The Greenhouse Effect: A Poorly Named Answer to a Worldwide Problem

Tommy Pratt, Staff Writer

Until recently, I only vaguely understood how the greenhouse effect worked, although I had heard the term thrown around my whole life. The word “greenhouse” had always created the picture in my mind of a foggy-windowed atrium overrun by untended vines. I imagined that the tropics were hot because of their steamy, crowded jungles. Of course, I had never given it much real thought until I had to learn about it for school, but I always knew there was something I wasn’t understanding.

If you know the greenhouse effect, you’ll know that it is very convincing evidence for the existence of anthropogenic climate change. The greenhouse effect is what keeps the Earth warm enough to be habitable: greenhouse gases (chiefly carbon dioxide and water vapor, but also nitrogen oxides and methane) in the atmosphere allow the high-wavelength light from the sun into the Earth without stopping much of it, but when the Earth bounces these rays back from its surface at a much lower wavelength, these greenhouse gases trap and refract up to 75% of it. This produces a lot of extra heat, and the higher the concentration of these gasses in the atmosphere, the more light gets refracted. The greenhouse effect is so called because of a greenhouse, like these atmospheric gasses, traps some portion of the heat that it absorbs from sunlight. However, there is a debate about this name among chemists because a greenhouse prevents convection (heat transfer, or the rising of hot air and sinking of cold air), while the greenhouse effect essentially relies on it: the heat must rise to the atmosphere first for it to return as light.

The name “greenhouse effect” is also quite misleading to the general public, and it’s a pretty weak metaphor, to begin with. Mathematician Joseph Fourier, the discoverer of the greenhouse effect, never used the term, and only once drew the comparison to a greenhouse during his work in the 1820s. Chemist Svante Arrhenius, the first person to theorize and test that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have been increasing since the beginning of industrialization, did not know the effect by this name while he was conducting his experiments in 1896. But by 1909, several scientific papers had confidently introduced the term, and it stuck because it sounded so catchy. Another name might help the greenhouse effect be more understood and accepted in our common knowledge, and could give climate change skeptics yet another reason to believe. But considering how popular the term has become on its own, such an overhaul is likely never to happen.