By Frank Williford –
Does Climate Change Cause Global Warming?
Does Global Warming Cause Climate Change?
Does Man Cause Global Warming?
Is Global Warming A Good Euphemism For Climate Change?
Before we dig into the details of the answers to the above questions let’s look at a few facts no scientist will dispute. The history of the earth is replete with notable cold glacial periods and warmer interglacial periods. These varying climatic periods have been primarily driven by changes in the earth’s elliptical orbit around the sun and by changes in the tilt and direction of the earth’s rotation which control the amount and distribution of sunlight striking the earth’s surface. Also, changes in the energy output of the sun during the five to ten year return period of sun spot cycles is a factor.
Then there are also the ocean currents of varying temperature. Just about everyone has heard of “el nino and la nina” and how the translation of a warm water mass and a cold water mass in the South Pacific Ocean promotes large changes in the short term weather cycle. The answer to why this translation occurs is still unknown. Anyone who doesn’t believe the power of warm water should go to South-West Ireland and see the near tropical plants growing there naturally. When making this trip one should remember south-west Ireland is located at approximately the same latitude as Labrador. No tropical plants there. Anyone who has been in both Ireland and Labrador during winter can attest there is a profound difference. Credit for this effect goes to the warm water of the Gulf Stream. The most recent past ice age in Europe was partially the result of the Gulf Stream changing its course.
How do we know these factors are by far the largest contributors to global warming and global cooling? The picture starts to become clear if one thinks about what happens on a daily or seasonal basis. It is warmer during the day than it is at night because of the presence or absence of sunlight at a particular point on the earth’s surface. It is warmer in summer than in winter because of the earth’s rotational axis tilt, which varies from time to time, and its annual trip around the sun.
That glaciers are melting and the water level of the ocean is rising has become a popular claim. It is based on the assumption that if the water level of the oceans rise then it must be because glaciers are receding which means they are melting, and conversely, if glaciers are melting then sea level must be rising. Water is indeed a product of melting glaciers, yet water from melting glaciers today does not necessarily increase actual ocean water levels. Let’s look at ocean water levels a little closer.
Whenever a measurement is made on anything the question which should be asked is “Measured relative to what?” The answer to this question is important and it is not always obvious. In the case of measuring something with a measuring tape, for example, the answer is obvious because we are measuring one fixed point relative to another fixed point. “Item X” is definitely seven inches long if when I place one end of the measuring tape on one edge of the item and then read the number seven on the tape at the other edge of the item. This same result will be obtained even though a number of different measuring tapes are used, and the initial point is taken on either side of “Item X”. In other words the relativity of one fixed point to the other fixed point does not change.
Now what about the water level in the ocean? We have been told it is rising at a rate of about one to two millimeters per year or one to two meters in one thousand years. This may be correct but there is a pretty good chance it is not correct. The rise or fall, of the water level, could be more or it could be less than the apparent observation. Obviously man has not been keeping accurate water level records for a thousand years or any time period near to that. He has been keeping records that have gotten progressively better for two or three hundred years. Still there is the critical question of ocean water level relative to what that begs to be answered.
During the most recent ice age sea level was more than 120 meters lower than it is today. Likewise during the previous interglacial period the sea level peaked at about 20 meters higher than it is today. Calculations being made today indicate if all glacial and polar ice were to melt the sea level would rise by about 10-12 meters. What happened to the missing 8 to 10 meters of sea level? Is it possible some of our measurements are being affected by “relative to what?”
Well, we do know some things with certainty. We know that plate tectonics, or continental drift, is still very active although not fast moving by any stretch. Yet, today we experience a significant number of earthquakes often with attending title waves; therefore the earth is clearly actively moving about. We also know that new rock is being formed at the mid-ocean ridges and that erosion is moving large amounts of water born land material into the sea. We also know continental plate movement is steadily causing mountains to rise up in some places as also does some volcanic activity. Satellites have taken measurements which show that all of Canada is slowly rising and other significant land masses are slowly subsiding. Is it possible that this could have an effect on our view of the sea level? But wait there is even more. The gravitational pull of the moon and the sun causes daily and seasonal changes in the sea level. These daily and seasonal sea level changes are called tides. Tides are actually a standing wave some three to four meters from trough to peak on average. The earth rotates around this standing wave every day with the net effect being the observance of high tides and low tides. Some tides are seasonally higher and some are seasonally lower. About 2/3 of the tidal effect is due to the moon and about 1/3 due to the sun’s gravitational pull. Anyone familiar with tidal variations will likely ask: ”But the tide is not low or high at the same time every day, so what does this mean?” What it means is when the 24 hour rotational time was assigned to one revolution of the earth it wasn’t fully appreciated that the earth is moving in its own orbit around the sun thereby “gaining ground” so to speak. In fact one revolution of earth relative to the location of the sun takes only 23 hours, 56 minutes and four seconds, the exact time difference between corresponding tides. So, we see the oceans and the land masses are never still, yet there is even more to consider. Wind driven water waves can give rise to very large and rapid increases and decreases in sea surface elevation. These waves can be of very long duration and cover immense distances. In short, sea levels are continuously varying and never stop doing so.
And if all this wasn’t enough to ponder, what about the immense volume of ground water that has been pumped from the subsurface of the earth to the surface and ultimately worked its way into the oceans of the world? Over time the volumes have been very significant. We have all heard about the worry of man consuming ground water faster than it is being replaced. So long as we look at only near surface ground water this is an accepted truism. Few people have knowledge of the vast volumes of below surface ground water that reside deeper under the earth’s crust, or the fact that continental plates impinging upon, and correspondingly moving beneath adjacent plates drag with them ocean water as they progresses beneath the near-shore sea bed.
So once again we must ask the question, sea levels are claimed to be rising relative to what? This is actually an open question. The best and most exact answer is still unknown. What we do know is the glaciers and polar ice caps advance and retreat in accordance with the varying combinations of the above factors. In summary we can say, on a ten to hundred year basis output of energy from the sun and changes in ocean circulation patterns are prominent factors in observed atmospheric temperature changes. From thousands of years to hundreds of thousands of years changes in the earth’s orbit around the sun and variations in the earth’s rotational axis become the prominent factors. Over a scale of millions of years, plate motions, large scale erosion of land masses and long term distribution of carbon dioxide cycling between the atmosphere, the oceans and land also drive climate change.
Although our knowledge of climate change factors is incomplete we can ascertain the following: Our climate occasionally “quickly” jumps up into brief stable periods of warm temperatures called interglacials. The earth is in one of those periods now. In fact the earth is in what is likely the most stable interglacial period of record. Interglacials are followed by a gradual decline in global temperatures toward a much colder climate which is exceedingly variable.
Still one can question, what about the amount of carbon dioxide man is introducing into the atmosphere? What about the greenhouse effect? Can it run away causing much higher temperatures? This added carbon dioxide, added by Man’s activities, must surely be a factor that needs consideration. Yes it does need consideration. It needs consideration in order to ascertain the magnitude of the effect it has on global warming relative to all of the other factors that are involved in a global warming or global cooling process.
To focus in on a possible answer to this question we must understand a little more about the greenhouse effect. The first thing a person needs to do is understand the effect we attribute to a greenhouse we may see on a farm or nursery is totally different from what we are talking about when we discuss atmospheric temperature rise or fall. The fact some uninformed individual named the atmospheric process “greenhouse effect” and it stuck has helped mislead people in to believing such an event is a likely possibility. After all isn’t it relatively warmer inside a greenhouse at night and during the day when compared to the outside ambient temperature? Yes, it is, and this temperature difference has absolutely nothing to do with any change in the carbon dioxide level in the greenhouse.
The “greenhouse effect” we are trying to understand is a process that occurs primarily because of the existence of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and a few other gasses found in the atmosphere in only modest quantities. Water vapor is an important greenhouse gas because of how efficiently it absorbs infrared radiation. Methane is the next most efficient infrared radiation adsorbing gas with 21 times more efficiency than carbon dioxide. Yet carbon dioxide deserves consideration because it is available in the atmosphere in significant quantities.
Greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere preferentially absorb infrared radiation and not visible sunlight or ultraviolet radiation. Sunlight is electromagnetic radiation primarily in the visible range with a component of ultraviolet radiation when it first reaches earth.
As the radiation from the sun hits the earth it goes through a complicated series of transformations, reflections, absorptions and re-emissions. Thirty percent gets reflected directly back into space, twenty percent is absorbed by the atmosphere and re-radiated back into space. When the remaining sunlight and ultraviolet radiation hits the earth’s surface this energy is absorbed. It is also quickly re-emitted in the form of infrared radiation and the atmosphere absorbs it. The atmosphere doesn’t hold onto it long and re-emits it with some of it heading off into space and some of it heading back down to the earth surface to be reabsorbed. This infrared energy then begins a series of bounces back and forth between the troposphere and the earth surface warming the atmosphere and the earth surface enough to make the earth livable. Without this effect the earth would enter a very deep and prolonged ice age and all life as we know it would cease to exist. Over time the amount of the sun’s energy received at the earth’s surface is balanced by the amount leaving it. As more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere, the atmospheric temperature rises. There is no question about this. The question is how much effect does increasing carbon dioxide have when compared to the other factors previously discussed? The answer remains elusive! We should also consider why the earth’s atmosphere does not contain more carbon dioxide than it does since it is being continuously added in varying quantities. There are two principle factors to consider, oceans and vegetation. The carbon cycle is fairly complex, involving everything from volcanos to sedimentation of calcium carbonate rocks and other geologic factors. The complexity of the carbon cycle requires it to not be discussed here. Suffice to say most surface carbon actually exists as dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans, some 40,000 billion tons of carbon. Humans add about seven billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere every year. About 120 billion tons are moved back and forth between the atmosphere and the earth’s vegetation system yearly. The oceans absorb a significant amount.
We should pause for a moment and gain a clear view of exactly what is being talked about when someone makes the claim we must aggressively limit carbon dioxide emissions to avoid a run-away greenhouse effect. In an example of atmospheric greenhouse effect one can say increasing temperature actually increases the greenhouse effect through a series of positive feedbacks, which then increase the temperature even more. When climates warm, the amount of surface ice is reduced, ice caps shrink and sea ice at the North Pole is reduced. This decreases the earth’s reflectance. More sunlight is then absorbed by the surface and re-emitted in the infrared range to be absorbed by the atmosphere which makes the atmosphere warmer and melts more ice. Warmer air also holds greater amounts of water vapor which is a very efficient greenhouse gas as we have seen. This water vapor then absorbs more infrared radiation, makes the surface warmer, and causes more water vapor to form and so on. This creates a cycle of positive feedbacks, making global temperatures rise. This cycle has been misnamed the greenhouse effect.
While all of the foregoing is true, the exact effect of man’s seven billion tons of carbon dioxide production per year remains undetermined, yet when the actual volumes of carbon dioxide involved in the entire process is considered, man has an absolutely negligible effect. There is debate on this issue within the scientific community, but as a better understanding is gained of the processes involved it becomes increasingly clear that Mother Nature holds all of the trump cards. Man’s activity does very little to add or detract.
Does this mean we should ignore the effect of human produced carbon dioxide? Certainly not, but it does mean we should use a little more common sense than wildly embracing the use of wind or solar energy as the only way to reduce the effect of added carbon dioxide, an effect which is somehow believed by the uninformed to likely destroy all life in the next few years.
In reality, the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine, and where the wind blows best and the sun shines most is often remote from centers of human habitation and power consumption for the very reason humans do not like too much wind or too much sunshine. Getting electric power produced by the wind or the sun in commercial quantities to where it is needed can dramatically reduce the cost effectiveness of these systems. Hydro power remains the only renewable power source that cost effectively competes with conventional carbon based power sources. Nuclear power holds much promise and has been used effectively but many undesirable factors accompany its developed utilization to the point it has fallen considerably out favor.
The quickest, most cost efficient and most effective way to reduce man’s component of carbon dioxide emission is to understand the characteristics of the fuels we use to generate electricity and power transportation systems and then act on our knowledge.
For a given amount of heat energy from combustion coal produces 20 to 30 percent more carbon dioxide than oil, which in turn produces about 100 percent more carbon dioxide than natural gas. Clean coal means the particulate matter in the gasses of combustion has been dramatically reduced but it does not mean carbon dioxide emission has been curtailed. The Clean Air Act has indeed been extremely beneficial as has the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately the EPA has started to utilize the Clean Air Act as a tool to discourage any amount of carbon dioxide emission in the mistaken belief that penalizing the American economy will bring about a global benefit of reduced carbon dioxide emission even when other nations do not participate. This belief is both false and misguided.
What can be done is to take immediate steps to reduce the actual carbon dioxide emission at the source by switching to a more effective fuel and even in some cases a more efficient combustion process. This can in fact be done fairly quickly and cost effectively if only a fraction of the money being spent on wind and solar power concepts is directly applied to an appropriate fuel conversion effort. Wind and solar renewable energy has become “la cause celebre” not because it makes the most sense but because it just sounds good. Certainly there are appropriate situations for the use of renewable energy, but there are many times more situations where a cleaner burning fuel could be adapted to existing infrastructure. An added bonus would be that most of the industrialized world would likely follow once the cost effectiveness of the technology has been demonstrated. Even today some modes of transportation have started to use these better fuels, but progress has been slow because the term renewable energy sounds sexy and promises dramatically decreased fuel costs all with no or little emissions. What has been ignored is the initial high cost and difficult technical application that present an effective barrier to wide spread implementation of renewable energy usage. In addition there is the added need for substantial back-up power supply fueled by conventional means, since the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine. These prohibiting factors are unlikely to change in any reasonable time period. In order to utilize renewable energy, it is necessary to have substantial back-up generator capacity, fueled conventionally, to ensure power is always available. Wouldn’t it be much better to just improve the nature of the fuel used by the systems we already have in place and thereby reduce man’s carbon dioxide emissions by 50 percent or more while showing the way forward to a reduction of carbon dioxide on a global basis?
In conclusion we should revisit our opening questions and see what we now think the appropriate answers are.
Does Climate Change Cause Global Warming? The answer is clearly No! Merely assumed correlation is not necessarily causation.
Does Global Warming Cause Climate Change? Again the answer is “No!” for the same reason. The factors controlling climate change have been shown to have no meaningful component of global warming. The time scale and the causative factors of each are just too different.
Does Man Cause Global Warming? The amount of carbon dioxide and particulate matter man introduces into the atmosphere annually pales into comparison to the amounts introduced by active volcanos or the numerous annual dust storms. It is highly implausible that the comparatively small amounts of carbon dioxide introduced by man will cause the earth to reach a tipping point for runaway global warming.
Is Global Warming a Good Euphemism for Climate Change? Not at all! It is a statement designed to be misleading, just as is anyone trying to correlate a specific hurricane or tornado to global warming. They just don’t know what they are talking about.