Les Chevaliers de l’Ordre de la Terre Plate, Part II: Courtillot’s Geomagnetic Excursion

This article continues the critique of writings on climate change by Allègre and Courtillot, started in Part I . If you would like to read either post in French, please click on the flag icon beside the post title above.

Prelude: It’s the physics, stupid

…which of course is a paraphrase of Bill Clinton’s famous quote regarding the economy. We put the last word in small letters since we’ve learned that it is not a good debating technique to imply (even inadvertently) that those who are having trouble seeing the force of our arguments might be stupid. What we wish to emphasize by this paraphrase is the simple fact that the expectation of a causal link between increasing long-lived greenhouse gases (like CO2) and increasing temperature does not rest on some vague, unexplained correlation between 20th century temperature and 20th century greenhouse gas concentration.

The anticipated increase in temperature was predicted long before it was detectable in the atmosphere, indeed long before it was known that atmospheric CO2 really was increasing; it was first predicted by Arrhenius in 1896 using extremely simple radiation balance ideas, and was reproduced using modern radiation physics by Manabe and co-workers in the 1960’s. Neither of these predictions rests on general circulation models, which came in during subsequent decades and made more detailed forecasts possible.

Still, the basic prediction of warming is founded on very fundamental physical principles relating to infrared absorption by greenhouse gases, theory of blackbody radiation, and atmospheric moist thermodynamics. All these individual elements have been verified to high accuracy in laboratory experiments and field observations. For a time, there was some remaining uncertainty about whether water vapor feedback would amplify warming in the way hypothesized in the early energy balance models, but a decade or two of additional observational and theoretical work has shown that there is no real reason to doubt the way in which general circulation models calculate the feedback. When modified by inclusion of the cooling effect of anthropogenic aerosols, the theory gives a satisfactory account of the pattern of 20th and 21st century temperature change.

No other theory based on quantified physical principles has been able to do the same. If somebody comes along and has the bright idea that, say, global warming is caused by phlogiston raining down from the Moon, that does not make everything we know about thermodynamics, infrared absorption, energy balance, and temperature suddenly go away. Rather, it is the job of the phlogiston advocate to quantify the effects of phlogiston on energy balance, and incorporate them in a consistent way beside the existing climate forcings. Virtually all of the attempts to poke holes in the anthropogenic greenhouse theory lose sight of this simple and unassailable principle.

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