Every month or so I do a skeptical segment with astronomer Seth Shostak called "Brains on Vacation" for the SETI radio show/podcast "Big Picture Science" (what used to be called "Are We Alone?"). This month’s episode, Plotting Along, is about conspiracy theories and is now online. You can listen to it there, or download the file directly.
This time, I talked about the climate change denier Joe Bastardi’s bizarre take on global warming that recently aired on Fox News — you can read all about what he said on sites like Scientific American and Media Matters. Basically, Bastardi denies humans have anything to do with climate change, and has a history of saying things that, um, turn out not to be entirely accurate when it comes to basic science.
In this case, Bastardi tried to invoke the First Law of Thermodynamics to show humans don’t cause global warming, a truly weird thing to do since the First Law actually supports the idea that pumping CO2 into the air makes it heat up. Without carbon dioxide, the energy from the Sun would hit the Earth, with some being absorbed and some radiating away. Energy is neither created nor destroyed, just balanced. However, carbon dioxide traps some of that heat, warming us up*. It’s not that new energy is being created someplace, it’s just that more of the Sun’s heat stays trapped here on Earth instead of being radiated away. That energy cannot just go away or be destroyed, so we warm up.
The First Law is safe. Phew!
Not content with just physics, Bastardi then moved on to chemistry: this time, Le Chatelier’s Principle. That one (which is not actually a law but more like a rule of thumb) says that a system out of equilibrium tries to get back to equilibrium. For a totally random example, say you have a planet with CO2 in its air, trapping some heat and letting some leak away. If you add more CO2, more heat will be trapped and the planet will warm up, eventually re-establishing equilibrium (different than the previous balance, but still balanced).
Bastardi’s claim about this is truly weird; he claims Le Chatelier’s Principle is why Earth’s temperature has leveled off recently. That’s wrong because of the reason I just stated above, but also because of the small fact that our temperature hasn’t leveled off. This is a relatively new denier claim that’s been making the rounds, and it’s flatly (haha) wrong. The Earth’s temperature has been increasing steadily for quite some time, including the past few decades (2010 tied the year 2005 as the hottest year on record so far; note that both years are in the period where Bastardi claims the temperatures have leveled off).
And don’t even get me started on Bastardi’s claim that global warming is due to sunspots. That’s so wrong it’s hard to know where to start! For starters, there is no correlation between the rise in temperatures and the solar cycle, sunspots can only barely affect our temperature, and our temperature has been rising despite the Sun’s recent unusually long period with no sunspots (sunspots actually increase the Sun’s energy output by a fraction of a percent). Basically, and simply put, we know global warming is not due to the Sun.
It doesn’t really matter what flavor of science you invoke: the Earth is warming, CO2 is behind it, and we’re the ones pumping it into the air at the rate of 30 billion tons per year, faster than our environment can absorb it.
I’m not terribly surprised to see these sorts of claims on Fox News, of course. It strikes me as forehead-slappingly silly that someone can claim that a scientific consensus held by thousands of highly-trained professional researchers is wrong because they’re misinterpreting basic high school science, but there you go. It’s also ironic: after all, someone is misinterpreting basic high school science here. And I’m guessing it’s not the climatologists.
* A minor bit of pedantry: In the interview I did for Big Picture Science, I misspoke, saying the carbon dioxide "reflects back" the infrared radiation from the Earth’s surface; it would’ve been more accurate to say it absorbs that radiation and re-radiates it, warming us up. The end result is the same: the Earth’s surface gets warmer, and the concept I was trying to convey was still clear. Note that this is very different than what Bastardi is doing, which is consistently and repeatedly getting fundamental concepts wrong.