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Carbon Dioxide and the Climate

A 1956 American Scientist article explores climate change; two contemporary commentaries illuminate its relevance to the present

Gilbert N. Plass, James Rodger Fleming, Gavin Schmidt

2010-01PlassFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageScientists have long been fascinated with the problem of explaining variations in the climate. For at least nine-tenths of the time since the beginning of recorded geological history, the average temperature of the Earth has been higher than it is today. Between these warm epochs there have been severe periods of glaciation which have lasted a few million years and which have occurred at intervals of roughly 250,000,000 years. Of more immediate interest to us is the general warming of the climate that has taken place in the last sixty years.

Theories of climatic change are exceedingly numerous. Is it possible that any of these theories can explain most of the known facts about climate? The most widely held theories at the present time call upon variations in the solar energy received by the earth, changes in the amount of volcanic dust in the atmosphere, and variations in the average elevation of the continents. Although it is entirely possible that changes in each of these factors may have had an influence on the Earth’s climate at particular times and places, none of these theories alone seems able to explain a majority of the known facts about world-wide climatic variations.

Although the carbon dioxide theory of climatic change was one of the most widely held fifty years ago, in recent years it has had relatively few adherents. However, recent research work suggests that the usual reasons for rejecting this theory are not valid. Thus it seems appropriate to reconsider the question of variations in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and whether it can satisfactorily account for many of the world-wide climatic changes.

Because of the relatively low temperatures at the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere, virtually all of the outgoing radiation from the Earth to space is in the infrared region of the spectrum. Thus it is important to know which constituents of the atmosphere absorb in the infrared. The three most abundant gases in our atmosphere are oxygen, nitrogen, and argon. However, none of these three gases absorb appreciably in the relevant spectral region in the infrared. If these were the only gases in our atmosphere, our climate would be considerably colder than it is today. The heat radiated from the surface of the Earth would not be stopped in its passage out to space with the result that the Earth’s surface would cool rapidly.

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