Skip to main content

We need common sense on climate change

By J. Marshall Shepherd, Special to CNN
September 26, 2013 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its fifth assessment report Friday
  • J. Marshall Shepherd: The report affirms that our planet is warming and humans are a factor
  • He says extreme weather and climate affect our health, agriculture and national security
  • Shepherd: Despite uncertainty, analysis shows warming that we shouldn't ignore

Editor's note: Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is the athletic association professor of geography and director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia. He is also the president of the American Meteorological Society and a former scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Watch Dr. Shepherd on New Day on Saturday, September 28, at 10:15 a.m. ET.

(CNN) -- When we go to major sporting events, my kids love to play the "Shuffle Hat" game on the Jumbotron screen. A ball is placed under a hat, and the hats are shuffled around quickly to distract you. If you keep your eye on the hat with the ball, you can usually find it.

The public increasingly faces a similar shell game with climate science information.

Every four to six years, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assesses and reviews the most recent science, technology and societal impacts related to climate change. Created in 1988 by the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization, the IPCC will begin the roll out of its fifth assessment report this week.

J. Marshall Shepherd
J. Marshall Shepherd

In an era where some give more credence to climate predictions from rodents or almanacs, clarity is needed.

U.N. climate change panel releases last science

For me, the hat with the ball from the IPCC report is that it continues to affirm that our planet is warming, and humans are a significant contributor to the warming.

Andrew Dessler, professor and author of "Introduction to Modern Climate Change," noted in a recent phone conversation the remarkable consistency in the main conclusions of every previous IPCC report. The analysis also provides measured thoughts on implications for the frequency and intensity of certain extreme weather events.

Extreme weather and climate directly affect many aspects of society, including public health, agriculture and national security. Navy Adm. Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, has noted that climate change is the biggest new threat to Pacific security.

As scientists study receding ice in Greenland, many residents simply do what they've always done: adapt. As scientists study receding ice in Greenland, many residents simply do what they've always done: adapt.
Greenland adapts to climate change
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
>
>>
Greenland adapts to climate change Greenland adapts to climate change

Recently, an elderly man from my church said, "Doc, what's going on? The weather is different." For a public increasingly inquisitive about what they see around them, it is important to be aware of the distracting hats whizzing around and to keep your eye on the hat with the ball.

Many recent discussions have focused on "uncertainty." Yes, topics of uncertainty exist in climate science as in any science, but this does not render the science unusable. Most readers would take an umbrella or expect rain if the weather forecast called for a 95% or greater chance of rain. How silly would it sound to say, "Don't bother getting an umbrella because there is 5% uncertainty in that forecast"?

Climate change may increase violence, study shows

Dessler characterized the fuss over climate uncertainty in the new report this way: "The change that has everyone in a tizzy is a slight enlargement of one side of the error bar (range of error for climate sensitivity). If that's the biggest change, then things are not changing very much."

Another way of thinking about it is: How silly would it be for a father and mother to argue about whether their child is going to have a fever of 101.5 or 102?

High profile legal cases like the O.J. Simpson or George Zimmerman trials have increased public understanding of "reasonable doubt." Environmental Health News' Peter Dykstra made a point that resonated with me. Science doesn't operate on a "reasonable doubt" basis. If so, I suppose we would take our chances and not grab an umbrella because that 95% chance of rain is not 100%. Similarly, would most parents not take action because the pediatrician's diagnosis has some uncertainty?

It is important to understand and respect the scientific process. It operates differently than a court system, business decision or legislation.

The peer-reviewed science literature provides a mechanism to publish, scrutinize and test climate science. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration ensures that our foods and medicines are safe. Peer review serves a similar role for science. Good science inherently involves skepticism. However, regardless of the side of an issue, if the skepticism is always one-directional, is it skepticism or bias?

Recently, the IPCC has been criticized for being too slow or too big. This is a fair discussion to have, but it shouldn't distract us from the findings in the latest report.

Science requires time to sort out the truth from fiction, for theories to be tested or challenged. It is not well suited for tweets and blogs, which allow "zombie theories" -- ideas that have been debunked but continue to live on. Along these lines, some publications are removing or limiting online comments in order to protect scientific integrity.

As I write this commentary, I am watching football highlights. I debate football vigorously with my friends, but we always walk away friends. Irrespective of viewpoint, calling people "deniers" or "warmists" is counterproductive and inflammatory. There are deep-rooted feelings that have created zealotry, and at times, all sides have crossed lines of civility. I am proud to say that I enjoy very solid collegial and personal relationships with people who I sometimes disagree with on climate science.

Climate sticker shock: Arctic thaw could cost $60 trillion

On the eve of the IPCC's fifth assessment report, I still have faith in the scientific method, the common sense and keen eye of people, and human courtesy. These things will keep our hat with the ball.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of J. Marshall Shepherd.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1615 GMT (0015 HKT)
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1728 GMT (0128 HKT)
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1555 GMT (2355 HKT)
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
July 27, 2014 -- Updated 1822 GMT (0222 HKT)
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 2225 GMT (0625 HKT)
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1510 GMT (2310 HKT)
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
July 26, 2014 -- Updated 1533 GMT (2333 HKT)
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1245 GMT (2045 HKT)
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 1850 GMT (0250 HKT)
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1349 GMT (2149 HKT)
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 2205 GMT (0605 HKT)
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1142 GMT (1942 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1637 GMT (0037 HKT)
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
July 24, 2014 -- Updated 1413 GMT (2213 HKT)
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1630 GMT (0030 HKT)
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
July 23, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT