What Went Wrong with the Science of Climate Change?

The rise and fall of the science of greenhouse gases as the primary cause of global warming will most likely be the subject of many papers and books in the future. I offer a few observations.

The fundamental problem with greenhouse-gas theory is that energy in radiation was thought of as being a function of wavelength instead of frequency. Samuel Pierpont Langley, who did the primary work in the late 19th century detecting and measuring absorption of infrared radiation, wrote in 1889 (page 424): "the vast amount of the energy in [the infra-red] region .... is over 100 times that in the ultra-violet". Climatologists, to this day, dismiss the ultraviolet as not having enough energy to be important. Yet observations detailed on this website show that ozone depletion and related increases in ultraviolet-B radiation explain most observations of climate change quite directly, clearly, and better than absorption of infrared radiation by greenhouse gases.

The issue is: What is energy? (Coopersmith, 2010) Energy appears to be that thing that causes change. Energy is consumed over time causing things to change. In fact it is impossible to define time if nothing changes, if energy is not expended. Thermal energy in matter is evidence of microscopic oscillation of all atomic and molecular bonds that hold matter together. According to Planck's law, what we perceive as temperature is the result of a broad range of frequencies of these oscillations. Increase the frequencies and the amplitudes of oscillation at each frequency and the temperature increases. Conversely, decrease the temperature and both the frequencies and the amplitudes of oscillation at each frequency decrease. These oscillations are thermal energy. Radiation transports this thermal energy through space or air where there is no matter and there are no bonds holding matter together. Radiation is simply the oscillations without the bonds. Radiation is emitted and propagates because the motion of charge causes a changing electronic field, that induces a changing magnetic field, that induces a changing electric field, ad infinitum.

In 1862, James Clerk Maxwell wrote down what became four equations that form the foundation of classical electrodynamics, optics, electric circuits, and, with the addition of quantum concepts, quantum electrodynamics. While these equations are applied to radiation (electromagnetic fields), they are formulated in terms of oscillations in matter. The energy in fields are both induced (transmitted) and absorbed by matter. All human interactions with fields are through the matter in our sensors and our transmitters. So thinking of fields as similar to waves in matter has been very natural and very useful. But it was also discussed throughout the latter half of the 19th century that there is no matter in space. This led to the search for the luminiferous aether, the postulated matter through which light must travel. There were numerous experiments that proved no such aether exists. The issue of what radiation travels in was never resolved, it just took on a new face with the rise of quantum physics.

Picture of a plaque for Max Planck at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Plaque at the Humboldt University of Berlin: "Max Planck, discoverer of the elementary quantum of action h, taught in this building from 1889 to 1928."

In 1900, Max Planck had to postulate that energy in radiation is equal to the frequency of the radiation times a constant in order to derive Planck's law describing spectral radiance, the amount of radiation at each frequency emitted by a black body at a given absolute temperature. Planck's postulate led to quantum mechanics and he received the 1918 Nobel Prize in Physics for this work. Radiation clearly transfers thermal energy through space from one body of matter to another. If radiation consists of nothing but oscillations and the frequencies of oscillations in matter increase with increasing temperature, then it seems quite logical that the energy in radiation would increase with increasing frequency of oscillation. Planck's constant (h) simply says that there are 6.626 X 10-34 joules in each cycle per second or 4.136 X 10-15 electron volts in each cycle per second. To this day, energy in radiation is thought of as similar to the energy of waves in matter, which is proportional to the square of the amplitude of these waves, which is proportional to bandwidth, not frequency.

Thus the fundamental problem with greenhouse gas theory was actually the responsibility of physicists, not climate scientists, although I discovered the problem while questioning many of the widely accepted basic assumptions behind greenhouse-gas theory.

The second problem with greenhouse gases involves a breakdown in participation and the sharing of expertise among many specialists including physicists, chemists, geochemists, earth scientists, and meteorologists. In the 19th century, there were many laboratory and field studies primarily by experimental physicists trying to observe and quantify absorption of infrared radiation, culminating in 1900 with Ångström's paper showing in several different ways that there does not seem to be enough energy absorbed by carbon dioxide to cause observed changes in temperature during ice ages. Since 1900, spectral physicists went on to measure and describe spectral lines of absorption in exquisite detail, while most other physicists became much more interested in quantum mechanics than climate. Efforts to quantify the energy involved in greenhouse-gas absorption ceased. It is amazing that to this day, no experiment has been documented that seeks to measure the temperature increase in air caused by a change in the concentration of carbon dioxide. Such a basic experiment seems fundamental to verifying the greenhouse effect.

A third and related problem is that greenhouse-gas theory was proven not to be very important by experimental physicists in 1900, but was revived primarily by geochemists in the 1950s and 1960s who assumed that Arrhenius (1896) was right even though proven wrong by Ångström (1900). Ångström's paper has hardly been cited in modern literature and has probably not even been read by most modern scientists, in part because it was written in German. Assumptions made prior to 1900 were seriously questioned that year, but were treated as proven beyond a reasonable doubt fifty years later.

Another problem is that global warming could have disastrous effects on all human beings and on all forms of life on Earth. In the late 1970s, I was one of the national leaders managing a program to predict earthquakes (Ward, 1978) (Ward, 1979). At that time, there were many physical measurements being made in many countries that reported measurable anomalies days to years before major earthquakes. We found that very good scientists, when evaluating data that was suggestive but not overly clear, tended to err on the side of trusting their unclear data because human lives were at risk.

Forming the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1988, under the auspices of the United Nations, was an important step for concerned scientists to demonstrate consensus in science to politicians so that government leaders would take the steps thought necessary to mitigate the effects of global warming. An unfortunate side effect of this drive for consensus was that it ended up inhibiting scientific debate. While consensus is the stuff of politics, debate is the stuff of science. Scientists are constantly becoming better informed. I predict that in a decade from now, when scientists read the wealth of well thought-out contemporary scientific papers concerning climate change, they will find plenty of evidence for the anonymous saying: "The essence of human beings is not in their ability to reason but in their ability to rationalize."

Finally, our lifestyles depend on rapidly increasing amounts of cheap energy. Anything that would increase the cost of this energy, even a small amount, could have major negative effects on society. This recognition has caused many people involved in energy and others concerned about energy, to resist believing the scientists when they share their evidence for global warming. Since there was little debate among the scientists and most of these concerned groups could not argue the science, the debate became political and ultimately nasty, causing both sides to circle their wagons and "dual to the death." This is distinctly different from the time when the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer was negotiated in 1987. In 2003, Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations, labeled this protocol "perhaps the single most successful international agreement to date”. In this case, the science was relatively clear and the cost of correcting the problem was low enough that progress was made rapidly, halting increases in mean surface temperature by 1998. Had this protocol not been successful, Earth would still be getting warmer due to increasing ozone depletion.

Last updated 27-Jan-2016    © 2015 Peter L. Ward. All Rights Reserved