Climate Reductionism

Reductionists are those who take one theory or phenomenon to be reducible to some other theory or phenomenon. For example, a reductionist regarding mathematics might take any given mathematical theory to be reducible to logic or set theory. Or, a reductionist about biological entities like cells might take such entities to be reducible to collections of physico-chemical entities like atoms and molecules.
Definition from The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy


Some of you may have seen this recent article: Divided Colorado: A Sister And Brother Disagree On Climate Change


The reporter describes a familiar story to many of us.  A single skeptic (the brother) is holding out against his sister and rest of the family who accept global warming/climate change. And of course, after putting some of their interchanges into the text, the reporter then sides against the brother by taking the word of a climate expert. From the article:


“CO2 absorbs infrared heat in certain wavelengths and those measurements were made first time — published — when Abraham Lincoln was president of the United States,” says Scott Denning, a professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State University. “Since that time, those measurements have been repeated by better and better instruments around the world.”


CO2, or carbon dioxide, has increased over time, scientists say, because of human activity. It’s a greenhouse gas that’s contributing to global warming.


“We know precisely how the molecule wiggles and waggles, and what the quantum interactions between the electrons are that cause everyone one of these little absorption lines,” he says. “And there’s just no wiggle room around it — CO2 absorbs heat, heat warms things up, so adding CO2 to the atmosphere will warm the climate.”


Denning says that most of the CO2 we see added to the atmosphere comes from humans — mostly through burning coal, oil and gas, which, as he puts it, is “indirectly caused by us.”


When looking at the scientific community, Denning says it’s united, as far as he knows.



A Case Study of Climate Reductionism

Denning’s comments, supported by several presentations at his website demonstrate how some scientists (all those known to Denning) engage in a classic form of reductionism.


The full complexity of earth’s climate includes many processes, some poorly understood, but known to have effects orders of magnitude greater than the potential of CO2 warming. The case for global warming alarm rests on simplifying away everything but the predetermined notion that humans are warming the planet. It goes like this:

Our Complex Climate

Earth’s climate is probably the most complicated natural phenomenon ever studied. Not only are there many processes, but they also interact and influence each other over various timescales, causing lagged effects and multiple cycling. This diagram illustrates some of the climate elements and interactions between them.

Flows and Feedbacks for Climate Models

The Many Climate Dimensions

Further, measuring changes in the climate goes far beyond temperature as a metric. Global climate indices, like the European dataset include 12 climate dimensions with 74 tracking measures. The set of climate dimensions include:

  • Sunshine
  • Pressure
  • Humidity
  • Cloudiness
  • Wind
  • Rain
  • Snow
  • Drought
  • Temperature
  • Heat
  • Cold

And in addition there are compound measures combining temperature and precipitation. While temperature is important, climate is much more than that.  With this reduction, all other dimensions are swept aside, and climate change is simplified down to global warming as seen in temperature measurements.

Climate Thermodynamics: Weather is the Climate System at work.

Another distortion is the notion that weather is bad or good, depending on humans finding it favorable. In fact, all that we call weather are the ocean and atmosphere acting to resolve differences in temperatures, humidities and pressures. It is the natural result of a rotating, irregular planetary surface mostly covered with water and illuminated mostly at its equator.

The sun warms the surface, but the heat escapes very quickly by convection so the build-up of heat near the surface is limited. In an incompressible atmosphere, it would *all* escape, and you’d get no surface warming. But because air is compressible, and because gases warm up when they’re compressed and cool down when allowed to expand, air circulating vertically by convection will warm and cool at a certain rate due to the changing atmospheric pressure.

Climate science has been obsessed with only a part of the system, namely the atmosphere and radiation, in order to focus attention on the non-condensing IR active gases. The climate is framed as a 3D atmosphere above a 2D surface. That narrow scope leaves out the powerful non-radiative heat transfer mechanisms that dominate the lower troposphere, and the vast reservoir of thermal energy deep in the oceans.

As Dr. Robert E Stevenson writes, it could have been different:

“As an oceanographer, I’d been around the world, once or twice, and I was rather convinced that I knew the factors that influenced the Earth’s climate. The oceans, by virtue of their enormous density and heat-storage capacity, are the dominant influence on our climate. It is the heat budget and the energy that flows into and out of the oceans that basically determines the mean temperature of the global atmosphere. These interactions, plus evaporation, are quite capable of canceling the slight effect of man-produced CO2.”

The troposphere is dominated by powerful heat transfer mechanisms: conduction, convection and evaporation, as well as physical kinetic movements.  All this is ignored in order to focus on radiative heat transfer, a bit player except at the top of the atmosphere.

There’s More than the Atmosphere

Once the world of climate is greatly reduced down to radiation of infrared frequencies, yet another set of blinders is applied. The most important source of radiation is of course the sun. Solar radiation in the short wave (SW) range is what we see and what heats up the earth’s surface, particularly the oceans. In addition solar radiation includes infrared, some absorbed in the atmosphere and some at the surface. The ocean is also a major source of heat into the atmosphere since its thermal capacity is 1000 times what the air can hold. The heat transfer from ocean to air is both by way of evaporation (latent heat) and also by direct contact at the sea surface (conduction).

Yet conventional climate science dismisses the sun as a climate factor saying that its climate input is unvarying. That ignores significant fluctuations in parts of the light range, for example ultraviolet, and also solar effects such as magnetic fields and cosmic rays. Also disregarded is solar energy varying due to cloud fluctuations. The ocean is also dismissed as a source of climate change despite obvious ocean warming and cooling cycles ranging from weeks to centuries. The problem is such oscillations are not well understood or predictable, so can not be easily modeled.

With the sun and the earth’s surface and ocean dismissed, the only consideration left is the atmosphere.

The Gorilla Greenhouse Gas

Thus climate has been reduced down to heat radiation passing through the atmosphere comprised of gases. One of the biggest reductions then comes from focusing on CO2 rather than H20. Of all the gases that are IR-active, water is the most prevalent and covers more of the spectrum.

The diagram below gives you the sense of proportion.

The Role of CO2

We come now to the role of CO2 in “trapping heat” and making the world warmer. The theory is that CO2 acts like a blanket by absorbing and re-radiating heat that would otherwise escape into space. By delaying the cooling while solar energy comes in constantly, CO2 is presumed to cause a buildup of heat resulting in warmer temperatures.

How the Atmosphere Processes Heat

There are 3 ways that heat (Infrared or IR radiation) passes from the surface to space.

1) A small amount of the radiation leaves directly, because all gases in our air are transparent to IR of 10-14 microns (sometimes called the “atmospheric window.” This pathway moves at the speed of light, so no delay of cooling occurs.

2) Some radiation is absorbed and re-emitted by IR active gases up to the tropopause. Calculations of the free mean path for CO2 show that energy passes from surface to tropopause in less than 5 milliseconds. This is almost speed of light, so delay is negligible. H2O is so variable across the globe that its total effects are not measurable. In arid places, like deserts, we see that CO2 by itself does not prevent the loss of the day’s heat after sundown.

3) The bulk gases of the atmosphere, O2 and N2, are warmed by conduction and convection from the surface. They also gain energy by collisions with IR active gases, some of that IR coming from the surface, and some absorbed directly from the sun. Latent heat from water is also added to the bulk gases. O2 and N2 are slow to shed this heat, and indeed must pass it back to IR active gases at the top of the troposphere for radiation into space.

In a parcel of air each molecule of CO2 is surrounded by 2500 other molecules, mostly O2 and N2. In the lower atmosphere, the air is dense and CO2 molecules energized by IR lose it to surrounding gases, slightly warming the entire parcel. Higher in the atmosphere, the air is thinner, and CO2 molecules can emit IR into space. Surrounding gases resupply CO2 with the energy it lost, which leads to further heat loss into space.

This third pathway has a significant delay of cooling, and is the reason for our mild surface temperature, averaging about 15C. Yes, earth’s atmosphere produces a buildup of heat at the surface. The bulk gases, O2 and N2, trap heat near the surface, while IR active gases, mainly H20 and CO2, provide the radiative cooling at the top of the atmosphere. Near the top of the atmosphere you will find the -18C temperature.

Sources of CO2

Note the size of the human emissions next to the red arrow.

A final reduction comes down to how much of the CO2 in the atmosphere is there because of us. Alarmists/activists say any increase in CO2 is 100% man-made, and would be more were it not for natural CO2 sinks, namely the ocean and biosphere. The claim overlooks the fact that those sinks are also sources of CO2 and the flux from the land and sea is an order of magnitude higher than estimates of human emissions. In fact, our few Gigatons of carbon are lost within the error range of estimating natural emissions. Insects produce far more CO2 than humans do by all our activity, including domestic animals.

Why Climate Reductionism is Dangerous

Reducing the climate in this fashion reaches its logical conclusion in the Activist notion of the “450 Scenario.”  Since Cancun, IPCC is asserting that global warming is capped at 2C by keeping CO2 concentration below 450 ppm. From Summary for Policymakers (SPM) AR5

Emissions scenarios leading to CO2-equivalent concentrations in 2100 of about 450 ppm or lower are likely to maintain warming below 2°C over the 21st century relative to pre-industrial levels. These scenarios are characterized by 40 to 70% global anthropogenic GHG emissions reductions by 2050 compared to 2010, and emissions levels near zero or below in 2100.

Thus is born the “450 Scenario” by which governments can be focused upon reducing human emissions without any reference to temperature measurements, which are troublesome and inconvenient. Almost everything in the climate world has been erased, and “Fighting Climate Change” is now code to mean accounting for fossil fuel emissions.


All propagandists begin with a kernel of truth, in this case the fact everything acting in the world has an effect on everything else. Edward Lorenz brought this insight to bear on the climate system in a ground breaking paper he presented in 1972 entitled: “Predictability:Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”  Everything does matter and has an effect. Obviously humans impact on the climate in places where we build cities and dams, clear forests and operate farms. And obviously we add some CO2 when we burn fossil fuels.

But it is wrong to ignore the major dominant climate realities in order to exaggerate a small peripheral factor for the sake of an agenda. It is wrong to claim that IR active gases somehow “trap” heat in the air when they immediately emit any energy absorbed, if not already lost colliding with another molecule. No, it is the bulk gases, N2 and O2, making up the mass of the atmosphere, together with the ocean delaying the cooling and giving us the mild and remarkably stable temperatures that we enjoy. And CO2 does its job by radiating the heat into space.

Since we do little to cause it, we can’t fix it by changing what we do. The climate will not stop changing because we put a price on carbon. And the sun will rise despite the cock going on strike to protest global warming.

Footnote: For a deeper understanding of the atmospheric physics relating to CO2 and climate, I have done a guide and synopsis of Murry Salby’s latest textbook on the subject:  Fearless Physics from Dr. Salby


Dino Manalis Added May 17, 2017 - 9:49am
I'm worried about carbon in general, because many forms of carbon contribute to pollution and warming.  Carbon dioxide is more natural than other kinds of carbon, we exhale CO2, carbon monoxide is more dangerous and people often die from it.  That's why we should limit chloroflurocarbons in general.
Thomas Sutrina Added May 17, 2017 - 10:12am
Great article, but do not expect many conversions, because simplicity wins.  Reduction is simple.
Give them the temperature cycles that occurred in the past before the industrial revolution and they just ignore that the peak to peak length of 700 yrs between the founding of Ice Land and Green Land when the Atlantic had little ice flows to the little ice age that brought us to the start of the industrial revolution.  Which puts the next peak at 2400.  So by this cycle we are at about the middle of warming.  I believe the Romans and Greeks reported  at least one if not two points in this cyclic pattern.
Mike Haluska Added May 17, 2017 - 10:33am
Here is something irrefutable despite the windbag's attempt at credibility by using cool graphics and quotes:
1)  The Current Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere is 400 ppm - it is a measurable FACT agreed upon and verified
2)  The Amount of CO2 Generated by Human Activity is LESS THAN 1% - it is a measurable FACT agreed upon and verified
3)  IF We Somehow Eliminated ALL CO2 Generated by Human Activity the CO2 Concentration WOULD ONLY DROP TO 396 PPM!!!  If 400 ppm didn't "wreck the planet", why would 396 ppm???
So despite all of the histrionics and attempts to turn a TRACE GAS NECESSARY FOR ALL LIFE ON EARTH INTO A TOXIN, it is mathematically foolish and stupid to spend $1 trying to "correct" a problem that doesn't exist!!!!
Jeffry Gilbert Added May 17, 2017 - 10:44am
Sit back relax grab an adult beverage a comfortable spot and a lovely because Fukushima will certainly kill you much faster. Have a great day! Mind the gap between train and platform. Off you go now, bye. 
Nicholas Schroeder Added May 17, 2017 - 10:46am
Demonizing, marginalizing, silencing and censoring the skeptics and critics (Union of Concerned “Scientists” & Disqus & FB & WUWT) is the real anti-science. Science without doubt, science without uncertainty, becomes religion.
Believing that 0.04% of the atmospheric gases magically influences weather and dominates the climate takes a real sci fi flight of fantasy (or article of faith).
The upwelling/down welling/"back” radiation of greenhouse theory is comic book science, Saturday morning cartoon science, cinematic shape-shifting, mutant superhero science defying six of the three most fundamental laws of thermodynamics and physics.
Believing in the upwelling/downwelling”/back” radiation GHG/GHE theory is like believing in the X-men, but without the kewl movies. Not surprising since they share a common fan base.
So what would the earth be like without an atmosphere?

The average solar constant is 1,368 W/m^2 with an S-B BB temperature of 390 K or 17 C higher than the boiling point of water under sea level atmospheric pressure, which would no longer exist. The oceans would boil away removing the tons of pressure that keep the molten core in place. The molten core would rupture flooding the surface with dark magma changing both emissivity and albedo. With no atmosphere a steady rain of meteorites would pulverize the surface to dust same as the moon. The earth would be much like the moon with a similar albedo (0.12) and large swings in surface temperature from lit to dark sides. No clouds, no vegetation, no snow, no ice a completely different albedo, certainly not the current 30%. No molecules means no convection, conduction, latent energy and surface absorption/radiation would be anybody’s guess. Whatever the conditions of the earth would be without an atmosphere, it is most certainly NOT 240 W/m^2 and 255K.
BTW I have over 1,300 reads on the WB papers linked above and no one has yet to dispute their science. Step right up, be the first.
Nicholas Schroeder Added May 17, 2017 - 10:50am
BTW Dr. Denning offered no rebuttal either.
Nicholas Schroeder Added May 17, 2017 - 11:04am
1) Per IPCC AR5 Figure 6.1 prior to year 1750 CO2 represented about 1.26% of the total biospheric carbon balance (589/46,713). After mankind’s contributions, 67 % fossil fuel and cement – 33% land use changes, atmospheric CO2 increased to about 1.77% of the total biosphere carbon balance (829/46,713). This represents a shift of 0.51% from all the collected stores, ocean outgassing, carbonates, carbohydrates, etc. not just mankind, to the atmosphere. A 0.51% rearrangement of 46,713 Gt of stores and 100s of Gt annual fluxes doesn’t impress me as measurable let alone actionable, attributable, or significant.

2) Figure 10 in Trenberth et al 2011jcli24, in addition to substantial differences of opinion, i.e. uncertainties, 7 of the 8 balances considered, 87.5%, showed more energy leaving ToA than entering, i.e. atmospheric cooling.

3) Even IPCC AR5 expresses serious doubts about the value of their AOGCMs (IPCC AR5 Box TS.3) and Key Uncertainties (TS.6) (IPCC AR5 Box TS.3).
The sea ice and sheet ice is behaving as usual for decades (DMI) and does not affect sea levels. Polar bear population is the highest in decades, the weather (30 years = climate) is less extreme not more, the sea level rise is not accelerating, the GCM’s are repeat failures, the CAGW hypothesis is coming unraveled, COP21 turned into yet another empty and embarrassing fiasco, IPCC AR6 will mimic SNL’s Emily Letilla, “Well, neeeveeer mind!!”
BTW James Hansen just said, “Never mind.”
Mike Haluska Added May 17, 2017 - 4:25pm
Nicholas - nice job.  I wrote a Writer Beat article on the forecasting accuracy of "AGW" experts since the 1980's.  To say they have little credibility is an exaggeration - they have ZERO credibility!  One ridiculous "Imminent Doomsday" prediction after another that were "scientific certainties" ended up completely WRONG.  My personal favorite - Al Gore guaranteeing in 2007 that "in 5 years the Polar Ice will have melted and NY will be under water do to rising ocean levels".   
When there is a local weather event that suits their purposes they declare it "proof" of man-made Global Warming!  When a local weather event doesn't suit their purposes, they unashamedly claim "weather isn't climate". 
Bill H. Added May 17, 2017 - 5:27pm
Ahh! Another hero for you guys who also obviously has interests in the petroleum industry based on this and other articles on his website.
Why is this always the case?
Ron Clutz Added May 17, 2017 - 5:57pm
Bill H., I have never worked for an oil company or invested in one.  Why would you say that about me?
The article you linked was about this:
"The moral of this modern story is very clear. Where energy is scarce and expensive, people’s labor is cheap and they live in poverty. Where energy is reliable and cheap, people are paid well to work and they have a better life."
You are way off base.  Read harder.
Ron Clutz Added May 17, 2017 - 6:00pm
Mike Haluska, am I the windbag?  (I'll take the cool graphics part.)  
Doug Plumb Added May 17, 2017 - 10:07pm
It seems to me that if the AGW hypothesis was good they would have a model that worked in practice. At least they wouldn't have well known scientists in the field telling us it is a fraud - unless these scientists want to see the earth turn into a burning piece of carbon, like a briquet on a barbeque. (which would be plausible if they were attorneys)
  I wonder why they cannot use system identification in a finite element analysis to ID the relevant parameters using super computers. I wonder if its an eigenvalue problem that could never be solved. I'm no expert, but I do wonder why I see Fourier analysis techniques on data that isn't even supposed to be periodic, and about Climate Gate 1 & 2 in general and some aspects of the code I hear and have seen really weird things about.
  Isn't this pretty much dead now anyways ? Aren't David Suzuki and Al Gore at some hide out drying their tears?
Leroy Added May 18, 2017 - 7:56am
Great article, Ron!
Mike Haluska Added May 18, 2017 - 12:39pm
Ron - sorry for the "windbag" comment!  I had 2 posts going simultaneously and "cross-commented"
Mike Haluska Added May 18, 2017 - 12:50pm
Doug - in answer to your question:
" I wonder why they cannot use system identification in a finite element analysis to ID the relevant parameters using super computers."
you need look no further than James Gleick's book "Chaos" and read about why it is inherently and mathematically impossible to model and forecast non-linear, non-deterministic, non-repeating systems that are sensitive to changes in initial conditions.  Edward Lorenz realized this early on and described the "Butterfly Effect".
Mike Haluska Added May 21, 2017 - 1:19pm
Doug - your comment brings up a great point:
"unless these scientists want to see the earth turn into a burning piece of carbon, like a briquet on a barbeque. (which would be plausible if they were attorneys)"
Have you ever seen a group of physicists, engineers, biologists (e.g. legitimate scientists) bring a squadron of LAWYERS to defend and advance their theories like the AGW frauds???  I don't recall Einstein, Bohr, Feigenbaum, Lorenz, Fermi, etc. ever hiring lawyers and lobbying Congress to advance Relativity, Atomic Theory, Electromagnetism, Quantum Mechanics!!!
The AGW frauds have abandoned legitimate Scientific Method in favor of "Consensus Science" precisely because their position has NO SCIENTIFIC MERIT!
Doug Cotton Added Mar 19, 2018 - 7:26am
Surface temperatures have nothing to do with radiation impinging on the surface.  The solar radiation reaching the surface of Earth has a mean of about 168W/m^2 and that can only produce a mean surface temperature colder than 233K which is -40°C.  Hence there is another input of thermal energy and that was explained for the first time in world literature (correct me if I'm wrong) in my 2013 paper "Planetary Core and Surface Temperatures" here: