Political Insider

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A UGA professor referees the fight over global warming

If you lose a couple of toes to frostbite this morning, all Marshall Shepherd asks is this: Don’t blame the polar vortex.

The previous deep freeze could be attributed to that mystical force spiraling over the North Pole. The current one is just a traditional, run-of-the-mill cold snap.

If Shepherd seems a little touchy about it, you can’t blame him. The University of Georgia professor has spent a good part of this month trying to rescue the phrase from a tug of war between Rush Limbaugh and the White House.

Putting out such fires — protecting his science, in other words — has been his job for the past year as president of the American Meteorological Society.

The latest incident began with the dry, cold blast that shattered pipes, killed plants and closed schools across metro Atlanta — and much of the Eastern United States. Limbaugh pronounced the explanation for the weather to be part of the leftist, global-warming conspiracy.

“Do you know what the polar vortex is? Have you ever heard of it? Well, they just created it for this week,” the conservative radio provocateur said that cold Monday. “Wackos are saying it’s a great example of climate change.”

Believe it or not, the White House listens to Limbaugh.

Two days later, John Holdren, President Barack Obama’s science adviser, was featured in the YouTube video above. “A growing body of evidence suggests that the kind of extreme cold being experienced by much of the United States, as we speak, is a pattern we can see with increasing frequency as global warming continues,” Holdren said — after throwing in a few caveats.

Enter Shepherd as referee. Limbaugh was dead wrong, the AMS president said. But the White House “was a bit heavy-handed as well,” he said in an interview this week.

A bit of background: The polar vortex has had an official presence in the meteorological lexicon since 1959. Limbaugh’s lack of exposure notwithstanding, references date further, to the 1940s, Shepherd said.

Think of a jet stream of cold air that circles above the North Pole (and the South Pole, too) like water around a drain. Every now and then, a piece of the vortex runs off track — freezing the bejeezus out of everyone in its wake.

The question is why. The White House cited research that points to the Earth’s increasing temperature as a counterintuitive reason for that particular dose of arctic air.

Like most scientists, Shepherd believes the data overwhelmingly support global warming — which has now been rechristened as climate change. But in politics, 80 percent certainty is called a landslide. In science, it’s a call for more data.

So Shepherd, unlike the Obama administration, wasn’t quite ready to tie the hot topic of global warming to a rampaging polar vortex.

“I think it’s actually quite plausible, but from my lens, it’s a bit too early to completely anchor that as a conclusive reason,” Shepherd said in a White House-sponsored conversation of experts on the Internet.

Shepherd’s term as president of the American Meteorological Society ends next month with a five-day conference at the Georgia World Congress Center. He will leave his post as he entered it — concerned about the gap between what science has proved and what the general public is prepared to believe.

“In this state, it’s still a bit tricky,” Shepherd said. Georgia doesn’t compare to North Carolina, where state lawmakers forbade discussions of climate change. “But I still think there are some challenges,” he added.

There is the general frustration when it comes to the acceptance of global warming. Shepherd’s message for those who point to the continued existence of cold weather: Just because it’s night, you can’t argue that the sun has disappeared.

But there’s more to his worry. A great deal of on-the-ground data are being generated as well, which will need to be absorbed by your city, county and state governments. Because global warming is coming to your neighborhood.

Shepherd said one of his doctoral students is about to publish a paper showing a substantial increase in extreme weather events around Atlanta that can be tied to climate change. The same study picks out counties that will be particularly vulnerable to drought in South Georgia.

Then there’s the Georgia coast. I asked Shepherd whether residents there had accepted the fact that sea levels are rising — another consequence of climate change. He referred me to Charles Hopkinson, another UGA professor and director of the Georgia Sea Grant College Program.

“We’ve spent the last five years working with communities to get them to rethink their vulnerability to flood and rising waters,” Hopkinson said.

It is possible that the closer you live to big water, the more likely it is you believe in global warming. Hopkinson said his group is finishing up a study for Tybee Island, near Savannah, on the impact that rising sea levels will have on that community.

The community of St. Mary’s, farther south, is interested, too. All have been felt the impact of skyrocketing costs for federally subsidized flood insurance. Make the right preparations and file the right paperwork, and everybody in the community gets a 5 percent break on their flood insurance, Hopkinson said.

This is how ideological barriers are breached in America. We don’t have to believe in science. We have insurance companies to do that for us.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.