Meteorologist, climate expert, zombie slayer: a Q&A with J. Marshall Shepherd

Weather is not climate. A single devastating hurricane is not in itself proof that climate change is tipping the scales in favor of larger, slower-moving, and more extreme storms. But the notion that the two are entirely separate is a misconception, too. 

“They’ve always been connected,” said J. Marshall Shepherd, a meteorologist at the University of Georgia. “I just think there’s been a misunderstanding.” 

Shepherd, who chairs NASA’s Earth Sciences Advisory Committee and has testified numerous times before Congress about climate change, is a former president of the American Meteorological Society and was the co-host of The Weather Channel’s Weather Geeks podcast. He has dedicated much of his career to correcting misconceptions about climate change. His 2013 TED talk, “Slaying the Climate Zombies” — one of the most-viewed climate lectures on YouTube — argues for turning climate change into a “dining room–table issue.” In it, he connects rising temperatures, extreme weather, and ballooning drought to things people care about: the future their children will inherit and the rising cost of household items like Cheerios. 

“I’m here to slay the zombie climate theories and awaken climate literacy,” Shepherd says during his TED talk. That includes dispelling misconceptions around weather and climate, which he says are often circulated by people with “devious intent.”

Grist recently caught up with Shepherd to talk about what the future of climate action in the U.S. might look like. What follows is a transcript of that conversation, shortened and edited for clarity.


Q. Have you noticed a shift in how people think about and talk about climate change in recent years or even months?

A. A lot of people were really depressed about what was happening in the past presidential administration. We pulled out of the Paris climate agreement, and all kinds of things happened that people were really upset about. And they should have been. 

But one of the things I noticed was that there was a lot more activity in places like Fortune 500 companies, faith-based organizations, the military, state and local government. So while there were some really ominous things going on in the federal sector, I still think there was a lot of activity in terms of climate change discussion, mitigation plans, climate action plans in cities and local organizations. 

Of course with the new Biden administration, they’re all in on the climate science. But not just climate science — they’re really focused on spreading the climate crisis concern across all facets of government, whether it’s housing and urban development, transportation, energy, and so forth, which is encouraging. I think that’s the right approach. 

Q. So are you feeling hopeful these days?

A. I’m certainly hopeful about the general rebound of respect for the climate science and for scientists. I’m hopeful that there will be a conversation about solutions. 

That’s where all the politics comes in. I’m not naive to the fact that we’ll still be reliant on fossil fuels for some time to come. But there needs to be a fair and sensible conversation about how we move forward. I’m hopeful that we’re now creating a culture at all levels — state, local, federal, and so forth — where businesses and churches and citizens and policymakers are not scared or are fearful of punitive actions if they talk or act on climate. I’m hopeful that we’re moving out of that type of toxic environment. 

Q. Is there something you’re feeling pessimistic about?

A. I’m generally an optimistic person, but I’m always pessimistic about the fact that these things are so dependent upon the political cycle. You know, look, in two years, we could have a completely different composition of Congress. And so you’re likely not to get major legislation with such a tightly divided Congress right now. So that’s always discouraging. 

But on the other hand, again, you know, I hope the culture that we’re creating among corporate America, faith communities, the military, and so forth, can help us build a groundswell that, no matter what your political affiliation is, you’re going to be forced to act on this because people want it. They see the impact on their lives. 

Q. How do we keep the conversation going around this topic? 

A. For too long, scientists, the media, and others have just focused on the climate science and the trend lines and “it’s getting warmer” and “there’s more CO2” and “the anomalies.” That’s been a disservice. 

Biden’s all-government, all-society approach gets at what I call “kitchen-table issues.” We need to stop just talking about how it’s warmer. To me it’s not news anymore that 2020 is the second-warmest year on record, or we just passed the 1.5-whatever mark. That’s just overkill at this point. We know these things are gonna happen. It’s what we expected. 

We’ve got to start telling the stories and telling people and policymakers about the implications to their grocery bill, their water supply, their public health — the “so what?” factor that ordinary people resonate with. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Meteorologist, climate expert, zombie slayer: a Q&A with J. Marshall Shepherd on Mar 19, 2021.

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