“Imagine you were about to walk into this building, and 97 percent of structural engineers said ‘Don’t go in, it’s about to fall down!’ Would you go in?” asked J. Marshall Sheperd during a recent panel discussion about climatic change held at Brenau’s Downtown Center.
Sheperd is the past president of the American Meteorological Society and director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. Together with Bill Coates Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church in Gainesville, and James W. Porter, professor of ecology at UGA, Sheperd was making it very clear that uncertainty about whether climatic change is happening or not has ended.
It’s definitely happening, and 97 percent of climatologists agree. Average temperatures of the globe are rising, and so are ocean levels. This is especially troublesome for coastal locations. Porter showed how Georgia’s barrier island coast would migrate far inland, with St. Simon’s Island disappearing completely during the next decades.
One might ask: With record cold earlier this year, and a snowstorm bringing Atlanta to a standstill, how can scientists say that there’s a global heat buildup?
It’s important to distinguish between meteorology and climatology. Meteorology looks at “synoptic” situations, which means weather as it’s occurring right now. Climatology examines long-term past, present and future trends. If you’re engaged in rock climbing, you’ll be sliding back a few times, but will still be going uphill overall. Short-term fluctuations in weather, like the recent freezes, work the same way, disguising the upward trend in temperatures for a while.
During the next 50 years, though, average temperatures are going to be higher than in past centuries. At the panel discussion, the consensus of the speakers was not to be blinded by people holding up quick anecdotes, because the “big picture” is needed to understand what’s happening. This involves consulting proven sources of stability: real scientific research (Sheperd and Porter), which goes beyond day-to-day events, and the Bible (Coates), advocating stewardship of the planet and love for the creation.
We’ll see interesting weather events soon that are part of the climatic adjustments. Most likely, there will be more drought for North Georgia and heavy beach erosion on our islands. The evidence that these events are coming is clear and undisputable.
Video coverage of the panel discussion will soon be available on local cable. Watch www.hallcountygreenpages.org for updates.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.