Chief meteorologist John Farley discusses newly released report on climate change

Published: Sep. 28, 2013 at 3:30 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 8, 2013 at 3:30 PM EDT
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(Source: IPCC)
(Source: IPCC)
(Source: IPCC)
(Source: IPCC)

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is about to release its 3,000 page report on what scientists understand as the latest state of climate change. This seems like a good time to reflect on the topic.

As a broadcast meteorologist, I'm often asked, "What is your opinion on climate change (or Global Warming)?" My response is always, "I don't have one."

Let me explain:

I am an operational forecaster. My expertise is in near-term forecasting. I forecast out to around 7 days. I have a masters of science degree in meteorology. I have taken one graduate class in climate. Yes, I've done a fair amount of study and worked for 20 years in the field, so I know more than most people about what the climate scientists are discussing about climate change. But I'm not a climate expert.

Think of this example: If you thought you might have some dreadful disease, where would you seek your advice on what to do? Would you ask the nurse who knows a fair amount about disease in general? Or would you be better served by asking a panel of expert researchers who've studied this specific disease for decades? Most folks would trust the group of experts. The parallel in this example is that asking an operational forecaster about climate change is similar to asking a nurse to diagnose your dreadful disease. The nurse would be an OK starting point, but probably not the best source you could find.

Sticking to the medical analogies, I have another one that underscores how the scientific method works. If you thought that you had a new treatment for something like diabetes, then your new treatment would only be credible if it appeared in a science journal – something like the New England Journal of Medicine. It would not be considered credible if it only appeared in a news paper or something like Time Magazine. That's how science works. Each field has its own scientific journals. These journals contain the latest findings on each science. There are certainly some flaws in every system, but this is how our scientifically-based society runs. And that goes for all disciplines – Chemistry, Astronomy, Oncology, Seismology, etc. Experts do research and then get their findings published in scientific journals. If we elect to disregard one group of scientists then we must disregard all of them. The method is the same for all of the sciences and it has overall served our society well for a long time. Think of the medical advances in the last 50 years.

So what has been published in the scientific journals about climate change? The overwhelming conclusion is that humans have had a significant impact and that this impact will grow in the future if we continue to conduct business as usual. That's it.

I often hear folks say that the climate experts who have arrived at this conclusion have ulterior motives. If the scientists keep finding that climate change is real, then somehow this will continue to feather their own nests. This doesn't make sense. Wouldn't someone who could show that climate change isn't happening get much more funding to support that research? Wouldn't most people love to know that we could continue to go on burning as much coal, oil, gas, etc., as we want? It would be much easier that way.

I have also heard the idea that somehow the climate scientists are colluding to trick society. So this means that thousands of scientists from all over the world are all working together on some sinister plot and they are all completely morally bankrupt? How likely is that?

Another argument against the climate scientists is that despite decades of research, they are unable to integrate something so basic as the urban heat island (cities trap heat much more readily than rural areas) into their analysis. Just so you know, the urban heat island is taught in every basic meteorology class that I've ever seen. The climate scientists learned about the urban heat island long ago. Alleging that they can't integrate this into their analysis is as insulting as explaining to a dentist that it's healthy to brush.

Yes, there are uncertainties in all of this. There is (and should always be) healthy debate on the uncertainties. That's how science works. No one is ever 100 percent certain of anything. That said, there are a few things that are accepted as fact by all sides on this discussion. Carbon dioxide is the second most important gas in the atmosphere when it comes to trapping heat. In roughly the last 130 years, humans have added a vast amount of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere – primarily by burning fossil fuels.

To put some numbers on this, over the previous 800,000 years, the natural range of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was between 180 and 280 parts per million. It now stands at 400 parts per million. That's 40 percent higher than the top of the natural range. And this number is only going up as we continue to burn fossil fuels.

So what is my opinion on climate change? My opinion is that our society runs best when we have an active science community of experts researching problems and discovering solutions. The experts in this case are speaking loudly and clearly. We should listen. And we should take action.

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