Guest post by Reed Coray
The following example illustrates the issues I have with reasoning often used to argue that increasing the amount of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere will increase both the Earth’s surface temperature and the Earth’s atmosphere temperature. Immediately following is a direct quote from URL
“The present situation is that there has been an increase in infrared-absorbing gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4). Energy that would normally escape into space is absorbed by these molecules, thus heating the atmosphere and spreading through convection currents. The average temperature of the atmosphere has increased 0.25 °C since 1980, mainly attributed to an increase in infrared-absorbing gases in the atmosphere.”
Although the above statement makes no direct reference to Earth surface temperature, I believe it carries the implication that greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere increase the Earth’s surface temperature.
I make two comments: the first is relevant only if the above implication is valid, the second is relevant independent of the validity of the implication. First, placing matter adjacent to a warm surface such that the matter is capable of absorbing/blocking radiation to space from the warm surface can lead to a decrease in the warm surface’s temperature. Second, increasing the amount of the absorbing/blocking matter can lower the temperature of the absorbing/blocking material.
Take for example an internal combustion engine whose metal surface is exposed to a vacuum. In addition to doing useful work, the engine produces thermal energy (heat). That thermal energy will produce a rise in the temperature of the engine’s surface such that in energy-rate equilibrium the rate energy is radiated to space from the engine’s surface is equal to the rate thermal energy is generated within the engine. By attaching radiating plates to the engine’s surface, some of the energy radiated to space from the engine’s original surface will be absorbed/blocked by the plates; but because thermal energy can be transferred from the engine to the plates via both radiation and conduction, the temperature of the engine’s original surface will be lowered. This is the principle of an air-cooled engine: provide a means other than radiation of transferring heat from an engine to a large surface area from which heat can be removed via a combination of conduction, convection and radiation, and the engine’s surface temperature will be lowered.
If plates at a temperature lower than the original engine surface temperature are attached to the engine, it’s true that the temperature of the plates will increase to establish energy-rate equilibrium. Once energy-rate equilibrium is established, however, increasing the plate radiating area (adding additional matter that blocks more of the energy radiated from the original engine surface) will likely lower the plate temperature.
Thus, blocking the amount of surface radiation escaping to space does not necessarily increase the surface temperature; and increasing the amount of radiation blocking material does not necessarily increase the temperature of that material. In both cases (the Earth/Earth-atmosphere and the internal combustion engine in a vacuum), the heat eventually escapes to space–otherwise the temperature of the Earth’s surface and the engine would continue to rise indefinitely. The difference isn’t that the energy doesn’t eventually escape to space (it does in both cases), the difference is in the path the energy takes to reach space. The amount of generated thermal energy in conjunction with the path the thermal energy takes to get to space determines temperatures along the path; and adding more material may increase or decrease those temperatures. To say that “Energy that would normally escape into space is absorbed by these molecules, thus heating the atmosphere…” by itself is unwarranted; because an equivalent statement for the case of adding extra plate material to the engine would be “Energy that would normally escape to space from an engine with small attached plates is absorbed by additional plate material, thus heating the plates…” For air-cooled engines, this statement is not true—otherwise the plate surface area of air-cooled engines would be as small as possible.
It’s fairly easy to visualize why (a) adding thermally radiating plates to an air-cooled engine might decrease the engine’s surface temperature, and (b) increasing the area of the radiating plates might decrease the plate temperature. It’s not so easy to visualize, and may not be true, why (a) adding greenhouse gases to the Earth’s atmosphere decreases the Earth’s surface temperature; and (b) increasing the amount of atmospheric greenhouse gases lowers the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. I now present one possible argument. I do not claim that the argument is valid for greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere, but I do claim that the argument might be valid, and can only be refuted by an analysis more detailed than simply claiming “Energy that would normally escape into space is absorbed by these molecules, thus heating the atmosphere.”
If we assume that (a) matter cannot leave the Earth/Earth-atmosphere system, and (b) non-greenhouse gases radiate negligible energy to space, then for a non-greenhouse gas atmosphere the only way thermal energy can leave the Earth/Earth-atmosphere system to space is via radiation from the surface of the Earth. The rate radiation leaves the surface is in part a function of both the area and temperature of the surface. For a greenhouse gas atmosphere, energy can leave the Earth/Earth-atmosphere system to space both via radiation from the Earth’s surface and radiation from greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Suppose it is true that the density of greenhouse gases near the Earth’s surface is such that radiation emitted from low-altitude greenhouse gases does not directly escape to space, but is in part directed towards the Earth’s surface and in part absorbed by other atmospheric greenhouse gases. As the atmospheric greenhouse gas density decreases with increasing altitude, radiation emitted from high-altitude greenhouse gases can directly escape to space.
Now it’s not impossible that since (a) in addition to radiation, heat is transferred from the Earth’s surface to greenhouse gases via conduction, and (b) convection currents (i) circulate the heated greenhouse gases to higher altitudes where energy transfer to space can take place and (ii) return cooler greenhouse gases to the Earth’s surface, that the process of heat transfer away from the Earth’s surface via greenhouse gases is more efficient than simple radiation from the Earth’s surface. Many engines are cooled using this concept. Specifically, a coolant is brought into contact with a heated surface which raises the coolant’s temperature via conduction and radiation, and the coolant is moved to a location where thermal energy transfer away from the coolant to a heat sink is more efficient than direct thermal energy transfer from the heated surface to the heat sink.
One way to realize increased thermal transfer efficiency would be to use a coolant, such as greenhouse gases, that efficiently radiates energy in the IR band (i.e., radiates energy at temperatures around 500 K). Another way would be to spread the heated coolant over a large surface area. Since surface area increases with increasing altitude, thereby providing expanded “area” (in the case of a gas, expanded volume) from which radiation to space can occur, it’s not clear to me (one way or the other) that greenhouse gases won’t act as a “coolant” reducing both the temperatures of the Earth’s atmosphere and the Earth surface.
 It’s true that for most air-cooled engines the main transfer of heat from the engine plates is via a combination of (a) conduction of heat to the air near the plates, and (b) convection that replaces the warm air near the plates with cooler air. To aid this process, a fan is often employed, or the engine is located on a moving vehicle and the vehicle’s motion through an atmosphere provides the flow of air across the plates. Although conduction/convection may be the primary means of heat dissipation from the plates, radiative cooling also dissipates heat.