about the climate debate within the wider context of the scientific endeavour, and the society in which it is embedded. This concern is shared by people on all sides of the debate, and gives an opportunity for reflection on the non-partisan aspects of people’s motivation for being involved as well as an opportunity for critique of specific theoretical considerations.
I would like to start by declaring my position in the man-made global warming debate. I am not a ‘warmist’ and I do not buy the IPCC’s and the Hockey Team’s alarmist technobabble with which they claim to demonstrate that human society’s emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) are endangering the planet and making drastic mitigation measures urgently necessary. To my mind this claim has got ‘Political Scam’ written all over it – an impression that has only been reinforced for me by the Climategate emails.
However, I am less concerned about the politics of man-made global warming than I am about what is being done to science in the brouhaha surrounding it. Today’s political battles are transient and in a hundred years time they will be half-remembered history for schoolchildren to study, but I think the institution of science is one of the central pillars of civilization that needs to be preserved and continually perfected throughout time if civilization is to flourish. But it appears to have become something of a political football in the global warming debate and I think that has to be bad for science and civilization. It seems to me that the warmists have perverted science quite cynically and deliberately in order to make their false argument persuasive. Their so-called ‘climate science’ is no science at all in my eyes and it looks more like an exercise in manufacturing and maintaining a grand illusion to me.
I think the warmist threat to honest science is an insidious one because most people are unaware of it (and that includes most of the people who are teaching it too). And because warmist ‘climate science’ is now being taught in our schools and universities as standard, a whole generation of young people is growing up thinking that it has been educated in the ways of science when in fact it has been miseducated in them and has been given a mass of false impressions and illusions about science that it will need to unlearn before it can start to learn real science. Naturally people who become aware of this travesty that the warmists have made of science tend to become sceptical of warmist theory and to reject it wholesale. But in doing that I think they are in danger of throwing out the baby with bathwater, because the essential greenhouse principle that the warmists have hijacked and perverted to their political advantage appears to be sound and well-supported by modern physics to me. I imagine that the warmists hijacked it precisely because it is so well-founded on the tried and tested laws of physics!
So now another threat to honest science is emerging in the form of those people who reject not only the warmist superstition and propaganda dressed up as ‘climate science’, but who also reject the scientifically-sound principle of the greenhouse theory that the warmists say (wrongly, in my opinion) justifies their cause. I think these anti-greenhouse theorists may be sincere but as I see it the position that they have adopted places them in denial of the genuine science that implies the greenhouse theory and this automatically places them in conflict with real science in general as a result. Whether they realise it or not, I think these revolutionaries are not just trying to replace the greenhouse theory, but the fundamental physics which underlies it too.
That is a revolution too far in my view. There is no need to cut so ruthlessly and so deep into the intellectual strata that support our civilization just in order to refute the exaggerated claims that have been made for the greenhouse effect by the warmists. It is already possible to show quite simply, straightforwardly and easily, on the basis of the IPCC’s own data, that greenhouse warming from humanity’s CO2-emissions cannot be happening faster than at the rate of about 0.03ºC per century, which is undetectable with present techniques of measurement. So there is no need to rewrite the laws of physics in order to show that the man-made greenhouse effect on Earth is insignificant, ineffectual and utterly inconsequential. We can already do that on the basis of the existing greenhouse theory being left as it is.
Since there is thus no obvious practical need for the greenhouse theory to be replaced with a different one, the only conceivable need for it seems to be the academic one of advancing our theoretical understanding of how atmospheric heating at planetary surfaces works. That’s fine, but I think it needs to be gone about in an orderly manner. Essentially, I think there are two aspects to the process of proving that someone’s alternative theory is better at explaining a given phenomenon than the existing one, namely a theoretical aspect and an empirical one.
I think the theoretical aspect here entails showing two things. First, one must show that there is something wrong, or inadequate with the way that the existing greenhouse theory explains planetary surface warming above the temperature that it otherwise would have if it was warmed by insolation alone. And before one can do that one must first know what the existing greenhouse theory is actually saying. Unfortunately that is a bit vague at the present time and this lack of theoretical definition allows massive scope for confusion. For example, although it is generally understood that the theory holds that greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere are having a ‘greenhouse effect’ on the surface by re-radiating back to it radiant energy that they have previously absorbed from it, what about the possible greenhouse effects of clouds and aerosols, which are not GHGs? And what about the possible alternative method of greenhouse warming via the gravitational lapse that has nothing to do with back-radiation? Are these other principles included in the ‘standard’ greenhouse theory which the anti-greenhouse theorists are wanting to replace? Since there is nothing in the existing greenhouse theory that prohibits them, I take the view that, in principle, they are.
The implication of this complication is that anti-greenhouse theorists cannot disprove the greenhouse theory just by proving that GHGs don’t have a greenhouse effect or that back-radiation is a myth, because the existing greenhouse theory has extra cards hidden up its sleeve that it hasn’t played yet in the forms of these other greenhouse mechanisms that are not being considered. In order to show that the whole greenhouse theory is false it would be necessary to show that all of its possible mechanisms are false, not just some of them. And as far as I have seen, none of them have been shown to be false or flawed to date.
In any case, in order to show that GHGs don’t have a greenhouse effect it would be necessary to show that they do not absorb or emit infrared radiation in substantially greater quantities than non-GHGs do. This would require the overturning of more than a century’s worth of experimental research in radiative physics. And in order to show that back-radiation was false, it would be necessary to show that the Beer-Lambert law of optics does not apply to the situation for some extraordinary reason that no-one else has noticed in the past hundred years.
If these theoretical challenges to the anti-greenhouse revolutionary seem daunting, I can only tell him that there’s worse to come. I gather that his second task at the theoretical level is to show that his alternative theory explains the phenomenon of planetary surface warming ‘better’ than the existing greenhouse theory does. That is to say, after having shown how the existing greenhouse theory does not explain the known facts about planetary warming adequately, his next task is to show that his alternative theory does explain it adequately with fewer basic principles or the same number in accordance with Occam’s Razor. (In fact the existing GH-theory purports to explain it with only one principle – the ‘greenhouse effect’ – so any alternative theory would not be able to do it with less in fact.)
Demonstrating the superior virtue of an alternative to the greenhouse theory entails more than just explaining how the new theory works. It also entails explaining clearly how it works independently of the greenhouse effect that the alternative theory is eschewing. This means that one must show how it is thought to work in a totally GHG-free, cloud-free atmosphere that has no greenhouse properties whatsoever. And so far, I have not seen any anti-greenhouse theories do this.
I can already hear howls of protest from certain quarters to the effect that they have done this, but I think these theorists are not being honest with themselves over this matter. The essential difference between a greenhouse atmosphere and a non-greenhouse one is that the greenhouse atmosphere absorbs IR-radiation emanating from the planetary surface whereas a non-greenhouse atmosphere does not and is totally transparent in the IR-waveband. Consequently a non-greenhouse atmosphere would be heated only by its contact with the surface and that means it cannot warm spontaneously above the temperature of the surface, which itself can warm up only to the temperature determined by the amount of incoming insolation that it absorbs. So in order for the IR-transparent non-greenhouse atmosphere to warm any higher (and transfer its extra warmth back to the surface to warm it higher in turn) there must be some hitherto unknown property of an atmosphere that enables it to absorb more power from some source other than the surface. What is that property and what is that extra power-source? Neither has been disclosed up to now and they both remain mysterious as far as I can see.
Finally, there is the empirical aspect of the challenge. I think it is to show, by some form of replicable real-world observation, that one’s particular anti-greenhouse theory is able to predict planetary surface temperatures better than the greenhouse theory does. Again, it is crucial here to discriminate between planets (and moons) that have greenhouse atmospheres and those that do not because if the alternative theory is valid, it should work just as well for non-greenhouse atmospheres as for greenhouse ones. And that hasn’t been done either (at least, as far as I have been able to tell).
The anti-greenhouse theorist cannot be blamed for that though, in my opinion. It is not his fault that the solar system does not contain any celestial bodies with pure non-greenhouse atmospheres which demonstrate his theory’s validity. But it is not valid either to pretend that there are some and that his theory works perfectly well on them too just as it does on all the others. I think that is an attempt to pull the wool over our eyes. Such an anti-greenhouse theorist’s empirical position is like that of a Victorian engineer who claims to have invented a new kind of horseless carriage. His empirical challenge is to demonstrate before the awe-struck public’s eyes that he has a carriage which goes by itself without the aid of horses. It is simply not enough for him to display an ordinary horse-drawn carriage and to say that it is working differently to the way in which everyone has thought its works up to now. That is not an empirical demonstration of his theory. That’s a swizz.
To summarise my argument and bring this monologue to a close, I am suggesting that the current anti-greenhouse theorists are on a quixotic quest to prove something that they cannot prove, which doesn’t need to be proved, which they are not attempting to prove in a rational and orderly manner and which could only cause scientific confusion if people believe them without real proof being provided. That is not to say that the greenhouse theory shouldn’t be questioned or challenged, of course. It just means that I think proffered proofs of alternative new theories need to be tested rigorously and shown to be genuine before they succeed in deposing and replacing the old ones.