Earth’s energy budget consists of energy received from the sun and energy emitted by earth into space. Part of the latter occurs by reflection, part by absorption and re-emission. The re-emitted light being of lower frequency than the incident light, a fraction of it is absorbed by some of the atmospheric gasses transparent to the incident radiation, like water, carbon dioxide (CO2), methane, etc., in proportion to their concentrations in the atmosphere. This phenomenon is called greenhouse effect. As a result of the whole process, the earth, including the atmosphere, is energetically at a steady state. The measured parameter used to characterize the state is temperature. If the concentration of any of the active (‘greenhouse”) gasses changes, a new steady state is achieved.
Because the atmospheric CO2 concentration has increased since the beginning of industrial revolution, particularly since 1930, it was concluded that the earth must have warmed up as well (global warming) and that man-made CO2 must be responsible for it. (There are, however, scientists questioning whether the earth has warmed up outside the normal historic fluctuations.) This concentration increase being tied to the combustion of fossil fuels, it was concluded that the use of those fuels threatens the survival of civilization and even of mankind. A new criterion has been introduced, by which all human activity is to be judged: carbon footprint (CFp), measured as the quantity of carbon dioxide emitted in performing that activity. The index was assigned a moral value as well, whence the countries having a higher CFp are to be shamed and required to pay compensations to those with lower CFp and to international organizations. It is the contention of this paper that the analysis behind this conclusion is at least incomplete.
An examination of earth history over the last 650,000 years has shown that the surface temperature of the earth has fluctuated significantly, with ice ages alternating with inter-glacial periods. Life on earth has not perished in the extreme temperature intervals. During this time, the variations in concentration of atmospheric CO2 paralleled the temperature changes, so it was concluded that the latter are induced by the former. Studying the same data, however, other researchers reached different conclusions. Indeed, the long-range CO2 and temperature versus time diagram shows that each CO2 peak lags behind the corresponding temperature peak by centuries, so if there is a cause-effect relationship it is in reverse.
Analyzing the consequences of extreme temperatures on earth in our epoch, researchers have found that cold kills more people than heat. Still other scientists have found that the increase in the CO2 concentration had no deleterious effects upon global climate or temperature, but rather has increased the growth of plants, especially trees, as expected. Moreover, during the Paleocene-Eocene period, when the earth saw a sharp increase in carbon dioxide and temperature (not necessarily in that order), there was an increase in mammalian abundance and no reduction in terrestrial flora and fauna.
At the same time it has been found that some government agencies have over time altered the data to fit the man-made global warming narrative.
The natural factors altering the climate are many, for example tectonic activity, growth of the Himalayas, volcanic activity, and in longest range, millennial fluctuations of the earth’s orbit and the increase in solar’s output by 7% per billion years. On the other hand, some researchers have argued that alteration of the climate by man, making it warmer, started more than five thousand years ago, with agriculture, particularly rice growing (methane-forming). In modern times, improvement of cultivation methods has reduced agriculture as source of “greenhouse” gases and replaced it with burning of carbon-based fuels. Cosmically, the earth might have been in a period of cooling, so the man-made heating and the cosmic cooling balance each other, or in the short-term the man-made heating might prevail over the cosmic cooling and the ice age should manifest itself later, when all carbon fuels have been burned.
Irrespective of the scientific controversy and sometimes trying to stifle scientific skepticism by political means, the thesis that carbon dioxide generation by advanced economies is the cause of climate change, with catastrophic consequences for life on earth, continues to be a favored cause of politicians like Al Gore and Barack Obama, of the UN, of Vatican, and of many groups and organizations, some created ad-hoc. The reason can be pursuit of financial gain or of power, the quest for relevance, or in the case of the Vatican the desire to reclaim on incidental and temporal matters a moral authority that on matters fundamental and eternal it has squandered. The main solution proposed is the elimination of organic fuels, particularly coal. The criticism of the man-made global warming model has been attacked on grounds as preposterous as the notion that science works by majority vote, the credentials of the critical authors or the source of funds for their research, a fact which exposes the scientific illiteracy of their critics.
As the system is extremely complex and the data, when stripped of ideology, less than conclusive, a scientifically rigorous treatment has to consider each possibility and seek a solution or remediation..Moreover, efforts either to alter the climate or to preserve it must be considered together with the needs and resources of humans inhabiting the earth, beginning with the use and sources of energy, especially in light of a study which concluded that to achieve a goal of stabilizing the temperature through the reduction of greenhouse gases, the emission of the latter should be cut to zero, which would certainly finish off civilization.
As the first case, let’s assume that the earth temperature is rising. A graded, smart approach would be much better than just banning productive activities. For example, methane’s global warming potential is 34 or 86 times (depending upon the time frame used in evaluation) greater than that of carbon dioxide. Rice growing is an important source of methane. Rather than pay money to UN kleptocrats as penance for its successful economic system, the U.S. should subsidize research to develop rice varieties that grow on dry land, like other cereals. This improvement would also address the predicted world fresh water shortage that poses a significant danger to the world. We should also consider whether all swamps are important, or some of them might be replaced by cleaner bodies of water, with less fermentation to methane.
Technological improvements could also allow the capture of methane from processes which generate it as a side-product, thus allowing its use as a fuel. (Progress has been made in methane fuel production from municipal wastes.)
The natural causes of the earth’s warming must also be addressed. Thus, red algae blooming in the arctic snow play a crucial role in decreasing the latter’s reflectivity (albedo) and thus warm the planet. Research on suppressing those organisms is a task that scientists should undertake and governments support.
The possible temperature increase, whether due to human or solar activity, can be prevented by reducing the incoming solar energy through the placement of reflecting particles in the stratosphere, as originally proposed by the physicist Edward Teller, the originator of geoengineering. This approach is perfectly feasible in practice. Thus, from scientific viewpoint, the problem of catastrophic global warming has been solved. The approach has been criticized on grounds such as: there will be less sun for solar power; people will then be less amenable to control CO2 emissions or even to understand the moral imperative for it; it will conflict with present treaties; it might involve private, for profit, companies (!). Typically, the critics assume that the particle screens could be made only of sulfuric acid aerosols, like from Mount Pinatubo’s eruption.
It remains, therefore, only to address the other effects, on plants, animals, landscape, etc., of a slightly increased concentration of CO2 from the current 410 ppm. This need not be catastrophic for life on earth, considering that in the paleocene-eocene period (v. supra) it was higher than 760 ppm. Some of the carbonate rocks, however, will be probably dissolved, binding a part of the atmospheric CO2.
Various proposals of CO2 removal have been advanced, for instance trapping in underground reservoirs. This idea is dangerous, because sipping out is possible (especially during earthquakes). Release from a natural underground reservoir killed 2000 people in Cameroon in 1986. Chemical capture with sodium hydroxide (neutralization) was also proposed.(b), but it makes no sense, because the energy needed to manufacture sodium hydroxide has an equivalent of CO2 greater than that which can be captured.
The analyses of the effects of carbon combustion on environment and life on earth are usually flawed, however, because they disregard carbon cycling in nature:
O2 + carbon materials ⇒ [oxidation] ⇒ carbon dioxide (CO2) ⇒ [capture] ⇒ carbon materials + O2,
in which carbon materials (CM) are compounds containing carbon-carbon and carbon-hydrogen bonds. As a matter of fact, what is called fossil carbon was once carbon dioxide. (The alternative origin, hydrolysis of metal carbides can be discounted.) It is noted that if the two steps are balanced in quantities, they are also thermally balanced, because the heat released in the first step is absorbed in the second. Paying attention only to the first step is wrong-headed. If the approach at correction is punitive, reduction of the atmospheric CO2 capture is to be penalized as well. Such penalties should hit Brazil for cutting the Amazonian forest (responsible for 20% of world’s CO2 capture) at a rate of 90 acres per hour, as well as sub-Saharan Africa for overgrazing which converts green lands to deserts.
Anyway, in a two-step process, one should try to improve the controlling (slower) step, in this case the second. Improving CO2 capture is also important because it would recycle the carbon currently in fossil fuels, which now are a once-through proposition. The best capture mechanism is photosynthesis in green plants. With that in mind, the earth areas covered by plants performing photosynthesis could be increased (one could even cover roofs in the cities with vegetation), but a breakthrough probably would come only from developing plants that have a better (faster) photosynthetic process. This is a task that should attract the plant biologists. Changes in plant properties have been achieved even when science was much less developed. For instance, wheat used to give less than five grains per ear in the 1600-s and it now gives 20-30.
If, on the other hand, the earth is naturally in a cooling period, the burning of carbon materials, especially fossil fuels, might need to be accelerated. Complications will arise if this remedy is insufficient or the new ice age lasts longer than the fossil carbon. Plants capable of growing at lower temperatures would have to be developed as sources of fuel, but that might not be enough. Evaluation of the effect of covering snowfields with soot might be interesting. Much research would be necessary, perhaps achieving, at last, controlled nuclear fusion.
Dan Fărcaşiu, July 2017
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