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MYTH #14: More carbon dioxide has little effect


So what if we're emitting a little more CO2? That doesn't mean we're responsible for climate change.


Carbon dioxide traps heat. The more carbon we send into the sky, the hotter it gets.

More than a century ago, scientists figured out that carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trap heat. Many lines of evidence now confirm our planet is warming because of carbon pollution released when humans burn fossil fuels like oil and coal. One of the most important lines of evidence is a closer look at the wavelength, or “type,” of heat being trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere. Carbon dioxide traps specific wavelengths of heat energy, and satellite and surface measurements show that in recent decades, less heat at those specific wavelengths is escaping to space. Given that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have increased a whopping 40% since the start of the Industrial Revolution, it’s really no wonder our planet’s temperature is rising.

Additional info from NASA

A study by climate scientists at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies published in the journal Science shows that atmospheric carbon dioxide operates as a thermostat to control the temperature of Earth. 

There is a close analogy to be drawn between the way an ordinary thermostat maintains the temperature of a house, and the way that atmospheric carbon dioxide (and the other minor non-condensing greenhouse gases) control the global temperature of Earth. The ordinary thermostat produces no heat of its own. Its role is to switch the furnace on and off, depending on whether the house temperature is lower or higher than the thermostat setting. If we were to carefully monitor the temperature of the house, we would see that the temperature does not stay constant at the set value, but rather exhibits a "natural variability" as the house temperature slips below the set value and then overshoots the mark with a time constant of minutes to tens of minutes. This is because of the thermal inertia of the house and because heating by the furnace (when it is on) is more powerful than the steady heat loss to the outdoors. If the thermostat is suddenly turned to a very high setting, the temperature will begin to rise at a rate dictated by the inertia of the house and strength of the furnace. Turning the thermostat back to normal will stop the heating. 

Atmospheric carbon dioxide performs a role similar to that of the house thermostat in setting the equilibrium temperature of the Earth. It differs from the house thermostat in that carbon dioxide itself is a potent greenhouse gas warming the ground surface by means of the greenhouse effect. It is this sustained warming that enables water vapor and clouds to maintain their atmospheric distributions. They also create so-called “feedback effects” that amplify the initial warming provided by the non-condensing greenhouse gases, and in the process, account for the bulk of the total terrestrial greenhouse effect. Since the radiative effects associated with the buildup of water vapor to near-saturation levels and the subsequent condensation into clouds are far stronger than the equilibrium level of radiative forcing by the non-condensing greenhouse gases, this results in large local fluctuations in temperature around the global equilibrium value. Together with the similar non-linear responses involving the ocean heat capacity, the net effect is the "natural variability" that the climate system exhibits regionally. On inter-annual and decadal timescales, feedbacks also determine whether the global equilibrium temperature of the Earth is fixed, or is being forced to re-adjust in response to changes in the level of atmospheric greenhouse gases.