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Are you a genuine skeptic or a climate denier?

Posted on 30 May 2011 by John Cook

The ABC Drum have just published my article Are you a genuine skeptic or a climate denier? Right now, there are no comments but I imagine the discussion will get fierce shortly so be sure to keep an eye on it (expect to see all the traits of denial I describe rear their ugly head in the comments and be quick to point them out). An excerpt:

In the charged discussions about climate, the words skeptic and denier are often thrown around. But what do these words mean?

Consider the following definitions. Genuine skeptics consider all the evidence in their search for the truth. Deniers, on the other hand, refuse to accept any evidence that conflicts with their pre-determined views.

So here's one way to tell if you're a genuine skeptic or a climate denier.

Read full article...

http://www.abc.net.au/rn/img/presenters_sm/robyn_williams.jpgSkeptical Science and our book Climate Change Denial have been popping up elsewhere in the media over the last few weeks. My co-author Haydn and I appeared on Robyn William's Science Show a few weeks ago - you can listen to streaming audio or download the interview in mp3 format. The Science Show webpage also has a transcript of the whole interview.

On the morning of the Sydney book launch, I did an interview with John Stanley from the Sydney commercial radio station 2UE. You can listen to an mp3 of the interview here. Many thanks to 2UE for letting me republish the interview here on Skeptical Science and thanks to John just for having the interview - I wonder how many angry emails he received from 2UE listeners afterwards.

After our Sydney and Canberra book launches (more on that in a future post), Haydn and I returned to Sydney to record an interview with James Valentine at ABC 702. This interview gave us the opportunity to do something I've been looking forward to for a while - respond to talk-back callers. Sure enough, the first caller was a geologist enquiring about past climate change!

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Comments 1 to 50 out of 488:

  1. Hi John,

    I regularly comment in The Drum. You'll probably find the comments come through in batches as the moderators find time to read them.
    I have to give you two thumbs up as I usually use Skepticalscience for the abridged version of rebuttals.
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  2. A well written piece, John. Excellent.
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  3. My first impression was "Hey, John's getting serious here!", due to the wording being a bit stronger than the average article here on SkS, but then I realised you were writing for a different audience.

    I thought the point was well put, and forcefully so. This isn't a time to be tiptoeing through people's sensibilities, while the deniers are busily kicking doors in with their mining boots. The only way the general public will get to see the science, is if the science is put before them.

    Have added my comment to the moderators' queue, will be interesting to see how the 'discussion' evolves. I expect to see a post here in a few days listing the denier arguments put forward, and how often each one appears in the comment thread! :-P
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    Response: [JC] Hmm, nice idea for a blog post. Noted!
  4. Interesting place, the Australasian media...

    From the BBC: Actress Cate Blanchett sparks Australia climate debate
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  5. "So which camp do you fall in?" (quote from article)

    Do you not think this is problematic? Take a large scientific subject like climate science. There are endless questions you could ask about the subject why should evrybody agree on every issue?. Throw in the fact the incomplete nature of this science as well and it seems only right that people who agree on one subject can (and should be) vermently disagreeing on others. And as we have seen many of the so-called deniers and sceptics agree on much of the science. For example I think all serious individuals agree that the past 100 years or so have seen the planet warm and that CO2 is a greenhouse gas.

    So the real question should be what two camps are you trying to impose on climate science
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  6. (pressed submit early)

    Take an example of Roy Spencer.

    He believes CO2 is a GHG, that the planet has warmed recently (his satellite temperature record shows this) but he also believes (and has published) that climate sensitivity is low. Climate sensitivity is an unsettled issue, his is part of a spectrum of opinion on the subject. John seems to want to impose some sort of cut off point by which Spenser is to be considered in some way different to the other scientists that are putting forward their own estimates of climate sensitivity. I struggle to understand how you set the cut off point that labels one scientist a denier (and all that entails) and others reasonable.

    (BTW congratulation John on getting on the Drum, it's one of my favorite shows on ABC News24)
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  7. HumanityRules, climate change denial is a political fact. This is very evident in the choice of allies of the various adaptors, luke warmers, solarists, cosmic rayers, conspiracy theorists and what have you that make up the denial movement. Although many of these groups are closer to the mainstream scientists than they are to each other, still they self select the most absurd theorists as their allies. Obviously the sole criterion to be welcomed into the alliance is that you must oppose mitigating climate change. If you are firm on that point, any epistemological sin will be overlooked by your new found allies.

    Having self selected on this basis, turning around and blaming those who will not distort the science for political convenience for trying to impose two camps is a bit rich.
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  8. HR and Tom:
    I guess what is stake here is the consequences of taking a strong line. I'm reminded of Bush's "Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists" line. So I'm guessing the effect will be to polarise the debate, pushing people out of the middle to one extreme or the other.

    Questions:
    - Is that is a good thing?
    - Does making the middle ground uninhabitable make it harder to change your mind?
    - In which direction are people more likely to change their mind?

    I suspect in the light of recent insights on why people are deniers (e.g. default position based on political/economic ideology), and the increasingly in-your-face evidence of drought and extreme rainfall, that we are moving to a situation where people are more likely to be moving toward the scientific consensus.

    But I'm not a sociologist. I don't trust my instincts on this one, you shouldn't either.
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  9. Tom Curtis @ 7 - hear, hear!
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  10. From the article: "we have a consensus of scientists with 97 out of 100 climate experts" Please define climate expert. It seems to me that "climate experts" are self-selected just as surely as Tom Curtis seems to think that those in the "denial movement" are.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] Please follow the link provided in the article in question, which contains the the following quote "97.5% of climatologists who actively publish research on climate change responded yes". Thus the only self-selection involved is in the decision of the individuals concerned to pursue a research career in climatology.
  11. I gave a talk at the University of Qld last Friday night and part of the talk featured the "97 out of 100 climate experts..." infographic. During question time, my old dean of physics (now retired) grilled me with your very question, Eric - what do I mean by a "climate expert"? Was a bit weird, took me back 2 decades, getting grilled by my old dean. I answered much the same as Dikran Marsupial - according to the two surveys in Doran et al 2009 and Anderegg et al 2010, a climate expert is a climate scientist who is actively publishing climate research in the peer-reviewed literature. That answer seemed to satisfy the crusty old dean :-)
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  12. Dikran and John, there are a few problems with Anderegg et al such as: "To examine only researchers with demonstrated climate expertise, we imposed a 20 climate-publications minimum to be considered a climate researcher, bringing the list to 908 researchers" and "We conducted the above analyses with a climate researcher cutoff of a minimum of 10 and 40 publications, which yielded very little change in the qualitative or strong statistically significant differences between CE and UE groups." But they didn't publish those numbers. I am interested in the CE/UE breakdown of climate scientists who only published a few papers, but those statistics were not released in Anderegg.
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    Moderator Response: [Dikran Marsupial] The definition of "climate expert" is still not "self-selected" as a perfectly reasonable objective criterion is given. Whether or not the statistics from a test of the robustness of the findings to the threshold used are published makes no difference to that fact.
  13. What about the luke warmers, those who believe we are warming but it does not require drastic action?
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  14. Eric #12: Did you look? All the data is on Prall's website, which is in turn referenced in the supplemental material of the Anderegg 2010 paper. The supplemental material is referenced (and hyperlinked in the PDF) version from the article text (at least twice that I could see). He provides all the data you need to repeat the calculations with your own criteria of number of papers or number of cites.
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  15. dorlomin - I think all deniers accept some evidence, but deny other bits. I suppose the reasonbleness of the denier depends on where they draw the line. Like HR's example of Spencer accepting a fair amount of the evidence, but he denies other bits (not just limited to sensitivity). Perhaps denial is a spectrum where what they all have in common is denying some aspect of the evidence so they can oppose taking action to solve the problem (which Spencer certainly does).
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  16. I believe that CO2 is a GHG, that man is adding it to the atmosphere and this will likely lead to some warming. However, I think the 'enhanced' warming of 3 C cannot be supported. What does that make me?
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  17. @16,

    "man is adding it to the atmosphere and this will likely lead to some warming"

    Science site, please be more specific.

    Also, going by the huge volume of comments made you elsewhere on this site, you actually do appear to contest that doubling CO2 will cause about 1.1 C of warming.

    You need to read Dana's post @15, your "profile" perfectly fits that described by Dana.
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  18. #16

    it makes you a skeptic- earth has warmed far more in the past- the PETM and the Eocene Optimum. 5-7 degrees C by the same carbon forces- light carbon and methane-

    the natural geologic forces where much slower- but the end result was that the same GHG back then (and today) pushed up temperatures.

    Today we are bringing carbon into the atmosphere at a magnitude (rate) unknown in the past something on an order 10,000 times as fast. Your failure to understand this concept is perplexing.
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  19. Albatross (RE: 17),

    "Science site, please be more specific.

    Also, going by the huge volume of comments made you elsewhere on this site, you actually do appear to contest that doubling CO2 will cause about 1.1 C of warming."


    This is a hypothetical amount that assumes neutral or no feedback. Also, the direct warming from 3.7 W/m^2 is only 0.7 C - not 1.1 C. The 0.4 C comes from adding on the net transmittance to space of about 0.6 or 60%. The problem is this amount already accounts for the lion's share of the feedbacks in the system from decades, centuries and even millenia of solar forcing.
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  20. RW1 @19,

    Here we go ;)

    So pray, please enlighten us how much the planet will warm for doubling CO2. A number please.
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  21. Albatross (RE: 20),

    "So pray, please enlighten us how much the planet will warm for doubling CO2. A number please."

    Not more than about 1 C and probably more like 0.5 C or less.
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  22. RW1: since you asked, you're a denialist.
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  23. To Humanity rules @ #5 and #6 (and any other lukewarmers):

    In reality, the only argument that those who want to do little or nothing to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases have that makes any sense is if the climate sensitivity is much less than the majority scientific view says it is. The whole of the bizarre cacophony of conflicting views of the rest of the denialist/sceptic crew is justly deserving of the scorn that it attracts for its sheer wrongness.

    If this was just like a scientific debate about, say, how many dimensions string theory needs then the "low climate sensitivity" crew would be, if not welcomed with open arms by the "consensus", at least respected for their different opinions... but it is not. In the case of climate science it is not just academic reputations that are at stake - it is the future living conditions for humanity, not to mention all the eco-systems that support life as we know it.

    There is no simple experiment we can run to directly determine the short term/long term climate sensitivity; it can only be done by inference and deduction. If we had a time machine to go back 100 years multiple times so we could try altering emissions to see the varying effects then we could nail it, but we don't.

    As we are stuck with inference/deduction to work out whether what we are doing to the atmosphere will end up with benign, no-change, irritating, dangerous or catastrophic results, the political/industrial/lifestyle strategies that we should develop from the knowledge we have cannot wait for absolute certainty as to the outcome. It comes down to risk assessment.

    What is the best strategy faced with Dirty Harry's Magnum when you don't know for sure whether there are any bullets left in the chamber? Rush him and find out that he was bluffing, steal his winning lottery ticket and live happily ever after? Slim chance. As this is an analogy for the climate system, there isn't just one possible bullet but an uncertain number, each of a differing degree of danger plus you don't know how good Harry's aim is.

    Taking a chance that your belief is correct is rather foolish when the odds are probably against you, but you do have a perfect right to risk your own life and future. If it was just you - nobody else around - no web of life to disrupt - I would say let your fossil fuel emissions rip and have fun. What you don't have is a right to risk everybody else's lives and futures in the service of your beliefs - that is why it is irresponsible, bordering on a crime against humanity, for denialists and lukewarmers alike to muddy the waters with their beliefs and thereby potentially fool the voting public that adopting those beliefs might be a sensible strategy.
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  24. RW1,
    Since the world has already increased in temperature by more than 0.5C and we are not even near doubling yet, how do you explain current warming with a 0.5C sensitivity? Do you expect it to cool for the next two decades?
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  25. The "Lukewarmer" position is a disingenuous cop out, and allows one to cherry pick one's way thought he science and debate. It also allows one to play games as has been so effectively done by some people like Steven Mosher.

    I could claim to be a "lukewarmer" because my reading of the science leads be to think that climate sensitivity is close to +3 C rather than say + 5 or +6 C for doubling CO2. Advancing that as a reason to claim that there is nothing to be concerned about or as a reason to not dramatically reduce our GHG emissions is not acceptable though. And it doesn't make the ocean acidification problem go away.

    Moreover, claiming to be a "lukewarmer" only goes to show that the former deniers of AGW and 'skeptics' have painted themselves into a very tight corner, so their only way of trying to save face and appear to be reasonable is to claim to be a "lukewarmer"...well sorry, people are not going to buy into that type of weaseling.
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  26. RW1 @21: claiming sensitivity is just 0.5-1°C for doubled CO2 (3.7 W/m2 forcing) denies the massive body of research using many different lines of evidence that all consistently shows otherwise. Just as one example, it's nearly impossible to explain the ~5°C warming between glacial and interglacial period if sensitivity is that low. Also see the forthcoming Christy Crock #6: Climate Sensitivity which is due to be published sometime in the next week.
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  27. RW1 @ 21... "Not more than about 1 C and probably more like 0.5 C or less."

    You original question was, "What camp does this put me in?"

    This would clearly put you in the denier camp because to accept that proposition you have to deny a wide range of existing research that suggests otherwise, all consisting of papers which appropriately apply scientific skepticism.
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  28. Yes, to the extent possible (of 3 C rise), I'm a denier.
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  29. RW1: "Not more than about 1 C and probably more like 0.5 C or less."

    We passed 0.5 C a couple of decades ago. So, the only 'logical' way you could still hold such a position would be if you deny the accuracy of the surface temperature record... and the various proxy records which corroborate it. You'd also have to deny that the consistency of the satellite temperature reconstructions for the period of overlap supports the accuracy of the surface records... AND ignore the fact that those satellite records are now themselves approaching 0.5 C after just 30 years.

    In short, if your position can only be maintained by denying the validity of all available evidence then you are definitely not a 'skeptic'.
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  30. To be fair, you can argue for 0.5°C sensitivity if you also argue that much of the recent warming is due to internal variability (which is another denial argument, but one which Spencer/Christy/Lindzen use to justify their ridiculously low sensitivity denial - i.e. see Lindzen Illusion #7).
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  31. Kudos to RW1 for being honest enough to declare that yes, he is a denier, rather than respond with faux "how dare you equate me with holocaust deniers" etc blah blah blah.

    Refreshing honesty ..
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  32. KevinC, the link on Prall's site leads here http://www.eecg.utoronto.ca/~prall/climate/list_sources.html which contains lists of "activist" documents and statements (their wording) that is an incomplete starting point for examining the whole of the science. OTOH, starting with a list of papers the way Rob Honeycutt did here http://www.skepticalscience.com/meet-the-denominator.html can ultimately separate AGW with CAGW which have two different bodies of evidence behind them (with some overlap). Then one can say that 97/100 climate experts support the need for immediate action (or something similar). There's a good chance that the (relative) 100 will increase faster than the relative 97 if Prall moves beyond lists of activists.
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  33. "However, I think the 'enhanced' warming of 3 C cannot be supported. What does that make me? "

    Someone who has been puzzlingly unable to understand the science despite the enormous effort some people have explaining it to you .... or a wishful thinker who blanks out evidence that is challenging to your position.
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  34. I think an interesting point has been raised here - what is a denier? (OK sure - we have raised it thousands of times on this site).

    I think the answer is finally available (it does contain a value judgement, but anytime you call someone a denier vs a skeptic you have made a value judgement).

    The value judgement is: The body of evidence in climate change REQUIRES and active mitigation response.

    If you agree with that statement you are pro-science. (Even as you wonder about the precise nature of sensitivity, how we can accurately measure OHC, precisely when the oceans will swamp low-lying cities, how global warming will affect the West Anarctic ice sheet, etc. etc.)

    If you disagree with that statement - you are a denier. The particular stripe of your denial is of great interest to you perhaps, but not to the rest of us.

    Does that satisfactorily encapsulate the issue for anyone else? I like it - but I suffer from a little "brilliant in his own mind" syndrome. And long time readers KNOW I have a strong bias towards action on this issue.
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  35. I just went back to look at the comments thread on the article. Interesting to see what sort of comments the moderators are letting through... I can't recall exactly what I posted yesterday, but it obviously didn't make the cut. Perhaps I made the mistake of supporting your argument, rather than trotting out a long-debunked denialist argument, like so many of the comments do? :-)
    I tapped out a couple of quick replies to some of the comments there. I wonder if any of them will make it through moderation either?
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  36. Before I label myself, can anyone say in a nutshell:

    1. What the cause of climate change is?
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  37. Bad fingers! The crux of my last post should have read:

    The body of evidence in climate science REQUIRES an active mitigation response.
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  38. Harry Seaward: in a nutshell? Changes in climate forcing.

    The obvious follow-on is then: "what changes in forcing have happened recently?"
    The simple answer to that one is: "Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions", although it's obviously more complex than that.
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  39. AT @ 34
    Whoa there, hoss!

    So, I either need to agree to active mitigation, or if I don't then I am a denier. You don't leave much leeway.

    And, I have real trouble with your phrase "pro-science". I am a scientist and believe in science (educated in science, teaching in science, certified in science, degreed in science, working in science, etc...). You are stating that if I don't fall in lock-step with your views, then my view is of no interest to you.

    Well, AT, you are demonstrating that you have absolutely no idea of what science is. The one thing you stated correctly is, "I suffer from a little "brilliant in his own mind" syndrome."

    Do you mind sharing with me your science background?
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  40. Bern @ 38
    Thanks for you answer. I am truly not trying to put words in your mouth when I ask this.

    Assuming it is anthro GHGs, is that the sole cause in your opinion? If so, what does mankind do?
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  41. Well Apirate, you seem to having trouble backing your skeptic viewpoint with published science. If you are sufficient informed in the field to be publishing yourself, then a contrary opinion would be interesting and presumably published, but so far your skepticism seems be based on blog postings and opinion. This doesnt smack of science to me.
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  42. "If so, what does mankind do?"

    I asked you earlier the same question. What effective means of reducing GHGs is compatible with your political values? This isnt rhetoric either. I really want to know what conservative political opinion considers to be viable other than simply deny that the problem exists.
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  43. scaddenp,
    My post had nothing to do with me backing any viewpoint. My post was concerning AT making a statement that either one agrees with immediate active mitigation, or you are a denier.

    And, I never even implied I was publishing in the climate science field. However, unlike you, I have actually been published and have been referenced by other scientists in my discipline. Nope, it's not climate science, but in aquaculture.
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  44. Harry Seaward: that's where the "it's obviously more complex than that" bit comes in. Anthro GHGs aren't the only forcing pushing the climate away from quasi-equilibrium, but they're currently not only the biggest one, but the only significantly positive one. But you should really read the relevant article about it here on SkS. If you read & understand the Intermediate level explanation, you'll be in a good position w.r.t. the science.

    For your second question: I'm also interested to hear what you would propose, as scaddenp asks.
    For my part, I go with Hansen: phase out coal, completely, within 20 years. Oil is running out, and when the coal phase out demonstrates how things can be done cleaner, I suspect gas will be relegated to a feedstock for chemical processes.
    Yes, it'll be expensive. Not as expensive as doing nothing, though.

    Back on-topic: I note there are now over a hundred comments approved by the mods at the ABC, and they're only up to 7pm last night... gonna be a biggie!
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  45. Harry Seaward:

    "Assuming it is anthro GHGs, is that the sole cause in your opinion? If so, what does mankind do?"

    No one imagines that changes in GHGs result in the sole changes in forcing that causes climatatic conditions to change.

    For instance, recently we've seen that "it's the sun, stupid" - the current solar minimum is to some extent mitigating the positive change in forcing resulting from increased GHGs over the last decade or so.

    What is the point of such a question?
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  46. scaddenp at 42

    Totally off the cuff: I think it is the responsibility of every human, every culture, every government, and every country on earth to reduce their dependence on natural resources, and to minimize the generation of waste (hazardous and non-hazardous). Alternative energy sources should be explored, developed, and utilized where applicable.

    And, by the way, I have had active roles in major industies in achieving the above ideals (goals were proposed to the regulators and accepted) to the extent the companies were awarded recognition from local, state and Federal governmental agencies in the US. The companies include BMW, Michelin, and AVX. I am currently consulting with Koyo Bearings at ICAR on their goals.
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  47. dhogaza at 45
    The point is: if we don't identify the sources, then how do we address them?
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  48. @46 - well that is a viewpoint I can respect, even if I struggle with the basis of your skepticism on AGW.
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  49. scaddenp at 48
    Thank you. And, finally some common ground.
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  50. A pirate - I actually formulated my statement with people like you in mind (and you in particular).

    Your views on climate change are so muddled you often get lost in even trying to express what your issue with the science is. Those of us who base our opinions strictly on the science can see the problem - you would like to pick and choose your scientific results.

    So I crafted a statement that lets folks like yourself see exactly where you stand:

    The body of evidence in climate science REQUIRES an active mitigation response.

    We know the body of evidence overwhelmingly supports AGW. We know we are the "A" in AGW - so the conclusion follows directly from the science. My statement, while encapsulating a judgement, is also a statement of fact.

    (Fact in the logical sense:a concept whose truth can be proved; "scientific hypotheses are not facts"
    wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn)

    I will amend the statement to more completely express the issue:

    This situation - the body of evidence in climate science and the desire to continue living in a world hospitable to human civilization and a population greater than 6 billion - REQUIRES an active mitigation response.

    It effectively removes your (and like minded folks) ability to wiggle around and say "what about this tiny little corner of dispute?" Or "what about the last 4 months" or "what about any other minuscule slice?" (aka a cherry pick) you want to do.

    It forces you to evaluate the totality of the evidence, and not live in the muddled middle you have demonstrated over the last few months.

    In reality there is no muddled middle. Only people trying to dance away from the inevitable conclusion of climate science. So I am painting in black and white.

    The fact that it makes you uncomfortable confirms I have hit near the bullseye. Thank you for that.

    Now, you would like to portray me as an extremist. I will answer the question you have failed to answer. I asked you what evidence would convince you that AGW is real, happening now, etc. You couldn't come up with anything and wandered off into your usual state of confusion.

    So the question in reverse - what would convince me that the current settled science is not, in fact settled? The answer is OHC. If the oceans aren't warming, the world isn't warming (we can just open the windows as it were).

    And finally, we can play the credentials game - I am published in my field, which is not climate science. I hold no advanced degrees (I am a proud Cornell PhD. drop out...).

    But if you play the credentials game - wouldn't those who actively publish and who have spent their entire graduate studies and dedicated their lives to the study and understanding of the climate trump you and me?

    Now you are stuck with the 97 (AGW) vs 2 (neutral) vs 1 (skeptical of at least (and sometimes ONLY) one pillar of AGW). So your position is NOT supported by appealing to credentials.

    As you might be able to tell - one of my degrees is in philosophy/philosophy of science/logic. Thus my limited patience with your inability to communicate clearly.

    I sincerely hope you do better in front of your students than you do here on skepticalscience. Some people are better verbally than in writing. I hope you are one of them.
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