Guest commentary

‘Oh great, another climate report!…’ Admit it, some of you are rolling your eyes and saying this….

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) report , a comprehensive review of climate change and impacts on the United States, is being released Tuesday. This report, for Americans, is a bit closer to home and should generate a buzz. But, will it?

2014, so far, is the year of climate report.  Other recent reports include the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report and “What We Know” by American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).  I actually understand why the public, may have “Climate Report-itis” rather than Spring Fever.

The NCA report presents sound peer-reviewed science results and data on how our climate is changing due to natural and increasingly, human-caused factors. The numbers and graphs, like other reports, will show trends and statistics on warming, extreme events, and societal implications.

As a scientist that studies and publishes in weather and climate, I am a part of the “97 percent” cited recently by AAAS, the world’s largest science society, that agree human-caused climate change is happening.

“But, Dr. Shepherd, there are 1000 scientists that say otherwise?”

When this question arises, it is important to consider whether those scientists are climate scientists or have even published a peer-reviewed paper. For example, I could easily write an opinion editorial in the Washington Post on vaccines and sign “Dr. or Professor J. Marshall Shepherd”. Though my credentials sound credible, I know nothing about vaccines or have no evidence of expertise in my portfolio.

Another point of confusion for the public is the notion of “debate.” Last week, I turned down an offer to “debate” a climate skeptic in a public forum in New York. Science is rightfully defined by new questions, uncertainty, and scholarly discourse. However, such “debates” or false balance in media panels establishes the perception of equal weight to non-published science or zombie theories (e.g. a theory that you keep hearing about but that has been refuted). They also end up being spectacles.  Further, there is absolutely nothing to be gained by participating except a clogged Twitter feed and frustration because neither the colleague nor my position will likely change.

Science operates differently than business decisions or court cases. The premise of reasonable doubt or uncertainty does not “blow” the case in science. However, it is important that peer-reviewed, reproducible science is published and debated in the proper outlets or venues. Dissenting positions published in the peer-reviewed literature would absolutely be appropriate for reports like the NCA. The problem is there is just not much published material beyond gray literature, blogs, and opinion editorials.

So, as the National Climate Assessment rolls out, I continue to ponder how we break through to a public that will never read these reports or that continues to think a cold winter in a tiny part of the world (the eastern U.S.) refutes climate change.

Many skeptic arguments rely on deficits in public science literacy. Therefore, these reports need “translators”. Skilled communicators that can make the information accessible and stories that make climate change local and contemporary. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse recently alluded to this concept, while sitting in a University of Georgia marine institute on  Sapelo Island.

On Tuesday, the White House will host respected local and national television broadcasters for the NCA rollout. I applaud this “translation” effort. I am an expert on weather and climate, but the public gets most of its information from my TV weather colleagues. My community is aware of disconnects between the peer-reviewed literature and the climate message of “some” television colleagues.  Many people walking through the grocery store or the mall will trust a face they know from TV over some obscure, but highly-regarded scientist or NCA report.  We know many of the reasons why there is a disconnect, and efforts are ongoing, in a respectful manner, to have conversations and share knowledge.

Outlets like the Capital Weather Gang are also increasingly effective “signal” translators in a sea of twitter, blog, and op-ed “noise”.

So, yes, we have another credible climate report with an increasingly consistent set of results and implications for Americans. Yet, to many, those messages are like “1’s and 0’s” in a computer, we need the “translators” to make those digits become meaningful words. Otherwise, they are just reports……..

The author, Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is the Georgia Athletic Association Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia (UGA) and the 2013 President of the American Meteorological Society (AMS). He is the Director of  UGA’s Atmospheric Sciences program and a leading international expert on weather and climate. He is a former NASA scientist and received one of the nation’s highest science awards from President Bush in 2004.  Dr. Shepherd is a member the NOAA Science Advisory Board, Climate Central’s Board, and the Earth Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council.

The views expressed here are the author’s alone and do not represent any position of the Capital Weather Gang.