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Fact check: False claim that Albert Einstein paper contradicts climate change science – USA TODAY


The claim: An Albert Einstein paper contradicts carbon dioxide-driven climate change

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases contribute to global warming by reducing the escape of thermal energy into space. And NASA reports CO2 levels in Earth’s atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in 800,000 years due to human activity.

However, some social media users are sharing a blog post that claims a 1917 paper by physicist Albert Einstein contradicts the idea that CO2 could drive climate change.

“Albert Einstein says no to CO2 radiative warming of the atmosphere,” reads the title of the blog post, shared Feb. 20 on Facebook.

The article also spread on Facebook and Twitter in 2020 and 2021 before reemerging again last month.

However, the claim is false. The Einstein quote in the blog is compatible with modern climate science, according to experts. It addresses the effect of radiation on molecules – a factor in climate change – and is not a refutation of the fact that CO2 and other greenhouse gases drive climate change.  Further, the blog mischaracterizes fundamental aspects of climate change science.

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“For 20 years, I have studied the history of climate science … I know of no evidence whatsoever to support the Einstein claim,” Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, told USA TODAY in an email.

USA TODAY reached out to social media users who shared the post for comment. The blog author could not be reached for comment.

Climate change driven by CO2, other greenhouse gases

The blog claims Einstein’s writing challenges a fundamental concept in global climate change science – that CO2 in the atmosphere reduces the release of Earth’s thermal energy, or radiation, into space. But the science is clear.

In the climate change model, global warming occurs through a multi-step process that begins with the sun.

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The sun emits most of its radiation at wavelengths that are not absorbed by CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere. Instead, Earth absorbs the radiation, causing the planet to heat up. 

This heating causes Earth to emit its own radiation. However, Earth emits most of its radiation at different wavelengths than the sun – wavelengths that do get absorbed by CO2 in the atmosphere, Josh Willis, a NASA climate scientist, previously told USA TODAY

When that CO2 absorbs the Earth’s radiation, the molecule emits its own radiation. Some of this radiation gets directed back down toward Earth, further heating the planet.

Increasing concentrations of CO2 or other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere intensify this effect, Willis said.  

Aerial view of a coal-fired factory in Chengde, China, in 2018.

Blog mischaracterizes implications of Einstein’s writing

The blog post claims a specific passage from Einstein’s paper “On the Quantum Theory of Radiation,” originally published in 1916, directly refutes the concept of CO2-driven climate change. But experts say it doesn’t.

The content in the excerpt is “disconnected from the actual mechanisms underlying climate change,” Sukrit Ranjan, a planetary photochemist and postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, told USA TODAY.

In the excerpt, Einstein says an equation can be used to describe the average amount of energy molecules receive from radiation. He further states the equation is applicable regardless of what wavelengths of energy the molecules absorb and emit.

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But then “the blog author goes on to draw a completely specious conclusion from Einstein’s statements,” Grant Petty, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has authored two textbooks on atmospheric physics, told USA TODAY in an email.

“There’s literally no discernible relationship between the subject of Einsteins’ paper” and the blog’s claim that CO2 can’t drive atmospheric warming, he said. 

The blog post further claims Einstein’s work “refuted in advance” the idea that radiation emitted back toward Earth by CO2 could cause atmospheric warming. But that’s misleading, too.

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The paper referenced in the blog was completed well after CO2 was identified as an important greenhouse gas in the 1800s. The idea that radiation emitted by the Earth is absorbed by CO2 and then re-emitted had also been described. Even the potential for coal burning to change Earth’s climate was being discussed in the scientific community when Einstein was an active researcher.

USA TODAY could not find evidence that Einstein explicitly challenged those ideas.

“To the best of my knowledge, there is no such evidence,” Jürgen Renn, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, told USA TODAY in an email. 

Blog mischaracterizes modern climate science

In addition to mischaracterizing the significance and nature of Einstein’s comments, the blog post misrepresents modern climate change science by claiming models only account for heat transfer through radiation.

Convection – the transport of heat via the movement of molecules in the atmosphere – and other processes are also included in climate models. 

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“Many of the foundational papers in modern climate science, beginning in the 1960s, look at how convection and radiation work together,” Petty said. “The blog author apparently has no idea how many different energy transfer … processes are considered in every climate model.”

USA TODAY has previously debunked claims that climate change theory defies the laws of physics or overstates the role of CO2 in climate change.  

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that an Einstein paper contradicts CO2-driven climate change. This claim is built on a misunderstanding of the science of climate change and what Einstein discussed. The Einstein quote in the blog discusses the impact of radiation on molecules and does not challenge the concept of CO2-driven climate change in any way, according to experts. In the words of a University of Wisconsin professor, there is “no discernible relationship” between the quoted sections of Einstein’s paper and the blog’s claim that CO2 can’t drive global warming.

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