Science Newsflash, temperature causes CO2 not vice-versa

I heard this fascinating science tidbit on NPR's Living on Earth program:

"It appears that temperature appears to drive CO2 and not vice versa." -- U.S. Senator James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma (former chairperson of the U.S. Senate committee on the environment)

I only had a few years of university Chemistry and only a B.S. in physics so I may have missed the chapter on carbon alchemy that great physics minds like Einstein, Hawkins and Inhofe are aware of. Actually in a way he is correct:

C + O2 + heat ---> CO2

(o.k. heat and temperature aren't the same thing but we'll pretend) In simpler terms:

Carbon (e.g. Coal) + Oxygen + heat ---> CO2(Carbon Dioxide)

Was Inhofe was correct all along? No. As Al Gore responded, "One scientist said it's a stronger consensus than on anything except perhaps gravity." A grade school student can prove that burning carbon creates carbon dioxide. Any university lab can demonstrate that an atmosphere with more carbon dioxide traps more heat than an atmosphere with less. I'm unaware of any dispute over the strong evidence that the level of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen over the past century. There is also good evidence that average global temperature is rising. The only serious doubt is whether human contribution to CO2 is a significant factor in global climate. There may be arguments against human caused global warming (e.g. If any solid evidence of a warming trend is found on Mars) and there are arguments against the Kyoto treaty (e.g. Industries are encouraged to move towards exempt economies with already high coal usage.), but Inhofe represents a weird political paradigm where so-called conservatives are more interested in conserving their own mindset than they are in conserving the ecological balance of our planet.


I can't really comment on what Sen. Inhofe claims, since I did not hear NPR's segment. However, after seeing "An Inconvenient Truth", I was struck by how little actual data was provided in the movie. The only data given that I thought was compelling was the graph of temperature and CO2 based on ice core samples. I thought that the graph was so compelling I couldn't understand why anybody would argue against the correlation. So I went back to the original paper and looked at the original research. And what the original researchers found and reported was that the temperature would rise and 5 to 80 years later the CO2 level would rise in lock step. That is, the temperature rise always preceded the CO2 rise and could not have been the cause of it. I feel that Al Gore lied to me, and no longer take the claims made by either side at face value. The sad truth is that the supporters on both sides of the debate bolster their claims beyond what the science supports, and there are critics on both sides that are afraid to voice their opinions.

Posted by Brian Utterback on March 28, 2007 at 10:28 AM GMT+00:00 #

Oops, I meant to say that the CO2 rise always followed the temperature rise and could not have been the cause of the temperature rise. Doh!

Posted by Brian Utterback on March 28, 2007 at 10:30 AM GMT+00:00 #

Interesting, that must be what Senator Inhoe was talking about. I haven't seen Al Gore's movie but I agree that, as Mark Twain would put it: "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." Though in this case we're in politics which is yet another layer away from the fact.

Posted by bnitz on March 28, 2007 at 10:35 AM GMT+00:00 #

I looked into that as well, and some papers do look at the lag, specifically gov papers as a way to suggest there is no correlation. Others suggest the phase lag only occurs for the first 800 years, and then they are in step. Politics even muddies the waters when you look at the citation authorship. Its also interesting to note the differences between core sample geography as well as tropical cores are different than the Antartic ones. Being Greenhouse gas warning does indeed seem causal and in phase for the last 4200 years of a 5000 year cycle, Al Gore and crew may well be correct in their analysis, although, as the other commenter mentioned, its not telling the whole story, by leaving the initial phase leading out.

Ultimately though, it comes down to politics and economics. It doesn't cost much to properly engineer and design for reduction in GHG once infrastructure is in place, or is not in place in the cases of third world countries. The big issue is the massive redistribution of the existing infrastructure/wealth, and the resultant political kicking and screaming that go along with such a change if indeed that direction is chosen.

The thing is, as technical folks, its pretty easy to just throw up our hands when politics get involved with science. I know more than a few times, I've just walked away from such discussions. Yet, I think we do a disservice by not being involved. The laymen have the politicians presenting a one sided view, whether pro or con. and as tech folks, we probably have a responsibility to society to clear the air and muddy the waters a bit with a look at some real data and journal citations. At least, if we help get the cards on the table, the average Joe may be able to formulate a better point of view, than the sides chosen via politics.

Posted by Ron Amundson on March 30, 2007 at 12:23 AM GMT+00:00 #

The thing about the global warming debate is that most of the things suggested to at least help are good things to do, whether or not CO2 is causing global warming. Switching to carbon neutral technologies and reducing overall energy consumption are both wise no matter what the truth about global warming turns out to be.

Posted by Brian Utterback on March 30, 2007 at 05:07 AM GMT+00:00 #

Ron, I'll have to admit, I hesitated getting into this debate at all, but you're right, technical people should get into this debate. Even if we don't persuade in one direction or another, raising the level of conversation is a good thing. If the ecological side of this debate depends too much on anti-science zealots or politicians of one party and media sensationalism, we will make mistakes which could cause economic and ecological damage. For example:

CO2 is a greenhouse gas but so methane and water vapor are more powerful greenhouse gasses. One study revealed that in the 3 days after 9/11/01, when air travel was banned, diurnal temperature variations in the U.S. were more extreme than any similar period in decades. If contrails have a large effect, then we should consider that some carbon neutral technologies (e.g. Nuclear, solar dissociated Hydrogen) might trap significant amounts of heat by releasing water vapor. Carbon taxes might encourage technologies which release more water vapor.

A poorly sited wind farm on a high bog in Ireland caused a bog slide a few years back which caused such damage to local aquifers that it is expected to be carbon negative for years.

Regardless of energy production choice, its difficult to find a downside of taking advantage of modern technology to use energy more efficiently. But even this is possible. CF lights can generate the same amount of light as incandescents with 1/3-1/5th the amount of electricity. Some states (CA) and nations (Australia) are looking to ban incandescent light bulbs. A potential problem with CFs is that they contain mercury and sometimes a small amount Krypton-85 or other radioactive elements in the starter. If you replace all of the incandescents in the world with CFs, you should at least consider the disposal of any pollutant in the newer bulbs.

What was it our physics teacher (Merlin?) used to say, the three laws of physics are:

1) You can't win. 2) You can't even break even 3) You shouldn't even try.

I don't quite agree with the last one.

Posted by bnitz on March 30, 2007 at 07:07 AM GMT+00:00 #


With some exceptions, I agree that it's generally better to try to reduce energy usage and carbon dioxide output. (AFAIK the jury is out on CF bulbs. Wal-Mart would be more convincing in their CF energy promotions if they had a CF recycling program like Tru-Value hardware does.) In cases where it saves money, it's a no-brainer. But for some reason even in these obvious cases it encounters significant resistance.

Posted by bnitz on March 30, 2007 at 07:14 AM GMT+00:00 #

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