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Bid to explain climate change risks losing the argument

The report released jointly by the Royal Society in the UK and the US National Academy of Sciences provides a guide to current…

One has to understand to believe either way. J>Ro, CC BY

The report released jointly by the Royal Society in the UK and the US National Academy of Sciences provides a guide to current climate change science for a non-scientific audience.

In this respect it is an interesting undertaking by two of the world’s most eminent scientific bodies, and the latest effort to try and communicate the science and uncertainty behind what we understand about climate change and its potential effect on the planet to the general public.

But the verdict has been mixed, with some saying the language is still too complex, while others argue that by eliminating much of the detail the report puts forward a stronger position than the evidence supports.

The comparatively brief 34-page report, “Climate change: evidence and causes“, was drawn up by a team of 12 scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. The authors of the report set out to tackle the major questions frequently raised to scientists working in the field.

One of the authors, John Shepherd, research fellow in earth system science at the University of Southampton, said it was felt that the report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in September needed to be expressed in a way that was more accessible.

The use of a question and answer format was deliberate. “One of the problems of science communications is that it tends to be us scientists telling people things and expecting them to just receive it,” Professor Shepherd explained. “We felt a question and answer document, if we got the right questions, would feel more like a conversation.” Further discussion is encouraged through the option to ask questions of scientists which will be answered through the website.

Among the report’s chapters are topics that are lightning rods for those sceptical of climate change. For example the significance of carbon dioxide, the role of the Sun’s heating of the Earth, shrinking Arctic ice vs growing Antarctic ice, the temperature increase required to bring about substantial climate change and the speed at which it may happen.

Professor Shepherd said: “These were chosen to try to answer the targets of climate change scepticism. Many of us involved in the report often lecture and give talks, and these were culled from the questions that are those most frequently asked.”

But one of the issues identified was that people tend to form their views along ideological lines rather than by presented with evidence. This was a problem across the spectrum of environmental topics, he said: “In the US particularly, it is such a politically polarised issue that it is almost impossible for someone to admit being both a Republican and believing in climate change. It’s a situation we’ve managed to avoid in the UK so far."

As it happens, last week saw the launch of a transatlantic coalition of personalities from the right of centre, including actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, businessman and engineer Sir James Dyson and businessman and former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomburg, arguing that the anti-environmentalist stance of the right was enormously damaging to business, political parties, and the planet.

Professor Shepherd said: “It’s a serious and now quite long-standing problem, not helped by the broadcast media who for example insist on giving equal time to [former chancellor of the exchequer] Nigel Lawson’s views on climate change as to [chairman of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change] Sir Brian Hoskins. It’s the equivalent of giving equal time to candidates from the Monster Raving Loony Party during a general election – which they would never do,” he added.

Associate professor of sociology at Warwick University Eric Jensen, who studies public engagement with science, said the report was frequently well phrased and well balanced, but still infused with a lot of jargon. What the report got across was the range of different sources of evidence: “It’s not just a poll of scientists' opinions, with the implication that we should just believe them,” Jensen said. “The underlying message is that there are many, many indicators. And while this has been said many times, I suspect this will be something that has to be said again and again.”

Judith Curry, chair of the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and a scientist known for her sceptical views on climate change, wrote that although the report “scores points” for readability compared to the “turgid prose” of the IPCC reports, it failed in its aim to “make clear what is well established, where consensus is growing, and where there is still uncertainty”. The report, she says, provides “overconfident answers” while giving the topic of uncertainty only a “superficial” treatment that “will reinforce the public distrust of ‘establishment’ assessments of climate science.”

Jensen said the media’s representation of the climate debate hides the fact that that not everyone has taken sides: “You’d get the impression that people have made their minds up, but among the public there is still a large number of people yet to make their mind up,” Jensen said.

And even among those that disagreed there are many points accepted by both. “It’s possible that positions aren’t as far apart as they appear.” Which means the appetite for, and use for, reports like this will continue.

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65 Comments sorted by

  1. Thomas Goodey

    Researcher

    And contrariwise, in the US, it is almost impossible for someone to admit being both a Democrat and not believing in climate change.

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  2. Account Removed

    logged in via email @gmail.com

    For my part, I find Socrates' idea convincing, namely that the object of shepherding is the welfare of sheep, while selling them at market is the object of a businessman. Of course, a person can simultaneously be a shepherd and a businessman, but the two roles are quite distinct, and a wise man will not get them muddled.

    Just why are scientists trying to convince the public of this view or that? The object of science is to gain sufficient understanding of natural phenomena so that accurate predictions…

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    1. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      I am not sure that the object of shepherding is the welfare of sheep. The sheep would probably be perfectly OK if they were left to their own devices. The object of shepherding is to promote the welfare of the sheep up until, and only until, the point that it seems appropriate to hand them over to be killed and eaten. That's a very important qualification.

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    2. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      I grow vegetables organically in my garden, and I look forward to eating them, but the gardener's art is to pamper the vegetables. Cookery is something apart, and the enjoyment of fine food the act of a gourmet. Just as the pure mathematician's role is to study the nature of numbers and calculation, the shepherd's role is to protect and care for sheep. Making profits or obtaining wages is a different matter, and a person of independent means could very well study numbers and calculation or look after…

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    3. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Account Removed

      Alan
      "...people asking just why you are so keen for the world to believe you."

      Because they know that if the world doesn't believe them then a lot of people will suffer? When a scientist's discoveries point out something that can/will/does cause harm don't they have a responsibility to make sure people understand this?

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    4. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Account Removed

      "I don't suppose research funding has anything to do with it?"

      Yes, it's a research funding conspiracy.

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    5. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      I fully appreciate that Glenn, but my point is that trying to influence public opinion while presenting oneself as a scientist can be counter-productive. As an engineer, it was never my task to become involved in commercial affairs or customer relations; it was to design and manufacture efficiently the object for which others had entered a contract. Some people call this "keeping your eye on the ball". Later in my career I became far more involved in management, and necessarily in commercial / legal…

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    6. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      You are right that an alternative use for sheep is to provide wool. But that doesn't alter my main point, which is that the shepherd is taking care of the sheep for OUR use, OUR benefit, not theirs. We are using them for our purposes. When we want to slaughter them, we slaughter them.

      Your idea of the role of scientists is the idealistic one, which all scientists ought to aspire to, and which guided the gentleman scientists of old. Sadly, this is not how things are done nowadays.

      You mean "BEGS the question..."

      I fully agree with you that it is not the job of scientists to seek publicity or to influence public opinion. Nowadays many scientists do so routinely in order to attract funding or fame, which is disgraceful.

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    7. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      No. Their responsibility ends when they have published their discoveries in a reputable journal.

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    8. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Sorry, there I have to totally disagree.

      In a mythical ideal world the act of publishing in a reputable journal would be sufficient because that publication would ensure that the full import and significance of their findings have been communicated and fully understood by every person, organization or government impacted by their findings.

      But in the real world just publishing does not necessarily mean that broad understanding has been conveyed to all those potentially impacted by the research…

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    9. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      You say "The scientists in this situation has [sic] to say 'Excuse me, sorry to break in on your day to day life but there is this really important thing that you need to be aware of, its [sic] serious, it could be bad, and it possibly needs radical action to prevent it. I know we have only published this in a dusty old journal but none the less you really, really need to pay attention to this.' Until the scientists is [sic] confident that the person has really assimilated what they are saying, that…

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    10. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      Alan, your post is very sensible, but I am afraid I cannot agree with its rather pessimistic conclusions.

      You say "it is entirely certain that we are using up at an alarming rate non-replaceable energy, and that as matters stand, there is not the faintest outlook of our successors having our lifestyle."

      We certainly are using up hydrocarbons at a rate of knots, but the fallacy in your argument lies in the words "as matters stand". They won't stand; they are galloping. Predictions are very…

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    11. Chris O'Neill

      Retired Way Before 70

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      "What you are describing is the job of the scientific adviser to the Government"

      So if the government decides not to appoint a science minister then there is no-one to advise the government of the problem. This is really convenient if the scientists have a message the government doesn't want to hear.

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    12. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      Well then Thomas, it seems we two have a situation very much like that in pure mathematics, where experts for the last hundred years or so have debated over and again the philosophy of probability. I find it disconcerting that so-called scientists make use of mathematical techniques which some mathematicians find deeply controversial if not downright wrong. And at the bottom of this unresolved dispute is the question of human reasoning. Some mathematicians claim they can state the probability of…

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    13. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Chris, that reads as though science speaks with one mind, which is not the case. Regarding the subject in question - climate change - there can be no doubt about much of what "warmists" say. But it remains the case that there are reasonable objections put forward by other scientists. One example that comes to mind is that of Tom Segalstad, who well before the turn of the century pointed out that the oceans have the potential to absorb all the carbon dioxide from all the remaining oil and gas in the…

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    14. goldminor sanchez

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      There are real people suffering and dying right now in Europe and in other countries, because this catastrophic global warming 'prophecy' has raised their utility bill to high. Poor people and fixed income people have to choose between eating and staying warm. This has caused the winter death rate to rise once again, after many decades of decline due to technological advancements in the world. Now the world is poised to turn and go backwards. Look at the consequences of using food crops to produce fuel. That helped to create supply shortages around the world and in part led to the Arab Spring uprising. In Africa, funding for new power sources are being denied if they are fossil fueled related. This has the benefit of keeping the poorest of the world from advancing to a better state of living circumstances. How nice for the poor Africans. Let them eat elephant cake.

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    15. goldminor sanchez

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Account Removed

      There should be a sufficient quantity of fossil fuels left to tide us over until the next level of better energy technology becomes economically feasible. This mad rush to push technologies that are clearly not ready to be used as prime power sources is insane. I would think that you as an engineer would see that more clearly. Unless, reliable storage solutions finally overcome the hurdles which they face, then solar and wind can not be used for large scale energy systems. To do so will punish everyone but the wealthy with higher utility costs.

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    16. goldminor sanchez

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      What you say would be all well and good, except that nature does not agree with what the government backed climate scientists have been claiming. Why is that? What have the scientists missed that have made all of their forecasts fail over time? What is it that they are not telling us when they try to teach us about why the climate is changing?

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    17. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to goldminor sanchez

      I certainly can see that goldminor; but please, do expand upon what "the next level of better energy technology" means.

      Regarding presently known alternative energy technology, it is a loser, for not only can it not provide anything near our current energy consumption even if fully exploited, but it is a dirty industry wholly dependent upon carbon fuels for its manufacture.

      By the way, what was your view on the issues raised in the article?

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    18. goldminor sanchez

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Account Removed

      Thorium based reactors seem like a strong candidate for the next level of technology that can become economically feasibility, and also supply the needed level of energy to replace fossil fuels. There are other prospects such as fusion, and perhaps some of the organic based systems such as algae based fuels or organic based solar systems. Solar will need storage solutions or it will never be more than a niche solution used mainly for off grid needs.

      I see that we are on the same page. I had misread…

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    19. Glenn Baker

      Retired

      In reply to Account Removed

      I don't really see why scientists should refrain from using the media, every sensible salesman does, and why should they not do everything in their power to make us believe what they are convinced of.

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    20. Glenn Baker

      Retired

      In reply to Account Removed

      Philosophers can hardly convince themselves. Politicians have particular axes to grind. I'm all for listening to the scientists or anyone else who can make a case. With due respect you are an idealist and they are quickly trampled underfoot.

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    21. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Glenn Baker

      Because a proper scientist is not "convinced of" anything, and his appropriate role is not that of an advocate whose aim is to "make us believe" anything. That is not the job of a scientist worthy of the name, but the job of a politician or rabble-rouser.

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    22. James Gilbert

      Postdoc in insect evolutionary ecology at University of Sussex

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      So, just to get things perfectly clear, in your view scientists, who know the most about the problem, should just sit back and allow their data and conclusions to be misinterpreted, twisted out of all proportion and used to justify regressive and destructive courses of action - they have no responsibility whatsoever to correct misinterpretation of their work?

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    23. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to James Gilbert

      They should correct misinterpretation, of course, but should restrain themselves from advocacy. Scientists cannot be held responsible for the use that soldiers or politicians or environmentalists or apocalyptic rabble-rousers make of their work; their high task is to try to twist out some scraps of truth from the bosom of Nature. Actually all of this was argued out long ago in connection with nuclear weapons.

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    24. Glenn Baker

      Retired

      In reply to James Gilbert

      In this world they need the media and the politicians and who ever else they can get on their side. Don't worry about misinterpretation most of us won't have a clue about what that means just get out there and shout your piece.

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  3. goldminor sanchez

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I vote Republican and I fully believe that the climate changes.

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    1. goldminor sanchez

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      Wasn't that also a change from the previous decade? Then there is the change that started around 2006/07. There has been a slight cooling since then. Plus, there are certainly changes going on in Antarctica, the Arctic, the Pacific, and the Atlantic. I find all of this fascinating to watch. This is my 6th year of being very involved in the conversation.

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    2. James Gilbert

      Postdoc in insect evolutionary ecology at University of Sussex

      In reply to Chris O'Neill

      "Yes but there's no change in those 16 years, is there?"

      *sigh*. Maybe you could perhaps read the report? It's been made nice and simple. I'll even quote it for you here, it's on page 12.

      "10. Does the recent slowdown of warming mean that climate change is no longer happening? No."

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    3. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to goldminor sanchez

      Then you are voting against your own interests, if you actually understood climate change you wouldn't vote for the those that deny it

      me thinks you have a tacit acknowledgement of climate change but do not full understand or appreciate our current situation

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  4. goldminor sanchez

    logged in via LinkedIn

    What a wonderful place to discuss issues. My compliments to 'The Conversation" for running a first class discussion section.

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  5. Alistair McDhui

    Retired

    However, the evidence of 17.5 years no atmospheric warming and 9% increase in pCO2 strongly suggests there is no significant CO2-AGW. And even if there were, it could only be the no feedback level of 1.2 K climate sensitivity.

    This is because the physics used to claim positive feedback is so bad as to be embarrassing to any truly professional scientist**. In short the NAS and the RS are government propaganda mouthpieces spouting this bad mantra.

    **Old stagers like me with 40 years post PhD experience in applied physics immediately see the 'perpetual motion machine of the 2nd kind'. Climate Scientists are clearly third raters without basic physics' understanding.

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    1. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      That interests me Alistair. Now the article concerns scientists - in their capacity as scientists - using their reputation to gain public attention while making what is to a great extent are ethical arguments. For my part, I wouldn't mind at all the mean temperature being 3 degrees C higher than it is now, but I can see the effect it might have on others.

      Please would you let us know if you recall any other issue in which scientists found it proper to engage this way in public debate. For example, I do not recall scientists reacting like this over the development of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. Neither did they become hot under the collar about abortion or thalidomide, nor about the manner in which the mentally ill were treated in the past. What is so special about climate change that parts of the scientific community should react this way?

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    2. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Account Removed

      Alan

      Where do you live? 3 Degrees would be the global average warming but land warms more than oceans so the average land warming will be more like 4 Deg. Then warming is greater near the poles so warming will be higher still at high latitudes on land.

      As a retired engineer, what do you think of the idea that for every degree of increase in average dry bulb temperature there will be a corresponding increase in wet bulb temperature of around 0.75 Deg. At what wet bulb temperature does the human…

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    3. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      Well, I can assure you that some scientists did react fairly strongly over the development of nuclear weapons. That's what Linus Pauling got his second Nobel Prize (the Peace one) for, actually. The Nobel Prize Committee described him as "Linus Carl Pauling, who ever since 1946 has campaigned ceaselessly, not only against nuclear weapons tests, not only against the spread of these armaments, not only against their very use, but against all warfare as a means of solving international conflicts."

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    4. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      And Einstein. He wrote letters opposing it.

      As for Thalidomide!!!! At the time it was developed as a drug to treat minor complications in pregnancy. Nobody originally thought there was a problem. When the terrible problem was clearly discovered hardly anyone (perhaps with the exception of the manufacturer) was trying to defend it, as now.

      As for treatments of mental illnesses!!! There were lots of treatments we now see were dubious. But at the time. when medical knowledge was far less than it is now, were those treatments seen as being potentially beneficial, within the limits of the knowledge of the time.

      It is always a fallacy to apply the understanding and knowledge we have today as a criticism of the motives and ethics of those in the past. We can only apply the understanding of the time if we wish to make an ethical judgement of those times

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    5. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      Alistair.

      "perpetual motion machine of the 2nd kind"!!!

      Care to elaborate? Are you quite certain you understand the 2nd Law? Spell it out.

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    6. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      17.5 Years!

      What a wonderfully precise period you are using.

      Then when you make a comment about the physics of the positive feedback, you make no reference to the physics involved. Apart from a reference to supposed perpetual motion machines.

      So exactly what is your professional opinion of the Clausius/Claperon equation?

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    7. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Glenn, I am not clear what the website moderators have to say about discussions departing from the topic in question, but to answer you, I happen to live in Denmark.

      This country produces - with the help of heaven knows how much Haber process fertilizer - enough food to feed 12 times its population or more. However, I am vegetarian, and my garden is given over entirely to organic vegetable growing and a haven for wildlife. I am not entirely self sufficient in vegetables, but approaching 80% so…

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    8. Account Removed

      logged in via email @gmail.com

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Ethics being the study of right and wrong conduct ought to be independent of time. The reasons for behaving badly in 1850 are also reasons for behaving badly in 2014. If we allow that virtue is not absolute, we merely open the way for people to behave badly, invent excuses, and revel in their sophistry.

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    9. goldminor sanchez

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Thomas Goodey

      I remember reading the story of the Manhattan Project back in the early 1960s. Almost all of the scientists involved in the development of the weapon had serious doubts and regrets for what they had done. I remember that story well. It made an impression on me.

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    10. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Climate Alchemy's Big Mistake (from Meteorology) is to confuse the Radiation Field of the atmosphere, the output of a pyrgeometer they call 'back radiation', with a real net energy flux.

      The latter is the vector sum of all the RFs at a plane so in reality, there is only 63 W/m^2 surface IR to the atmosphere (=396-333).

      Hence they add imaginary 333 W/m^2 energy to the real 160 W/m^2 from SW thermalisation at the surface.

      This was a bit too much, so they then assume wrongly that they can apply…

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    11. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      PS The 333 W/m^2 is a perpetual motion machine of the 2nd kind because it uses the heat in the lower atmosphere to cause itself to expand.

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    12. Alistair McDhui

      Retired

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Since the lower atmosphere temperature is maintained within close limits by a well-defined heat engine in the atmosphere, relative humidity is also kept within close limits.

      There is an effect at mid troposphere however, a systematic drying as pCO2 increases. That is experimental proof of the mechanism!

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    13. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      Alistair

      There is nothing imaginary about back-radiation since it has been observed for decades and its spectrum detailed.

      And why is the net flux what you would call real?

      If I have a plane and there is a flux proceeding upwards from that plane and another flux proceeding down to that plane then I can certainly calculate the difference between the two fluxes and that is the net.

      However the flux upwards is a real flux - photons being emitted by that surface. So to the flux downwards…

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    14. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Alistair McDhui

      Alistair. You need to explain your reasoning more clearly. What is the violation of the 2nd Law you think this involves.

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    15. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Account Removed

      No, absolutely not. The rightness/wrongness of many types of conduct - in fact, all - depend upon the total framework of society, which changes beyond recognition over time.

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    16. James Gilbert

      Postdoc in insect evolutionary ecology at University of Sussex

      In reply to Account Removed

      Because in those cases, well-understood science was *misused* which is a political problem.

      In this case, rather than being misused, the science is being wilfully misunderstood, misinterpreted and/or deliberately twisted. Scientists DO have considerable motivation (if not actual responsibility) to ensure that their work is understood properly. That's why I think lots of scientists are participating.

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    17. James Gilbert

      Postdoc in insect evolutionary ecology at University of Sussex

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Glenn, I don't know enough of climate science to give you counter evidence here. But surely if you have killer evidence that undermines the consensus, the place to air it is not in a comments section of this website, it is in a scientific journal. If you think the peer-review system is biased and that it will inevitably screen out a dissenting voice, then use a forum that employs post-publication peer review such as pubmed commons.

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    18. Glenn Tamblyn

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to James Gilbert

      James

      You have misinterpreted my comment.

      I was referring to comments made by Alistair suggesting some pretty whacky understanding of the Laws of Thermodynamics and inviting him to spell them out a bit because I am pretty certain he has it totally wrong and I hoped to provide a correction for him. But he hasn't responded. He seemed to be suggesting a rather sad meme that the Greenhouse Effect contravenes the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics - which it absolutely does not!

      I am fully accepting of the science of AGW, in fact I am an occasional contributing author at Skeptical Science (http://www.skepticalscience.com) and a regular participant behind the scenes there in our authors forum.

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    19. James Gilbert

      Postdoc in insect evolutionary ecology at University of Sussex

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Oh dear! My apologies - consider the humble pie eaten. I think I'd actually intended to direct this comment towards Alistair instead, I just got a crossed wire....

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    20. Thomas Goodey

      Researcher

      In reply to Glenn Tamblyn

      Of course the greenhouse effect doesn't contravene the 2nd Law. Anyone who says so is obviously completely ignorant of the subject.

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  6. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Follow the money, as soon as the money swings in the other direction - so will the politicians and then the sheeple they represent

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  7. Tony Manders

    logged in via email @soltx.com

    Same old discussions about climate change. 15+ years of no warming; cooling since 2002; missing heat; missing tropospheric hotspot; decline in global hurricanes and tornadoes; hockey stick debunked; debunked papers on poleward movement of migratory routes; no change in droughts and floods; global sea ice coverage above average; Arctic ice coverage seemingly starting another period of growth, while Antarctic ice coverage perhaps might start going the other way; discussions from alarmists about ocean…

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