The Heat Of Darkness

I will try to keep the introduction brief. It’s a little bit of physics that I was supposed to have learned a long time ago but retained only a little.

The planet Earth reflects about 30% of the light it gets from the sun. One way of saying this is the albedo of the Earth is 30%. Wikipedia says 30% to 35%, but I was only guessing. The remaining 65% to 70% the Earth gets to keep, and this warms the Earth.

Keep this in mind. The Earth does not keep this energy forever. If it did, then the Earth would keep getting hotter and hotter until it melted, and we know that has not happened recently. When the surface of the Earth is warm it radiates invisible infra-red energy out into space. The hotter the surface becomes the more intensely it radiates energy. After a time the Earth’s surface reaches a temperature at which the combined reflected and radiated energy exactly equal the energy received from the sun. This is a system in equilibrium.

OK, that’s not strictly true. One problem we poor students had to solve was to calculate this average surface temperature. The solution was about 20 degrees F cooler than what we actually measure. What was wrong? What was wrong, and we knew this going in, is that the sun is not the sole source of heating for the Earth. The Earth contains within it a vast nuclear reactor, large quantities of uranium and thorium undergoing radioactive decay and releasing heat. Enough heat to keep the Earth’s average surface temperature where it is now. Which some would say is just about right.

Electromagnetic energy (including visible light and infra-red) must pass through the Earth’s atmosphere coming in and going out. The atmosphere intercepts some of that energy passing through in both directions. To get to the point, the Earth’s surface reflects some visible light and some infra-red, but it (mostly) only emits energy in the form of infra-red radiation. Without consulting any charts I am going to say a large amount of infra-red energy passes through the atmosphere on the way out into infinite space, never to return again. But some of this infra-red making the trip out gets absorbed by the atmosphere.

This illustration from Wikipedia shows what goes on with energy and radiation in this circumstance. The plots for an idealized absorber/emitter show that as surface temperature increases, the body emits more energy and preferentially in the short wavelengths (for example, visible light). When the surface temperature is lower the total emission is less, and the distribution is concentrated in the longer wavelengths (infra-red). At ordinary surface temperatures on Earth (especially not the glowing lava from a volcano) the emission is entirely in the infra-red and longer wavelengths.

So, what would happen if the amount of energy getting absorbed on the way out were to increase? To answer my own question, more energy would be retained by the Earth as a whole (atmosphere plus ground plus water). The temperature of the Earth’s surface would rise until it reached a point that the amount of energy starting the trip out would be enough so that enough would make it out, and the inward and outward flows would balance again.

What would cause the atmosphere to increase its infra-red absorption rate (absorb a greater fraction of the infra-red passing through)? The answer is “some change in the nature of the atmosphere.”

The atmosphere is mostly nitrogen and oxygen gas. Water vapor makes up some, and argon gas and carbon dioxide make up even less. Due to some well-known principles of quantum mechanics, water molecules interact readily with photons in the infra-red part of the spectrum. Water molecules have a number of energy levels at which to store energy, and certain wavelengths of infra-red have just the right energy to raise the energy of a water molecule by the amount of the difference of two of the molecule’s well-defined energy levels. A water molecule readily interacts with a photon of the proper wavelength and absorbs all of its energy. This kind of interaction likes to be all or nothing. That’s why they call it quantum mechanics.

So, water vapor in the atmosphere is an excellent absorber of infra-red energy and contributes greatly to keeping the Earth’s surface warm. What about carbon dioxide? The same is true with carbon dioxide, but not so much, because, for one thing, there is much less of it. Water accounts for 36% to 72% of the I-R absorption, and CO2 accounts for 9% to 26%. CO2 makes up 0.039% of the atmosphere, while water makes up about 0.4%. It’s apparent that of the two major “greenhouse” gasses in the air, CO2 is pound for pound more absorbent of infra-red than water.

People who doubt the effect that something like water has on heat retention need to visit a desert climate. In Tucson, Arizona, the relative humidity may linger around 10%, and in the day time the temperature regularly exceeds 110F. When the sun goes down you look up, and you see nothing between you and the cold void of outer space but a layer of dry air. The temperature rapidly drops as energy radiates into space. The sky “feels” cold. A demonstration with CO2 uses an IR imaging system and a CO2 fire extinguisher. On the imaging view screen you can see all manner of objects in a completely dark room, because they emit IR. Spray a cloud of CO2 in front of these objects, and they disappear, because the CO2 has absorbed the IR.

Even so, water has a greater over-all effect on heat retention in the atmosphere, so what’s all the fuss about CO2? We regularly put a lot of water in the air and never give it a thought. The difference is that water has a transport mechanism called “rain” that removes it from the atmosphere as fast on average as it goes in. CO2 has no such mechanism. CO2 is removed mainly by the process of photosynthesis by plants, and it takes a long time to remove a large slug of CO2 from the air. The average life of a water molecule in the air is about 9 days. The average life of a CO2 molecule in the air is 20 years. That large slug of CO2 will show effects for about 200 years.

That was my brief introduction, and I now get down to the business of what has come to be called global warming. The CO2 concentration in the air has gone up 35% since the advent of the industrial revolution, and it appears that much of this has been due to the burning of fossil fuels and the destruction of forests.

Carbon dioxide is just carbon and oxygen joined into a molecule. The atmosphere contains a lot of oxygen (about 21%) but no carbon except in carbon dioxide, methane and some other minor gasses. If you can manage the carbon, you can keep the CO2 out of the atmosphere. Fossil fuels (coal-almost pure carbon and hydrocarbons-petroleum and natural gas) transport carbon, that has been sequestered underground for millions of years, back to the atmosphere. Trees store a lot of carbon, as well, and removing them without growing new ones to replace them returns their carbon content of the atmosphere.

None of that would matter if there were not detrimental effects of global warming. Nobody has yet projected more than a two to five degrees rise in atmospheric temperature in the next 100 years. However, even that small amount will have a very noticeable effect. If the oceans warm by that amount they will expand, and the sea level will rise. If the water locked in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melts and flows into the oceans, the sea level will rise by several feet. There are some places that cannot tolerate such a rise in sea level. The Republic of Maldives is a collection of islands in the Indian Ocean on average less than five feet above sea level. The state of Florida is not much better, and the city of New Orleans is right at sea level with some parts lower than the surface of the Gulf of Mexico just a few miles away.

Also, there is concern with runaway warming. If warming melts the northern snow belts, then the darkened landscape will absorb more heat from the sun, and warming will increase, causing more snow and ice to melt. It’s called positive feedback.

Again, none of this would be controversial, except that some people do not want to take responsibility for what we are all doing to contribute to global warming. People do not want to stop burning gasoline in their cars. They do not want to stop burning coal in their power plants. They want to cut down forests to plant annual crops. And so on.

So, what do people do? They do what people always do. They shoot the messenger who brings the bad news. It’s as though if the message goes away then the problem will go away. As with all problems there is a profit to be made solving the problem. Which brings us to the matter of Heartland Institute.

A quick trip to their home page reveals their message in a circulating marquee:

HEARTLAND FIGHTS BACK

Left-wing groups commit fraud, but we’re fighting back! Join our legal defense fund and remove false and defamatory materials and prosecute the true criminals.

The site also mentions a number of these “left-wing” groups:

NCSE (National Center for Science Education)
Greenpeace
Desmogblog
Huffington Post
Thinkprogress
Pacific Institute

Some of these groups I am familiar with, others not so much. The Huffington Post I read often, and I can swear to you it has a liberal slant. Also, let’s call Greenpeace a given, although I am not sure why. When did protecting the environment become a liberal idea? How come conservatives have not picked up on this and marched with it? This is what I sometimes wonder when I consider the original meaning of the word conservative.

The NCSE promotes the teaching of science-based concepts in public schools. What conservative organization would be against this idea? It’s possible that because creationism has become the foster child of conservative politicians the NCSE is now on Heartland’s radar. The NCSE has been for the past 30 years a champion of teaching the science of biological evolution, and this science is now targeted by conservative groups. The NCSE strongly opposes teaching creationism, including the story of Genesis and the modern Intelligent Design form, in public science classes. Let’s make matters even worse. Recently the NCSE put “global warming” denial alongside creationism as one of the pseudo sciences it will oppose.

A little reading of Thinkprogress gives the impression of a liberal attitude, and Desmogblog is obviously liberal due to its stance against climate science denial. That brings us to Pacific Institute.

Pacific Institute was founded by Peter Gleick, an American scientist specializing in environmental issues. More recently he stepped down as head of the organization after revealing he had obtained confidential documents from Heartland using a faked identity. He created a bogus Gmail account and sent e-mails to Heartland claiming they were from a named board member and asking that duplicate notices from Heartland be sent to the new address, as well. He received confidential documents from Heartland and released these documents to various outlets, including Desmogblog, which has posted them on the Internet.

Gleick has clearly stepped beyond the bounds of legitimate science and into the realm of advocacy. In addition to his disconnection from the Pacific Institute, the San Francisco Chronicle has dropped his on-line blog.

Gleick was apparently motivated to tap into Heartland materials by an anonymous correspondence he received containing a memo that Heartland now says was forged. Heartland acknowledges the other published documents obtained by Gleick but contends the forged document has harmed its reputation. They are threatening legal action.

It is impossible to reconcile Gleick’s actions as those of a serious scientist. Particularly his release of unsubstantiated evidence is outside accepted practice. Regarding the materials Gleick obtained from Heartland, it was not his job to do this kind of thing. This is best left up to others, such as Desmogblog and this blog. The Skeptical Analysis blog makes no claim for political neutrality, but there will always be an advocacy for real science and for doing the right thing.

I have reviewed the purloined materials, and I am happy to report they confirm what everybody knew all along. It brings me to wonder why Gleick went to all the trouble to expose the obvious. Did anybody think for a moment that Heartland has a legitimate agenda that caters to the public interest? Any difference between Heartland and a for-profit propaganda mill is difficult to discern. Here is part of an item posted on Desmogblog regarding the materials from Gleick:

We are releasing the entire trove of documents now to allow crowd-sourcing of the material. Here are a few quick highlights, stay tuned for much more.

Confirmation that Charles G. Koch Foundation is again funding Heartland Institute’s global warming disinformation campaign. [Update: Apparently even the Koch brothers think the Heartland Institute’s climate denial program is too toxic to fund. On Wednesday, Koch confirmed that it did not cut a check for the $200K mentioned in the strategy memo after all. A statement released on KochFacts.com and the charleskochfoundationfacts.org states that “…the Charles Koch Foundation provided $25,000 to the Heartland Institute in 2011 for research in healthcare, not climate change, and this was the first and only donation the Foundation made to the institute in more than a decade. The Foundation has made no further commitments of funding to Heartland.”]

The allusion is apparently to an item in Heartland’s 2012 fundraising plan. It shows an anticipated $25,000 expected for this year from Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation. For those who do not watch the news, the Koch (coke) brothers are politically conservative billionaires whose family fortune originated with the petroleum industry.

Particularly telling is a Heartland memo titled “Confidential Memo: 2012 Heartland Climate Strategy” and dated January 2012. The contents appear to be no longer confidential, so a bit of disclosure is in order.

One paragraph speaks of the development of a “Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Classrooms.” This is being developed by David Wojick, who has a long history of working for industrial organizations opposed to climate science. According to Sourcewatch, “He has a Ph.D. in philosophy of science and mathematical logic from the University of Pittsburgh, and a BS in civil engineering from Carnegie Tech. He has been on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon and the staffs of the US Office of Naval Research and the Naval Research Lab.” Also “Wojick has been described as a journalist and policy analyst. According to a search of 22,000 academic journals, Wojick has not published any research in a peer-reviewed journal on the subject of climate change.” The Heartland memo states that Wojick will be paid $100,000 to develop 20 educational modules with the funds coming from “The Anonymous Donor.”

The memo also states that Heartland funds “high-profile individuals who regularly and publicly counter the alarmist AGW message.” These include Craig Idso at $11,600 per month, Fred Singer at $5000 per month (plus expenses) and Robert Carter, at $1667 per month.

About Idso, Sourcewatch has this to say:

Craig D. Idso is Chairman, founder and former President of the Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, a contrarian Arizona-based group funded in part by ExxonMobil. He is the son of its president, Sherwood B. Idso[1], and the brother of its vice president, Keith E. Idso.

According to Sourcewatch, Fred Singer “runs the Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP).., which publicizes his own views on various topics, primarily climate change, ozone depletion, risks of chemical pollution (from DDT and others), nuclear power, and space policy.” He has a long history of advocacy for concerns who have behaved badly in the public arena. Again from Sourcewatch:

In 1993, Singer collaborated with Tom Hockaday of Apco Associates to draft an article on “junk science” intended for publication. Apco Associates was the PR firm hired to organize and direct The Advancement of Sound Science Coalition for Philip Morris. Hockaday reported on his work with Singer to Ellen Merlo, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs at Philip Morris.

Sourcewatch has this to say about Robert Carter:

According to the Sydney Morning Herald in 2007, Carter was “on the research committee at the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank that has received funding from oil and tobacco companies, and whose directors sit on the boards of companies in the fossil fuel sector” and believed, SMH said, that “the role of peer review in scientific literature was overstressed.”

If you have been reading along with me you have noticed one peculiar consistency. None of the people just mentioned are serious scientists working in the field of atmospheric science, environmental issues or any of the topics they are being paid to speak on. The word propaganda has a long history of various implications, but this case best illustrates the modern English usage.

When a dedicated cadre of serious scientists develops an idea that many in our society find objectionable, the only recourse for those who oppose this idea is to out-talk the scientists and call them liars and fools. The irony of this approach is that the accuser must take on the role of a liar or a fool. Another course of action would be to do real scientific research and develop opposing conclusions. The various industrial and political groups could take that route if they chose. Obviously they have not, and the reason they have not is because they cannot. If they could, they would. But they cannot, and they do not.

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4 thoughts on “The Heat Of Darkness

  1. Pingback: Heartland Headed Nowhere | Skeptical Analysis

  2. Pingback: Political Science | Skeptical Analysis

  3. Pingback: Political Science | North Texas Skeptics

  4. Pingback: The Heat Of Darkness | North Texas Skeptics

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