Climate Crisis: What’s Likely To Happen If We Don’t Rise To The Challenge
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The state of our climate and the advancement of global warming is top of mind these days. It’s in the news. Just this week, crowds in the millions, around the world united (#strikeforclimate) to show our political leaders the urgency and importance of the issue. Teenage activist, Greta Thunberg addressed the United Nations in an impassioned speech some days ago demanding that our leaders rise to the occasion and wake up.
On this episode, Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd — former NASA research meteorologist and deputy project scientist — who is currently the Distinguished Professor and Director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia, echoes the severity of the climate crisis. He explains what science is predicting and brings clarity to what most of us don’t understand.
Tune in to get the full conversation and learn about:
- Leadership lessons from NASA
- State of the climate crisis
- Global warming
- What science predicts
- Sea levels rising
- Weather modeling
- Changes we can expect as a result of climate change
- What you can do to help
Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd’s biography:
Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd is a leading international expert in weather and climate and is the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Georgia. Dr. Shepherd was the 2013 President of American Meteorological Society (AMS), the nation’s largest and oldest professional/science society in the atmospheric and related sciences. Dr. Shepherd serves as Director of the University of Georgia’s (UGA) Atmospheric Sciences Program and Full Professor in the Department of Geography where he is Associate Department Head. Dr. Shepherd is also the host of The Weather Channel’s Award-Winning Sunday talk show Weather Geeks, a pioneering Sunday talk show on national television dedicated to science and a contributor to Forbes Magazine. In 2018, he was honored with the AMS Helmut Landsberg Award for his research on the urban weather-climate system and the UGA First Year Odyssey Seminary Faculty Teaching Award. In 2017, he received the AMS Brooks Award, a high honor within the field of meteorology. Ted Turner and his Captain Planet Foundation honored Dr. Shepherd in 2014 with its Protector of the Earth Award. Prior recipients include Erin Brockovich and former EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson. He is also the 2015 Recipient of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) Media Achievement award, the Florida State University Grads Made Good Award and the UGA Franklin College of Arts and Sciences Sandy Beaver Award for Excellence in Teaching. In 2015, Dr. Shepherd was invited to moderate the White House Champions for Change event. Prior to UGA, Dr. Shepherd spent 12 years as a Research Meteorologist at NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center and was Deputy Project Scientist for the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) mission, a multi-national space mission that launched in 2014. President Bush honored him on May 4th 2004 at the White House with the Presidential Early Career Award for pioneering scientific research in weather and climate science. Dr. Shepherd is a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society. Two national magazines, the AMS, and Florida State University have also recognized Dr. Shepherd for his significant contributions. In 2016, Dr. Shepherd was the Spring Commencement speaker at his 3-time Alma Mater, Florida State University and was recently selected for the prestigious SEC Academic Leadership Fellows program.
Dr. Shepherd is frequently sought as an expert on weather, climate, and remote sensing. He routinely appears on CBS Face The Nation, NOVA, The Today Show, CNN, Fox News, The Weather Channel and several others. His TedX Atlanta Talk on “Slaying Climate Zombies” is one of the most viewed climate lectures on YouTube. Dr. Shepherd is also frequently asked to advise key leaders at NASA, the White House, Congress, Department of Defense, and officials from foreign countries. In February 2013, Dr. Shepherd briefed the U.S. Senate on climate change and extreme weather. He has also written several editorials for CNN, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal Constitution, and numerous other outlets and has been featured in Time Magazine, Popular Mechanics, and NPR Science Friday. He has over 90 peer-reviewed scholarly publications. Dr. Shepherd has attracted $3 million dollars in extramural research support from NASA, National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Defense Threat Reduction Agency, and U.S. Forest Service. Dr. Shepherd was also instrumental in leading the effort for UGA to become the 78th member of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), a significant milestone for UGA and establishing UGA’s Major in Atmospheric Sciences.
Dr. Shepherd currently chairs the NASA Earth Sciences Advisory Committee and was a past member of its Earth Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council. He was a member of the Board of Trustees for the Nature Conservancy (Georgia Chapter), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Science Advisory Board, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed’s Hazard Preparedness Advisory Group United Nations World Meteorological Organization steering committee on aerosols and precipitation, 2007 Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) AR4 contributing author team, National Academies of Sciences (NAS) Panels on climate and national security, extreme weather attribution, and urban meteorology. Dr. Shepherd is a past editor for both the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology and Geography Compass, respectively.
Dr. Shepherd received his B.S., M.S. and PhD in physical meteorology from Florida State University. He was the first African American to receive a PhD from the Florida State University Department of Meteorology, one of the nation’s oldest and respected. He is also the 2nd African American to preside over the American Meteorological Society. He is a member of the AMS, American Geophysical Union, Association of American Geographers (AAG), Sigma Xi Research Honorary, Chi Epsilon Pi Meteorology Honorary, and Omicron Delta Kappa National Honorary. He is also a member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and serves on various National Boards associated with his alma mater. Dr. Shepherd co-authored a children’s book on weather and weather instruments called Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch. He is also the co-founder of the Alcova Elementary Weather Science Chat series that exposes K-5 students to world-class scientists. Dr. Shepherd is originally from Canton, Georgia.
Connect with Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd:
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Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Current state of that is it’s a crisis and in fact, many of us that study this call it a climate crisis now more so than climate change.
Tanya: That’s Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, who got his PhD in physical meteorology and served as research meteorologist and deputy project scientist at NASA for 13 years. Currently, Dr. Shepherd is a distinguished professor and director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia and contributed over a hundred peer-reviewed scholarly publications. He’s a regular guest on major media outlets like CNN, Fox, and CBS, and is relied upon as a strategic advisor by key leaders at NASA, the White House, Congress, Department of Defense, and officials from foreign countries. In addition to his widely viewed TED Talk titled “Three Kinds of Biases that Shape Your World View,” he served as a member of the board for many prestigious organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Georgia chapter, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just to name a few. Dr. Shepherd was honored with a Presidential Early Career Award in 2004 from George W. Bush for his cutting-edge work.
Tanya: Dr. Shepherd, what initially attracted you to meteorology?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: It’s really an interesting story: a honeybee. Let me explain that. As a young kid, I used to catch insects in the yard. I thought I wanted to be an entomologist. I was catching honeybees in the yard. I got stung by one and found out at that young age that I was highly allergic to bee stings.
Sixth grade was coming around and I needed to do a science project. I said, “Well, I can’t do honeybees anymore. I needed a plan B literally.” I did my science project on weather. The title of that sixth-grade science project was, “Can a Sixth Grader Predict the Weather?”
I made weather instruments from things around the house. We didn’t have a lot of fancy equipment at that time and predicted weather and developed little weather models for my community in northern Georgia. The rest is history. I knew I wanted to be a meteorologist at that point, but interestingly enough, I didn’t want to be the forecaster type standing in front of a green chroma key at a news station. I was more interested in the how and why of weather.
Tanya: That’s probably partly what motivated you to go into getting your PhD in meteorology and then working for NASA for 13 years. What was that journey like?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: It was really interesting because again, after sixth grade, I knew that was it. I started even as a sixth, seventh-grader, started saying, “Okay, where can I go to college to learn more about weather?” Being from the Atlanta metropolitan area in northern Georgia, I knew I wanted to stay in the south. At that time, there weren’t really many relatively speaking meteorology programs, but Florida State University had one. It turns out it was a very good one. It was one of the top programs in the nation.
I started doing things even in school, high school, to taking ecology classes and learning about measurements. Then went on to Florida State to do my undergraduate or Bachler’s Degree in Meteorology. Then I stuck around for a master’s degree. At that point, I was sick of school. I know we’ve all been there. Some people say I’ve got to go out and make some money and live a real life.
I got out; I worked for a private contractor for NASA for a while. Then actually got hired by NASA as a civil servant and realized that wow, they have these really cool programs that will pay for NASA employees to go back to school. No one ever applied for them. I did. I said, “I can’t pass that up. Go back and do your PhD on your full salary? That’s a no-brainer.”
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Exactly, so I took two years, went back to Florida State. Did the courses, took all my exams that you need to take, the qualifying exams, and then came back to NASA, finished up my dissertation. In 1999, I was awarded my doctoral degree from Florida State.
Tanya: Wow, and while you were getting your PhD, were you still working where they gave you the freedom to just be a student 100% of the time and then you committed to going back after?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: No, for this particular program that I did, you applied for it at NASA. Any employee can apply for these. If you got accepted, you could go away to school for the two years and your job would be a student for two years to get your PhD. Then I came back for the final two years after that and did my dissertation while I was doing my “day job” as well. That was a [05:02] about a four- or five-year program, but the good news is my PhD research was very much related to some of the scientific research that I was already doing at NASA.
Tanya: What was it? What kind of research were you doing?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: The work that I did at that time, in my master’s degree work, I had looked at developing algorithms using Doppler radar data to track hurricanes. We developed some of the first-generation algorithms that actually tracked hurricanes using radar as they got close to landfall. For my dissertation doctoral work, I was looking at something called precipitation efficiency in convergence zone thunderstorms. What that simply means is some thunderstorms in Florida firer up along the sea breeze front or along outflow boundaries from other thunderstorms, these cold pools of outflow that move away from storms. We wanted to know how efficient they were at producing rainfall so that we could model them in our weather and forecasting models.
That was some of my – it’s not really the kind of work I do now or have done in my more recent career. I know this is a podcast about leadership and sometimes you are training and developing yourself for future activities. One of the things I tell my own students here at the University of Georgia, some of my doctoral students, is that a doctoral degree is a unique piece of research. It teaches you how to carry forth and manage a research program at a smaller scale so that perhaps one day, you will be a leading researcher running your own lab or research group.
Tanya: Yes, absolutely. At the peak of your career at NASA, what were you accountable for?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: It’s interesting; I did a lot of things while I was at NASA. That’s where I really grasped this idea that cities can affect weather. One of my main research agendas was related to how cities can actually initiate or enhance thunderstorm activity, and rainfall, and flooding. I developed a very robust research program using NASA satellite data sets and models.
I was fortunate enough to win the Presidential Early Career Award for scientists and engineers. I was given that award by President Bush at the White House in 2004 for research in that area because it was considered innovative and groundbreaking research at that time. I then took on more of a leadership position there. I became the Deputy Project Scientist for a new mission that NASA was developing called the Global Precipitation Measurement Mission or GPM, which is now in orbit. It’s a complex satellite mission and constellation that’s measuring rainfall all over the globe for use in our weather and climate models and to help us predict flooding. I was one of the leadership team of that mission for many years helping coordinate between the scientists and engineers to bring that from a scientific idea to an actual satellite that’s now in orbit.
Tanya: Wow, that’s pretty outstanding. Is that one of your most proud projects that you’ve ever worked on at NASA or is there something else?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Yeah, but I think just being in NASA is one of the more points of pride.
Tanya: It’s a pretty good point, yes.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: There are only so many people on the planet that can say they actually worked at NASA. When I decided to leave it to come to the University of Georgia, I had all these people like, are you crazy? Are you going to leave NASA? That’s a dream job. It was; I loved my time at NASA because you are literally working with some of the smartest people in the world, movers in science and technology doing really cool things. Yeah, to say that I had my hands in cutting edge research that was improving our understanding of our weather and climate, and to actually have a satellite system in orbit that’s helping in those areas, yeah, I’m pretty proud of that. I would also say that Presidential Early Career Award from the White House is a pretty big moment as well.
Tanya: Yes, that is a huge moment of recognition for the work that you’re doing or that you did. By the way, that was not the only award that you got; you got so many I can’t even go through them right now because we would run out of time. What were some of the – now that you’ve had a little distance, you’ve been some time out of NASA, what were some of the key lessons of that experience that you were able to process?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think one of the things that I learned is that we have to be very willing to get out of our comfort zones. Because now, I was trained as a scientist. When you’re doing scientific research or getting a master’s or a doctoral degree, you’re learning how to do research, and ask scientific questions, and follow the scientific method, and those types of things.
In a NASA environment, in the environment that I was in at NASA, I was asked to do a lot of things that technically I didn’t necessarily have training to do or hadn’t taken a class to do. For example, there was no class in being the Deputy Project Scientist for a major [10:05]. You just figure it out.
Also, because someone along the way figured out that I was halfway credible in front of a camera and could convey complex scientific information to non-science audiences, I was often called to go on major network television whether it be the Today Show, or NBC, or CNN, talking about mostly weather and climate, but from time to time, I’d get asked about other things: tsunamis or volcanic eruptions. I’m not a volcanologist. I’m not an oceanographer, but you have to be able to be willing to adapt and be flexible. I think a couple of the lessons for me at NASA were staying free of your comfort zones, being willing to adapt and be flexible when called upon to do something, and to always just keep learning. I always felt like no matter what level of leadership or what level of a position that I was in, I was always learning something.
Tanya: Those are really great lessons to learn. Actually, not too long ago, I interviewed Erika Hamden who is in charge of the FIREBALL project which NASA in large part funded. That’s what she was talking about as well is when you’re at the edge of what is known. It’s really there’s no forged path.
You have to get comfortable with uncertainty. In that murky uncertainty comes the possibility for breakthroughs. In absence of being out of your comfort zone like you say, you can’t get to the unknown. That’s an awesome lesson to learn. What precipitated, and no punt intended there, the decision –
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I like that. [11:39] got you in the rainstorm world.
Tanya: I know, I had to do that. What precipitated the departure from NASA and move into academia?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: That’s a great question. It really was just again one of these lessons for the listener. I often talk about that, and I gave a lecture on it, a guest lecture on this recently to a group of young, emerging leaders at the American Meteorological Society’s Young Leaders Conference this summer in Atlanta. Meteorology itself is a very complex science. It’s very physics and calculus-based.
In fact, it’s based on a lot of what we call nonlinearities; in other words, things aren’t linear. A doesn’t necessarily lead to B or C and D. There are a lot of nonlinearities in the atmospheric system. It can, in fact, be chaotic. I was telling these young leaders that careers can be nonlinear as well. In fact, you can count on them being nonlinear.
I was quite happy and content at NASA. My career was going well. I was in a very strong leadership position with a mission. My science career was prospering, but an opportunity presented itself.
A colleague of mine that I knew met at a conference. We started talking. It turns out that they possibly had an opportunity or an opening at the University of Georgia. I grew up in Georgia. I came down and talked to the folks.
They even invited me to give a guest lecture, a seminar. I did that and I still wasn’t necessarily sure if I was leaving NASA. The more I thought about it and I was like, I preach to myself about staying out of comfort zones. I had never taught. I didn’t see myself as a professor or a teacher. Quiet is kept at a major university like the University of Georgia; it’s not just about the teaching.
We certainly teach. I’ve been fortunate enough to win some of the top teaching awards here. It is about research, and about developing graduate students, and acquiring grants to do more research in the cutting edge of science and technology. I took the plunge literally and left the very safe civil servant environment to go to the University of Georgia.
Initially coming in the door not with tenor. Of course, I have tenor now and I’m a full professor. In fact, my full title is the Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor. I had to jump through some of the academic hoops that you do getting tenor, and publishing, and getting grants, and all those things. It just was an opportunity that presented itself and it felt right.
Tanya: I know that you’ve published – is 90 the correct number?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: A little bit more than that by now.
Tanya: I assume.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: There’s something out there that on my bio that probably says 90, but I think with my graduate students, I’m pretty much well over 100 publications by now I would suspect. Honestly, I haven’t counted.
Tanya: That contribution is enormous. Have you done that mostly in your time at Georgia University?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: No, University of Georgia. It is a combination of publications during my time at NASA and at the University of Georgia. That’s what professors do. Our metrics for success at a major research university like this is our publication record, or how many grants and grant money you’re bringing in, our leadership positions within the community. It’s honestly par for the core. I probably am one of the more productive and prolific scholars in my particular field I suppose, but it’s not certainly unusual.
Tanya: You’ve raised how much grant money so far for your research?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Oh, good question. I don’t know; three or four million dollars over my career in various grants that I’m directly or indirectly responsible for.
Tanya: Which is amazing. That’s really outstanding. Actually, you mentioned part of what you’re interested in is really cultivating the leadership and students. Is there one person in particular throughout the last 13, 14 years that really stand out to you that you were just blown away with?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: In terms of my students?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Honestly, I think I’ve had several students over the years and they’ve all brought something different to the table. I think as a leader in terms of educational mentorship and leadership, I think it’s my job, and I think this goes for frankly any good leader or any good administrator, it’s my job to recognize the potential talents in every individual because every individual brings different strengths and weaknesses to the table. Yeah, several of my students are now out prospering in their own careers as professors or working federal agencies, or private sector, or wherever they are. As I look back on each of them, the skillset and leadership qualities that I see – for example, there was one young man that I knew that he had just very good people and communication, as well as good academic chops as well. I knew that he would have strengths in certain areas.
All my students have solidly been academically solid. I think of another student now who he’s now a scientist with his own career in the US Forrest Service. He’s leading research now. He actually is doing some really good things. I’ve talked to him and he and I have shared that oftentimes, people may have underestimated or miscalculated his ability to go on and be a successful doctoral-level scholar and scientist. I saw some things in him very immediately from the time that I first met him.
What I’m saying is each of my students – there’s another young woman who’s at the National Weather Service. She was just so persistent. She did not let anything stop her. She was very determined. I just always tried to understand the individual strengths of a given student and then use that to help bring out their potential.
Tanya: You know what? That’s very diplomatic of you to say that. I love that you see as it as your job to really find that thing within people, that really – that potential that you can harness because that’s amazing.
I recently read a really good book called Grit by Angela something worth, really good. What it boils down to is even people that are off the charts genius, what it comes down to is their level of persistence. You were talking about a student that just didn’t stop; nothing would stop her. That element is what really gets people far beyond what anybody would experience or expect. That’s really amazing.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Yeah, and I think it’s important because I think oftentimes, we try to – some people will try to fit everyone into the same box. They don’t look at the unique talents, personalities, and tendencies of people as individuals.
Tanya: Yeah, no, absolutely. What’s your favorite class to teach?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Oh, I don’t know. I probably enjoy teaching – I don’t know that I have a favorite because again, I teach one or two courses a semester. It just depends on the semester. Again, at a major research university, professors don’t teach all day like you do at high school or those types of things. Thicker courses come around, but I teach mostly upper-level courses in our major.
I still do like the energy and vibrancy that you get from teaching younger students like freshman, for example. I do a course, a freshman odyssey seminar. It’s just a one-hour course that exposes kids to different things. My course is observing the Earth from space.
It’s a really neat course. It’s an opportunity to really plant the seeds of knowledge in terms of why we study the planet Earth from space. I enjoy that course for a lot of different reasons because those young minds that are coming into those freshman seminars, they in most cases haven’t quite figured everything out yet. They’re still trying to make their way on a big university campus. They’re sponges for knowledge.
Tanya: Yes, no, absolutely. I know for sure that your students are very lucky to have you as a professor. Your background is just off the charts. I’m sure anybody would die to have a seat in your class.
I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about climate for a second. In climate, how would you – I know everybody’s heard the word climate change, but I’m not so sure that everybody knows what it is. Can you just give us a quick what is climate change and what is the current state of that?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: The current state of that is it’s a crisis. In fact, many of us that study this call it a climate crisis now more so than climate change. The climate changes naturally.
Let me put that right upfront because you do have the skeptic community that will always remind a PhD scientist like me that, you know climate changes naturally. We’ve always had hurricanes. Of course I know that, but we have – with the increases in greenhouse gases, changes in land cover, and some other things that are happening, our naturally varying and changing climate now has a human steroid on top of it in the same way that in sports whether it’s Major League Baseball or biking in the French Alps during the Tour de France. You had some athletes that were taking performance-enhancing drugs to boost their natural ability.
The climate, unfortunately, has this performance-enhancing steroid called greenhouse gases in the system now, so the naturally varying climate is actually amplified. That’s leading to changes in our weather patterns and extreme weather events. It’s leading to changes in sea level. It’s changes in ice on the polar ice sheets in Greenland, changes in where disease-carrying mosquitos can live, changes in agricultural productivity, in energy transportation. It’s a fundamental crisis of our time. That’s why many of us are concerned about it.
Tanya: Yes, and what are the Top Three or Five things that are really bad that are a direct result of this climate crisis?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Oh, yeah, I don’t know if we could give a Top Three or Top Number One. I’m a contributor to Forbes magazine. I wrote an article several months ago back during all the discussion about whether we should declare the border situation a national emergency. I wrote an article saying we need to declare climate change a national emergency because it’s not the polar bear or the warming temperatures that’s the problem. It’s not something that’s 70 or 80 years out. We have impacts now that are affecting national security, affecting food production, affecting our water supply, affecting weather patterns, and public health.
If you as someone listening to this sit down at your kitchen table tonight and say, well, climate change doesn’t affect me, it’s something about some polar bear somewhere, you’re not paying attention because essentially every aspect of our lives, our economy, our security, our health, touches on how weather and climate patterns evolve and change. This is an issue that – for example, last year, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall in Florida and then into Georgia. Devasted much of Florida’s tourism business, much of its oil and energy activity out in the coast from those oil rigs that lead to increased gas prices. As the storm moved inland, destroyed much of the cotton, peanut, pecan, perhaps even other agricultural activity in southwest Georgia. When you go to buy a t-shirt that’s made from cotton or you go buy some peanut butter, probably had a greater price on it because supply was reduced. Basic supply and demand from macroeconomics class. What I try to spend a lot of my time helping people to understand is that this isn’t about some esoteric scientific issue far off in the future; this is about our life right now.
Tanya: Why do you think that given the state of things right now which is a crisis, how can somebody like our President think that climate change is a hoax and actively work to dismantle very important initiatives like the Paris Accord or more recently which was reported a few days ago, the Climate Change Taskforce in the Navy was shut down, which you were talking about national security. How can that happen?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: As a scientist, as an academic, I don’t like to really call out any particular person, or anything, or politician. I stay out of the politics, but the notion that climate change is a hoax or the notion that climate change is not real, or it’s just some natural cycle, or it’s made up by scientists is flat out ridiculous. All of the major scientific organizations, the American Meteorological Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, every major organization, every major report, the vast majority of the scientific literature that’s published by scientists all say the same thing. This notion, or this denial, or contrary imposition is very much rooted in special interests or those that stand to lose because of the changes their solutions face that need to be made. It’s a very well concerted misinformation campaign that many of us understand as well.
Up until several years ago, it was fairly effective, but I’m starting to see it erode. This whole machine of skepticism and denial is starting to come off the rails if you will. There was an article I just saw recently I believe in Vice Magazine or Vice about how the machine of climate denial is slowly falling apart.
You’re seeing that in public opinions as well. People get it. People aren’t stupid. There are some people that because of their vested interests in certain economies, they’ll say you’re not going to bite the hand that feeds you. There’s some people that have certain industries that they may live or work in that certainly aren’t going to bite that hand, but if you’re reasonable and objective about this, you understand that this is certainly something real. It’s happening right before your very eyes. There are very obtainable examples.
Tanya: Yeah, and I know you have outlined misinformation as a huge problem in your brilliant TED Talk, which anybody listening, I highly recommend that they check out. It’s been published in the media that we are past the point of no return considering the damage that we’ve already done to the planet. Is that actually real or is that misinformation?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: In climate science, we talk about these things called tipping points, these no return. If you think about a rubber band, if you snap it too much, it doesn’t have the elasticity. It has reached its point of elasticity. It’s a tipping point. I’m not convinced we’re at any tipping point yet, but I think we’re getting there.
We see substantial losses of the Greenland ice sheet. That has real implications for sea-level rise. We start seeing shifts in our Jetstream patterns. That causes more extreme events: droughts, floods, hurricanes, etc. These things are definitely happening. I’m not convinced we’re at any tipping points yet, but I think we’re in a crisis state.
Tanya: From what you can see, although, the rhetoric is starting to slow down around climate change is not real, and people are really starting to get it, do you see that people are much more conscious in taking action to stop that, governments and businesses?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I think what I’m encouraged about to get back to your question you asked me earlier about our government pulling out of the Paris Accord or Paris Agreement, the good news in all this is that it’s almost irrelevant in some sense because the Fortune 500 companies get it. The pit line gets it. Faith-based organizations get it. Local communities, and cities, and regional states, they’re getting it. There is so much action on climate change right now that it’s sadly almost irrelevant what the rhetoric is coming from the federal level because there’s – I think there’s been this resurgence or galvanizing of the problem because people recognize how ludicrous some of the higher-level denial is.
Tanya: That’s amazing that you’re echoing this because a few days ago I interviewed Dr. David Titley.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Oh, David’s a good friend of mine.
Tanya: Oh, is he? He was saying that he echoed the same thing that in a very politically correct way, although the President is actively speaking out against climate change and taking a lot of initiatives to dismantle amazing efforts, Congress is actually going in the opposite direction and really taking action to support stabilizing climate and really getting in front of it which was encouraging.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Yeah, you see it at Congress. There’s something happening not only in Congress but at local and regional levels, too. This idea that climate change is a partisan issue that you have to be a Democrat to support climate – well, actually, you have to be a Republican to deny it is completely being shattered.
There’s a congressional climate caucus that’s equal membership Republican and Democrat. You can’t even join that caucus unless you bring someone from the opposite party. I’ve seen numerous articles from conservatives opposing things like carbon gases. If you go back and look at I think President Bush’s Treasury Secretary, his name is escaping me right now, he’s one of the leading voices out there, talking about carbon tax. Congressman Bob Inglis from South Carolina was a staunch conservative in almost every other issue, is very proactive on climate. This idea that the Republicans or Conservatives are against climate change and liberals and democrats are for it, it’s never – and David Tetley is actually very famous for saying this, “The ice doesn’t care whether you’re republican or democrat, it just melts.” I think one of the most positive things I’m seeing is that narrative is shattering.
Another thing is that the Yale Climate Communication studies America every year and they come out with this thing called the [Six] American Study. They show that America really breaks down under six different categories in terms of their perspective and worry about climate change. The last group is what they called the Nine Percent Dismissive. It’s about 9% of the population. It’s a small amount of the really dismissive types that you see arguing with people on Twitter or at the Thanksgiving dinner table. They’re really loud but there are really not that many of them, so they make you think there’s more climate denialism than there actually is.
Tanya: Well that actually makes a lot of sense. I can get that. I want to dive in a little bit to your TED Talk, which was so good, entitled Three Kinds of Bias That Shape Your Worldview. Basically, you were asking a very important question, which is how can we be so misaligned on something like climate change because it’s backed by science? Your answer was, the biases. Can you talk about that?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Yeah that was a fun TED Talk. It’s out there on TED somewhere if you Google my name Marshall Shepherd and TED. I’ve been amazed at how well received it is. The last time I checked, it was nearly 2 million views, which is pretty surprising given that it was just a little TEDX talk that I gave here at the University of Georgia that TED picked up on in public.
What I was talking about there is that people generally, and not just in science, are informed by their biases. They’re informed by their upbringing. They’re informed by what I call their personal marinades. What kind of marinades have they been sitting in their entire lives, politically, religiously, or from an academic standpoint because that informs their perspectives on things? I talked about in the TED Talk, Dunning–Kruger effect for example. There are these people who just think they know something about everything, even though they’re not experts and they’re talking and they miscalculate their knowledge base on certain topics.
I talked about confirmation bias. How people consume information from places that already support their own beliefs. Somebody that’s watching a certain news channel is probably watching that because there’s confirmation bias there. They’re hearing things they already believe, not necessarily more objective perspectives on things, or the magazines they read or the radio personality they listen to. That’s an example of confirmation bias, and in other kinds of cognitive [dismissiveness] out there as well. As an example, I made a little joke about the fact that somebody will come up and ask me whether I believe the Groundhog Day forecast and what the Groundhog Day says about spring [33:27] the farmer’s almanac. Two things that we know that do not have a lot of scientific accuracy. Then in the next breath, they’ll doubt experts’ opinions and data on climate science, which illustrate the insanity of the biases that we carry.
Tanya: The scariest one is confirmation – well, I mean they’re all a little bit scary because in effect what your biases are doing are distorting reality. One of my favorite quotes by Anaïs, I’m forgetting her second name, “…we don’t see things how they are; we see things how we are” and that’s what you’re pointing to. The question is how do we overcome these biases?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: As I said, by making people aware that they carry them. I think we live in our tribes so often and we never come out of our [hurtful] comfort circles, we might not even see them as biases. I challenged people in the audience during that Talk that just reflect on what your biases are. How has your upbringing, how has your marinade of perspective and background shaped your bias? Why is it that you look at a degree climate scientist and don’t think that what she is saying about climate change is real, when that person is trained, they don’t have anything to personally gain, if anything they have more to lose because they get harassed and trolled and all of these types of things. It’s actually silly but yet you see people do it.
I saw something on Twitter the other day where one of the top climate scientists in the world, my colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, sat down for an interview with some random guy that was a climate skeptic. Now why in the world does his opinion about climate change carry the same amount of weight as hers? It’s like me sitting on CNN with a plumber and debating with the plumber saying that I know about putting that garbage disposal in my sink than you do. I don’t know anything about that. I have an opinion about it, but the plumber’s an [35:31].
Tanya: Just to help people out there because I think that this idea of discovering or even acknowledging your biases, which can be very hard to uncover because it’s almost like we’re blind to them. We just see them; we don’t see that we see through them. What are some questions that people could ask themselves to single out biases?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I don’t know that there are questions I would ask. I would ask people to think about where they consumed them. Regarding their information, if we’re talking about science, where do they consume their information from. Are they consuming it from scientifically credible sources or are they consuming it from some confirmation bias blog or news station or website? Where do you get information from? Take a critical look at whether you are consuming bias information or are you really seeking objective information.
It’s important to understand, science doesn’t operate like journalism. People say, well I’ll need to hear both sides of the story. Well there is no both sides of the story to the fact that the sun’s coming up tomorrow or that if I jump off a building, I’m going to fall. Those are just basic science things that are truths. Those things are going to happen. There is no other side of the story to that, so climate change stuff and climate science and meteorology fall into that category as well. Yes, there are certainly scientific questions and we should be asking questions and testing and retesting and those things, that’s what science is, but to – listen, you never hear someone say, well I think that that gravity thing is a hoax, so I’m going to jump off this building and see what happens. Yeah, we’ll say climate change is a hoax, as if we have some different level of merit in terms of its science legitimacy.
Tanya: Where do you think we are going wrong as a society with climate change? Is it that we don’t understand the potential repercussions of it and that’s why there’s such a large disagreement about it that turned into whether it’s valid or not? How do we end up questioning something that is based on science?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I think that’s my point. I don’t think it’s as large as people think it is. I think there are loud voices but I think the majority of people, based on recent polling that I see and even movements that I see, I don’t think it’s as large – I just think the 9% crowd is very loud and they, in some cases, have some very influential voices. I think the majority of people get it. Now, at the end of the day it still boils down to the fact that some of the doubt and some of the skepticism is not so much related to the science as it is the fear of what has to be done.
Climate change, there’s mitigation, which is you’ve got to reduce, somehow, the amount of carbon emissions in the atmosphere and that takes on different forms. It can be capping trade, it can be carbon tax, it can be everyone buying an electric car. It can be eating less beef. Those are all mitigation strategies. There are adaptation strategies. You just retrofit buildings with air conditioning or build seawalls around places that flood. Those are adaptation strategies. I think a lot of the angst and denialism comes from the fact that if you, for example, go from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable-based economy, there are winners and losers. They don’t have to be because some of the companies that are invested in fossil fuel energy is now starting to be big players in solar and [39:11] and other alternative fuel supplies. I think one of the big mistakes is that for so long, certain people saw threat or challenge in the solution space for climate change but in fact, there is opportunity as well.
Tanya: What do you think from a leadership standpoint is going to be needed to really stabilize the climate?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: This question I’ll answer from multiple perspectives. We need scientific leadership. We need scientists like me to step out and lead and be able to get out there and speak. If we’re not speaking to the media or policymakers, then people with misinformation messages are happy to fill the void. We’ve got to lead on that because part of it is a messaging. We know what the science says but we’ve got to lead on engaging. We’ve got to lead on sharing information in a way that people can understand it, instead of showing our fancy graphs and equations. We’ve got to have the message fine-tuned. That’s one layer of the leadership.
Two, we have to have leadership not just at the federal level but at state, local and regional levels. We do have that because I think that’s where a lot of the action and progress is going to take place. Ultimately, we do have to lead as a nation too. With the United States not being in the Paris agreement, for the United States to not be leading anymore on renewables, China and others are starting to really come up and, in some cases, pass us on new technology, those have direct impact on things that have nothing to do with climate. Just about our ability to maintain our leaderships in technology, sustainability, resilient systems, resilient environments and infrastructure.
There are opportunities for leaders, irrespective of your political leanings, conservative, liberal, libertarian, independent, whatever you are, we only have one planet, so it’s going to take not only leadership, it’s going to take bold leadership. It’s going to take, in some cases, going against the grain, if you will, and [technique].
Tanya: What is predictable to happen if what you just outlined doesn’t happen?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Well, I think we will start to – I think from a science standpoint, we’re trying to keep warming below 1.5 degrees, 2 degrees Celsius. Again, for those of us that live in the States, it’s an even larger number if we convert Celsius to Fahrenheit. We think we reach that 2 degree Celsius tipping point, if you will, which is what the Paris agreement was trying to prevent, then we are going to start to see some of these tipping point things start. Things are bad enough as it is, but the problem that many people don’t understand is that the increases that we’re going to see in the next zero to 50 years or going to happen in an exponential or very rapid pace. They’re not going to be incremental or linear increases. The more time we wait on action, the further along the exponentially increasing curve of crisis we go.
Tanya: When you say things are going to increase exponentially, what –
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I’m talking about things like sea level rise, melting of the ice caps, the intensity of drought and rainstorms that are causing flooding. The rapid shifts in agricultural belts where we can grow certain things. The movement of a mosquito that can carry dengue that used to only live in Panama or wherever, can now live in South Georgia. These types of things. Things that we’re seeing slowing happen before our eyes are going to accelerate.
Tanya: I know that the increase, and some even call it an epidemic, of Lyme disease in some cases has been connected to climate change. What’s your view on that?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Yeah that makes sense to me. I think the vector, the tick that carries Lyme, I don’t think it could even live in parts of Canada several decades ago, but now it can. Canadian doctors, in the last several years ago, have had to learn how to treat Lyme disease. We’ve got many examples like that, it’s not just Lyme disease. That’s one that’s often cited but so many examples of changes in – even here in the State of Georgia for example, most people have allergies. Because of change in climate, pollen and trees bloom at different times of the year now, earlier, so people are suffering from allergies sooner. That has an impact on your comfort level. It has an impact on your healthcare costs.
In some cases, going back to something you asked me earlier, the mistake that we’ve probably made as a science and messaging community, is we just haven’t connected the dots for people. We’ve spent to much time talking about polar bears and 208 and 2100, when there’s plenty to talk about in 2019 and are right there in our own backyard.
Tanya: Yes, absolutely. I love that you said that because if people actually get that some of the things that are happening today are happening because of climate change, it makes it real for them. It makes it tangible and it gives them an incentive to act, so I love that. I love that you’re doing that.
Misinformation, this is something that you’ve been quite outspoken about. What is the number one or two misinformation out there about climate change?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Oh my gosh! Again, I [don’t know] if I can give it. Of course, you hear all the time the climate changes naturally. Well, I always respond to that by saying, grass grow naturally too but if you put fertilizer on the soil, it grows differently. That’s irrelevant. It’s not either or, it’s “and”. You have natural climate change and you have an anthropogenic or human [signal] on top of it.
The other thing we always hear and scientists want, there’s a financial interest. Science isn’t saying this. That’s ridiculous. I don’t know any climate scientist that got into this business to get rich, but I know certainly plenty of people in some of the industries that are promoting this information, certainly live in gated communities and those types of thing. That’s a false narrative that gets out there as well.
You hear these things that I call zombie theories because they’ve long been refuted by the scientists but they live on, on blogs, social media, and on radio stations. Things like it’s caused by the sun or there’s a lot of good things can happen from climate change or it hasn’t warmed since 1998. You just hear all of these zombie theories.
By the way, if you want to see scientific debunking of them, there’s a really awesome website called skepticalscience.com that is run by scientists that debunks all these climate myths.
Tanya: Okay, skepticalscience.com?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Skepticalscience.com, yes. There’s another one called realclimate.org, too. They’re both very good.
Tanya: On a lighter note, do you have any funny or interesting stories that you can share about a time that you met somebody highly influential or famous?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I’ve met my share of famous people because – just in the world that I orbit in. I hosted a show on the Weather channel called Weather Geeks, which is still [out as] a podcast by the way. Check out the Weather Geek’s podcast put out by the Weather channel. We talk all things weather and climate. I’m just trying to think back. Last year, I met a member of one of probably the hottest, if not the hottest, rap group out there right now. A group called Migos was in my studio. I was really surprised to find out that I know not only – not only that met him but I’m actually pretty good friends with his parents. I thought it was just funny to see the reaction of my students when they find out I know a member of Migos.
Tanya: Yes, such a different industry but that’s amazing.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: One of the things that I try to pride myself on, I’m a scientist and I do all the things that scientists do but I’m a pretty – if you meet me outside of my science hat, I’m a pretty regular, ordinary guy that just does regular ordinary things. I think it catches people off guard sometimes when they see me and interact with me. In a way, the personality didn’t necessarily fit what I expected when I heard that you were this renowned, whatever, scientist.
Tanya: Yeah, absolutely, I would echo that. What are you mostly focused on now? Where does most of your time go to?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I’m the Director of the Atmospheric Sciences program here at the University of Georgia, which is growing rapidly, so I spend a great deal of time between that, teaching my classes. I have research projects and grants from NASA from the Ray C. Anderson Foundation, US [48:03] and various others. Those research projects and mentoring my graduate students certainly keep me busy.
I do a lot of external things. I currently chair NASA’s Earth Sciences Advisory Committee. I’ve been the President of the American Meteorological Society in the past. I divide my time between those things. Then at home, I’ve got two kids, a teenager and a preteen that are very active in sports, so family life keeps me busy too.
Tanya: Well it seems like you have a full plate, a really full plate! For the folks that want to get in touch with you, how do they do that?
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: I’m pretty easy to find on Twitter @drshepherd2013. I’m pretty active on social media. I also have a public Facebook page too, if you just Google my name as well. I’m pretty easy to find. I have a website, drmarshallshepherd.com also.
Tanya: Well Dr. Shepherd, thank you so much for taking the time and sharing all of your amazing incredible knowledge.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Oh absolutely, I enjoyed it.
Tanya: It was a pleasure to have you.
Dr. Marshall Shepherd: Oh happy to be here and thank you for inviting me.