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A conversation with climate scientist Dr. Kate Marvel

Kate Marvel
Kate Marvel

As a follow-up to the NOAA Climate Program Office (CPO) series celebrating Women’s History Month, CPO communications analyst Amber Liggett interviewed climate scientist Dr. Kate Marvel. Kate has been funded by CPO’s Modeling, Analysis, Predictions, and Projections (MAPP) program. She is also co-lead of the NOAA Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) Task Force. 

Kate is a Research Scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Columbia Center for Climate Systems Research. Kate is a well-known science writer and storyteller based in New York City. 

In addition to discussing Women’s History Month, our interview explored Kate’s work with NOAA, her climate science career generally, and her extraordinary work as a public scientist. 

Can you describe your history working with NOAA, specifically your work/role on NOAA’s Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) task force? 

CMIP, the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project, is the overall framework for different climate modeling groups. CMIP6 is a way to basically standardize the models— to have them all perform the same exact experiments with our models and to look at the diversity of responses to try to figure out what we understand, what we need to work on, and what we don’t understand. The task force is designed to bring together researchers working on different aspects of climate models, and try to figure out what are common areas of research, what are things that we really need to understand, and how do we present our results in a way that is maximally useful for the people who need to hear and understand them.

CMIP6 has had many publications come out. I worked on one CMIP6 project from FY19-20 which was extended into FY21. The project was funded by MAPP and focused on drought reconstructions and what happens to drought risk as the world warms. Several publications, including one entitled “Projected Changes to Hydroclimate Seasonality in the Continental United States,” came out in 2021.

Your extensive climate research publications through NASA Goddard Institute for Space Sciences (GISS) date back to 2008. Do you have a favorite project and publication and why?

My favorite publication is one that came out in Nature in 2019 where we were looking at the risk of drought. It was my favorite because it combined several different lines of evidence—basic theoretical understanding, climate models, and tree ring-based reconstructions of past climates.

We were basically looking at what is the fingerprint that you would expect human activities to make on global drought conditions. We know that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doesn’t just dry out the entire planet. Instead, it makes some regions rainy and some regions drier. And that gives you a characteristic spatial pattern. And we basically looked for that spatial pattern in reconstructions of past droughts. And we looked for it in recent observations. And what we could see very clearly was the emergence of this human fingerprint, or characteristic spatial pattern, on global drought conditions. That was really evident even as early as the beginning of the last century. 

In a previous interview (2017 Columbia News article), you mentioned that periods of climate extremes can influence human culture and politics–such as the rise of the Mongol Empire and the writing of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. What other stories have you used successfully to reach people on the subject of climate? What makes these stories effective in engaging the public? 

The most painful thing for me has been the realization that it’s not enough to be right. It’s not enough to do good science. It’s not enough to say things that are true, because people don’t relate to graphs and equations and charts, people relate to stories. There’s no one story that’s going to resonate with everybody. There’s no one story that’s going to work on everybody. So that’s why I think it’s very, very important that we have a whole huge diversity of scientists speaking of talent-based stories, because the messenger matters too. People who aren’t gonna listen to me may listen to you. Or somebody else. So I think that’s why it’s really important that we’re all out there and we’re all telling stories.

Can you share other stories that you’ve used that resonated with different audiences?

For folks who identify as conservative or fans of the free market, you can talk about the insurance industry or the military, both of which take climate change very seriously and incorporate it into their current and future plans. For people who are deeply invested in issues of economic and racial justice, you can talk about environmental justice: how climate change worsens existing inequalities and how climate solutions can help make the world fairer. For kids, you can talk about all the helpers who are working on ways to make the world better and get them excited about being a part of the solution. 

The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication produces the Global Warming’s Six Americas framework, which breaks the American public into six unique audiences, depending on their opinion on climate change. During public speaking, how do you use this framework? 

The Global Warming’s Six Americas survey is super fascinating. They do regular polling of the American public, and they essentially divide people into six categories, where you’ve got the alarmed, concerned, the cautious and all the way down to the hardcore deniers. And that bucket of hardcore deniers, that’s a small fraction of the population. So in thinking of calibrating your message to reach that very tiny fraction of the population that really doesn’t want to be convinced–I’m not sure that’s a good use of our time. 

I think there’s so many people, either in the middle who say, this seems like something that I’m receptive to hearing about, but I don’t understand how this is going to affect me, or the people who are cautious or alarmed, or concerned, but don’t know what to do. So I think it’s much more effective, and it’s much more satisfying to talk to people in those groups, because there’s a lot more of them and it’s not as frustrating. People haven’t made up their minds. They’re receptive. 

Kate giving a Ted Talk in 2017 titled Can clouds save us from climate change?

What are the greatest challenges in being a public scientist–a climate scientist who consistently enters the public eye and discusses issues outside the traditional medium of academic journals? 

I think that the traditional academic structure isn’t very well set up to handle this. Being a public scientist doesn’t belong in the traditional academic track. It does not help you achieve tenure. So, as a result, it can be kind of downgraded, or discouraged. I think that’s silly because what we do is really important, and people need to hear about it. But the fact that it doesn’t really fit very well with the existing academic structure. 

We know that becoming a public science communicator does not speed a scientist’s progress towards academic tenure, so what professional benefits are there to being a public scientist? 

Being a good communicator makes you a better scientist. Our work is interdisciplinary–

spanning oceans, land, atmosphere, ice, ecosystems, and human and social systems. To ask and answer good questions, you need to be good at crossing these disciplinary lines. Clearly communicating what you’re studying and why it matters–it helps you talk to others and identify tools and methods that can help you in your work.

Kate teaching climate science students at Columbia University

What resources do you recommend for scientists who are entering the public eye for the first time and wish to become better communicators?

What helps me is to read a lot. You can’t be a good writer unless you’re a good reader. This is not just reading scientific papers, but news articles, fiction and poetry.

I think public speaking is scary and it’s not for everybody. There’s other ways you can be involved. If that is something that appeals to you, there’s so much opportunity to practice. Lots of people want to hear what scientists have to say. You can talk at schools, you can talk in churches, community centers, and libraries. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but practice makes better.

What challenges have you faced as a woman in a male-dominated field? 

There can be a perception that you don’t know what you’re talking about. People assume that you don’t know math, or you don’t know physics, or you don’t know how to code. I think in public communication, I get a lot of gendered blowback. The nasty names that I’m called are very gendered. 

But I’ve been very fortunate in my career to have really supportive, awesome mentors. So I feel really relieved and lucky about that. My mentors include the staff at PCMDI, which is at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Ben Santer, Karl Taylor, Celine Bonfils. They were amazing. Right now at NASA Goddard, Gavin Schmidt and my collaborator Been Cook have been fantastic. Then in the field, Gabriele Hegerl and Claudia Tebaldi, who are leading lights in the field of detection attribution, have just been incredible. So very very glad for all of those people. 

Women’s History Month honors women’s often overlooked contributions to American history. What does it mean to you? 

It’s a chance to step back and evaluate the way we tell the story of science. A lot of times when we tell the story of how science has advanced, it’s focused on great men. “This brilliant man discovered this thing nobody knew anything about before.” And that’s how science works. Right? 

Science, however, is very collaborative. It’s building on everything that’s been done before. Now we have these Nobel Prizes, which are given to individual people. But most of the science that I do, and most of the science that I really admire, is done by really large research teams where everyone is working together. That’s not to say that there haven’t been individual women who’ve made incredible contributions to their fields. Eunice Foote was one of the first to suggest that there might be a greenhouse effect. 

So I think Women’s History Month is a chance to reevaluate the whole way that we tell the story of science to make it more accurate and more reflective of how it’s actually done.

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