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Back to Basics on Climate Science

Last week I had the privilege to attend an MIT forum and listen to the keynote address given by Nobel laureate Mario Molina. The subject of the address was the issue of conveying an understanding of the science of climate change to the general public. Professor Molina won the Nobel Prize and is best known for his work in identifying the role of chloro-fluorocarbons in the destruction of the ozone layer. Unlike the current state of paralysis that seems to be encompassing the international talks on climate change the Montreal Protocol, which underpins the global reduction in the use of CFCs, was negotiated with relative ease. But the nature of the problems are very different.

Turning back to the keynote address, Molina lamented on the poor job that scientists had seemingly done in conveying what is, in his view at least, a relatively simple and well understood physical phenomena governed by a set of known equations. In addressing the audience, he asked quite simply in his soft understated tone “What is it about Planck’s Law and the Boltzmann constant that is now in dispute?”. A similar question was asked for Kirchhoff’s Law and the other equations which can be used to calculate the observed temperature of the atmosphere, all of which have been developed over the last century and can be found in books such as Introduction to Atmospheric Chemistry, by Daniel J. Jacob, Princeton University Press, 1999. Most if not all of these physical laws were discovered for reasons unrelated to atmospheric chemistry, but of course can be applied to this discipline as they also can to explain a multitude of other physical phenomena on display in the world we inhabit.

In fact none of this basic physics and chemistry is in dispute – if it were then we shouldn’t be surprised that a multitude of the devices we use in everyday life, from iPad’s to microwave ovens, wouldn’t work as expected – or in reality wouldn’t exist in the first place. All depend on the same physical principles that also make up our understanding of the workings of the atmosphere and the impact of a change in its composition.

Yet time and again we are confronted by commentators claiming the issue is a hoax and the science is fraudulent. This played out again in Australia over recent days as British climate sceptic Christopher Monckton toured the country and delivered a series of lectures.

Professor Molina didn’t have a solution to this problem, other than to recall the successful transition from initial scepticism to eventual action and international agreement on CFCs. He noted that this was to some extent down to the role of business as new refrigerants were developed to replace CFCs. Unfortunately the climate problem is an order of magnitude or two more complex than the ozone layer issue, given our near total reliance on fuels and industrial processes which emit CO2. The issue also runs headlong into the sensitive issues of energy dependence, human development, economics and national security, further complicating the solution set.

But we could at least start by recognising that physics and chemistry are part of our lives and that the society we have built depends totally on the laws, constants and algorithms that have developed from these disciplines, which includes our understanding of the processes in the atmosphere. Then perhaps there is room for a more grown up debate on the way forward.

David Hone's picture

Thank David for the Post!

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Paul O's picture
Paul O on July 1, 2011


Let me bring forth  reasons for skepticism and place it front and center. And before I do that, I want to state that any kind of fanatical exuberrance, boorish insulting and berrating behaviour, even for a good cause totally turns me off.


Here is the key question,

* Does the Observed  Temperature of the planet, OR the Observed Increase in Temperature of the Planet match the Mathematically expected (or predicted) Temperature of the Planet, or the Mathematically expected (or predicted) increase in temperature of the Planet, given the known CO2 content or known CO2 content increase of the atmosphere.

In other words, we know the composition of the atmosphere, we know the radiant output of the sun, we know the mass of the earth, we know the thermal coefficients of air, water, soils/desserts etc.  Does the physics bear a close correlation with the observation?

This is the crux of the Climate debate. If the Science does not match the observation in a clear and demonstrable manner, then what does it all mean?

David Hone's picture
David Hone on July 2, 2011

The short answer here is “Yes”. The original application of Plank’s Law to calculate the temperature of the surface of the planet fell far short of the observed temperature. Since Plank’s Law seemingly worked in other applications it implied that another process was underway – which turned out to be the effect of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This was the work done by the likes of Arrhenius about 120 years ago. Even at that point he was able to calculate the temperature variation that would occur if the level of CO2 was adjusted and that was long before anybody even imagined that such a thing might be possible, other than say through volcanic action. What we see today is a dynamic process underway where the temperature is still catching up to the change in CO2, but of course the level of CO2 continues to rise as well. The secondary effects that are less certain and may either counter some of this or add to it are effects on cloud cover (as water levels in the atmosphere also rise), albedo in the arctic etc. But I think we need to stand by the basic physics.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on July 2, 2011

There is a key difference between ozone and UV influx, and re-radiated out flux. And that is the surface!

The earth’s surface is many things, but not an ideal blackbody where pure probability and statistical mechanics determines vibrational relaxation radiative transition distributions. Indeed, the hydrogen oxygen bond is probably the highest frequency vibration possible due to the low weight proton and strong O-H bond. This feature has made water identified with complex life. Perhaps rotational transitions (microwave) of water contribute to re-radiation effected by CO2, I don’t know.

The over simplifications aside, climate change due to industrial society is real and documented and important. It is just far more complicated than the simple model above. And I’m glad your response to Paul expands.

Something I have not seen discussed (I don’t see too much) is what might be called Minnesota snow. Every winter we dump salt and sand on the snow. Then dirty, salty snow always melts first. Might a sooty atmosphere effect ice melt? Soot can be associated with industrial age activities along with CO2.


Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on July 5, 2011

I did something like this for my Ph.D. work. I calculated the probability density distribution for proton exchange kinetics in large globular proteins. A sphere was used as a model and statistical mechanical tunneling was generalized. Very similar to thermal excitation radiation models from a surface (blackbody sphere).

It matters greatly that we address the climate issue with proper solutions. We might not get a do-over. The physics does matter.


Jonathan Cole's picture
Jonathan Cole on July 8, 2011

While I love to hear people express their opinions on the details of this theory or that, this application of the laws of physics/chemistry or some other interpretation, it is somewhat akin to “fiddling while Rome burns”. CO2 induced climate change is just the tip of the iceberg that the world is about to ram into. The multiple cumulative effects of the industrial revolution are destroying the functioning of the natural world upon which we depend for life, health and prosperity. If we don’t get off the combustion/pollution track, nature will respond with massive depopulation. If you take your head out of the climate change sand, you’ll start noticing the many other destructive effects of industrial activity, whose economic underpinnings takes no account of any of the real costs to the health of planetary eco-system. Those who shill for industry just love to limit the discussion to little arguable details. The depletion of the oceans through pollution and over-use, the contamination of the atmosphere world-wide and the massive depletion and poisoning of the soil by erosion and chemicals are measurable facts. Every human being now has measurable contaminants in their bodies. Mother’s milk is contaminated. Chemicals previously considered safe are now shown to be extremely dangerous. I think we have to start shouting down the ignorant purveyors of the “everything is just fine” theory or else be willing participants in our own demise and suffering. Our choice.

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