The Simple Science of Climate Change

The critics of the science of global climate change act as if climatology and the science if global climate change are somehow complicated, obscure, or esoteric. They also act as if it is a new-fangled theory, dreamed up by modern day Luddites. Both are simply not true.

The science of climate change is very basic, very simple. Most people have personal experience with the underlying science behind “global warming.” Most of us have done a simple science experiment, probably in High School, where we added salt into water and noted that it changes the freezing point. The basic idea is that an impurity in a solution changes the physical properties of the solution. Adding salt to water changes the freezing point.

Air is a gaseous solution of nitrogen, oxygen, argon and some trace elements. There is also gaseous – or vaporous – water in the air. Changes in these elements, or in other impurities in the air, change the physical properties of the air, particularly its ability to retain heat.

Believe it or not, must people have first-hand experience with this phenomena. Humidity, which is the measure of water vapor in air, changes the ability of air to retain heat. Most everyone knows this. The humidity in the air is why it typically stays warm at night in the summer. If, for example, it gets up to 86 degrees on a humid summer day, it might only cool off to the low 70’s at night. But if it gets up to the same 86 degrees on an early fall day, a day with low humidity, it may cool off into the 50’s at night. Anyone who has spent time in the desert has also experienced this effect. It may get into the 90’s or 100’s during the day, but it often cools down into the 40’s and 50’s at night. Places in the tropics, where the humidity is high, may also reach the upper 90’s during the day, but only cool into the low 80’s at night. The reason is that the water vapor in the air helps the air retain heat, or in the case of the desert, the lack of moisture in the air allows the air to cool quickly once the sun is down.

This is part of what is known as the greenhouse effect. The idea was first developed by the French scientist Joseph Fourier in the 1820’s. A British scientist named John Tyndall did studies in the 1850’s that helped explain why water vapor in the atmosphere held heat. He also said that other impurities in the air, including carbon, could help the atmosphere retain heat. Finally a Swedish named Svante Arrhenius put it all together in what is now known as the “Greenhouse effect”. There are two components. One component is that the impurities in the air alter the heat retention properties of the air, and the other component is that the impurities in the air alter the ability of the atmosphere to block infrared radiation emanating from the planet. So humidity allows the air to retain heat. Arrhenius did his work in the later early 1900’s.

Arrhenius also noted that increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would cause the atmosphere to retain heat. Arrhenius actually thought that heating the atmosphere would be a good thing, and would help prevent a new ice age which might destabilize humanity. In a book called “Worlds in the Making” published in English in 1908 he said that if “the quantity of carbonic acid [CO2] in the air should sink to one-half its present percentage, the temperature would fall by about 4°; a diminution to one-quarter would reduce the temperature by 8°. On the other hand, any doubling of the percentage of carbon dioxide in the air would raise the temperature of the earth’s surface by 4°; and if the carbon dioxide were increased fourfold, the temperature would rise by 8°.” (p53) [See, e.g. the American Institute of Physics, which has an excellent history of the science behind Global Climate Change at:]

His numbers were off for a number of reasons, including the ability of the oceans to absorb carbon dioxide, but his description of the basic science of global warming, or climate change, was dead on. Raising the amount of carbon dioxide (and other carbon based impurities) in the atmosphere alters the ability of the atmosphere to retain heat and causes the atmosphere, and the planet as a whole, to heat up.

This has been the dominant model of climatology ever since (with a brief foray into global cooling, as discussed below). So we have known for well over 100 years that adding carbon to the atmosphere would warm the planet. The terminology changed recently because it was clear that the impact was not simply warming. The additional heat in the atmosphere manifests itself in disruption of normal weather patterns, and can result, as it did the past winter, in unusually cold temperatures in some regions. So now we use the more accurate terminology of “climate change” but the scientific principles remain the same. They are simple, and well established scientific principles, and they are principles that have been around for over 100 years.

A Note On “Global Cooling”

Conservatives like to point out that in the 1970’s there was supposedly a great deal of concern about “global cooling” and the possibility of a new ice age. They like to refer to this to imply that scientists are a bunch of idiots and frequently get things wrong. The implication is that if they were so off base in the 1960’s regarding the possibility of “global cooling,” they’re most likely off-base now with claims of global warming. It’s a nice argument but is completely untrue.

Here’s the basic story of “global cooling.” My details are taken largely from a paper published by the American Meteorological Society called The Myth of the 1970’s Global Cooling Scientific Consensus, which is available at:]

As noted previously, scientists have understood since the 1890’s that adding carbon based gases, particularly carbon dioxide or CO2, to the atmosphere would lead to increased atmospheric temperatures.

But in the 1950’s and 1960’s the amount of smog and visible pollutants (known as aerosols) were becoming a major concern. Some scientists suggested that the amount of pollution could block solar ration and potentially lead to the cooling of the planet. Just as a day is cooler when it is cloudy than when it is sunny because the clouds block the solar radiation, perhaps smog would have the same effect.

In the late 1960’s a few scientists published articles in peer reviewed journals and gave talks at climatology meetings presenting these ideas. But this was, based on an analysis in the AMS paper, a distinctly minority view.

Unfortunately the story was picked up by the “main stream media” and Newsweek published a story in 1975 called “The Cooling World.” The New York Times also published two articles discussing the possibility of global cooling. The Times, unlike Newsweek, did note that this was far from a consensus view on the impact of pollution on the environment. In fact, as noted above, it was the decidedly minority view. There is a chart on page 9 of the paper (Fig 1, pg. 1333 of the original Journal article) that shows the number of papers on global warming versus papers on the possibility of cooling in the peer reviewed journals. There was one article discussing the possibilities of global cooling in 1967, two in 1971, and one in ’74. ‘76, and ’77. In contrast, there was 1 warming article in ’65, ’67, ‘69 and 1971. There were two in 1970, 4 in ’71, 3 in ’74, 7 in both ’75 and ’77, 4 in ’76, 8 in ’78 and 5 in 1979. All total for the period, there were 7 cooling articles, 44 warming articles, and 20 that discussed issues of climate change but were neutral as to whether the overall climate may warm or cool.

Climatologist debated the issue, analyzed the data, and found it lacking. The “debate” over “global cooling” in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s took place in scientific journals, and shows how science works. An idea is proposed, and then it is analyzed and written about in journals. If facts support the idea it becomes consensus science. If facts don’t support it, it gets dropped. This is precisely what happened with the scientific discussion of global “cooling.”

Global cooling was proposed in the mid-1960’s as a plausible idea, but climatologists and other scientists analyst the information and determined that it was incorrect. The idea was dropped by climate scientists. Unfortunately the fact that the debate, or actually only part of the debate, became public, gave the general public the sense that there was disagreement or discord in the science. Nothing could be further from the truth. The “debate” over the possibility of global cooling shows that science works.

Science Getting It Right

The modern world is the world of science getting it right. Computers and cell phones are dependent upon silicon computer chips that are the product of advanced materials sciences that rely, in part on the teachings of quantum mechanics to explain how electrons are transmitted within the chips. Modern communication technology, including cell phones, the internet, wireless communications, and data transmission satellites are all the product of modern science, including esoteric number theories, quantum mechanics, and advanced astronomy and cosmology that allow the precise positioning of geosynchronous communication satellites. It all works because science got it right.

We live increasingly long and healthy lives because of scientific advances in medicine, which are dependent upon modern understanding of biology, which is largely dependent upon understanding how genes operate and interact, and all of this is dependent upon the process of evolution. We live long and healthy lives, we benefit from many marvels of modern medicine, because science gets it right.
Every time a person uses a cell phone, logs onto the internet, uses GPS to determine their location or get directions, or benefits from modern medicine, they are essentially endorsing the modern world of science. They may not realize it, they may even doubt the science, but the reality is that modern technology works because science got it right.

I’m baffled then when I hear people, particularly intelligent people with advanced degrees, question the science of climate change. The science of climate change is based upon the same scientific principles, theories, methods and protocols that make computer chips work, that allow cell phones to make a call, that send rockets with rovers to Mars, that create disease resistant crops, and that eradicated diseases and improved health around the world.

How have all of these scientific advances worked, when somehow science gets it wrong regarding climate change?

The scientific principles underlying climate change are extraordinarily simple. No quantum mechanics, no warping of the space time continuum. The scientific theories underlying climate change has been around for well over a century, and in that time has been tested and confirmed. Like it or not, we live in the world of science getting it right. And that applies to climate change.

The Growth of Wind Power

According to a new report by the U.S. Department of Energy, wind energy is the fasted growing source of power in the nation. In 2012, wind accounted for 43% of all new electric power production. According to wind sector sources, wind production employs over 80,000 American workers.

Wind production is not only clean, but it helps diversify the power grid. Many wind production facilities, meaning wind mills, turbines and distribution systems, are localized and on a small scale. This minimizes the impact of a power outage at a large facility, or a down major power distribution line.

According to some reports, nearly 90% of all wind turbines were made in America.

The full news release can be found here: Wind Energy Production

The report also included a link to an interactive map showing where wind generating facilities are located. The map can be found here: Wind Farm Growth

According to the map, there is a single wind production facility in Kentucky, near Ashland.

River Traffic and Global Warming

According to recent news stories, the Mississippi River is at record low levels, and this has the potential to stop the movement of shipping on the river. This will have a major impact on the transportation of bulk goods, which are shipped up and down the river. The reason the river is so low? Lack of rainfall, obviously, but this lack of rain fall is the product of changing weather patterns. And changing weather patters are the result of global warming. So we can add the cost of shipping to the ledger of global warming.

Here’s the Time Magazine Story: Mississippi River Near Record Low.

Coal and the Free Market

According to a news report in the Lexington Herald-Leader, demand for coal is down considerably in the United States. (“Coal rebounding—in Asia, November 4, 2009) The article was primarily about increase demand for metalurgical coal, which is used in steelmaking. The increase demand is primarily in China, which apparently has recovered from the recession and is starting to build again, and since construction requires steel, and certain types of coal are used in steel-making, the demand for that coal has increased.

Demand, however, is much lower in the United States. According to the article, electric companies, which are the main consumers of coal in this country, have stockpiles of coal that are 40% larger than last year. The reason for this is that there is less demand for electricity due to a relatively cool summer and the impact of the recession. Also cited is the low price of natural gas. As a result, “producers have now idled enough U.S. mines to trim about 100 million tons of coal – roughly 9 percent – from production this year.”   U.S. coal producers say that they don’t see much potential for a rebound in demand this year.

So, apparently, the demand for coal is set by the free market. And coal production is a product of demand. As demand goes down, production goes down as well. This is an important piece of information in the debate over coal and the mining of coal here in Kentucky. My impression from the general debate, and from the “friends of coal” was that all the problems in the coal fields are due to environmentalists. Clearly that is not the case. I don’t know the numbers (the article did not provide that level of detail), but it would be interesting to know if more coal jobs have been lost due to the free market, or due to environmental restrictions.  

China as the New Clean Energy Superpower

It’s common knowledge that China is building more coal fired power plants than the rest of the world combined. But what is less reported is that China is now the leading producer of both solar panels and wind turbines. China needs energy to feed growing demand, but it also understands that renewable energy will be a vital part of the energy supply of the future. While it is certainly good for the world that China has embraced clean technology, it could potentially be a problem for the United States. It is quite possible that if the United States does not aggressively pursue renewable technology now, which will result in developing new and improved solar panels and new and improved wind turbines, we will end up buying those products from China.

Currently renewable supply only a small percent of China’s needs, but China intends to produce 8 percent of its energy needs from renewable, including wind, solar and biomass, by 2020. Renewable also produce jobs. According to a recent New York Times article, China employs over 1 million people in its renewable energy sector, and is adding over 100,000 jobs a year.


This growth in renewable energy in China is the direct result of government intervention in the economy, and China recently created a National Energy Commission to oversee all energy needs and to push for increased use of renewable.

The New York Times article notes that China has an advantage in developing renewable energy: it is starting from scratch. It has an increased need, and it is just as easy (actually easier) to build a renewable facility as a coal fired power plant. And since everything is starting from scratch, the cost of installing clean versus coal is roughly competitive. In the United States, and other developed markets, the issue is replacement of existing power generation, and so renewables are competing with an existing market.

Renewable energy does cost more than coal energy in China. Wind is as much as 40 percent more expensive than coal, and solar is about twice as expensive. But increased production drives down costs, and eventually the cost for energy from renewables will come down. And, as coal use goes up worldwide the price will go up as well, and perhaps the two cost models will meet and the cost per kilowatt will be the same.

But Chinese renewable energy companies are also interested in dominating the world market for solar panels and wind turbines. This will allow them to recoup some of their development costs by selling equipment overseas. It will also result in their domination of the supply of these products. So, there is the distinct possibility that we will trade reliance on Middle Eastern oil for our energy needs for reliance on Chinese technology for our energy needs.

So we have a couple of choice. One is to ignore renewable energy, and then when we do need alternate sources of energy we will be forced to go to China to buy the equipment. The other option is to begin developing sources of renewable here at home. I like the second choice.

Nasty is as Nasty does

A banner at a coal industry sponsored golf outing in Prestonburg Kentucky took a nasty swipe at actress and Kentucky native Ashley Judd. The banner had a picture of Ms. Judd without a top, but with her hands over her breasts, and said “Ashley makes a living removing her top. Why can’t coal miners?” It was, apparently, directed at Judd’s criticism of mountaintop removal in eastern Kentucky.


The story was in the Lexington Herald Leader, and is available at:

Banner mocks topless Judd for Coal Comments

It was a particularly personal, nasty attack. Nearly 2500 years ago the Greek philosopher Aristotle said that when you have no other argument, attack the man: or in this case the woman. Aristotle knew if for what it was, a punk move, a cheap shot.

The issue of mountaintop removal is complex, and certainly many of the opponents engage in simplistic logic and reasoning. But that doesn’t justify an ugly, nasty, personal attack.


There is really no other way to say it. People (and organizations) that engage in nasty attacks are nasty people.   

Wind Power In Kentucky

Windmills in the Netherlands

Great article in this weeks Business Lexington on wind power in Kentucky. New maps of wind speed at higher elevations indicate that there is harvestable amounts of wind available in Kentucky. According to conservative estimates there is enough wind to generate over 100,000 Gigawatt Hours per year of electricity. Kentucky currently uses about 90,000 GWH per year, so theoretically there is enough wind to power the entire Commonwealth.

The article is at:

There are two concerns about wind and other renewable sources, like solar. First they are not available all the time, which coal certainly is. And second it currently costs more to generate wind, because it is a new technology.

Addressing the second issue first: coal is a finite resource, and as supplies decline price will increase. So at some point the price of coal power will be higher than the price of alternatives. It makes sense to start phasing in alternatives now, which will help with economies of scale and help bring down the cost.

 As to the second issue, wind would be a suplement to coal until better batteries and other storage methods are found. Coal would still be available as a back up. Using wind would not immediatly replace coal. But as mentioned, coal is a finite resource and will eventually run out. Using alternatives now will reduce the use rate of coal, which will mean that the coal we have will last longer, and that will mean miners will employed longer.

Alternatives, like wind, are a win-win. They will reduce demand for coal, which will reduce polution and help stabilize prices, and they will create jobs in a new segment of the energy market. Not a bad deal.