Marshall Shepherd: "Zombies, Cola, and Sports: Implications for Communicating Weather and Climate"

Dr. Marshall Shepherd speaks at Georgia Tech about climate change communication.

By Kelsey Abernathy

Published Feb 21, 2018

On February 11, 2019, Georgia Tech’s Global Change Program hosted Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a leading international expert in weather and climate. Throughout the day, Dr. Shepherd participated in several public-facing events, including a talk on his research, a Q&A session with undergraduates, and finally, a public lecture. Attendees left each of these events feeling more prepared to tackle the challenges of communicating about issues related to the current climate crisis.

In his talk, “Zombies, Cola, and Sports: Implications for Communicating Weather and Climate,” Dr. Shepherd outlined several challenges that can arise when communicators address these topics with various types of audiences. He then challenged the attendees’ own preconceptions and beliefs about weather and climate, after which he offered concrete solutions for overcoming the communication challenges he’d identified -- such as the common practice of inadvertently alienating the audience with an overuse of jargon or complicated scientific data. Dr. Shepherd’s talk provided various strategies one could use to overcome these concerns in order to ethically convey the relevant information to the public, such as using a psychological approach to craft memorable content and supporting this content with scientific evidence. This type of approach allows the communicator to provide information in such a way that it does not inadvertently alienate the target audience.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd discussing the importance of why climate change directly impacts lives.

Interestingly, Dr. Shepherd started his lecture by asking a single question: “So what?” He asserted that “we must communicate the ‘so what,’” or the underlying importance of weather and climate issues, in order to illustrate to our audiences why they should care about climate change and how it directly impacts their lives. By answering this question for our audiences, we can surmount their preconceptions about the state of the world today and move toward implementing policies to reduce our collective impacts on the environment.

Many of the challenges communicators face emerge from audience’s biases with respect to climate-related issues. In his talk, Dr. Shepherd humorously referred to these strongly-held biases as “zombie theories” -- or theories that refuse to die, even though scientists have repeatedly proved them wrong. These theories are kept alive, Dr. Shepherd joked, by “app-mospheric scientists” and “social media-rologists.” He asserted that the best way to combat these “experts” and the further dissemination of misinformation is to continue to increase climate literacy by using more accessible vocabulary and rhetoric to communicate about climate and its impacts.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd listening to a question.

To illustrate his points, Dr. Shepherd closed his lecture with a picture of a South Georgia farmer surveying the resulting damage to his crops following Hurricane Michael, a severe storm caused by an increase in extreme weather due to climate change. Dr. Shepherd pointed out that “it’s far more meaningful to your cousin at Thanksgiving dinner or to a policymaker to tell that story than to show a trend line.” Overall, Dr. Shepherd illustrated the importance of employing pathos and understanding one’s audience when communicating about our planet’s future, providing concrete steps to make strides toward a better collective future along the way.

To watch the live stream of Dr. Shepherd’s lecture, click here.