“Kids — that’s what motivates my thinking on climate,” said Marshall Shepherd, director of the Atmospheric Sciences Program at the University of Georgia. He spoke to an earnest crowd of more than 80 people on Feb. 23 in UNC Asheville’s Highsmith University Union.
Shepherd focused on the importance of establishing an open line of clear communication between the public and the scientific community during the presentation, which was hosted by the Asheville, UNCA and Upstate Chapters of the American Meteorological Society.
Given the title of the talk — Zombies, Sports, and Cola: What does it mean for Communicating Weather and Climate? — Shepherd had quite a bit of explaining to do. Remarkably, however, the former NASA scientist managed to demonstrate, with these seemingly disparate subjects, how a significant portion of the public (mis)understands meteorology — and how the problem may be solved.
There’s a disconnect between scientists and the rest of the population, said Shepherd, and misinformation has filled the corresponding void. That misinformation has been promulgated by social media sites and applications. “I believe that too many scientists are comfortable in their Ivory Towers,” Shepherd said. “We as scientists have to engage [the public], because we have the knowledge.”
He outlined some of what he saw as being the most significant challenges to communicating with the public about climate and weather, and he devoted his opening salvo to explaining the difference between those two concepts. Shepherd cited a “fundamental lack of understanding” of what separates weather and climate. “Weather is a mood; climate is a personality,” he explained. In other words, a region’s atmospheric conditions over time define its “climate,” while that same region’s current atmospheric conditions at any given moment comprise its “weather.”
That distinction having been made, Shepherd discussed the struggle to overcome perception, caused by scientific misinformation, with reality. An impromptu audience quiz (that not everyone passed) drove his point home. “Perception informs people’s misunderstanding of weather,” Shepherd said. He added, “Changing those perceptions is a big challenge.”
Especially when zombies enter the picture. Shepherd noted that what he termed “Climate Zombie Theories” were much to blame for all the confusion. According to Shepherd, a “Climate Zombie Theory” is a theory that, no matter how convincingly it is shown to be false, simply refuses to die. “It is a theory that has been disproved but that lives on (in large part due to social media),” Shepherd said. Among those theories, he listed the idea that human beings have played no part in climate change. “Climate change is natural,” Shepherd admitted, “but humans are like a steroid patch on top of natural climate change.”
Although he cited several instances of how poor communication or outright misinformation has misled the general public, Shepherd also offered solutions to those challenges. For instance, he recommended framing the weather-water-climate debate in business terms. He offered anecdotes about how Coca-Cola had, in the past, blamed climate for a rise in the cost of its ingredients. That tactic seemed to garner people’s attention. “Frame it as a business,” Shepherd advised.
At the most fundamental level, though, Shepherd advocated educating the populace. “A better-informed public will be able to know when and which strategies are being used against us,” he said. He drew a parallel to the health risks posed by tobacco and tobacco companies’ initial protestations of innocence.
On a positive note, Shepherd did point out a recent poll indicating that 91 percent of Americans are “very” or “moderately” interested in new scientific discoveries. Given that bawdy percentage, it would seem that U.S. citizens at least want to learn — regardless of their field of study.
Perhaps with that statistic in mind, Shepherd closed by saying: “As we consider these challenges going forward, I invite you to carry this message with you — whether you are a scientist or not.”
Dr. Marshall Shepherd is the director of the Atmospheric Sciences program at the University of Georgia. He was the former president of the AMS and currently hosts a television program titled “WxGeeks” on “The Weather Channel.”