So... since I was asked... and this seems to be a respectful group (and I know I'm opening myself up for the kind of headaches I get all over the place, from which I actively shield myself to some degree)... I'll write a little about what I do and why I decided to become a climate researcher.
I started out on my Bachelor of Science almost 4 years ago because some local environmental issues (a proposed industrial site, literally 'in my backyard) led me to learn something about myself: I love research. I had already been studying climate issues as a lay person for quite a few years, and especially reading up on whatever the latest denier arguments were. it usually went like this: I'd start with an open mind, start to really embrace what the denial argument was about, research further, and start to realize that Parts A, B and C were either omitted from the argument against the science, or some major aspect of their argument was simply wrong or without evidence completely. And then there are folks like Monckton, who just plain old make up lies. After dealing with him live in action for one of his lectures (for which he's paid an enormous amount of money), I can honestly say that I think he's convinced he can convince anyone of anything, and that's what he's currently getting off on. I think he really believes that as long as he behaves authoritative and condescendingly enough (he presents himself as an absolute genius, above all he encounters) that he can talk all of us simpletons into anything he feels like - mercury is safe to eat, DDT is harmless and banning it killed people (complete with sad pictures of poor starving African children) when basically, he's just a shill for Big Business. Not all deniers are shills for Big Oil or Big Business, but he most certainly is. He uses graphs that are zoomed into an area that shows a change in seasons while he talks about climate on a decadal scale. You have to really watch to see this, but he does it, and so convincingly and over the top. he's one who still insists that the Earth is actually cooling (and uses those zoomed in graphs from spring to winter to show it) when 2010 has turned out to be the second hottest on record. To be fair, I can be condescending myself, and it's something I've been working on, but this guy is way, way over the top.
Some of the others, like Heinrich Svensmark, just seemed hell bent on one idea and making a name for themselves and their pet idea. Svensmark thing is galactic cosmic rays. Unfortunately, he hasn't addressed the fact that we're in a deep solar minimum and average Earth temps are still increasing, for too long for his lag time to account for it.
And the other major problem - and this is perhaps more relevant to paleo (diet kind of paleo) is that even if pumping massive amounts of CO2 from out of the Earth and into the atmosphere wasn't causing the global temperatures to rise, it most certainly is turning the oceans acidic, and that's a huge base of the food web. When forams can't make shells, massive extinctions occur across the oceans, and evidence for such events can be found in the rock record.
So instead of climate modelling which seems to be the only kind of climate science most people are familiar with, I started studying how climate has changed in the past (paleoclimate). The Earth has seen some big changes, and there are only a few known big drivers for climate change, and of course, these factors can work together or against each other (feedbacks) in big or small ways. That's where the big unknowns for us today and going into the future. It's not "If" but "What and how much and how fast?" basically.
The main drivers are:
Milankovitch Cycles: this is the change in the Earth's axis, orbit and "wobble" which affect how much energy the sun's rays have when they hit the Earth. The Wikipedia entry has some good pictures and more details. These aspects are affected by the Sun and the gravitational pull from Jupiter and Saturn, and operate no 1,000-10,000-100,000 years, all too small to be noticed in a few generations.
Changes in Atmospheric Chemistry (Greenhouse gases): before human times, this would come from massive volcanic eruptions (like the Siberian Traps) or meteor impact, and some theorize conditions where massive upwelling of deep ocean water (where millennia of decayed stuff resides) could bring massive amounts of methane and other gases into the atmosphere. These sorts of changes could happen abruptly, say over decades or 100s or 1000s of years, which is still a blip geologically.
Plate Tectonics Geography: Pangea was one massive land body, so some areas would have been more sensitive to small changes than others. Once it started to break up and continents stared moving around again, climates in those locations would change dramatically, but over 10s of 1000s and 100s of 1000s of years and more.
Surface Albedo: This is how much of the sun's energy is reflected back off of the Earth's surface. The sun's rays come in as shortwave radiation, and are reflected back up off the Earth as longwave radiation, some of which is blocked by greenhouse gases, while some of it escapes back towards space. Albedo is more of a feedback than direct cause, but is a huge part of the Earth's energy budget. Light surfaces like snow, ice and even deserts reflect more of the sun's energy away than forest cover. As sea ice disappears, that dark open water won't be as reflective, and will instead slowly absorb and retain the incoming heat.
I know I'm probably missing something because I'm tired and haven't been feeling well over the past few days. A couple of good books to read are "The Two Mile Time Machine" which explains the ice cores and a lot of the science, and "Snowball Earth" which looks at the controversy about whether the Earth was once covered in ice, and the science behind it, and a lot about how some researchers might go about their work.
Something else I'd like to mention... one of the big misconceptions about "academics" that I have seen is that the profs are wealthy fat cats with lots of privilege. Maybe at expensive private schools, but I've only experienced researchers at state universities. They have to teach classes, deal with undergrads and grad students. Yes, they have TAs, but that also comes with training, oversight and meetings. They have to scramble for grant money so thay can pay for students to go to school and bring in equipment, and part of this is encouraged by the university to bring prestige to the school. They have a lot of meetings, they have to promote the department, they have to set up lecture series, they have to advise students, have office hours, and oh yeah... do their own research and get published... regularly. I often don't know how they do it or how they manage to have lives outside of the U.
Well, that was a book... honestly, I was so tired when I started writing that I didn't think I'd have much to say... hope some of it is useful. What I come away with at the end of the day with all of this is that ocean acidification is probably as bad or worse than the effects of warming, because once ocean life dies off, a lot goes with it, and feedstocks and balance are already stressed by overfishing. The other thing I take away each day is that it's sad to me that we don't live by the Precautionary Principle, and instead, leave every thing from chemicals to pharmaceuticals to global climate to chance instead of putting safety first.