Catching Up With … J. Marshall Shepherd
University of Georgia professor and meteorologist provides insights on climate change challenges and solutions.
Georgia Athletic Association Distinguished Professor of Geography and Atmospheric Sciences, University of Georgia Meteorologist Marshall Shepherd, who grew up in Canton, is an international authority on weather and climate and a past president of the American Meteorological Society. These are edited highlights of an interview with him.
Q: Give us the big picture on climate change.
A: We are living climate change. It’s not about a polar bear at the Arctic Circle. It is about Georgians and our agriculture and our seafood and our public health and our infrastructure. Every corner of Georgians’ lives is impacted by weather – rainfall, hurricane, droughts. We know from scientific study that the intensity and frequency of many of these events is changing and will continue to change.
Q: Is there really still resistance to the idea of climate change?
A: There are a few naysayers, but that voice is waning. The scientific literature is pretty clear. I think politicians, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, are increasingly understanding that sea levels rising, more intense and frequent heat waves, variety in drought and flooding, intensity of hurricanes are all things that affect the “kitchen table” issues. It’s not about some science project or grant. It is about how much you are paying for cereal when you go to the grocery store when there’s a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and fuel [prices] spike.
Q: What has made people more aware of climate change?
A: Much of what is happening is what we as climate scientists said 20 or 30 years ago was going to happen. Unfortunately, in some cases it’s happening faster and [with] more intensity than we predicted. Our proud state is very dependent on agriculture, and drought impacts our agricultural production. With Hurricane Michael, we saw destruction that tallied in the billions.
Q: You have written about the sociological aspects of climate change and the inherent inequities. Can you elaborate?
A: Any extreme event, whether it’s weather- or climate-related or COVID, for that matter, will impact certain people disproportionally. Look at Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. Everyone was impacted but some people – poor populations, certain racial groups, age groups – bore more of the brunt. [That’s] often related to pre-existing economic gaps. They’re going to be predisposed to greater harm and impact from those events.
Q: As far as hurricanes, what sort of trends are you seeing?
A: What scientific literature has always suggested and what we are seeing globally is hurricanes and their sisters, cyclones and typhoons, are becoming more intense. Another thing we’re seeing is more occurrences of rapid intensification. Hurricanes as they are approaching landfall – overnight they’ve gone from a Category 3 to Category 5, increasing in intensity over a short period of time.
Q: Why is that?
A: Much of global warming is in the oceans. Oceans are heating up dramatically. The fuel supply for hurricanes is ocean water. The water is just warmer. They get stronger quickly [like] Hurricane Michael.
Q: Do you see any ready solutions to climate change challenges?
A: Two things. I am involved with colleagues at Georgia Tech, Emory and [other] universities in an effort called the Georgia Climate Project, a consortium of academic and business partners and others looking at climate change. It’s done in a very objective, scientific, nonpartisan way to try to provide resources and information to policy makers and business leaders. And Draw Down Georgia, looking at what are the top 20 or so solutions applicable in Georgia to help us reduce carbon emissions. We want to crunch the numbers of what would have the most impact on Georgia by 2030. The Ray C. Anderson Foundation funded both of these efforts. It’s important when the business sector is starting to take notice of climate change. I also think having the faith-based communities involved and having a bipartisan discussion is progress.
Q: It sounds as though you are at least somewhat optimistic?
A: The glass is half full. I’m very worried about the state of our climate system and the changes in our extreme weather, but I’m optimistic about the trends in discussions and policy momentum concerning it. Part of the optimism is because I see it becoming increasingly less partisan.