Cooling towers and ‘global warming’

From The Viscount Monckton of Brenchley

  • A reader has sent in the following enquiry –

Why do I hear nothing about the effects of all of the-environmental-agency-mandated “cooling towers” dumping heated water vapor into the atmosphere? They must have some effect on the Earth’s temperature. The water vapor adds heat to the atmosphere, equal to at least the power generated by the power station, and forms clouds in the area which make the surrounding area cool less at night. The water vapor itself is a greenhouse gas. The towers started out as building coolers. Now they are on every large building and every power plant.

  • Our reply –

Water vapor, thanks to the sheer quantity of it in the atmosphere, is the most important of the greenhouse gases, accounting for 65-85% of the natural greenhouse effect without which the Earth would be an ice planet. Since 71% of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, evaporation, convection, advection, subsidence, and precipitation are occurring somewhere on Earth all the time. Precisely because the concentration of water vapor in the atmosphere – the “absolute humidity” is so high, adding just a little more with cooling towers from power stations and other industrial sources has virtually no influence on the greenhouse effect.

However, the output of direct heat by the enterprises and industries of humankind is large enough – at an average of around 0.1-0.2 Watts per square meter of the Earth’s surface, a range that I calculated a couple of years ago from data supplied by the US Energy Information Administration – to account for around 0.1-0.2 Celsius degrees (or roughly one-sixth to one-third) of all the “global warming” of the 20th century – if and only if one believes that the temperature feedbacks imagined by the UN’s climate panel are as very strongly net-positive as it suggests.

There is an increasing body of papers in the scientific literature, such as Lindzen & Choi (2009), or Pinker et al. (2005), that state or imply that temperature feedbacks – additional radiative forcings that occur merely because the initial warming, however caused, has occurred – are either zero or net-negative, exercising a countervailing cooling effect. The feedback that is most obviously wrong in the UN’s analysis is the cloud-albedo feedback. As more clouds form, particularly at low altitudes where clouds tend to be optically dense, more sunlight is reflected harmlessly straight back into space without causing any warming here in the atmosphere. It is easy to demonstrate that this primary (and cooling) radiative effect of clouds is more important than the secondary (and warming) effect you mention – namely, the retention of heat in the atmosphere by the blanket of clouds.

The UN’s climate panel misleadingly describes the cloud-albedo effect as though it were only a forcing, and not a feedback. In the real climate, however, it can be either one or the other. The total extent of cloud cover is not constant, though the UN foolishly assumes that it is. For instance, in the only two decades of “global warming” that we could in theory have influenced – the 1980s and 1990s – there was a prolonged reduction in cloud cover that exercised a total radiative forcing of some 4.5 Watts per square meter over the period, compared with just 0.8 Watts per square meter for CO2 and all other manmade greenhouse gases combined. This reduction in cloud cover, and the subsequent increase in cloud cover that has contributed in no small part to the global cooling trend of the past nine years, are properly characterized as forcings – direct influences on climatic variability. In passing, we note that changes in the extent of cloud cover have little or nothing to do with our emissions of CO2, or – for that matter – with our emissions of water vapor from cooling towers, since our contribution is simply too small.

However, the largest of all the positive or temperature-amplifying feedbacks in the UN’s arsenal is the water-vapor feedback. The UN gets this feedback wrong in numerous fundamental ways. For instance, its models tend to treat column absolute humidity as being uniform at all altitudes, when in fact – as Paltridge et al. (2009) have demonstrated recently – the upper troposphere (the only place where adding CO2 to the atmosphere could make any difference to temperature) is considerably drier than the models are tuned to expect.

Why is this important? Because, by an equation called the Clausius-Clapeyron relation, as the space occupied by the atmosphere warms it is also capable of carrying near-exponentially more water vapor. Superficially, therefore, considerable amplification of the original warming might be expected. In practice, however, as you rightly point out, the likelihood is that more water vapor in the atmosphere will lead to the formation of more clouds. And it is here that the UN’s analysis goes completely astray. For it makes no allowance for the additional cloud-albedo effect that these clouds generated by the water-vapor feedback will create. This leads to a catastrophic overvaluation by the IPCC of the water-vapor feedback; and, though this is partly compensated for by the treatment of all cloud albedo as a forcing, it creates an overstatement of the final warming effect of adding greenhouse gases such as CO2 to the atmosphere after all feedbacks have been taken into account.

This is one of many points that I had wanted to draw to the attention of the UN’s climate panel last year when the technical support unit met in Hawaii (these bureaucrats love their fancy hotels in exotic locations, paid for at your expense and mine) to conduct what was called the “scoping” meeting for the fifth quinquennial climate assessment report of the climate panel, due to be published in 2013. I was invited, and duly registered on line, but the moment the narrow and poisonous faction that controls the scientific input to the panel realized I was coming a very senior scientist prominent as the first named lead author of one of the previous UN climate assessments wrote to me making it very plain, in effect, that anyone who dared to raise difficult questions [like this one] would not be welcome, and he refused to allow me to attend.

I pointed out that the rules of the UN’s climate panel require openness and transparency. He made it quite clear that he and the other Climategate emailers did not care about openness and transparency. Only one opinion would be permitted: and that would be the most extreme alarmist opinion they could get away with.

Of course, I am by no means the only person to have been mistreated in this way by the UN. Professor Paul Reiter, for instance, who on any view is the foremost expert in the world on the transmission of malaria and yellow fever, was nominated to the US delegation of scientists negotiating the text of the 2007 climate assessment report. Suspecting that the UN’s bureaucrats would play the same games with him as they have played with so many others whose scientific knowledge shows the climate scare to be just that, he was careful to send four copies of his nomination papers to separate senior UN bureaucrats, by recorded delivery.

Sure enough, the Climategate emailers, who effectively but invisibly control the UN’s climate panel to a dangerous extent, pretended that Professor Reiter’s nomination papers had not been received. He then threw all his toys out of the stroller, produced the recorded-delivery slips, and made it plain that he would name the four defalcating bureaucrats to whom his nomination papers had been delivered unless the climate panel changed its mind.

The panel refused to change its mind. However, he was allowed to act as a reviewer of the sub-chapter on malaria and other “tropical” diseases, which was written by two environmental campaigners with just one published paper on malaria between then (Professor Reiter has hundreds). They drafted the usual Al Gore nonsense about warmer weather spreading “tropical” diseases. However, Professor Reiter – now that he had the moral edge over the bureaucrats, who were terrified that he would name names publicly to demonstrate their dishonesty – insisted on rewriting the entire sub-chapter so as to remove very nearly all of the nonsense that the Marxist environmental campaigners had tried to get away with. The malaria mosquito, he pointed out, is capable of surviving in Arctic temperatures of -25 C, except during its brief breeding season, when +15 C is the minimum necessary for procreation. The largest outbreak of malaria in the past 100 years was in the 1920s in Siberia – not noted for its tropical climate. There, 13 million people became infected, and 600,000 died, 30,000 of them in the port of Archangel, on the Arctic Circle.

Very nearly all of the so-called “tropical” diseases that Al Gore and other “global warming” profiteers say will spread disastrously if the weather continues to get warmer – as it has done for the past 300 years – are not tropical at all. The thrive in the tropics simply because the countries of that region do not have sufficient public-health measures to prevent them from breeding. In the contiguous United States, malaria was rife right up to the Canadian border in the 1880s, but widespread use of DDT had eradicated it by 1949.

We have wandered a little from your original question, but the take-home message for today is that the UN’s climate panel is making fundamental mistakes in its treatment of water vapor and clouds, mistakes that greatly amplify the true rate of warming to be expected from a doubling of CO2 concentration. And the climate panel has elaborate procedures in place for keeping out most of the scientists and researchers who would like to have those mistakes corrected. The result is bad science that fools the world’s largely-innumerate political class into thinking that the non-problem of “global warming” is the greatest challenge ever to have faced humankind.