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Rebutting skeptic arguments in a single line

Posted on 20 July 2010 by John Cook

When I first started writing rebuttals to the various skeptic arguments, each rebuttal was a long, technical piece with graphs, detailed scientific discussion and links to peer-reviewed papers. At some point, someone suggested I write a short paragraph summary at the top of each page so people didn't have to read the whole page to get an answer to a skeptic argument. Initially, I frowned upon this idea. Firstly, it was a lot of work. More importantly, I figured if someone wanted to understand the science, they could jolly well take the time to read the full article. A proper understanding of climate requires the full picture which you can't get in a soundbyte! That's right, I'm quite the science curmudgeon.

Eventually, I began to see the need for a short summary. If Mohammad won't come to the mountain... So I began writing short paragraph summaries of each rebuttal. It wasn't easy - it's a tough ask boiling down complex concepts into a short paragraph, trying to cram as much science into as few words as possible. The result was all the skeptic arguments and a paragraph rebuttal on a single page which I thought was a fairly useful and concise summary.

In May this year, I received an email from Dr. Jan Dash, ex-theoretical physicist and Director of the Climate Initiative of the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office. He had just co-led a series of "Counter the Contrarians" classes at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County, NJ along with an expert in science communication who had dealt with evolution deniers while working at the Denver Zoo. Participants broke up into pairs with one playing the contrarian, given a skeptic argument, and the other rebutting the skeptic argument with the Skeptical Science paragraphs as source material (I have to confess it would've been fun getting to be the contrarian). The feedback from the participants was almost unanimous. My paragraph answers were too complicated to use.

Okay, that feedback was a bit of a kick in the guts but I guess I can see why. As I said earlier, I try to cram as much science as possible into a single paragraph. Jan suggested having a one-line, short sentence as a response to each skeptic argument. Something easy to remember and not too technical. The idea is the short one-liner would enable you to "bat the ball back over the net" and then more detail could be provided in subsequent discussion.

Now I must admit my initial reaction was skepticism, similar to my negative reaction to the initial paragraph idea. It was hard enough boiling the answers down to a paragraph, let alone a single line. So I emailed back, suggesting if Jan wanted to have a go at writing some one-liners, he was welcome to. After not getting a response, I assumed Jan found it as difficult as I did.

Then around a week later, I got a reply. Jan had gone through every skeptic argument and written a one-line answer! I started reading through them, thinking "okay, this'll be interesting". After the first page, it was obvious - by George, he'd done it! As I kept reading, I found myself thinking, "hmm, wish I'd said it like that!" He'd created a fantastic resource - short, non-technical, user-friendly answers to every skeptic argument.

I finally saw my problem was trying to cram every bit of science into my short answer as possible, in order to make the paragraph bullet proof to any objection. But Jan had the right approach - just "bat the ball back over the net" and get into the nitty gritty afterwards. So I'm immensely grateful for Jan for both providing some immensely useful content and also teaching me a lesson about science communication.

I've changed most of the rebuttals to skeptic arguments to Jan's one-liners. But if you're going to complain about any particular wording, I still take final responsibility for all the content - sometimes I changed his wording and often made the one-liners even shorter than Jan's version. You can also get the one-liners in printable format. This makes a handy resource to carry in your pocket in case a skeptic jumps out at you on the street. This also goes into the iPhone app and Android app so if you have either app on your phone, you probably already have the one-liners.

But being a hoarder who has trouble throwing anything out, I've kept all the old paragraphs and indulged in a comparison between the old paragraph answer and the new one-liners. I still keep the paragraph answer at the top of each skeptic argument page. So translators, no need to go back and change everything - hold off for a little while as I'm planning to restructure the whole database to use both the one-liner and paragraphs. More on this shortly...

By the way, a while back, Rob Honeycutt (author of Kung-fu Climate and Why does Anthony Watts drive an electric car?) suggested I should write 4 to 5 word answers to each skeptic argument. I'm going to go on record here and say that's impossible! Prove me wrong, Rob!

UPDATE: I forgot to mention, I welcome suggested improvements to any of the one line answers. So please post a comment suggesting how they can be better. But I do recommend rather than a "you should include something about..." in your comment, actually give specific wording, keeping it under 100 characters. If its better than the existing wording, I'll update the database. Thanks for your suggestions.

Lastly, Jan asked me to mention he prefers the "contrarians" nomenclature for people who reject mainstream climate science, following the professional climate website RealClimate.org. This is because mainstream climate scientists are the true skeptics. In general, it takes a lot of good evidence to convince a scientist. I personally agree with this assessment of true skepticism but use the term 'skeptic' so we don't get distracted into arguments about labels and instead stick to discussing and understanding science.

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Comments 51 to 91 out of 91:

  1. johnd - GHG isnt the only positive feedback - albedo also comes into play. You might find Matthews & Weaver take on the issue interesting. Water vapour is more or less directly function of temperature so to get water vapour down you first have to reduce temperature. Zero emissions will also not immediately reduce GHG as warming will be still be affecting slow feedbacks in carbon cycle. I think that only the latest generation of climate models are capable of looking at this question in detail though. More expert opinion would be welcome.
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  2. Scaddenp, as John requested, I'll take my response over to his “How reliable are climate models?” thread (http://www.skepticalscience.com/argument.php?p=4&t=188&&a=15).

    Meanwhile, as with all others expressing their opinions about those horrendously complex global climate processes and drivers, it is helpful to know your pedigree. Like me, you may not be an “expert” in this area, making my opinion as valid as yours, however, if you are an “expert” your opinion will be based upon a better understanding so more credible. You don’t need to write a bio – just give a name and career and I can do the rest. If you want mine I’m a retired Chartered Electrical Engineer –MIEE with a keen past interest in electromagnetic compatibility (EMC).

    Best regards, Pete Ridley
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  3. scaddenp at 08:46 AM, given that water vapour is a direct function of temperature, this chart (and accompanying explanation) showing the total column of water vapour, would then indicate a past decade of stable temperatures, below previous highs.

    "Variations in the total column water vapour in the atmosphere since July 1983. The upper graph (blue) shows the total amount of water in the atmosphere. The green graph shows the amount of water in the lower troposphere between 1000 and 680 mb, corresponding to altitudes up to about 3 km. The lower red graph shows the amount of water between 680 and 310 mb, corresponding to altitudes from about 3 to 6 km above sea level. The marked annual variation presumably reflects the asymmetrical distribution of land and ocean on planet Earth, with most land areas located in the northern hemisphere. The annual peak in atmospheric water vapour content occur usually around August-September, when northern hemisphere vegetation is at maximum transpiration. The annual moisture peak occurs simultaneously at different levels in the atmosphere, which suggests an efficient transport of water vapour from the planet surface up into the troposphere. The time labels indicate day/month/year. Data source: The International Satellite Cloud Climatology Project (ISCCP). There is a possibility that the step-like change shown 1998-1999 to some degree may be related to changes in the analysis procedure used for producing the data set, according to information from ISCCP. Last data: June 2008. Last figure update: 14 June 2009."
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  4. The vast majority of scientists actually argues that the theory AGHG-AGW: makes sense. But I guess the same the majority is no longer argues that the current warming of up to 90% corresponds to man.

    Sentence above-quoted Matthews & Weaver, 2010: "We Argue That The Notion of unavoidable warming owing to inertia in the climate system is based on an incorrect Interpretation of climate science." Climatologist should consider how much of that 90%, the often still is UNKNOWN: "... inertia in the climate system ... "(my favorite system of resonance overlapping cyclical impact of our solar system to Earth - you really are at the beginning of the road of understanding and measuring the phenomenon) and how much positive feedback AGHG ...
    Of course, for honest skepticism about the skeptics' thank you JC, but for the fact that most cares about the "culture of debate" (sometimes excessively).

    Antarctica - the scientists - but skeptics, say: there is nothing to what it was in the past, or what we should worry too much - the rest (plus and minus) is a policy - the manipulation of data.
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  5. At #35, thanks for your considerate response. I like the way you also provided additional lines of thought for consideration. Let me clarify my issue a little better. First off, there is no dispute that we are contributing CO2 and other GHGs to the atmosphere, and clearly this activity is manmade. My real question deals with gaining having certainty that we are the only point of contribution in flux? How do we know (models don't provide information, they just reflect our assumptions back to us).

    Honestly, the fact that it isn't increasing by the direct amount of what we are emitting, clearly shows that this is a system which is dynamic so why do we assume that all other contributions are stable? I think this in this whole line of thought could be a candidate for the classic statistical trap of equating correlation to causation. Remember, during the 1800's in London the correlation of storks on the roof of houses with new babies had an R^2 > 80. That's how we got the wives tale that the stork brings the baby.
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    Response: I didn't know that about stork's on London rooftops - you learn something new every day :-)

    If there were some unique stork isotope that was being transmitted to babies as they delivered them and there was a close match between the observed stork isotope and observations of storks on rooftops, then we would have more evidence of causality.

    But enough torturing of the metaphor. We have more than just correlation of CO2 emissions to CO2 levels. There's also measurements of carbon isotopes which confirm fossil fuel burning is responsible for rising CO2 levels. There's also measurements of carbon isotopes in corals over the last few centuries that corroborate this finding. It's not just wives tales or statistical traps - it's multiple lines of empirical evidence.
  6. TruthSeeker - We know how much carbon we're burning (basic economic statistics). We know from isotopic analysis that the change in CO2 levels is driven by those burnt fuels. The changes in oxygen level alone corroborate that. We can measure the amount going into the oceans via pH and dissolved carbon dioxide levels.

    These numbers add up to the increase in atmospheric CO2. Entirely.

    And very importantly, the increased CO2 effects, via fairly basic physics, match the observed temperature changes.

    If you think there is an alternative explanation, that explanation has to both account for the increased CO2 and energy entrapment via other means AND indicate why the known amount of CO2 we're putting out isn't making that contribution.

    If you have such an explanation, something physically based, I would love to hear it. But the human origin of rising CO2, and the temperature forcing thereof, really are established facts.
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  7. KR #57
    "If you think there is an alternative explanation, that explanation has to both account for the increased CO2 and energy entrapment via other means AND indicate why the known amount of CO2 we're putting out isn't making that contribution."

    Man made waste heat raises the temperature of gaseous components of the atmosphere (namely N2 and O2) that (according to AGW theory) are not good emitters or absorbers of IR. Therefore these gases would tend to "store" energy that would otherwise not affect them.
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  8. RSVP - Direct heat from industrial/coal/nuclear/oil/auto sources could over the last 100 years account for ~0.01 oC, out of the total warming of ~0.8 oC, <2%. It's a pretty trivial factor compared to the CO2 forcing. You should know this, it's been repeatedly discussed with you on multiple threads.

    As to N2 and O2 being heat "stores", take a look at Graph 4 on that same page, Total Heat Anomaly. The total heat sink for land and air combined (mostly land) is only a few percent of the total heat sink - most of the energy is going into heating the oceans.

    Please - if you want to promote (as you apparently do) the idea of waste industrial heat causing global warming, then look at the numbers. It just doesn't add up.
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  9. John, should there be a new skeptic argument for "It's waste industrial heat, not CO2"? I don't see anything like that on the list...
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  10. KR #57

    My issue isn't the math that about how much man emitts, rather I have a problem with it being the only thing we do measure.

    We don't measure any of the other variables, and a less than 10% swing in any of them could cause the same increase.

    Until you measure and record all the moving parts, you cannot exclude them from making contributions. It is fallacious to do so.
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  11. 'My issue isn't the math that about how much man emitts, rather I have a problem with it being the only thing we do measure."

    actually I agree that accounting only shows you that you have order of magnitude right. With the isotope data, it also tells you how much is being absorbed.

    However, you cant duck the isotope evidence. Fossil fuels CO2 is different isotope signature from other sources. This is evidence that CO2 is from emissions and not other sources. Things like the corals that John mention provide multiple checks on these calculations. There is no reasonable way to presume CO2 in atmosphere is not from our emissions.
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  12. TruthSeeker at 09:22 AM, this article from NASA Earth Observatory may be of interest to you.

    Uncertainties in Solar Measurements
    Despite all that scientists have learned about solar irradiance over the past few decades, they are still a long way from forecasting changes in the solar cycles or incorporating these changes into climate models.
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  13. 61 - Truth Seeker. Thank you for your kind words (#56). To make an effective case using the 97% of the carbon cycle that is in balance, and not man-caused, you would also have to explain away the carbon isotope ratios that (so far) are only explained by fossil carbon, the depletion of O2 that is (so far) only explained by burning fossil carbon.

    If you can do that -you will have changed the science, and folks that know a lot more than me will have some questions.

    The problem the skeptics of AGW have is the theory doesn't just explain the rising temperatures, it also explains nighttime warming more than day, the arctic warming faster than mid-latitudes, the oceans rising and quite a few other phenomena. Your new theory should also explain why the man-made CO2 ISN'T warming the earth.

    I honestly think it is an insurmountable challenge, thus my postings in support of AGW (all the while understanding a few things are not perfectly explained).
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  14. johnD - you water vapour graphs do puzzle me. It took me an age to find the data at ISCCP but I am at a loss I admit. It goes against the precipatable water vapour trends. Tempting to ask someone from Goddard to comment.
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  15. "KR
    Please - if you want to promote (as you apparently do) the idea of waste industrial heat causing global warming, then look at the numbers. It just doesn't add up."

    I am not sure why you say this. From what I have read here, GHG's have brought temperatures up on Earth some 30 Kelvin from where they would be otherwise. An increase of 100ppm CO2 due to humans with respect to an original 250ppm (or thereabout) represents a 40% increase. Based on the most simplistic notions of proprotionaly, the "numbers" dictate something closer to a (0.4 x 30 = 12) twelve degree increase which is obviously not being detected.

    Aside from the "numbers", in earlier discussions there have been those defending AGW while at the same time asserting that radiation and heat transfer have nothing to do with each other. There seems to be general misconceptions on quantum electrodynamics that are affecting biases in a big way. Furthermore, if the science is so well established, what exactly needs to be discussed?
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  16. RSVP - The physics of CO2 and the greenhouse gas effect is logarithmic; for each doubling of CO2 levels an additional forcing of ~1 oC is expected.

    This is because of the Gaussian/Lorentzian bandpass of CO2; the center of the bandpass may be entirely saturated, but with each doubling the width of the absorbed band expands.

    Positive feedback (primarily H2O, also CO2 cycle) will likely amplify that to ~3-3.5 oC. So a 40% increase only leads to about half a degree in CO2 forcing, ~1.5 oC with all feedbacks (many of which are slow, still in progress). Your calculation is therefore incorrect.


    Radiation vs. heat flow: There is a constant confusion in terms that comes into play here. Heat (total energy) flows (at some rate) from hot objects to cold ones. However, energy flows in both directions, from hot to cold and (in smaller amounts) from cold to hot via radiation and conduction. "Heat flow" is the net energy exchange. The presence of a cold object makes a warm one lose energy slower then it would be if it were instead facing 3 oK empty space.

    What I was trying earlier to point out is that it's important not to confuse the parts (radiative and other transfer elements) with the whole (heat flow).

    The science is extremely well established for radiative equilibrium, also here for thermal radiation and heat flow, dating back to the late 1700's - part of the discussion where caloric theory was dropped as a concept. This confusion in terms, however, seems to be a matter of eternal recurrence...
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  17. Reply to # 63, 64, & 65.

    thanks for all your thoughtful responses. I still have a visceral concern with the fact that the only true measurable component is the manmade portion (I don't dispute the results of these measures). That being said, you all have provided many good points that I need to digest. Thanks for that.
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  18. KR
    "RSVP - The physics of CO2 and the greenhouse gas effect is logarithmic; for each doubling of CO2 levels an additional forcing of ~1 oC is expected."

    If this is true, then successive halving should reveal where temperatures would be without CO2. Lets do that...

    350 / 2 = 175 (minus one degree)
    175 / 2 = 87.5 (minus one more degree)
    87.5 / 2 = 43.75 (minus one)
    43.75 / 2 = 21.86 (minus one more)
    21.86 / 2 = 10.94 (another degree less)
    10.94 / 2 = 5.46 (one more)
    5.46 / 2 = 2.73 (one more)
    2.73 / 2 = 1.37 (one more)
    1.37 / 2 = 0.68 (one more...)

    I have halved the CO2 ppm only nine times and am basically at zero ppm. According to your statement, my calculation is "incorrect", and yet taking what you are saying on face value also does not add up. One of us doesnt know what he is talking about.
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  19. RSVP - you forgot the other greenhouse gasses. You got 9-10 oC just by removing CO2. CO2 is 25-30% of the total GHG retention - add water for ~50%, methane, NO2, etc. (each with logarithmic effects), and look, you're right around 33 oC.
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  20. KR
    I follow what you are saying. All this seems to point to asymptotic convergence.
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  21. RSVP - yep, asymptotic convergence. The relationship should become linear once you are unsaturated all through the band-pass of the GHG, but that's at very low concentrations.

    Proper calculation of these requires numeric integration over all GHG's and the full spectra, which I am sadly incapable of doing in my head (sigh) - but a sum of asymptotic convergences of the various GHG components agrees quite well, and is pretty darn close for mental shorthand.
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  22. It seems odd that a change of 1.36 ppm in one case should elevate temperatures one degree, and that it takes a 175 ppm in another case to do the same. What prevents a skeptic from assuming this is simply a tailored curve fit to back a theory?
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  23. RSVP writes: It seems odd that a change of 1.36 ppm in one case should elevate temperatures one degree, and that it takes a 175 ppm in another case to do the same.

    The log(2) relationship only holds for a moderate range of CO2 concentrations (basically, earthlike conditions as opposed to very high (Venusian) or very low-CO2 conditions). I don't have a reference for this right at hand, but if you want to get picky about it we can probably find one (it was discussed a couple of months ago when Steve Goddard was busy misunderstanding the physics of the Venusian atmosphere).

    RSVP continues: What prevents a skeptic from assuming this is simply a tailored curve fit to back a theory?

    Maybe the assumption of dishonesty isn't actually a characteristic of skepticism? There are a century's worth of papers on experiments involving the radiative properties of CO2 listed at Ari's AGW Observer website.
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  24. Ned
    Following your link brings me to these words...

    "In the context of these paperlists this is a difficult subject because none of the papers seems to be freely available online, so we have to settle on abstracts only. However, I don’t think that matters that much because the main point of this list really is to show that the basic research on the subject exists. "

    Just imagine if AGW counter arguments tried this.
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  25. RSVP, #75:

    The introduction text to my paperlist you quoted is outdated, as several of the papers now have full text available. Also, it is always possible for interested person to purchase the full texts of the papers. I have updated the introduction paragraph to reflect these things.

    In my experience, most of the "AGW counter arguments" are not even accompanied by abstracts on any peer-reviewed papers. Browsing your comments in this thread for example shows that you have made several claims and arguments but you haven't offered any references to peer-reviewed science.
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  26. To Ari,
    "Browsing your comments in this thread for example shows that you have made several claims and arguments but you haven't offered any references to peer-reviewed science. "

    My "claims and arguments" stand on their own, or is one now expected (for instance) to back claims that one plus one equals two?
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  27. RSVP, if you made claims like "one plus one equals two" I suspect no one would ask for a reference.

    Instead, your claims are basically

    (a) waste heat is somehow very important and needs to be talked about constantly, despite being a microscopic fraction of the energy provided by CO2-induced radiative forcing; and

    (b) a century's worth of laboratory measurements of CO2 are incorrect.

    As Carl Sagan said, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.
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  28. Ned,
    By changing just one word, you end up with...

    ...CO2 is somehow very important and needs to be talked about constantly, despite being a microscopic fraction of the atmosphere...
    ------------
    There is nothing extraordinary about the convective cooling of heat engines. Absolutely every calorie removed from an engine to cool it, ends up in our atmosphere. According to AGW, GHGs absorb and emit IR, yet 97% of the atmosphere is not GHG. According to AGW, N2 and O2 are transparent to IR. I am not aware of a century of laboratory measurments dealing with this issue. Are you? Maybe this is what needs to be talked about.
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  29. Most excellent job,RSVP.
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  30. "According to AGW, N2 and O2 are transparent to IR."

    That perspective captures nicely the brick wall we face in driving discussion forward.

    For reasons unrelated to science this is an Intractable intellectual hurdle, but let's remember, radiative physics and for that matter the known properties of elements at the level of understanding mentioned by RSVP are not a theoretical byproduct of people exploring the concept of anthropogenic warming. A better way to express the situation is that the notion of anthropogenic warming is a seemingly inevitable outcome of previous, fundamental research conducted without any particular motivation other than improved understanding of the natural world.

    Changing any minds, here? No, absolutely not, I'm sure. All the same I'm compelled to try and check in some microscopic way the cultural dementia fostered by from getting things backwards in the way RSVP does.
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  31. to doug_bostrom
    All I ask is how transparent gases radiate. I am being told that IR sensitive CO2 in the mixture heats it, and this is the main cause of global warming.
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  32. I am also asked to provide a link for reference purposes. Here is one...

    http://www.epa.gov/heatisld/

    It contains the following statement...
    "The annual mean air temperature of a city with 1 million people or more can be 1.8–5.4°F (1–3°C) warmer than its surroundings."

    I assume this heat island thing has nothing to do with CO2. Maybe I am wrong. Anyway, there are currently around 6000 times 1 million humans on planet Earth.
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  33. Hey RSVP, I'm wondering if there's a fundamental "talking at cross purposes" thing going on here w/regard to waste heat. I've not followed the the conversation (which apparently has popped up on several threads) but it seems some of us think you're positing that waste heat from human activities is responsible for some amount of observed warming. Is that the case?

    I did a search for "waste heat" and found a pristine, empty thread for this topic apparently waiting to be populated, here. In the interest of coherence it seems like a good idea to continue the waste heat discussion there if indeed that's your hypothesis.
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  34. Doug. Sounds good. Thanks.
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  35. RSVP, #79:

    You said:
    "According to AGW, N2 and O2 are transparent to IR. I am not aware of a century of laboratory measurments dealing with this issue."

    John Tyndall measured the IR absorption from several gases in 1850's. Oxygen and nitrogen were among them. Plenty of subsequent studies exist on the issue, Smith & Newnham (2000) for example. These are relatively easy to find, try Google Scholar.
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    Response: Thanks for the links, Ari. Perhaps scholar.google.com is more useful to non-Finnish readers :-)
  36. Regarding IR absorptivity of atmospheric nitrogen, I came across this statement.
    "Nitrogen has 1/3000 the absorptivity of CO2, but there are 2000 molecules of N to 1 of CO2,so atmospheric N has 2/3 the absorptivity of atmospheric CO2.
    Anybody care to comment?
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  37. AWoL at 18:02 PM on 26 July, 2010

    Where is this from? Nitrogen helps to prevent extreme UV reaching deep into our atmosphere, but is too small a molecule to be active at IR. I also seriously doubt you can linearly scale as this "statement" suggests.

    Regardless, the point is that Nitrogen level hasn't changed, but CO2 certainly has.
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  38. I have made my entry at the specified link.

    http://www.skepticalscience.com/waste-heat-global-warming.htm

    I did not see this included in the grand skeptic list, but on the other hand, I didnt see an entry for CO2 being the main cause either.
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  39. reply from John Cook to my post @ 01:40 AM on 22 July, 2010: "I'm going to shortly restructure the whole rebuttal database so that will throw everything into disarray and we'll need to rethink the whole translation system too."

    I can see you're busy... I just noticed the new "tab blurbs" in Dutch. Muchmuchbetterthankyouyes!!! :D

    Another thing I was thinking of: comment sections for the translated arguments, so people from other countries who don't speak english very good (:P) could ask questions and post comments too?
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  40. Hi John, the one-liner for "Hide the decline" (#78) says that Mike Mann was quoted out of context. But isn't it Phil Jones's email that's being quoted?
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    Response: Yes, thanks for pointing that out. Have fixed the line.
  41. Skeptics use a model too, but a completely unrealistic model because in their model human activity has no effect.
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