Guest Blog Skeptical about climate change skeptics by John Cook

John Cook is based in Brisbane, Australia. He studied physics at the University of Queensland. After graduating, he majored in solar physics in his post-grad honours year. In 2007, he began the Skeptical Science website as a labour of love (and a nerdish fascination with climate science and database programming). The Skeptical Science iPhone app was released in February 2010.

A while back, I had a “discussion” with a family member about global warming. He was strongly skeptical that humans were causing global warming and handed me a speech by Senator Inhofe that articulated some key reasons for his skepticism. I went home and researched the Senator’s arguments. I was surprised to find that the peer-reviewed science actually said the opposite to what the Senator was arguing. Curious at how a prominent politician could make such erroneous public statements, I started looking deeper into global warming skepticism. A compulsive collector, I started building a database of skeptic arguments. The list grew steadily (and continues to grow to this day). I scoured the peer-reviewed scientific literature to see what the empirical data and hard research had to say. I noticed an emerging pattern. Skeptic arguments tend to focus on small pieces of the puzzle while ignoring the broader picture. This approach lead to misleading results.

Let me give a simple example. One common argument is that human carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is tiny compared to natural emissions. Humans are emitting around 29 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. In contrast, oceans and decomposing vegetation are emitting roughly 771 billion tonnes of CO2 per year. So skeptics will argue that our CO2 contribution is tiny compared to nature. But this doesn’t give you the full picture. As well as emitting CO2, nature also absorbs CO2. The oceans take up huge amounts while the land and vegetation are also strong carbon sinks. The total amount of CO2 absorbed by nature is around 788 billion tonnes every year. So the net contribution of CO2 from nature is practically nothing. In fact, it’s less than zero – nature absorbs nearly half of man-made CO2 emissions.

This is a classic example of cherry picking select pieces of data in order to paint a skewed picture. But how do you counter such misleading arguments? The only antidote to a misleading half-truth is the full truth. So I set about cataloguing the many skeptic arguments and documenting what the peer-review science has to say. Thus Skeptical Science was born. After several years, the website featured a sizeable list of skeptic arguments. In late 2009, I was contacted by the owners of a software company, Shine Technologies. The owners were passionate about the climate and suggested putting all the Skeptical Science content into an iPhone app. This was a brilliant idea which I have to confess would never have occurred to me in my wildest dreams!

The purpose of the iPhone app is simple - to make climate science readily available to the public. How we did this was to connect the app to the website database so all the skeptic arguments and the peer-reviewed responses went straight into the iPhone. As I update the website with extra arguments, new research and the latest data, the app automatically updates itself. Recently, the argument “Phil Jones says global warming stopped in 1995” was added, examining his actual words and the relevant temperature data. In hindsight, the iPhone app is a timely idea. In recent months, there’s been a shift where skeptics are now attacking scientists rather than discussing the science. What this does is distract the public from the fact that ice sheets are shrinking, sea level is rising, glaciers are retreating and many other physical realities of global warming are manifesting themselves before our eyes. It’s imperative now more than ever that climate discussion focuses on science.

Hopefully an iPhone app is an effective way of making climate science more accessible and getting people talking about science again. We launched the Skeptical Science iPhone app in early February. Word spread quickly through Twitter and various blogs. A few days later, a skeptic website Climate Realists issued a strident warming against our app, urging other skeptics to ‘promote that this iphone app is yet another attempt to discredit "Climate Realists"’. This caught the attention of the Guardian whose article was a significant step in taking the app into mainstream consciousness. So within its first few weeks, the Skeptical Science app was already making waves. Meanwhile, Shine Technologies are still beavering away – they just sent me the beta of version 1.1 yesterday. They’ve added a Twitter feature so you can tweet directly from the app. Some people complained that the graphs were too small so now you can rotate and enlarge graphs to get a closer look. And my mind boggles at some of the ideas they have planned for future versions down the track.



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