Dear Mr President 2.0: the discovery of the Greenhouse Effect - in Tweets
Posted on 3 April 2017 by John Mason
Here's another in our occasional series where we explain aspects of climate and planetary science in tweets. For this one, we've picked the history of the discovery of Earth's greenhouse effect, a topic we covered in detail a few years ago in The History of Climate Science. If there's a single take-home point, it's simply that we have known about Earth's greenhouse effect and the important role of carbon dioxide for a long time. A very long time. An awful lot longer than some people seem to realise.
Some climate change contrarians, when presented with facts, simply dismiss them as an "appeal to authority". Brexit enthusiast Michael Gove is so famous for stating, “people in this country have had enough of experts”, that if you type his name into Google the second thing that appears in the dropdown below is "experts". But you can bet your bottom dollar that the moment he needs specialist advice in his private life, he goes and finds a specialist. We all do.
Talking of specialists, many have come and gone in the decades before the present generations of scientists and long before the first automobiles appeared in numbers on our roads, some remarkable things had already been accomplished. This post is something of a celebration of such accomplishments and the people who made them possible.
So, without further ado:
This time we want to tell you all about the Greenhouse Effect. It's such a wonderful thing, it really is.
It's all about energy transfer between the Sun, Earth and space. How did we find out? It's such a cool story!
The Sun's a stable kind of star. That's good, but you don't want to be too close to it. Or too far away.
The ancient Greeks tried figuring the Earth-Sun distance. They had some great ideas but got it wrong. Such losers!
By the 17th & 18th Centuries, they had better telescopes. They had better clocks. Better accuracy.
Does the name Cassini mean anything to you? No? Halley? Kepler? Hirst? Lalande? Well they were smart guys. Real smart.
They timed Venus as it crossed in front of the Sun, from different places around the world.
The different line-of-sight measurements allowed them to get calculating. They got 95 million miles. Not bad!
Today we can measure the distance with radar and stuff. It's 93 million miles. So they got real close. Clever!
In the 1800s, more smart people realised there was a problem. Earth was too far from the Sun to be as warm as it is.
Know what the average temperature of Earth should be, 93 million miles from the Sun? Minus eighteen degrees Celsius.
In the 1800s, these smart people figured that energy flows into Earth from the Sun. That's one part of the deal.
They also figured that energy must flow back out. If it didn't, the heat would build up until the planet boiled.
So they knew there was an energy balance. But they also knew that Earth was still warmer than it should be. Tricky!
They figured sunshine (luminous heat) is one type of radiation & heat from hot things (non-luminous heat) is another.
Luminous heat could get through the air just fine. It warmed the ground which gave off non-luminous heat.
But some of the non-luminous heat got trapped. Couldn't make it back out to Space. Something was messing with it.
They figured that since non-luminous heat left the ground OK, something up above was doing the messing.
Not much up there apart from gases, clouds, a few birds & flying critters. Last three vary all the time. Unreliable!
Gases, they figured, are always there. Oxygen, nitrogen, argon, CO2 & so on. But which ones did the messing?
They found water vapour could mess, but it jumps about like a bronco. Needed a gas that didn't jump about.
Turned out CO2 did a perfect job. It was just awesome at that job. Oxygen & nitrogen & Argon were just crap!
It was still the 1800s when these smart guys nailed it. They did some math. If you doubled CO2 what would happen?
5-6C of global warming. Earth-Sun distance, the Greenhouse Effect - they were pretty darned right about the lot!
More smart guys worked on this through the 20th Century. Ended up with pretty much the same results.
We got to dig infra-red in the Cold War. Heat-seeking missiles chase after it. Shoot down bombers. Job done!
So we got to figure it out even better. And we had the first computers. We could do even more math.
By 1956, a real smart guy did something awesome with all this history, science and math. Called Gilbert Plass.
He put it all into a landmark science paper. Called it, “The Carbon Dioxide Theory of Climatic Change”.
Hell, that's more than half a century ago. Amazing how time flies. You, Sir, were ten years old at the time.
Funny how some folk like to make out “climate change” was made up in around 2005, to replace “global warming”.
Are they dumb or what? And what about the IPCC? Founded 1988? What do they think “CC” stands for? Chip cookies?
People were still smart in the 1950s. They started monitoring CO2. They found it was steadily going up, right then.
They knew pollution was a BAD, BAD KILLER. Britain passed the Clean Air Act the same year as the Plass paper. 1956.
That was smart but there was still lots of smoke to deal with in the air. Such a mess.
Some folk worried that the smoke was enough to block out sunshine. That could cool down the planet.
It was only a few folk but the MEDIA ran with it. Tried to make out the next ice-age was round the corner. FAKE NEWS!
Fake News is nothing new, Mr President. They've been at it as long as there's been newspapers.
Science is different. Fake science gets called out. Quickly. It just doesn't survive. Except among a few cranks.
In 1988 the IPCC was founded. Worth sayin' again. 164 darned years after the first ideas about the greenhouse effect.
164 darned years. Worth sayin' again. We knew. We knew all along that something was messing with that heat.
Today, satellites confirm what those smart guys figured out in the 1800s. They have measured the Greenhouse Effect.
1997 – world leaders wake up. Sign Kyoto Accord. Aim to stabilise CO2 levels. Make planet safe. Smart move.
1998 – American Petroleum Institute brings out “Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan”. Anti-Kyoto thing.
Basic idea: “if we say enough bullshit then 174 years of scientific research can be ignored.” Nice guys, huh?
And so climate science denial began. It's still all around us. All around me. All around you. Especially you.
Betting with your kids' and grandkids' future. Making out decades of science don't exist. Sons of bitches.
Science goes back a long way. It's got pedigree. These guys should be honoured by all of us. We should be PROUD.
So when an oilman tells you how climate science is only 20 years old, tell him to go take a history class.
above: American Petroleum Institute's “Global Climate Science Communications Action Plan”, 1998. Nice guys, huh?
The greenhouse effect: https://youtu.be/PTfnuX-HVk8
Measuring from space: https://youtu.be/wEuSfMRB7pU
Increasing the greenhouse effect: https://youtu.be/we8VXwa83FQ
Reinforcing feedback: https://youtu.be/dHozjOYHQdE
From the experts - Greenhouse effect: https://youtu.be/H4YSwajvFAY
Structure of our atmosphere: https://youtu.be/LM_sKZCv26A