Second Law of Thermodynamics Versus the Greenhouse Effect? Please

I've seen all kinda attacks on the theory of human-induced global warming. But it wasn't until I did my first storm tracking post over at The Daily Green that one commenter referred me to this paper, purporting to argue that the greenhouse effect itself--which has been well established in science for over 100 years--is fictitious and in fact contradicts thermodynamics:

The atmospheric greenhouse effect, an idea that authors trace back to the traditional works of Fourier 1824, Tyndall 1861, and Arrhenius 1896, and which is still supported in global climatology, essentially describes a fictitious mechanism, in which a planetary atmosphere acts as a heat pump driven by an environment that is radiatively interacting with but radiatively equilibrated to the atmospheric system. According to the second law
of thermodynamics such a planetary machine can never exist. Nevertheless, in almost all texts of global climatology and in a widespread secondary literature it is taken for granted that such mechanism is real and stands on a firm scientific foundation. In this paper the popular conjecture is analyzed and the underlying physical principles are
clarified. By showing that (a) there are no common physical laws between the warming phenomenon in glass houses and the fictitious atmospheric greenhouse effects, (b) there re are no calculations to determine an average surface temperature of a planet, (c) the frequently mentioned difference of 33 C is a meaningless number calculated wrongly, (d) the formulas of cavity radiation are used inappropriately, (e) the assumption of a radiative balance is unphysical, (f) thermal conductivity and friction must not be set to zero, the atmospheric greenhouse conjecture is falsified.

All I can say is, WOW. So much for that entire body of science, built up over many decades....they simply were forgetting about the Second Law of Thermodynamics all that time!

Oh, and did you know that it also disproves evolution?

More like this

Oh, and did you know that it also disproves evolution?

But is does prove human gullibility.

OK. I know I'm more that a bit slow, but I thought there was this thing called the Sun that is actively converting matter into energy. Some of that energy strikes the Earth. That means that, while the Earth can be treated as a closed system, it's a closed system which receives an input of energy from outside the system.

Doesn't that blow up all of these 2nd law of thermodynamics arguments if you don't allow for this?

By Jim Ramsey (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

No so fast Mooney,

I have read most of that article, and while it wanders a bit from the topic occasionally, it is no piece of crack pottery as you seem to be implying. It does reach for the fences by attacking the basic physics of AGW theory and by doing so it at least asks some very interesting questions.

You would do well to read it before dismissing it. Unfortunately it may require a real investment in learning the basics of physics and a bit of differential calculus to really evaluate it. Based on your dismissive and arrogant post I imagine you'll just smugly, and ignorantly, parrot whatever you read on RealClimate about it.

Of course you have already made up your mind and imagine the embarrassment, not to mention loss of income, if you had to change your quite public and political stance on AGW. For all the talk of a "denialist industry" I see a lot more people, like yourself, profiting in the AGW proselytizing biz.

It's funny, or maybe just sad, how people bring up stuff like this as if they think scientists have never thought of it before. I was listening to a radio show a while back where they were discussing global warming. They had a caller who said that he didn't believe in global warming. He thought that the people who studied climate weren't taking into account the effect of the sun on the Earth and that if they only would they'd see that global warming wasn't occurring. He said he knew about it from high school physics.

I have read most of that article, and while it wanders a bit from the topic occasionally, it is no piece of crack pottery as you seem to be implying. It

I dunno. Anyone who claims the 2nd law of thermodynamics contradicts a KNOWN PHENOMENA sure looks like cracked pottery.


You would do well to read it before dismissing it. Unfortunately it may require a real investment in learning the basics of physics and a bit of differential calculus to really evaluate it.

Hello, professional physicist here. The article is complete crackpottery, and it contains no differential calculus of consequence. It contains no honest physical argument at all, but rather a) picks nits with the phraseing of textbook treatments of greenhouse effects, and b) makes every standard mistake in the denialist handbook, like "average temperature is ill-defined" and "but the atmosphere convects too" and so on.

A number of kooks have been trolling this line in the comments on RealClimate since at least early 2005.

The Earth's not a closed system, it's powered by the sun. / So fuck the damn creationists! Doomsday, get my gun.

--MC Hawking, "Entropy"

Thanks everyone. Now all we need is some quote from some famous wit about how the Second Law is misused to disprove almost everything. I don't know the quote, but somehow I feel it almost has to exist.

I do think the articles arguments are very clever. It throws out just enough themo types terms and half truths, so that the average person who had an undergrad physics/chemistry course, but didn't quite understand could be easily fooled.

The simplest analogy, is a person under a blanket. For the earth greenhouse gases act as the blanket, and increasing them is analogous to sleeping under a thicker blanket. The second law applied here only allows us to conclude that no concievable amount of greenhouses gasses, or spaceborne reflecting mirrors could cause the earth to ever get hotter than the surface of the sun. But thats hardly a useful constraint.

Seriously: I suggest you find someone who understands this (and has patience) so they can debunk this. I found a few interesting things (if you can pry through the sheer arrogance of the paper, they make claims about BB radiation that sound fishy to me), so someone who knows more about this will find lots more. But if they are wrong -- and I strongly, strongly think they are -- you'll want to nip this in the bud before some Dark Ages thinker like Inhofe gets a hold of it.

Lance, your ideological bent is showing. As a physicist, you should recognize that the statement about the Second Law of Thermodynamics is a misinterpretation at best. If I were a professor of yours and you gave such an answer on a qualifying exam, I'd flunk you on Thermo.

As others have pointed out, the Earth is not a closed system.

Furthermore, if you look at the most basic non-mathematical form of the Second Law, it states that heat flows from warm to cold. The Sun's heat radiates to the cooler Earth, and the Earth's heat radiates to cooler space. Earth's equilibrium temperature settles in at the point where those two flows are equal.

Without the greenhouse effect, that equilibrium temperature would be well below the freezing point of water. The AGW discussion is about what happens if we increase the greenhouse effect over what already exists.

For absolution, get thee to a physics professor and tell him/her about my new book about 20th century physics history (click my name).

I must pitch in with Ben here. The car/greenhouse models doesn't touch the greenhouse effect. The traditional models and modern computer models are dismissed by denialist arguments. And the differential equations models MHD effects, taken from astrophysics texts, instead of radiative balances.

The 2LOT confusion comes from neatly anticipating Fred Bortz argument by looking at the radiatively balanced stratosphere/ground subsystem at equilibrium in/out heat flows, and claiming that there is a net heat transfer from the stratosphere to the ground. (Because the stratosphere radiates back heat.)

But in that system the net heat transfer is from the sun-heated ground to the stratosphere. As Chris says, by mangling physics in that way 2LOT disproves evolution too. Oh, wait, I see a pattern here...

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 06 Aug 2007 #permalink

Hrm. I think the response to any use of 2nd Law is--

Show me the math.

If it's a valid argument, they can work through the equations, show their work and demonstrate their point.

I've had a quick perusal of the report (I've not found the time to read it in depth yet, and the full version is quite long). Based on my quick reading, I would say that the report makes an attempt to be confusing as possible to the lay reader by throwing what ever scientific terminology the authors could lay to hand in to it, as well as using copious amounts of maths.

However, I found several points in the report where thermodynamic principles were used in incorrect context, in misleading ways or just plain incorrectly. Many of the mistakes are elementary in nature, of the variety that I would expect first year students to make. The report is not written in a clear manner, which makes it more difficult to determine where the authors pull their conclusions from (this was part of the reason I didn't read the report in depth).

I think that this report is written not with trained scientists, but with laymen in mind. The strategy is to sound and look as scientific as possible, to people who are unable to see the glaring errors.


The essay you noted might be what I'm thinking of. Author makes a few statements about blackbody radiation which might be true, but says nothing about the presence of an atmosphere. The impression I got was that he was talking about blackbody radiation period, with atmosphere playing no role in the question. As I understand matters, the climate change problem has to do with certain green house gases obstructing the radiaton of energy out into space. The more energy retained in a system the warmer (in the long run) the system as a whole gets. And when you're talking about a system billions of cubic miles in volume, that's a lot of energy.


I am also a professional physicist, as well as lecturer, and I find no gross errors in the paper.

Have you even read the paper? I suspect you just skimmed through it enough to make a few dismissive remarks. As for there not being any differential calculus of consequence I suppose that the derivation of the generalized heat entropy equation on page 85 is of "no consequence"?. Not to mention the many pages of calculations on average temperature and radiative balance to name two others.

While I agree this paper is ambitious in its scope and sometimes casual in its presentation it never the less makes some important points about the nonphysical basis of many of the religiously held tenants of climate science.

It also points out the rather anecdotal nature of the science underpinning the "atmospheric greenhouse effect".

I see in the above posts mostly the usual face making and name calling that is the usual reaction of the faithful to attacks on the orthodoxy of "climate change".

Goodness, all their nitpicking and irrelavancies make my head hurt! I've only been able to stomach the first half of the paper, but most of what they are doing is spewing out a bunch of unnecessary derivations, commenting on how those calculations are not even truly applicable to the situation, and then using those hand wavings to somehow discount global warming by saying there is no sound theoretical basis.

The paper does stand as a shining example of why some people mistrust open science websites. If arXiv will allow ramblings like this to stay up and give legitimacy to the AGW movement, then I'll stick to publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

You should take a gander at their references. They are all over the map. From legitimate papers to textbooks to denialist websites, it's all there! They often like to cite classic physics papers when they mention some concept, as if the mere act of citing Fourier or Arrhenius somehow validates their later assertions.

I also think you should send a shout-out to Connelly over at Stoat to let him know he's being cited by these guys (reference 115 is a page on one of Connelly's personal websites that recounts a citation from R.W. Wood) to discredit the theoretical basis of the greenhouse effect, and thus somehow global warming...


Thanks for the Thermo 101 first day refresher, but have you actually read the paper? It is not a simplistic claim that the "atmospheric greenhouse effect" violates the second law. It attempts to show that the claimed physical basis for the theory is not supported by solid physics or experimentally verified.

As for my "ideology" showing, I don't think physics much cares about ideology. Either a theory is consistent with the physics of heat transfer and is supported by the evidence or it isn't. It would appear to me, admittedly after only a casual reading, that the author makes a good case that the theory of the "atmospheric greenhouse" effect, and especially the role of CO2, is far from convincing.

I intend to read it more carefully, check out its citings, and see how well it holds up. Isn't that what a scientist should do? You seem to be dismisssing it out of hand because it offends your ideological sensibilities.

Big Tom,

You blanket analogy is just the kind of argument that the paper deconstructs. A blanket is not doing much in terms of re-radiating infra red radiation back down to your body.
Touch the surface of the blanket if you doubt it. If it were acting as a black body radiator it would need to be warmer than your body to transfer heat to it.

It is keeping you warm due to its insulating effect which is a very poor analogy for a few CO2 molecules drifting about in the atmosphere. Do you suppose that a "blanket" composed of scattered CO2 molecules consisitng of less that 1/10,000 of the atmoshpere is insulating us from the near absolute zero of space?

I suggest you read the paper before criticising it.

My favorite part is section 3.8.3 (p. 74), where they argue that water in a heated pot cools the pot via IR absorption (no mention of evaporation, or the latent heat thereof), and argue from there that an IR absorber "may lead to a drop of the temperature of the illuminated surface." That's high grade crackpottery. Perhaps we should buy them a pressure cooker?

wrt bad blanket analogies, the laws of thermo are about net effects, which in the micro will include radiation from colder matter being absorbed by warmer as well as vice-versa, but with the net flow from warmer to colder. The net flow also decreases as the delta-t decreases, which is what a blanket does--a blanket doesn't radiate net heat to my body, but it does reduce my net heat loss, and I'm most comfortable slightly warmer than my environment. And yes, in the micro, that includes the blanket radiating IR to my body, though the net flow is the other direction, and that will make the surface of my skin--heated internally by my circulation--warmer because my net radiation is less. Similarly, more greenhouse gases reduces the net radiation from the surface, which results in a net warming of the surface because there is an outside source (the sun) heating the surface.


I am also a professional physicist, as well as lecturer, and I find no gross errors in the paper.

Lance, perhaps you have been taken in by preconceptions, but their main arguments and their errors are really easy to locate. As I noted in an earlier comment:

1. They are summarily rejecting modern models based on denialist arguments.
2. Their only own contribution revolves around inverting the heat flow between ground and stratosphere in a closed balanced subsystem and then finding that to be an error.

Btw, if they were correct, the post DaleP linked to asks you to "explain how the average temperature on the moon is lower, in spite of the fact that it has a lower albedo".

[And no, I haven't read the whole paper. One of the abilities of a physicist is to efficiently search for those papers that are useful and should be studied in more detail. And this ain't one of them...]

By Torbjörn Lars… (not verified) on 07 Aug 2007 #permalink

I wrote the following in a March 6th letter to my daughter:

I am perplexed by the amount of paranoia associated with the so-called human-caused global warming phenomena. I think that it has become some kind of alternate belief system (i.e., religion) for many of these "Chicken Littles."

The entire world's population can fit inside of a one mile cube-shaped building with room to spare. (There are approximately 147.2 billion cubic feet per cubic mile, divided by 6.4 billion people, equaling 23 cubic feet per person--about the size of a large refrigerator.) Stack them like cord wood and they can all fit into a few Pentagons. The Earth holds 331 MILLION cubic miles of water. There are 3,100 cubic miles of water suspended as water vapor in the 80 MILLION cubic miles of atmosphere. The atmosphere is 21% oxygen. There is only a trace of carbon dioxide, at 0.035%; the balance is almost all nitrogen. Imagine the number of cubic yards of terra firma we have. Rock and dirt absorb and disperse energy as well. Volcanos can produce thousands of times the entire annual human energy output. There are about 1,500 ACTIVE volcanoes in the world. When sunlit, a single square yard of our planet receives approximately 1000-1300 watts of energy. Just assuming an average of 6 hours of sunlight per day (deriving from the various angles of latitude and time of day, otherwise we'd be talking about 12 hours of sunlight), that amounts to 6 kilowatt/hours of energy per day for every square yard of the earth. That's like burning twenty 50 watt lightbulbs continuously for six hours per day over each and every one of the earth's 610 TRILLION (with a "T") square yards. Fortunately, about 1/3 of this energy gets reflected back into space.

Ironically, some want to darken the Earth's surface with more trees (which do produce oxygen from carbon dioxide, but also spew much more noxious stuff, like methane, into the atmosphere). Trees also absorb huge amounts of heat energy, reflecting very little back. Insects alone pass enough gas each day from munching on veggies to run all of our automobiles many times over. (If only we could insert little pipes...!) Furthermore, they want to literally blacken the landscape with solar collection units. I submit that this alone increases the energy absorbed by our environment by a large amount that otherwise would have been reflected back into space. Wind energy is different, it captures existing Sun-generated energy in the atmosphere and transfers it. It is heat neutral; so is wave energy, tidal energy, and hydro-electric energy. Nuclear energy--while it does NOT add gases to the atmosphere--does add heat (by quickly fissioning mass that otherwise would have released its energy over a span of millions of years). But the heat it adds is negligible compared to our Sun's twenty 50 watt lightbulbs times 610 TRILLION square yards.

The bottom line is that humanity is barely a puff in the wind compared to the vastness of our environment. If our little one cubic mile of humanity turned white hot each and every day with pure chemical energy we would collectively fizzle in a fraction of a second amidst 331 MILLION cubic miles of water. That's like a tiny spark of an ember from a cigarette falling into an Olympic-sized pool. Interestingly, the warmer the temperature gets the more vapor is absorbed into the atmosphere--becomming CLOUDS. Guess what? Clouds reflect almost all of their sunlight back into space. Our planet has a self-regulating thermostat!

Some scientists are reporting that the Sun has increased in output over the last century. Some say it has decreased. In any event, the Sun bathes us in a vast amount of heat and even a fraction of a percentage point of change in output would have an enormous impact on our planet in the long term. Some have reported that the "icecaps" on Mars are diminishing. Now, who do we blame for that? You can fit over 1 million Earths inside the Sun and still rattle the little Earth-marbles.

Would you believe that when I was growing up, for almost two decades following the International Geophysical Year of 1957, scientists were going around saying that we were entering a new Ice Age? That was a major topic in public school "science" class. We had two World Wars to end all wars in the span of 30 years, and millions of "land-yachts" that got around 10 mpg, and it was getting colder and colder. Go figure.

I don't know what their "religious" goal is, but apparently there are some among us who would like us to return to a 16th century lifestyle; except that by doing so all of our horses, mules, and oxen would produce far more methane than our cars produce carbon dioxide. Do they want us culled?

By James Gasch (not verified) on 12 Aug 2007 #permalink

If, as some denialists claim, there is no greenhouse effect at all, then why isn't the Earth as cold as the Moon?

Hi Chris - I'm not going to step into the fray of "pure science" here, as I had a strong response to hearing you on Ira Flatow's show, but couldn't get to a phone that day. I comment now still more strongly to my intended point, after the unexpected overnight "appearance" of Humberto.

This is somewhat more on the topic of rapidly building cyclonic storm systems over the northern Gulf of Mexico, and other near-term climate effects in the offing... such as large-scale methane clathrate releases and volcanic effects upon northern hemisphere populations (as predicted by Holocene timescale cycles). Further discussions can be found on my blog - North Atlantic Logbook

I track windshear, cyclonic flows and basic wind information at various levels off and on at the Univ. of Wisc website - as well as keep my own access to ocean and Gulf of Mexico water temps and watch tide tables and the moon for storm surge indications in the very near term timescale.

Two months ago I wrote alarmedly to Roger Hill (a regional weathercaster with whom I correspond in Vermont) about 5 hrs prior to the naming of tropical storm Erin - which at that point (11 pm to 5 am EDT as I observed it growing through water vapour and IR images) was forming rapidly into a strong cyclonic system and was on track pretty rapidly toward Texas as an organised storm. I was appalled that NOAA did not "observe" that storm and sound an alarm until sometime between 9 and 11 am EDT US. - essentially about two hours after visible light hit the clouds.

What gives? A - that storms now seem to form so rapidly over the northern Gulf of Mexico, and B - that NOAA seems so "slow on the trigger" to notice, and warn, about cyclonic formation?

Well the answer to A will perhaps disturb you. I don't believe it is mentioned in Storm World. Call it "buried research."

To find the answer, you must go half the world away to a little known research institute called The International Science and Technology Center. Founded in 1992, the post-Soviet ISTC "promotes the nonproliferation of weapons technology of mass destruction through international science cooperation." With partner organisations in Russia, it uses nuclear non-proliferation money and grants from participating governments (including Canada, Iceland, etc.) to promote cooperative world science projects, many of which originate in Russia or with its partnering scientists.

Ground-breaking research in permafrost thawing, stratosphere indicators of global climate effects, earthquake predictors, etc. come out of these research projects. Their supercomputers do a lot of climate modeling and their teams on the ground do a lot of field research. I first looked them up when checking on solar-earth physics research. Their database maintains contact information and abstracts of all research done to date.

After Hurricane Katrina one ISTC scientist, appalled by the loss of life and rapid strengthening of that storm, did an analysis of various factors in and around the Gulf of Mexico hoping to find out what might have contributed to Katrina's evolution.

He and his colleagues eventually published an ISTC paper a year later pointing the finger of blame at one single factor - a thin oil slick across most of the surface of the northern Gulf of Mexico which prevents normal evaporative cooling. He found that the slick... although almost invisible to the eye... prevents the normal release of evaporation of sun-heated waters that would cause a balancing cooling effect -- an effect that still works effectively in the open Atlantic and southern Gulf.

But the northern Gulf with its leaking oil rigs and multiple "small" transfer spills at both the offshore platforms and at shore refinery dockages from tankers and pipelines continue to load the water surface with a barrier to evaporation. As a consequence, summer heating of the mid and northern Gulf waters is accelerated and retained - giving enormously potent fuel to hurricanes (and nascent cyclonic winds) arriving in that region of water.

That research stayed available in the ISTC database for about 5 months, then abruptly disappeared. Unfortunately I had not printed the summary or the research team's name. And almost immediately afterward, it was announced that legislation had been introduced in the U.S. Congress to extend the offshore oil leases under the Gulf of Mexico.

I do not think it was a coincidence. The Russian research damned the magnified risk to American and Mexican lives (particularly) from the oil spills and leaks that lead directly to increased force, and speed of development, of recent hurricanes.

Cynically, that research was most likely quashed and the oil industry got an almost criticism-free legislative process to expand the oil drilling and platform leasing process in the Gulf of Mexico... and still no one considers the effect of oil slicks upon the water's surface as a factor in Gulf surface temperatures.

As for B - why is NOAA so slow on the uptake sometimes? I really have no idea. In all likelihood critical jobs are being cut there like everywhere else in the U.S. federal infrastructure. Fewer people are doing the essential jobs.

The money that was there is apparently being spent picking up the pieces of ready-made avoidable disasters such as Katrina and Iraq, and dispensed through bid-free contract-awarding processes to friends of friends.

For myself, I spend much of my time studyiing world climate from 20,000 BC onward as the Holocene provides incredible clues and previews ot climate disasters to come... while humans were there to witness them.

For instance the inundation of the Norwegian coastal tundra in 5800 BCE or thereabouts is a stunning example of methane clathrate release and its immediate and short-term effect upon world climate. Little do we seem to know about that near-term similar likelihood in Canada and Siberia.

Methane clathrates are locked up in all the world's tundra, down in the permafrost of Siberia for instance to a depth of almost 500 metres in places. The amount involved in Canada and Siberia is almost incalculable. Once released by warmth or inundation however, it expands to an enormously greater volume while acting far more efficiently than CO2 as a "greenhouse" gas.

The Norwegian event has a pronounced effect on world climate in a few short decades - and caused some other catastrophes as well, such as a 200 km underwater landslide which in turn caused a tsunami (in some places 30 metres) that swept right over the Shetlands.

I now study cyclic Icelandic volcanic events that alter European (and in many cases all of northern hemisphere) weather for up to a decade - killing almost all crops and causing mass starvation, over and over.

In many instances tsunamis in the North Atlantic (from events at the Azores, Canary Islands and Iceland in particular, as well as other random locations of earthquakes and volcanoes such as Martinique) have wiped out almost all coastal communities. Or entire cultures, such as the Red Paint People.

But all such foregoing evidence is "quickly" forgotten -- that is, if a catastrophic event happened more than 600 or 800 years ago, it might as well not have happened at all, as far as preparing for its recurrence is concerned. Yet within two decades or less, at least one major volcano in Iceland will likely erupt as part of a cycle that is several hundred years old - and climate could easily go to hell in a handbasket (and a tsunami is likely as well).

Those who forget their history are...

Michael Cerulli Billingsley
Independent Consultant
Irish Spiritual Heritage Society