Voyages of Discovery

Meteorologist James Marshall Shepherd spoke about climate change during the East Carolina University’s Thomas Harriot College of Art and Sciences (TCHAS) most recent Voyages of Discovery lecture.

East Carolina University’s Thomas Harriot College of Art and Sciences (TCHAS) held a lecture in its ongoing Voyages of Discovery series focused around climate change in a virtual livestream last night from 7 to 8:30 with meteorologist James Marshall Shepherd.

Shepherd works at the University of Georgia and spent much of his career at the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) Goddard Space Flight Center, according to Dean of THCAS and ECU Chemistry Professor Allison Dannell.

ECU Professor of Atmospheric Science Tom Rickenbach said he was honored to host the event, which is the last lecture in the 2020 to 2021 Voyages of Discovery series.

Shepherd focused the discussion around major weather topics such as Hurricane Florence, which hit the North Carolina coast in September 2018. Shepherd said Hurricane Florence affected farmers in eastern North Carolina, and expressed how important the industry was to North Carolina.

“Because we (the earth) have a natural cycle, that doesn’t mean that human processes can’t impact the natural cycle,” Shepherd said, in refetene to climate change cycles.

Shepherd also mentioned normalcy bias in his speech, a concept which he described as an expectation of weather to be similar to how it has always been in a certain area. Shepherd cited Hurricane Harvey’s massive floods as an example of citizens not expecting a larger storm or harsher weather conditions.

If the planet was a human, weather would be its mood and climate its personality, according to Shepherd. Shepherd used this analogy to describe the difference between climate and weather, as many don’t believe in climate change because of one weather event.

The extremes are becoming more extreme, and that is a major factor people will notice about climate change going forward, Shepherd said.

“What we’re seeing with climate change is very much a here and now issue,” Shepherd said.

Rickenbach and Shepherd answered prepared questions as well as questions from the audience about the lecture and climate change in general. This closed Shepherd’s introduction for the event.

One of the first questions posed by Rickenbach focused on the prevalence of conspiracy theories on social media. He asked Shepherd how he believed scientists could compete with sensational misinformation which can easily become viral on social media. Shepherd said scientists can combat this misinformation by being part of the conversation on social media themselves.

“If we (scientists) aren’t there pushing back or clarifying or putting credible information out there then it (misinformation) will swamp the signal. It will become the signal instead of the noise, so that’s why I argue that we have to engage in those spaces,” Shepherd said.

The discussion then shifted to examine similarities between the social culture surrounding COVID-19 and climate change. Rickenbach said although climate change is a gradual process, COVID-19 captured the world’s attention in a short amount of time.

Shepherd said the potential for a pandemic like COVID-19 was predicted by scientists in the past just as scientists have predicted the catastrophic effects of climate change. He said there are principles from the response to COVID-19 that can apply to a response to climate change.

“With COVID(-19), we changed some of our practices. We social distance, we wear (face) masks, we put sanitizer on in various places. There are certainly practices we can change to move us into the right direction on climate change in terms of our energy consumption, our habits in terms of eating and so forth,” Shepherd said.

People will trust scientists when they find common ground with them, according to Shepherd. He said scientists taking the time to come to the level of understanding of an individual or population and find shared experiences, they will make better progress toward gaining the trust of those individuals or populations.

In relation to the topic of COVID-19, Rickenbach spoke about some of the reasons people may harbor a mistrust for scientists. He cited the issue of face mask wearing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and that some people do not believe in the efficacy of this practice.

“To trust a scientist means that you acknowledge shared values with them. Today, many Americans don’t trust scientists, in part because they feel that many scientists might not share their same values and you know that could lead to the rejection of science in certain corners of modern society,” Rickenbach said.

In the second half of the discussion, an audience member asked if there were advancements possible which would make weather forecasts more geographically specific. Shepherd explained that forecasting technologies and models were not made to predict any confidence level, but rather to predict a probability of a certain weather event occurring.

Shepherd reinforced several times throughout the lecture that weather predictions will never be right all of the time. He said weather apps that claim to provide minute-by-minute forecasts contribute to this misconception and create “appmospheric meteorologists” who think their weather applications are accurate. He said predictions by definition cannot be perfect.

“If we can just shift the mindset of the public to understand that, you know focus on the fact is 90% plus of the time those severe weather forecasts did pan out in Greenville, this one was a miss so why was it a miss and what can we learn from it,” Shepherd said. “That doesn’t erode credibility at all if people sort of understand the fact of forecasts are not perfect, and no forecast in any field (can be), and any time you’re predicting anything.”

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