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By Charles Rhodes, P. Eng., Ph.D.

The Climate Change website section reviews the physics of carbon dioxide triggered global warming and the reasons why it is essential to immediately cease use of fossil carbon as a source of prime energy.

During the 1920s dark lines on spectral observations of the sun were explained as being caused by certain gases in the solar atmosphere that absorbed radial solar radiation and retransmitted this radiaion in an omni-directional manner.

During the 1960s space craft from both the USA and the USSR found that the planet Venus had a thick CO2 atmosphere and had a high surface temperature. The high surface temperature was found to be due to the CO2 blocking emission of thermal infrared radiation.

During 1970-1971 far infrared spectrometers mounted on space craft orbiting the Earth found a major CO2 absorption notch in the Earth's thermal infrared emission spectrum.

During 1979 the US National Science Foundation advised US President Jimmy Carter that doubling of the Earth's atmospheric CO2 concentration would cause at least a 5 degree F rise in Earth's atmospheric temperature.

On November 24, 1996 the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft used a thermal emission spectrometer to accurately record the Earth's thermal emission spectrum. From this spectrum the calculated atmospheric emission temperature, exclusive of absorption bands, was found to be 270.0 K.

During the first decade of the 21st century mass spectrometry analysis of 56 million year old ocean sediments showed that the Earth has a locally stable high temperature state that can persist for over 200,000 years.

In 2014 this author showed that this high temperature state is due to a change in the Earth's planetry albedo which occurs when the Earth's average emission temperature exceeds the melting point of water, 273.15 K.

The law of conservation of energy requires that at steady state the total rate of energy supply to the Earth's surface equals to the total rate of infrared energy emission into outer space. Hence the absorbed solar energy plus the released chemical energy plus the released nuclear energy plus the decrease in the Earth's residual kinetic energy plus the decrease in the Earth's residual thermal energy must equal the total emitted infrared energy.

Certain gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O) are transparent to solar radiation but in certain frequency bands scatter thermal infrared radiation. These gases trap far infrared radiation near the Earth's surface. These gases are known as Green House Gases (GHG).

The world became aware of the phenomena of atmospheric greenhouse warming in the 1960s when United States (US) and Russian space probes discovered that the actual surface temperature on the planet Venus is about 400 degrees C higher than the temperature that was anticipated from a simple black body calculation. The cause of the high Venus surface temperature was found to be carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere of Venus.

Any change in the Earth's atmosphere from historical norm which increases the fraction of incident solar energy absorption or which decreases the rate of infrared energy emission causes additional net heat absorption by the oceans and an increase in dry land temperature. These effects are known as Global Warming.

The warming caused by the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration due to combustion of fossil fuels is effectively amplified by an accompanying increase in atmospheric water vapor concentration. The consequent total warming affects winter recreation, winter roads, mountain snow packs, fresh water availability, food production, synthetic fuel production, air conditioning, polar ice melting, sea level, storm violence and population migration.

When the Earth's infrared emission temperature exceeds 273.15 degrees K the solar reflectivity of the clouds drops causing a rapid up to 17.4 K emission temperature increase. This rapid temperature increase is known at Thermal Runaway.

This emission temperature increase eventually causes ocean warming, which raises the equilibrium atmospheric CO2 concentration. The increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration causes more green house warming. This positive feedback results in a long term problem known as warm state trapping.

Infrared radiation is simply a flow of electromagnetic photons. Each photon has a characteristic frequency F. Click here to view a graph that shows the Earth's infrared thermal radiation power emission spectrum as observed from outer space. The black lines correspond to an ideal black body Earth at various temperatures. Numerical analysis of this graph allows quantification of green house and global warming on Earth.

This graph shows that the infrared radiation power emitted by the Earth between frequencies F and F + dF, as seen by an observer in outer space, is a complex function of radiation frequency.

From quantum mechanics the emitted radiation power per unit frequency is a function of absolute temperature at the point of emission. The black lines on the graph are lines of constant temperature.

The actual emission temperature at any radiation frequency is a function of radiation frequency because the emission altitude is a function of radiation frequency due to the presence of infrared radiation absorbing gases such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O) in the Earth's atmosphere. The emission altitude is the height above the Earth's surface at which the Earth's atmosphere appears to be opaque at the observation frequency from the perspective of an observer in outer space. The atmospheric temperature changes with altitude. The atmospheric emission temperature is typically about 270.0 degrees K at the dense cloud layer near the surface of the Earth and is about 215 degrees K high in the Earth's atmosphere.

Thus at frequencies at which the Earth's atmosphere is highly transparent the emission temperature is relatively high (~ 270.0 K) whereas at frequencies at which the Earth's atmosphere is highly opaque the black body emission temperature is relatively low (~ 215 degrees K).

The rate of radiant energy emission per unit frequency via thermal infrared radiation is proportional to the third power of the absolute temperature at the emission altitude. The law of conservation of energy forces the Earth's atmospheric temperature to adjust so that the total rate of infrared thermal radiation energy emission into outer space equals the total rate of solar energy absorption plus the total rate of stored energy release by the Earth. Since addition of carbon dioxide (CO2) and water vapor (H2O) to the Earth's atmosphere reduces infrared emission at certain frequencies either the Earth's surface temperature has to increase in order to increase radiant energy emission at other frequencies or there must be net radiant energy absorption.

This increase in Earth surface temperature or radiant energy absorption is known as Global Warming.

Global climate change is primarily the result of changes in the Earth's solar reflectivity (albedo) and the Earth's infrared emissivity. The physics of global climate change are addressed on this web site. Long term (> 10^8 years) global climate changes due to changes in solar irradiance or changes in the Earth's orbit are beyond the scope of this analysis.

Excess atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration makes the Earth's atmosphere more opaque to thermal infrared radiation. Hence the emission temperature within the CO2 absorption bands decreases. In order to maintain the same total emitted thermal radiation power the Earth's surface temperature must increase or thermal energy absorption must occur. These effects increase the dry land temperature and cause net heat absorption by oceans, glaciers and irrigated land areas. As the surface temperature of open water increases the average atmospheric water vapor concentration increases. The extra atmospheric water vapor further reduces the Earth's infrared emissivity, which further increases the dry land temperature and further increases heat absorption which melts glaciers and polar ice caps.

At locations where the net heat absorption causes melting of snow or ice, there is generally a reduction in local solar reflectance (albedo) which causes further local heat absorption and hence further melting of ice or a local temperature increase.

Release of stored energy from fossil fuels, nuclear reactions, residual heat in the Earth's crust or kinetic energy of the Earth's rotation (tidal power) results in further heat that must be radiated into outer space.

The temperature at the ocean surface determines the atmospheric water vapor content. The Earth's surface temperature controls formation/melting of snow and ice which in turn strongly affects the local albedo (fraction of incident solar energy that is reflected rather than absorbed). The atmospheric water vapor content, the atmospheric temperature and available sunlight together determine the climate which in turn affects man's ability to grow: food, animal feed, fiber, building materials and biomass feedstock for synthetic hydrocarbon fuel production. The local atmospheric water vapor content affects local cloud cover and hence the rate of local thermal infrared radiation emission into outer space.

One of the other factors affecting local climate is the Earth's magnetic field. The orientation and magnitude of the Earth's magnetic field has significantly changed over history. The Earth's magnetic field affects the paths of charged particles that are emitted by the sun and incident upon the Earth. When these charged particles enter the Earth's atmosphere they trigger high altitude cloud formation. High altitude clouds affect the local albedo (visible light reflectivity) and hence the amount of received solar radiation.

The oceans contain about 23.5 times more easily releasable carbon dioxide (CO2) than does the Earth's atmosphere in 2012. In the oceans easily releasable CO2 is stored in (HCO3)- ions. As the bulk ocean temperature increases the number of (HCO3)- ions in solution decreases. When (HCO3)- ions comes out of solution they form insoluble carbonate rocks such as limestone (CaCO3) plus water (H2O) plus carbon dioxide (CO2) gas that is released to the atmosphere. This CO2 gas released by the oceans will add to the CO2 emitted by combustion of fossil fuels.

The release of CO2 due to warming of the oceans is very similar to the release of CO2 by a soda drink when it is warmed.

The concentration of (HCO3)- ions in solution in sea water, the ocean surface temperature and the absorbed solar energy are the main factors that determine the natural steady state concentration of CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere. However, the (HCO3)- ion concentation is bulk ocean temperature dependent. This is a critical issue that will likely determine the future of mankind.

As the bulk ocean water temperature increases the oceans will stop acting as a net sink of excess atmospheric CO2 and start acting as a net source of atmospheric CO2, leading to a rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration and hence rapid increases in net heat absorption and dry land surface temperature. Such a rapid increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration occurred about 55 million years ago during the PETM (Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum). During the PETM the atmospheric CO2 concentration exceeded 2000 ppm and the land borne polar ice caps melted.

Prior to the extensive use of fossil fuels by mankind, small differences between the total rate of energy supply to the Earth's surface and the total rate of infrared energy emission from the Earth caused periodic Earth surface temperature oscillations known as ice ages. Typically each major ice age consisted of gradual cooling for 80,000 to 110,000 years followed by relatively rapid warming for about 10,000 years. During the cooling phase the atmospheric CO2 concentration decreased from about 280 ppm to about 180 ppm. During the warming phase the atmospheric CO2 concentration increased back to about 280 ppm. Thus each major ice age cycle consisted of a prolonged gradual cooling phase followed by a more rapid warming phase. Within each major ice age were about ten minor ice age cycles.

At any moment in time the net rate of planetary heat absorption or emission was a function of ice cover, ocean temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration. Due to the large thermal mass of the oceans, the response time of the bulk ocean to a small change in net heat absorption/emission or net CO2 absorption/emission was thousands of years.

The minor ice age cycles with a period of about 12,000 years rely on the oceans switching from a net CO2 emission state to a net CO2 absorption state when the Arctic Ocean ice cover melts. The major ice age cycles with a period of about 120,000 years may be linked to Milankovitch Cycles, which are a function of the Earth's rotational and orbital mechanics within the solar system.

The present ongoing increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration due to combustion of fossil fuels will prevent the above mentioned state switching action occurring. As long as the atmospheric CO2 concentration remains extraordinarily high the Earth will be trapped in a net warming state during which the Greenland and Antarctic land borne glaciers both melt and the sea level gradually rises. Once all the floating polar ice has melted all of the surplus absorbed heat that previously melted floating polar ice will be available to melt the polar land borne ice. The resulting increase in sea level will likely become several cm per year or several m per century and will continue until these land borne glaciers totally melt, at which point the total sea level rise will be about 80 m.

A matter of some concern is a mechanism that will likely cause accelerated melting of the land borne glaciers in Greenland and Antarctica. This accelerated melting mechanism has caused major mountain glaciers to disappear in a few decades and in the future might cause a sea level rise rate of > 10 m / century. This accelerated melting involves supercooled water and chips of ice flowing into the ocean from under the glaciers and being conveyed to lower latitudes before full melting occurs.

A matter of even greater concern is positive feedback leading to warm state trapping. The increased atmospheric CO2 concentration due to combustion of fossil fuels provides global warming which warms the oceans and permafrost sufficiently to cause the oceans and permafrost to become a net source of CO2. Thereafter the atmospheric CO2 concentration rises due to ocean and permafrost CO2 emission rather than due to combustion of fossil fuels. Positive feedback caused the sustained Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) 55 million years ago.

Due to unrestricted consumption of fossil fuels mankind is presently on course for triggering thermal runaway and hence a major increase in ground level temperature, full melting of the land borne polar ice caps, full melting of glaciers and snow packs used for summer irrigation of agricultural crops and about an 80 m increase in global sea level.

Once such an increase in ocean temperature and hence atmospheric CO2 concentration occurs excess CO2 gas in the atmosphere will no longer be absorbed by the oceans. There will be a global extinction of all life forms that cannot quickly adapt to high atmospheric temperatures, high atmospheric CO2 concentrations, high sea levels and low availability of summer irrigation water. The atmospheric CO2 concentration will remain very high until after consumption of fossil fuels stops and biological processes gradually convert the excess ocean and atmospheric CO2 back into coal, oil and natural gas. These biological processes will likely require several hundred thousand years to return the Earth to what we presently regard as a normal "cool" state in which the oceans act as a net sink of excess fossil CO2.

An obvious consequence of Global Warming is an increase in the per capita energy requirement for comfort cooling and refrigeration. There is also a corresponding decrease in the efficiency of all thermal-electric generation facilities.

Farming in the presence of global warming requires extra crop irrigation to provide sufficient evaporative cooling to maintain optimum crop temperature. Since the supply of fresh water is limited global warming causes a reduction in arable land area.

Melting of land borne ice and thermal expansion of ocean water causes an increase in sea level, which further reduces arable land area, particularly near river deltas.

The increase in the atmospheric water vapor concentration that accompanies global warming causes further global warming.

These effects combine to reduce agricultural carbohydrate production, which reduces supplies of food, animal feed, natural fiber, organic construction materials (wood) and synthetic hydrocarbon fuels. Further increases in the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration without a corresponding reduction in the Earth's human population will lead to wide spread starvation.

The blunt reality is that mankind must accept widespread use of renewable and nuclear energy and the total human population must be substantially reduced in order to allow the remaining humans to have a reasonable standard of living without use of fossil carbon fuels. Reducing the human population other than by starvation, war or disease implies widespread adoption of female education, reliable contraception and pregnancy termination. Persons who deny this reality are simply unwilling to face the law of conservation of energy.

The only way to remedy the carbon dioxide problem is to make immediate and massive investments in nuclear power, hydro power, wind power and related electricity transmisson, energy storage and distributed control equipment. The time for studies, environmental assessments, endless public consultations and other delaying tactics is over. It is now time for rapid and decisive action to mitigate the consequences of past folly.

The use of fossil fuels for electricity generation, comfort heating and vehicle propulsion applications must be abandoned. Fossil fuels must be replaced by hydro, wind and nuclear power with chemical energy storage, pumped hydraulic energy storage, thermal energy storage and synthetic liquid hydrocarbon fuels, together with behaviour changing electricity rates and control systems that match the electricity load to the available electricity generation.

Political, regulatory and religious leaders have yet to come to terms with this new reality. Even partial replacement of fossil fuels by synthetic hydrocarbon fuels will require a major reduction in the world's human population due to insufficient arable land and irrigation water.

Even if the world abandons fossil fuels as prime energy sources there will still be substantial fossil CO2 emissions to the atmosphere associated with production of metals, concrete and resins.

One of the problems related to global warming is that the heat and fossil carbon dioxide emitted by one party diffuses through the atmosphere and causes climate changes and hardship to other parties that do not emit significant amounts of heat and fossil carbon dioxide and do not derive any benefit from the emitting party.

It may not be long before parties that are damaged by global warming seek compensation from or retribution against parties that cause global warming. The day of class action law suits or terrorist attacks against pipelines radiating from major fossil fuel production facilities may not be far away. Even if litigation and terrorism can be contained, massive human migration from equitorial regions to more temperate regions will be impossible to prevent. Such massive population movements will lead to conflicts related to land, fresh water, food supply and infrastructure.

The issue of Global Warming came to the attention of US President Jimmy Carter in 1979. For 35 subsequent years most senior politicians in the USA and Canada have ignored global warming. This issue is coming to a political head as an increasing fraction of the voters are rejecting governmental energy policies that do not make sense for the future of the human species.

Canada and Ontario have had a succession of elected governments that claim that they will address global warming but in reality have done little substantial. There is total lack of recognition as to the immensity of the problem and the scope of the work required to solve it. Possibly the approach of thermal runaway may motivate politicians to action.

The government of Ontario has put in place senior executives at the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) who have little comprehension of the scope of the problem of carbon dioxide related warming and who have executed and who are continuing to execute contracts committing Ontario to large scale use of a fossil fuel (natural gas) for electricity generation for at least 20 more years. Extricating Ontario from these contractual obligations will be extremely expensive.

One of the blunt realities of closing fossil fuel electricity generation is that the undepreciated capital investment in fossil fuel electricity generation equipment must to be written off. Such writeoffs lead to substantial electricity rate increases to end users. It is crazy for electricity utilities to be spending, as they are now now, millions of dollars per day for construction of new natural gas fuelled electricity generation. This is an issue that existing politicians and their lackeys seem unable to face.

Another blunt reality is that displacing fossil fuels with electricity involves at least tripling the size of the existing electricity transmission system. Enlarging the electricity transmission system requires long term planning relating to energy transmission corridors. There needs to be an energy transmission corridor real estate acquisition program with a fifty to one hundred year time horizon so that real estate within planned energy transmission corridors is purchased without political opposition as it becomes economically available. Again existing politicians and the IESO have yet to face this issue.

Present Canadian and American government energy policies implicitly assume that Canada and the USA have the unfettered right to release fossil carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a per capita rate that is about four times larger than the average per capita rate for all the other nations combined. This implicit assumption is now being challenged. Mankind presently produces carbon dioxide by combustion of fossil fuels more than twice as fast as natural processes absorb this carbon dioxide in the oceans and orders of magnitude faster than natural processes fix carbon in fossil fuels or carbonate rocks. As a result carbon dioxide is accumulating in the atmosphere and the oceans and has reached an atmospheric concentration of over 400 ppmv which is higher than at any time during the past 50 million years.

As the peoples of the world become more aware of the causes and negative consequences of carbon dioxide triggered global warming, present Canadian and American energy policies are certain to engender conflict. The atmosphere and the oceans simply do not have the capacity to allow other nations to emulate the Canadian and American energy intensive lifestyle using fossil carbon as a prime energy source, even if these other nations substantially reduce their populations. Preservation of the environment and principles of human equity demand that Canadians and Americans reduce their per capita consumption of fossil carbon by about a factor of nine. Achieving this reduction will require a massive investment in synthetic hydrocarbon fuels, hydro, wind, nuclear and solar energy and related energy storage, electricity transmission and control equipment. Use of natural gas in place of coal slows but does not prevent global warming. The solution to global warming is abandonment of fossil fuels for heating, transportation and electricity generation in combination with widespread acceptance of renewable energy and nuclear power and a major reduction in the Earth's human population.

There are those that say that Canada causes only a small fraction of the world's global warming problem and hence Canadians need not address this problem. Such persons have a belief of superior entitlement similar to the beliefs of of the Germans and Japanese that triggered World War II. In order to keep the peace it is essential for Canadians to and Americans to set an example, and not follow selfish energy policies. In Canada global warming has triggered insect infestations that have destroyed major forests. In the USA the effects of global warming are being to be felt in terms of frequency of major forest fires, violent storms, rising sea level and shortages of fresh water for crop irrigation.

If present trends continue the Earth will continue warming until the resulting climate change causes massive human mortality.

One of the most difficult issues for elected politicians to face is the well funded fossil fuel lobby. Absent a fossil carbon tax that is sufficient to fully fund permanent removal of fossil CO2 from the atmosphere, fossil fuels are likely to remain less expensive than the non-fossil fuel prime energy alternatives. There are significant sectors of the electorate, particularly older people with only short term perspectives, who do not support leaving fossil carbon in the ground. Continuation of such short term thinking with respect to fossil fuels will likely doom man kind.

In this author's view the Canadian and US public education systems are in such disrepair that it will take a serious multi-year shortage of irrigation water, triggering crop loss and widespread starvation, to convince the majority of the Canadian and US electorates that use of fossil fuels for prime energy production is unsustainable. The North American public is currently being bombarded with misleading television advertisments funded by fossil fuel producers. The parties funding these advertisments should be held both corporately and personally liable for the damage that they are causing, in the same manner as tobacco companies have been prosecuted for the health problems that they have caused.

One of the most significant trends is the multiplicity of so called "environmental" groups that are anti-nuclear. Almost invariably these groups receive the bulk of their funding from the fossil fuel industry. The policy strategy of these groups is to try to minimize production and use of electricity. That policy, which they call "energy conservation", locks in fossil fuel dependence in the transportation and heating sectors and for balancing wind generation. Typical of these groups are the Ontario Clean Air Alliance and Greenpeace.

One of the consequences of low natural gas prices is that without a fossil carbon tax that reasonably reflects the costs of permanent removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, competing nuclear projects are financially unviable. There is some political willingness to subsidize renewable energy, but the cost of new renewable energy that is constrained, conditioned and delivered to follow the uncontrolled end user electricity demand is typically more than twice the cost of equivalent new nuclear energy.

The nuclear and renewable energy industries are further hampered by historical constitutional issues that give NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) groups in geographically critical locations power to prevent implementation of nuclear and renewable energy projects that are in the Canadian and US national interests.

This web page last updated November 9, 2015.

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