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The Science of Global Warming Is Older Than Quantum Mechanics


I’m new to global warming. I didn’t hear about it until 1983. Even thirty years ago, the science behind the greenhouse effect and global warming was well known.  French Physicist and mathematician Joseph Fourier (shown at left) is generally credited with being the first to hypothesize that the Earth is warmed by its atmosphere and even that we humans can change the climate.  That goes all the way back to 1827.

Meet Joseph Fourier

Fourier is known to all who study physics for his development of Fourier Analysis, which allows you to model mathematical functions as a series of sines and cosines, and Fourier’s Law, which is the basic law of heat flow by conduction. The latter is known to beginning building science students as:

Fourier's Law for heat transfer by conduction

What Fourier did was to calculate that the Earth, because of its distance from the Sun, should be significantly colder than it is.  He calculated the amount of radiant energy hitting our planet and found that it wasn’t enough to account for the temperatures we have here. In addition to considering the possibility of additional radiation from interstellar space providing the boost, he proposed that the atmosphere trapped heat and caused the warmer temperatures.

The really amazing thing about Fourier’s work is that he did this before James Clerk Maxwell, Jožef Stefan, and Ludwig Boltzmann were even born.  In the 1820s, scientists were still decades away from understanding that light, heat, electricity, and magnetism were all related.  Maxwell put that together in the 1860s with his famous set of four equations that govern the field of classical electromagnetism.

Only then could Stefan and Boltzmann figure out their law of radiation, showing that the energy transferred by radiation is proportional to the fourth power of the radiating body’s temperature and its emissivity.  (The emissivity of materials is something we exploit in the making of low-e windows and radiant barriers).  What Fourier did in the 1820s was revolutionary, but now this calculation is basic enough that it appears in introductory physics textbooks.

Further 19th century advances in climate science

Several other 19th century scientists took up Fourier’s work and studied radiation, absorption, and conduction in atmospheric gases, trying to get a handle on how our climate works.  The Irish scientist Tyndall was one of the first to try to calculate how infrared radiant energy flows affect the climate.

Then came the interest in the effects of carbon dioxide. Langley looked into this in the 1880s and calculated, incorrectly, that the Earth’s temperature would be only about -200° C (-328° F) were it not for the presence of CO2 and its insulating effect on the Earth’s atmosphere.  It would actually be about -18° C (0° F), but Svante Arrhenius climate change global warming greenhouse effect hey, we’re talking about someone doing this back in the 1880s.  The Dowager Countess, mother of Lord Grantham, was probably still hot and fashionable then!

One thing that Tyndall concluded from his work was that water vapor had more effect on atmospheric temperatures than carbon dioxide.  In 1895, Svante Arrhenius (shown here) gave a presentation to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on the subject. His paper was titled, The influence of carbonic acid in the air upon the temperature of the ground. (What they called carbonic acid, we know as carbon dioxide.)  In it, he disagreed with Tyndall and said carbon dioxide was the more important greenhouse gas (though I’m sure he didn’t use that term).

Arrhenius’s study was pretty darn interesting.  He wanted to know what would happen if the CO2 levels were different than the then-current concentration of 300 parts per million by volume.  He calculated the resulting temperature for levels that were 0.67, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, and 3.0 times as high and also looked at how it changed with longitude.

His results were quite similar to what scientists have found a hundred years hence:  Doubling the atmospheric CO2 results in a temperature rise of about 6° C.  Current work in the area of climate sensitivity puts his result just outside the 3 °C ± 1.5 °C of modern climate research.

The good thing about science

As with most areas of science, the revolution happens first, and then the focus shifts to filling in the details. Thomas Kuhn discussed this in his wonderful book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, describing the revolutions as periods when we undergo paradigm shifts. I’m not sure the development of climate science represents as much of a paradigm shift as it does the creation of a paradigm, but the work of Fourier was definitely groundbreaking.

neil degrasse tysonSince his work in the 1820s, we’ve added a lot of documentation to his ideas about the greenhouse effect and global warming (including that the so-called greenhouse effect isn’t what keeps greenhouses warm, but that’s for another article). Scientists have tons of data on this subject and among them, there’s not really any debate about (1) whether our planet is warming and (2) that our actions are a big part of the cause.

You can choose not to believe it, of course, but as astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said recently, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”


Much of the information from this article comes from “History of the greenhouse effect” by M.D.H. Jones and A. Henderson-Sellers. It was originally published in Progress in Physical Geography (14, 1-18, ©1990) and reprinted in a book that I bought in the mid-1990s: Global Warming: Selected Reprints by John W. Firor, published by the American Association of Physics Teachers, ©1995.


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Images of Fourier and Arrhenius in the public domain, from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Tyson from

This Post Has 26 Comments

  1. Nice article, Allison! &amp
    Nice article, Allison!  
    I like how you traced the history of science and related it to both modern building science and climate change. 
    I read somewhere that deep core samples of antarctic ice reveal that a natural warming trend that began following the Little Ice Age (~1600-1680) started to accelerate around 1750 (beginning of the Industrial Revolution with its heavy use of coal) and then steeply accelerates just around 1900 (wider spread use of fossil fuels). 
    So whether there’s a natural component to global warming (there most likely is), it’s difficult to deny that our activity isn’t contributing to it (except for the committed deniers, of course, who don’t care about empirical evidence). 

  2. P.S. Just noticed that my
    P.S. Just noticed that my Communist Party membership card recently expired, so I should probably withdraw my previous comment 😛

  3. John P.:
    John P.: Thanks, John. Yeah, it’s interesting that some people just can’t get past the political battles and their own personal beliefs. But when flowers start blooming a month or two earlier than usual, and every year it gets worse, it’s pretty obvious that things are messed up.

  4. I remember reading an article
    I remember reading an article in the Sunday newspaper magazine section about 30 to 40 years ago that predicted that New York would have climate like Florida by 2050. I’d be 104 by then so I might not get to verify that. What climate change has to do with Communism beats me. Are there actually any Communists left on earth except in North Korea? Are they leading the climate change debate now? The science and predictability of climate change may be debatable, but the science of political brainwashing seems proved by that comment alone.

  5. Allison&lt
    Allison: Thanks for excellent summary article. One correction, “The English scientist Tyndall” was born in Leighlinbridge, County Carlow, Ireland and did not move to work in England until he was 22. Like Canadians being called Americans, the Irish are not keen on they or their own being called English!  
    John P.: I worry a bit about “I read somewhere”. The fourth IPCC synthesis report, conservatively reporting the work of thousands of scientists, is easy to find and easy to read, especially for anyone into building science.  
    John P mentions a “likely” natural component to global warming. This is not the case in my judgement of the science I have read. The only forcing of significance is anthroprogenic greenhouse gases. 
    The ice cores, and other proxy temperature records, in fact show that the Little Ice Age and Medieval Warming Period are Northern Hemisphere phenomena that hardly register on the global record. Over the past 2000 years temperature has been stable because CO2 has been stable (at about 280 ppm).  
    Now at 390 ppm, and heading for 800 ppm plus by 2100, the unprecedented warming is taking us to a more than 4ºC hell very fast, threatening harvests and water supplies. Adaptation to that will be next to impossible without economic collapse. 
    The problem for the Dave Dalys of the world is that for every year that goes by, the more “communist” the required mitigation solutions become.  
    It might be best to realise that and do something now.

  6. “The English scientist
    “The English scientist Tyndall” 
    John Tyndall was no more English than George Bernard Shaw, Richard Sheridan, and Oscar Wilde. Nor was Einstein an American.

  7. Agreed on the practicality of
    Agreed on the practicality of the “just look out your window at your garden” experiment, but then who are ya gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes? 
    Since this is a building-related site, the other interesting thing is to pick your favorite location and look at HDD or CDD. In MPLS there is a pretty obvious trend in the past century: If it’s a conspiracy, they are darned good at covering all their bases. 
    (I suppose spot-checking HDD data isn’t the best scientific study, but around here it sure doesn’t tell a different story than we hear from the climate scientists!)

  8. “What climate change has
    “What climate change has to do with Communism beats me. Are there actually any Communists left on earth except in North Korea? Are they leading the climate change debate now?” -BobSpez. Bob, you got me good! HILARIOUS.

  9. Paul P.
    Paul P. Thanks for providing the link to the IPCC report. Please realize that I was in a hurry to dash off my comment and then get back to work, and couldn’t recall the precise source I’d read regarding the ice cores, never mind provide a proper link. But I didn’t mean to trivialize it, if that’s how it seemed. So thanks for the follow-on info. 
    Regarding the Little Ice Age, though perhaps not reflected in the ice cores, it’s often correlated with diminished sunspot activity (which was indeed recorded by European astronomers of the day), and even a possible slowing down of the sun’s rotation during the Maunder Minimum (about 1670). 
    I totally agree that anthroprogenic causes are the main drivers of climate change, but there’s still evidence that average global temperatures were rising slightly between 1670 and the onset of the Industrial Revolution.  
    My main point was that more recent human activity (beginning with the Industrial Revolution) greatly exacerbated whatever gradual natural warming might’ve been occurring, and now dominates any previously occurring natural causes to the point of rendering them insignificant. 
    – John

  10. Apologies for the bold type
    Apologies for the bold type above, tried to do the tags and it just did not work. 
    John P.: No worries, just felt I could not leave the comment hanging.  
    In regard to the Little Ice Age, one very plausible theory for the cooling is actually human interference. At the end of the 15th century up to 100 million people lived in the Americas many of whom burned trees to make room for crops. Following the arrival of Europeans, 90% of the native peoples died, mostly from disease, such that massive reforestation took place removing CO2 from the atmosphere. 
    Looking back over 8000 years global human land-use seems to have affected CO2 levels and temperature (though not on anything like the rate and scale of the past sixty years). Great little video with the article here: 
    The science since the last IPCC report is strongly indicating that it is the CO2 level in the atmosphere that determines the equilibrium temperature. The last time that CO2 levels were as high as they are today, 15 million years ago, the temperature was 5 to 10ºF warmer and sea level was 75 to 120 feet higher. 
    It may take time to get there but that is where we are headed if we do not act fast to mitigate current emissions. 

  11. Nicely put Allison. 
    Nicely put Allison. 
    Andy Lee Robinson put together a graph that does a great job of showing the decline of arctic sea ice, a consequence of global warming. It is an impressive bit of data visualization. 
    The graph is here.

  12. Science may be true, but
    Science may be true, but science is observation of truth that can be misunderstood by those seeking truth based on science. 
    The flaw in science is the scientist. Today, we have too many who use science as a manipulative tool to support an agenda they want to perpetuate, usually for the purpose of obtaining finances from someone. Since government is a venue where people can reap in money that can then be dispensed to others, there is no accounting for actual results from the money spent. 
    If we take government out of the business of funding science and let private entrepreneurs take back the reins of scientific advancement, scientists will be needing to be a lot more practical with a lot more tangible results.

  13. It is true, Eric, that
    It is true, Eric, that private industry has it’s own agenda for using science, usually pertaining to how to make money from the scientifi discovery. There is nothign wrong with private enterprises making money. That is how capitolism works. 
    The more innovative ideas that come from private industry over making the planet a better place to live, while that company is also making money, we have a win’win situation. 
    Enter the dragon (government), which takes the scientific information for use against the populace in scary stories, then spends a lot of our tax money develop more ways to scare us so we will give them more money. 
    With government agencies being funded by socialist taking of the money of citizens, there will never be a cure for anything.

  14. Robin – there are plenty of
    Robin – there are plenty of examples of industry using research (or, more accurately, suppressing it) to maintain advantage (cf tobacco, or, more to the point, energy). Your argument is, I think, facile and besides the point. 
    The Science article sounds fascinating – looking forward to reading it. Human impacts on the environment is a fascinating subject – “1491” was a great book on pre-Columbian North & South America. Don’t know if it made me feel more or less hopeful. 
    I take some vague solace in the thought that we’re just doing what comes naturally. Is there any species that is self-regulating on this planet? Wouldn’t the blue-green algae have taken over the world if it had been able to spread? Sooner or later we’ll come up against some barrier we can’t adapt our way out of (presumably of our own making) and then, game over.  
    In the meantime, I’m working on a cockroach cookbook – think I’m going to make a fortune on it.

  15. Robin B.:
    Robin B.: Profit-making science may sound good in theory, but that’s not what science is about. Although many scientific discoveries have been exploited in business ideas, the original discoveries were made for the sake of understanding the universe we live in.  
    What you’re advocating actually is to get rid of science and replace it with corporate R&D.; Those are two entirely different things.

  16. Dan K.:
    Dan K.: Good points. I know a guy who likes to ask, “Are humans smarter than yeast?” 
    Be sure to let us know when the cookbook is available. That sounds great! ;~0

  17. There is no doubt that
    There is no doubt that corporations have and will use science to exploit consumers for profit. It is human nature to support claims with “scientific” evidence. The point is that we have made science into a religion rather than what it really is, which is observational study. 
    One of the greatest scientific discoveries that has kept mankind from having massive starvations is the ability to fix nitrogen from atmospheric nitrogen. Fixed nitrogen from air replaced the nitrates obtained from rapidly depleting bat and bird guano. This developement was done strictly through private enterprises, and the results kept millions of humans from starving to death while allowing the human race to continue to grow in numbers. 
    Had government agencies been tasked with finding other ways to fertilize soil in order to feed the world, we would still be spending all of our money on “research”. 
    Governmenat agencies exploit science to a much greater degree than private industry does. Private industry must find a way to make a profit from actual developements from scientific research. Government agencies just keep sucking the public coffers dry with never ending research that never resolves issues, but rather continues to perpetuate more and more claimed issues. 
    We will never find a cure for cancer as long as so many are profiting so much from researching a cure for cancer. No one is being held responsible for succeeding. Take away all government funding for cancer research and put a bounty of several billion dollars for a cure for cancer and a cure will be found.

  18. Robin B.:
    Robin B.: Not only do you not understand science, but the example you chose is a poor one. Fritz Haber discovered what’s now called the Haber-Bosch process for turning atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia for use in fertilizer and explosives. He was an academic researcher at the time of his discovery, so it was indeed paid for by government.  
    If you want to find problems with government-funded research, that’s not hard to do. As Dan Kolbert mentioned above, corporate R&D; has its problems, too. We need both.

  19. George R.:
    George R.: Don’t confuse rating standards with software or either with utility programs. RESNET decided that home energy ratings would be based on site energy use because the goal was to help homeowners make informed decisions about how energy efficient a home is. Architectural Energy Corporation is simply applying the RESNET standards to their software.  
    Of course, anyone who really wants to understand the impact of their energy choices needs to know about site versus source energy. Yes, electricity from a power plant that burns fossil fuels loses a lot of the energy in the fuel they burn. But it’s also not so easy to power computers and lights and air conditioners with natural gas burned on site. 
    If Duke Power is disqualifying homes from some program or rebate just because they use mini-split heat pumps, they must be a bit thick. What’s their reason?

  20. “The good thing about
    “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” 
    copy that. 
    amazing that people still think global warming isn’t happening.

  21. global warming is
    global warming is not happening.  
    IMHO the OISM is the best indicator we have that the user is clueless. 
    If we didn’t have such a good indicator, we’d have to make one.  
    The OISM is also good comedy – and for that, we thank hapless Dan.

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