Friday, January 20, 2012

Some Climate Warming Skeptics Ready to Ditch the Second Law of Thermodynamics

Image source

I am not a climate warming skeptic. I am a skeptic about everything, especially about scientific claims made by those, like Al Gore and the Coal Alliance, who have a political agenda. For that reason, I follow the climate change debate with a skeptical eye for claims made on either side.

Among those skeptical of alarmist claims about human-caused, or anthropogenic, climate change are some of undoubted ability whose critical evaluation of the work of the mainstream school of climate science, which is closely wedded to projections of massive climate disruption due to human activity, deserves careful attention.

However, because of the politics, much skeptic clamor is as preposterous as any of the nonsense with which Al Gore has managed to pervert the course of public debate and embarrass the scientific community. In some cases, the nonsense is surely propagated with the deliberate intent to deceive, but in most cases the spread of nonsense is likely driven solely by wishful thinking, something that is with us always.

An example of the apparent will of the climate skeptic to believe is provided by the ongoing debate at Tallbloke's Talkshop and at Anthony Watt's web site concerning the "Gravito-Thermal Hypothesis" of Hans Jelbring, a debate of such intensity as to create moments of severe inter-Skeptic friction (and here).

The Jelbring hypothesis is quite obscure. So obscure in fact, that it has been claimed that no one understands it well enough to explain it. But what the hypothesis asserts is that the greenhouse effect:
...can be explained as ... a consequence of known physical laws describing the behaviour of ideal gases in a gravity field.
Now this is a radical claim, published it should be noted, in a peer-reviewed scholarly journal. To understand why it is radical, one needs to be clear as to what the greenhouse effect is.

The so-called greenhouse effect has in fact little to do with greenhouses, but consists in the increase in the Earth's surface attributable to the presence of the atmosphere.

The way that the atmosphere raises the Earth's surface temperature is not immediately apparent. Ignoring internally generated heat, the Eath's surface temperature is largely determined by the amount of radiation received from the Sun. Thus the surface is usually warmer during the day than at night and warmer during the long days of summer than during the short days of winter.

The Sun does not, however, raise the Earth's temperature continuously, because the Earth emits energy to space in the form of heat (i.e., infra-red radiation), at a rate proportional to its temperature. Thus the Earth's temperature fluctuates around a stable equilibrium value, such that planet-wide incoming solar radiation matches planet-wide outgoing infra-red radiation (averaged over the course of the year). Thus any warming tendency is counteracted by an increase in surface temperature and hence an increase in outgoing radiation. Conversely, any cooling tendency is counteracted by a decrease in surface temperature and hence a decrease in outgoing radiation.

Thus, the presence of an atmosphere will make no difference to the mean, planet-wide year-round temperature at the Earth's surface, provide it is transparent to all radiation.

However, the Earth's atmosphere does affect the temporal and spatial distribution of heat at the Earth's surface by acting as a thermal buffer. For example, it cools the surface during the day, while warming it night. But here we are concerned only with mean, year-round, planet-wide surface temperature which is dictated by the radiant energy balance, and so the temperature buffering effects of the atmosphere, or for that matter of the oceans and Earth's crust, can be ignored.

Moreover, the atmosphere does raise the temperature of the Earth's surface because it is not transparent to all radiation. Although nitrogen and oxygen, the chief constituents of the atmosphere are essentially transparent to solar and infra-red radiation, the atmosphere also contains trace amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and ozone, the so-called greenhouse gases (plus water droplets in clouds), all of which absorb radiation, particularly in the infra-red portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.

When a molecule of greenhouse gas absorbs radiation, its temperature, i.e., its kinetic energy or velocity, is raised above the ambient temperature. In time, this energy is either transmitted through collision with circumambient molecules to non-greenhouse gases such as oxygen and nitrogen that make up most of the atmosphere, or it is emitted as infra-red radiation. The radiation may be emitted in any direction, which means that some will intercept the ground and cause surface warming. This is the greenhouse effect that keeps our planet at a temperature consistent with organic life, which is to say approximately 33 K above what it would be without a greenhouse effect. The effect is evident in the difference in temperature usually experienced between clear and cloudy nights. The clouds act as radiators, beaming infra-red radiation to the ground and substantially raising the temperature.

But not so, according to Hans Jelbring.

Jelbring contends that the greenhouse effect is almost entirely the result of a gravitational effect on the atmosphere. Unfortunately, precisely what this effect is supposed to be, no one, as noted above, seems able to clearly explain. However, without overly straining one's intellect to understand the theory, one can rather more easily consider its implications and the empirical evidence that would support it.

If Jelbring is correct, it would mean that even if a planetary atmosphere were entirely transparent, which is to say free of greenhouse gases and thus incapable of either absorbing or emitting radiant energy, it would nevertheless raise the surface temperature of the planet above what it would be without an atmosphere.

What does that imply? First, that by raising the temperature of the surface, the atmosphere must raise the outgoing radiant flux at the surface, which in turn, means an increase in radiant flux to outer space, if the atmosphere is entirely transparent (i.e., free of greenhouse gases). In fact, it means that the planet would be at least slightly luminous (i.e., outgoing radiation would exceed incoming radiation). But that is not what CERES (Clouds and the Earth's Radiant Energy System) experiment satellite measurements indicate.

There are other implications that raise even more fundamental issues. For example, if as Jelbring claims, gravity is responsible for the atmospheric temperature lapse rate, this implies a refutation of the second law of thermodynamics, the rule that outlaws perpetual motion machines and free everlasting energy.

It is not inconceivable, therefore, that excitement in the climate skeptic camp about Jelbring's thermo-gravitational hypothesis stems, at least in part, from wishful thinking, not sound scientific analysis.

Consistent with this conclusion, Jelbring's paper, published in 2003, has been cited in the scientific literature only twice, and both citations are in the same journal, Energy and Environment, as the original paper.

According to SCIMAGO, an independent journal ranking agency, Energy and Environment is a low ranking journal in terms of prestige and citations of articles in the rest of the literature. For example, on the Scimago journal prestige ranking index Energy and Environment ranks fortieth out of 49 journals concerned with energy and the environment with a score of 0.03 versus a score of 0.73 for the top journal in that category and scores of 7.8 and 10.0 for Nature and Cell, respectively.

If we turn to the journal itself, we see that the Editor is Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, who, if we look her up here, appears to be no mean scholar. She is the author of a number of frequently cited books and journal articles. However, she has not published in the fields of either climate science or physics. Moreover, according to Wikipedia, she is is an Emeritus Reader in Geography at the University of Hull in Kingston-upon-Hull England, which leads one to question her competence to determine the fate of a paper that challenges a fundamental law of physics. Wikipedia also tells us that the journal Energy and Environment, which she has edited since 1996 is aimed at, among others, "the international social science and policy communities," hardly a group liable to provide critical assessment of the thermo-gravitational hypothesis.

Wikipedia also states:
According to Fred Pearce, Boehmer-Christiansen is a sceptic about acid rain and global warming and calls the science reports produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change "political constructs." Real Climate, a prominent blog run by climate scientists, asserted in 2011 that her journal once published a paper that claimed that the sun is made of iron; Boehmer-Christiansen responded that the claim was false
We can say, then that Jelbring's highly questionable thesis was published in a journal of minimal scientific significance edited by a scholar of limited or non-existent credentials in the field with which Jelbring's paper deals [though we think Prof Boehmer-Christiansen, sure has the IPCC weighed up right].

The journal has an Editorial Advisory Board, but the membership does not appear strong in the physical sciences. For example, Maarten J. Arentsen holds a Master’s degree in political science specializing in scientific methodology and political modernization; David J. Ball, is Professor of Risk Management, Middlesex University, Hendon, UK; Max Beran, Independent Environmental Services Professional, Oxford, UK; etc.

None of which proves that Jelbring's hypothesis is unquestionably wrong. Perhaps the Earth really does glow in the dark, and perhaps the second law of thermodyamics will have to be repealed. But for now, mainstream science is ignoring the thing, and are probably none the worse for doing so.

Revised January 22, 2012


  1. How many peer reviewed papers has CanSpeccy had published? Does he possess a climate CV?

    I do not ask this to denigrate, but rather as a lede: peer review comes after publication, not in publication. But journals have the responsibility to do at least basic fact-checking.

    The formal hypothesis is usually contained in the published paper. For example, in Mann08, Dr. Michael Mann published a paper based primarily on a corrupted proxy (Tiljander), which was upside down due to overturned lake sediments, eutrophication, and road construction.

    If that supposedly reputable journal (PNAS) had done minimal investigation, its reviewers would have found that Dr. Tiljander had notified Dr. Mann prior to publication that her proxy was corrupted after 1720. Mann published anyway!

    Yet the criticism here seems to focus primarily on Prof. Boehmer-Christianson, who certainly appears to be more competent and careful than the PNAS reviewers and editor.

    CanSpeccy adds: "None of which proves that Jelbring's hypothesis is unquestionably wrong." Thus, publishing Dr. Jelbring's hypothesis has merit, even if it is ultimately falsified. That is as it should be. Dr. Boehmer-Christianson did nothing wrong in accepting the paper for publication, whereas PNAS erred.

    The real problem is the cowed and intimidated group of climate journals, which appear to be Michael Mann's tamed pets. It looks like they are too frightened to reject a Michael Mann paper, even when it is based upon a known corrupted proxy.

  2. "How many peer reviewed papers has CanSpeccy had published?"

    Several dozen. The last in 1990. That paper has been cited in the literature 232 times, according to Google Scholar.

    You say peer review comes after publication. In a sense that is correct. But when people speak of peer review in connection with scholarly publishing, they are speaking about review by peers as a basis for an editor's judgment on suitability of a contribution for publication.

    Your rant about Michael Mann may be have a valid basis, but seems hardly relevant. I mentioned Prof. Boehmer-Christianson, because she was editor of the journal that published the Jelbring paper. In the context, it would have been absurd to criticize the editors of a different journal.

    You say that Prof. Boehmer-Christianson "certainly appears to be more competent and careful than the PNAS reviewers and editor."

    It does not seem that way to me. PNAS has published thousands of important papers and is among the ten most cited journals in the World, which is a lot more than you can say of Energy and Environment.

    Sure PNAS may have published some poor, or totally fraudulent papers. But there is no certain editorial test of validity, which means that every journal's screening procedure is fallible.

    You say: "The real problem is the cowed and intimidated group of climate journals, which appear to be Michael Mann's tamed pets."


    If you are correct in your characterization, that is certainly a problem. But it is evident from the Editorial Board membership of Energy and Environment that any bias among climate science journal editors is not all the same way.

  3. A point worth bearing in mind about PNAS is that members (of the National Academy of Sciences) can submit papers of their own under a softer procedure than standard peer review. Under the present rules they can select two 'reviewers' of their own choice, and in the past I think the scrutiny was even weaker. The result was that elderly and eccentric retired scientists could get things published that would never have passed normal peer review.

  4. At one time, papers for publication by PNAS were "communicated" by a member, the communicating members acting as the Editors of the particular papers that they "communicated." That practice ended in July 2010.

    To quote from

    PNAS has a nearly 100-year history of scientific publishing that is governed by principles established by George Ellery Hale in 1914, which include publication of work by a nonmember that appears to an NAS member to be of particular importance. Until 1995, the majority of papers published in PNAS were authored by nonmembers whose work was “Communicated” by an NAS member who believed the work to be of sufficient significance to warrant publication in the Academy's journal. Many such papers were landmarks in their field, such as the 1950 paper by John Nash (1) that described a principle now known as the Nash equilibrium, the 1977 discovery of split genes and RNA splicing by Phillip Sharp (2), and the 1979 finding by Hershko et al. of the ATP-dependent proteolytic system responsible for protein degradation (3).

    In 1995 PNAS Editor-in-Chief Nicholas R. Cozzarelli introduced the option of “Direct Submission” by authors, both members and nonmembers. Manuscripts submitted directly to the PNAS office that pass initial screening by the Editorial Board (now comprised of 167 NAS members) are anonymously peer-reviewed by experts in the field of the paper, and the final decision on publication is made by an NAS member. This option has enjoyed enormous success, growing from 31 submissions in 1995 to 10,573 in 2008.

    The procedure formerly used by PNAS, was at one time the standard method of vetting papers for publication in virtually all scholarly journals: i.e., a person of distinction in the field decided what was worth publishing, a rather different and perhaps superior method to that of peer review, under which even the poorest papers usually get published eventually, if not by the first, the second, or third journal to which they are serially submitted, then by the nth journal.

    Often editors of the old school took their responsibilities very seriously. For example, when, in 1871, Flix Hoppe-Seyler received Friedrich Miescher's paper reporting the presence of an organic phosphorus containing compound in puss cells from hospital bandages, a substance later identified as DNA, Hoppe-Seyler repeated Miescher's experiments before publishing the paper.

    Such commitment is, I would say, rarely to be found among peer reviewers, who acting anonymously, do not place their reputation at stake when deciding the fate of a paper for publication.

    Sure, PNAS has published some oddball papers. Many have assigned Linus Pauling's 1974 vitamin C paper in that category. But as Pauling is, so far, the only US citizen to win two unshared Nobel prizes, and would probably have won a third had the US government not withdrawn his passport at the time that, in England, Wilkins and associates were sharing their DNA crystallographic data with visitors*, who can really say that that paper lacked scientific merit. I read it at the time of publication and thought it demonstrated an eminently sensibly indirect way of assessing the possible optimum daily intake of a vitamin -- a quantity that cannot be determined by direct measurement of dose-response relationships.

    * (Pauling was considered to be the World's greatest crystallographer, who would surely have beaten Watson and Crick to the discovery of the DNA double helix if he had had the same access as Watson and Crick to Wilkins X-ray diffraction data.)