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One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

February 27th, 2007 by Sean Davis · 10 Comments

So I received a call from my father in Tulsa, OK, a few weeks ago, and he starts by saying “Hey Sean, What’s your friend Lars’ last name?”. I tell him and ask him why, and he says “Oh. Good. Some quack (not the actualy word he used) named Lars from Boulder (not actually my friend. whew.) wrote a long letter to the editor about how the science of global warming is wrong. This is all a bunch of jibberish to me, but I’ll have to send it to you”. I laughed. A week later, I received a cutout of this letter [Update 3/14: A scan of the actual letter he sent in to UTW can be found here] from the “Urban Tulsa Weekly” in the mail, and was somewhat depressed and ticked off by the fact that something this nutty could have appeared in a widely read publication.

If you don’t have time to read this letter, it basically says that there is no greenhouse effect on Earth. Ha!

Now, I know that the “mission statement” of this blog is not to become entangled in the climate wars, but this letter pissed me off so much that I felt like I couldn’t not respond to it. So I did. And not the least because I have the feeling that in Tulsa, an article like that would go completely unchallenged. Am I getting sucked into the trap of the climate wars by doing this? I hope not…

I guess it all comes down to how you define the climate wars… If you are talking about correcting gross misrepresentations of really basic science, then yes, I guess I’ve jumped headlong into the climate wars. But if one defines the climate wars in a Roger Pielke, Jr.’in kind of way — that is, debating climate science (on either side) as a front for promoting a pre-determined set of values/policy outcomes — then I would like to think that I have somehow stayed above the fray.

Here’s my response to the letter, which was published in the Urban Tulsa Weekly. You can decide whether I wasted my time or inadvertently conferred legitimacy to a quackpot by responding.

Dear Editor,

This letter is in response to the letter “More Science on Global Warming”, by Lars Wahlin. Mr. Wahlin’s letter exhibits complete ignorance of the basic balance of energy in Earth’s climate system, and makes a completely irrelevant point that has no bearing on the debate over what to do (or not do) about global climate change.

Mr. Wahlin’s point goes something like this: (1) Because this figure (reproduced below) appears to violate a fundamental physical law – that energy can neither be created or destroyed (it can only change forms, like when the potential energy of a taut bow is converted to the kinetic energy of an arrow when the bow string is released) – then (2) the science of global warming (and in Mr. Whalin’s view, presumably any action to mitigate it) must be “a hoax”, to use Senator Inhofe’s own words.

The problem with part 1 of this argument is Mr. Wahlin’s incorrect interpretation of the conservation of energy in the context of this graph. Mr. Wahlin compares the amount of energy coming into Earth from the Sun (342 W m-2 in the figure) with the amount emitted by the surface (390 W m-2). He states that the fact that these are not the same somehow disproves the existence of a greenhouse effect. This is complete and utter nonsense.

To understand why, we need to think about what this graph is actually showing. This graph depicts the amount of energy coming into and going out of the Earth’s climate system. On average, the amount of energy entering the Earth at the top of the atmosphere (from the Sun) must equal the amount of energy leaving the Earth (again, from the top of the atmosphere, NOT the surface). If we look at the arrows in this figure and compare what is coming down into the Earth (342 W m-2), we see that it is exactly balanced by what is leaving Earth at the top of the atmosphere (For those who are not mathematically inclined, the arrows pointing up are 107 W m-2 + 235 W m-2 = 342 W m-2).

The same goes for the surface of the Earth. The 390 W m-2 emitted by the surface, as well as all of the other things coming out of the surface, must (and do!) equal what is going in to the surface (you can do the math yourself on this one). So, to put it succinctly, there is NO violation of any physical law that is taking place here.

With regard to the sencond point above: Except for the occasional deceived or deceiving person such as Mr. Wahlin (I’m not sure which one he is), no one — not even Senator Inhofe or any of the so-called “climate skeptics” — disputes that a greenhouse effect exists on Earth. Not only does the greenhouse effect exist, it is responsible for the hospitable temperatures we enjoy (well, the temperatures in summer in Tulsa aren’t exactly hospitable — but that’s an entirely different story). Other planets such as Mars (no greenhouse effect) or Venus (super greenhouse effect) stand in stark contrast to Earth and show us how truly lucky we are to have a greenhouse effect.

So the question is not whether or not a greenhouse effect exists, but how much we are altering its strength (or, more precisely, the global energy balance) by our experiment on the atmosphere via our emissions of gasses such as the carbon dioxide and methane. This question has been studied extensively in recent decades, and the results are summarized in the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) report which states that “Most of the observed increase in globally averaged surface temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations” (document available at http://www.ipcc.ch/SPM2feb07.pdf ). In the parlance of the IPCC’s wonky policy language, the term very likely means that they are 90% confident that most of the recent warming is due to human activities.

And again, here, there is no meaningful dispute over what the science says on this issue. From scores of science academies all over the world (National Academy of Sciences, American Geophysical Union, and the American Meteorological Society, to name a few), to President George W. Bush, nobody disputes the conclusions of the IPCC regarding the state of knowledge about the climate system and the human impact thereon.

And this brings us to the real crux of the “climate problem”. The problem is not whether or not the greenhouse effect exists, or whether the Earth is warming, or whether humans are contributing to that warming: It’s a matter of what do we do or not do in the face of a very high confidence that human activities are warming the planet. And this “climate problem” is a mostly non-scientific issue. It has to do with our values and not the science of climate change. Values of all sorts – political, religious, social, and economic – will affect what actions or inactions we might consider in the face of the uncertainty inherent in any decision making process. As scientists, we have done almost all we can to provide answers to the questions about what has happened to Earth’s climate, and what will likely happen given different possibilities for future greenhouse gas emissions. It is up to you the greater public, and policymakers, to decide how to proceed from here. The ball is in your court.


Sean Davis

Tulsa Native

Ph.D. Candidate

Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics

University of Colorado

Boulder, CO


Tags: climate · general interest · global warming

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 seok // Feb 28, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    This is worse than Maureen Dowd (New York Times OP-ED Columnist) calling Al Gore (the climate change/global warming man) as the Ozone Man. She thinks that the ozone hole and climate change/global warming are cause-and-effect relationship.

    At least, she isn’t a scientist.

    Mr. Wahlin should have studied the diagram more carefully before barking at it. (What does his company do/sell?) If it was published in the IPCC, I have confidence that enough experts have looked at it…But then, there is this thing called typo.

  • 2 Mark R // Mar 1, 2007 at 7:07 am

    I think that it is very important for scientists to participate in the education of the public at an intellectual level simple enough for the average person to understand. When the debate in newspapers and other media is governed by superficial opinion, the uninformed reader/viewer can be easily persuaded by ill-intentioned, vague half-truths promoted by skeptics and deniers. Even though I know better, I still find myself doubting what I know about GW, and have to review the scientific evidence once again. I encourage you and others to continue speaking to the general public. Your letter was a succint, factual, and solid rebuttal. I’m sure it was very helpful to those readers who want to have a firmer basis for making up their minds on the matter, and voting in accord with a better-informed opinion. Society won’t change without such education. MR

  • 3 Peter Lockhart // Mar 5, 2007 at 1:24 am


    Thanks for your piece, I never did quite understand that chart..

    For mine, you have neatly sailed close to the bouy of debate, without touching it.. well done. Further, fundamental points in your post are largely being ignored by the mainstream press, this not a scientific issue, the debate must move to what to do… (I’d go one step further) … we must move back to seeking the questions to which answers must be found rather than the current societal debate about answers to make it go away… it is the questions that are more important than the answers.

    On a side (but related issue), your readers might also find http://raphil.wordpress.com/2007/03/04/gore-is-still-a-hypocrite/ a delightful read.

    Great post…

  • 4 Jim Angel // Mar 7, 2007 at 8:22 am

    Has this letter already been submitted to the newspaper?

    Personally, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned Mr. Wahlin’s name more than once and not questioned his knowledge or motives. It focuses too much attention on him. IMO, you could have boiled the first three paragraphs into one by leaving him out.

    In writing to a general audience, I would suggest dropping the scientific style of writing and try to go for a more conversational style. Phrases like “the amount emitted by the surface (390 W m-2)” would be totally foreign to most people. They won’t know what emitted means; that W m-2 means watts per square meter; or that 390 is a relatively big or small number. In addition, the figure is way too complex for a general audience. I know it’s been in every textbook since Moses. Scientists love complex diagrams while everyone else hates them. I should know, I give dozens of talks a year to non-scientific groups.

    Finally, you made the comment in the last paragraph that “As scientists, we have done almost all we can to provide answers to the questions…” I disagree. In fact, I dare you to say that in front of a group of Oklahoma farmers. ;-) Speaking as a scientist, I would say that most successful scientists are good at communicating with other scientists – journal articles, conferences, etc. Most have little time, skill, and interest in talking to actual end users. As a result, they aren’t even hearing the questions that end users have. I would argue that scientist have a long way to go before they can declare that they have done all they can to provide answers to questions. Talk to end users and you will discover that the output from GCMs for the year 2100 do little to answer the questions they have.

    (these opinions are my own and my not reflect the views of my employer)

  • 5 seand // Mar 7, 2007 at 9:46 am


    Thanks for your comments. A couple of replies:

    1. Yes, the letter has been published already. I realized I forgot to link to it in the original article. That has been updated, and the link added.

    2. I think it is perfectly acceptable to question the motives of someone who rejects incredibly basic facts about the Earth’s climate. That is, it is right to question whether or not they are really wanting to debate the “science”, or just want to use science as a guise to hide behind their preferred policy outcome.

    3. I really tried to keep my response as simple as possible, and think I did a reasonable job. You should read the original letter (which is very similar to the one I linked to — I’ve recently scanned in the actual letter that was published and will try to put that up at some point soon). …Either way, the original letter was as an incredibly convoluted mess that was trying to make a simple (and misguided) point, which I tried to rebut using as few numbers and scientific jargon as possible. The numbers I used (and the figure, too!) were all in Wahlin’s original letter. …I simply reproduced them. If I had been Mr. Wahlin writing this letter, I never would have included such a mess of crap, as it no doubt confused (impressed?) many readers.

    4. Finally, my point in the last paragraph was that the debate on the existence of AGW is over, and that the “climate problem” is really one of policies to implement or not implement in face of this reality. And by the way, my grandfather is an Oklahoma farmer and I have no problem telling him or any other farmer this. However, I think your point on this was maybe more that as scientists we haven’t done the best job communicating science (i.e. global warming, or any other scientific issue) to non-scientists. On this matter, I wholeheartedly agree with you. We definitely need to do a better job!

  • 6 Jim Angel // Mar 7, 2007 at 10:41 am

    Thanks Sean. Regarding point three, I agree – the original letter was quite a mess, maybe on purpose.

    Regarding point four, that’s the point I was hoping to make – we haven’t done the best job of communicating science to non-scientists. That job is far from over. Unfortunately, not a lot of resources are being devoted to this.

    I would say, as well, that we haven’t done a good job of involving end-users in the whole process either. So we end up answering questions they didn’t ask and not being able to answer questions that they would ask. But that’s a story for another day.

  • 7 seand // Mar 7, 2007 at 11:22 am


    Very much agreed!

  • 8 seand // Mar 14, 2007 at 10:23 am


    A scanned version of the letter is now available. …see update in post text

  • 9 Julia // Oct 28, 2007 at 7:35 pm

    I need a website where I can find the amount of energy given off by the sun per square meter at a given latitude. Where can I find that?

  • 10 Sean Davis // Nov 1, 2007 at 8:03 am

    Julia. The irradiance goes down as cosine of latitude. so at 40 degrees, its 1367 * cos 40

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