One of the many ongoing internal debates I have with myself is how to best combat ignorant climate skeptics. It is a never-ending task that can feel like wasted effort. I would argue that it’s actually much easier for skeptics to spread misinformation than it is for actual scientists to explain how the climate system works. This problem boils down to two key issues.
#1 People don’t listen to scientists
It’s not hard to understand global warming, the basic science is simple. However, reconciling all the little details can be overwhelming. People are sometimes thrown off when scientists admit to not understanding small pieces of a large problem, even though the larger problem is very well understood. In other cases scientists just aren’t very good at communicating to non-scientists. Either of these things can really hurt the core message.
I recently bought a car and the salesman confidently told me about these really cool features I would get. He turned out to be totally wrong about those features, but for some reason I didn’t think to question him. Scientists try their hardest to only state what they know is true, and often feel obligated to mention all the things they are not confident about. Good salesmen do the opposite. The work of a scientist is naturally riddled with uncertainty, so they are comfortable talking about what they don’t know. Unfortunately, this makes a terrible sales pitch.
#2 People love an underdog story
Climate skeptics are almost never trained in climate science, in spite of being intelligent, successful people. In the same way political outsiders can gain popularity, climate skeptics have a “rocking the boat” story that grabs people’s attention. The news media is also inclined to follow a good story, and normal scientists tend to have boring stories.
He even had shirts made!
He has an interesting theory about how global warming is man-made, but it has nothing to do with CO2. His theory states that the real problem is ozone depletion, which allows more ultraviolet radiation (UV) to reach the surface. He states that CO2 is basically harmless.
Let me state my opinion clearly:
His theory is unconvincing
To be fair, his ideas about the effects of ozone depletion are not all wrong. They are actually quite well grounded in many ways. Loss of ozone should naturally result in a warming effect.
However, my problem with Dr. Ward’s theory is how he claims to “prove” that it is physically impossible for increased CO2 to cause global warming. He lists off many claims that are wrong in a number of ways.
Let me go over a few examples.
“[models assume] there is more thermal energy contained in Earth’s infrared radiation absorbed by greenhouse gases than in the solar ultraviolet-B radiation that reaches Earth when ozone is depleted. Common experience… confirms that this is not true: you feel hotter standing in … radiation from the Sun than you do standing outside at night with infrared radiation welling up from Earth’s surface.”
There are many issues with this statement, but it is a good example of how someone can confuse the anthropogenic global warming with all the other things that naturally occur in the energy budget of the climate system. The fact that the warming from CO2 is relatively small compared to other things does not prove that it is harmless. The change in the earth’s radiative budget by elevated CO2 is roughly 4 W/m2 of of extra downwelling radiation, considering all the feedbacks. Think about a 4W incandescent light bulb warming a square meter of the surface. It’s not something you would immediately notice on your skin, especially when standing in direct sunlight. However, adding this up over a long time, it amounts to a great deal of extra heat in the climate system.
Even without increased CO2, the atmosphere is always radiating down on us. If you were standing outside at night and the atmosphere stopped radiating down on you, you would feel a lot colder!
“Greenhouse warming theory also assumes that the heated air radiates energy back to Earth’s surface, and that this return flow of heat energy warms Earth. The problem with this is that the [lower atmosphere is] colder than Earth’s surface. Heat cannot physically flow from cold to hot. You do not stand next to a cold stove to get warm.”
Heat “flows” in a few different ways, but heat is radiated in all directions. In a way, he is correct that the net “flow” of heat is always from warm to cold, but the downward radiation from the atmosphere slows this net cooling of the planet considerably. This downward radiation is actually really important, it is a key reason why Earth is not a lifeless ball of ice. He is obviously confused about how global warming works, because no one is proposing that there is a net gain of heat from downward radiation. Instead, the idea is that the net loss of heat from the surface is slowed by CO2, which naturally results in a net warming.
( less radiation output ) + ( same radiation input ) = ( more internal energy )
There are more examples of Dr. Ward confusing simple facts about the physics of the atmosphere. Hopefully you can see just how wrong he is about the science of global warming.
There are also many issues with his ideas about warming from ozone, but I don’t really want to dwell on them. One of the big ones is that he claims ozone loss can explain polar amplification, since ozone depletion is strongest at the poles. Polar amplification is expected to occur most strongly at the north pole, due to the vast areas of sea ice. However, the most destruction of ozone occurs at the south pole, because of the type of polar stratospheric clouds that form there. To add insult to injury, the south pole has seen less warming in observations than the north!
So in summary, his theory is garbage. Hopefully this can help steer people away from his ideas.