They're finally listening!

Skeptics have been pointing out for years that the ice cores from past geological eras show CO2 increases lagging BEHIND  temperature rises, disproving the alleged link to global warming.  Heretofore the Warmists have just ignored that in their high and mighty way.  But as the temperature "hiatus" gets longer and longer -- broken only by El Nino -- they are definitely getting more defensive.  So in the latest edition of "New Scientist" (the Warmist house magazine) Catherine Brahic and Michael Le Page try  to wriggle out of the pesky timing of past CO2 spikes.  See below.

Their argument is not totally illogical, just very implausible.  They say that past temperature rises were caused by "other things", not by CO2.  It is only recent temperature rises that were caused by CO2.  They realize however that a lot of people are going to say "Hee Haw" to that profoundly silly argument so end up saying:

"To repeat, the evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas depends mainly on physics, not on the correlation with past temperature, which tells us nothing about cause and effect"

But the physics is a weak reed to lean on as well.  Their theories regularly seem to overlook that a heated atmospheric molecule will radiate its heat in all directions -- so only a small percentage of the emitted radiation will hit the earth.  But CO2 is also small percentage of the atmosphere so only a small percentage of a small percentage of radiation will impact the earth.  So on theory as well as on observed fact, CO2 will have negligible effect on terrestrial temperature.

So every point of their argument is feeble and improbable -- far too feeble and improbable to support policy prescriptions

And their claim that "the correlation with past temperature tells us nothing about cause and effect" is very contentious.  David Hume held that regular temporal priority was the WHOLE of cause.  So there are respectable philosophical grounds for saying that warming DOES cause CO2 emissions, not vice versa.

Over to Catherine Brahic and Michael Le Page

That's Catherine, a New Scientist editor. Her research background is in neuroanatomy

And that's Michael Le Page.  Isn't he a handsome devil?

Sometimes a house gets warmer even when the central heating is turned off. Does this prove that its central heating does not work? Of course not. Perhaps it’s a hot day outside, or the oven’s been left on for hours.

Just as there’s more than one way to heat a house, so there’s more than one way to heat a planet.

Ice cores from Antarctica show that at the end of recent ice ages, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere usually started to rise only after temperatures had begun to climb. There is uncertainty about the timings, partly because the air trapped in the cores is younger than the ice, but it appears the lags might sometimes have been 800 years or more.

Initial warming

This proves that rising CO2 was not the trigger that caused the initial warming at the end of these ice ages – but no climate scientist has ever made this claim. It certainly does not challenge the idea that more CO2 heats the planet.

We know that CO2 is a greenhouse gas because it absorbs and emits certain frequencies of infrared radiation. Basic physics tells us that gases with this property trap heat radiating from the Earth, that the planet would be a lot colder if this effect was not real and that adding more CO2 to the atmosphere will trap even more heat.

What is more, CO2 is just one of several greenhouses gases, and greenhouse gases are just one of many factors affecting the climate. There is no reason to expect a perfect correlation between CO2 levels and temperature in the past: if there is a big change in another climate "forcing", the correlation will be obscured.

Orbital variations

So why has Earth regularly switched between ice ages and warmer interglacial periods in the past million years? It has long been thought that this is due to variations in Earth’s orbit, known as Milankovitch cycles. These change the amount and location of solar energy reaching Earth. However, the correlation is not perfect and the heating or cooling effect of these orbital variations is small. It has also long been recognised that they cannot fully explain the dramatic temperature switches between ice ages and interglacials.

So if orbital changes did cause the recent ice ages to come and go, there must also have been some kind of feedback effect that amplified the changes in temperatures they produced. Ice is one contender: as the great ice sheets that covered large areas of the planet during the ice ages melted, less of the Sun’s energy would have been reflected back into space, accelerating the warming. But the melting of ice lags behind the beginning of interglacial periods by far more than the rises in CO2.

Another feedback contender, suggested over a century ago, is CO2. In the past decade, detailed studies of ice cores have shown there is a remarkable correlation between CO2 levels and temperature over the past half million years (see Vostok ice cores show constant CO2 as temperatures fell).

Rising together

It takes about 5000 years for an ice age to end and, after the initial 800 year lag, temperature and CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere rise together for a further 4200 years.

What seems to have happened at the end of the recent ice ages is that some factor – most probably orbital changes – caused a rise in temperature. This led to an increase in CO2, resulting in further warming that caused more CO2 to be released and so on: a positive feedback that amplified a small change in temperature. At some point, the shrinking of the ice sheets further amplified the warming.

Models suggest that rising greenhouse gases, including CO2, explain about 40% of the warming as the ice ages ended. The figure is uncertain because it depends on how the extent of ice coverage changed over time, and there is no way to pin this down precisely.

Biological activity

The source of this extra carbon was the oceans, but why did they release CO2 as the planet began to warm? Many factors played a role and the details are still far from clear.

CO2 is less soluble in warmer water, but its release as a result of warming seawater can explain only part of the increase in CO2. And the reduction in salinity as ice melted would have partly counteracted this effect.

A reduction in biological activity may have played a bigger role. Tropical oceans tend to release CO2, while cooler seas soak up CO2 from the atmosphere as phytoplankton grow and fall to the ocean floor. Changes in factors such as winds, ice cover and salinity would have cut productivity, leading to a rise in CO2.

Runaway prevention

The ice ages show that temperature can determine CO2 as well as CO2 driving temperature. Some sceptics – not scientists – have seized upon this idea and are claiming that the relation is one way, that temperature determines CO2 levels but CO2 levels do not affect temperature.

To repeat, the evidence that CO2 is a greenhouse gas depends mainly on physics, not on the correlation with past temperature, which tells us nothing about cause and effect. And while the rises in CO2 a few hundred years after the start of interglacials can only be explained by rising temperatures, the full extent of the temperature increases over the following 4000 years can only be explained by the rise in CO2 levels.

What is more, further back in past there are examples of warmings triggered by rises in greenhouse gases, such as the Palaeo-Eocene Thermal Maximum 55 millions years ago (see Climate myths: It’s been far warmer in the past, what’s the big deal?).

Finally, if higher temperatures lead to more CO2 and more CO2 leads to higher temperatures, why doesn’t this positive feedback lead to a runaway greenhouse effect? There are various limiting factors that kick in, the most important being that infrared radiation emitted by Earth increases exponentially with temperature, so as long as some infrared can escape from the atmosphere, at some point heat loss catches up with heat retention.


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