This article is part of our Women and Leadership special section, which focuses on approaches taken by women, minorities or other disadvantaged groups challenging traditional ways of thinking.
Kate Marvel is an energetic spokeswoman for climate science at a time when misinformation about climate change seems to be at its peak and world leaders appear confused about a way forward.
Dr. Marvel, an associate research scientist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University, has committed herself to clearly communicating to the public the facts about a changing climate through her writing and talks.
Her TED Talk in 2017 was watched by more than a million people and she writes the Hot Planet column for Scientific American. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge and did postdoctoral research at Stanford University and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.
How did you become a climate scientist?
I got my Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cambridge. Then I got kind of frustrated with the field that I was in while I was in graduate school and I wanted to do something more applied. I wanted to do something that was more relevant to people’s lives and would make more of a difference. And I got a postdoc fellowship at Stanford, where they let me work on whatever I wanted as long as it had a science component and a policy component. I dabbled in a couple things and then I found climate science and I haven’t looked back since.
What was it that captured your attention?
I love that everything on the planet is connected. I love that things are both predictable and very complex. I say I went to grad school to study the whole universe and then I realized that this is the best place in the entire universe. Things like the fact that the rising air from the tropics sinks and when it sinks that’s where it creates the great deserts of the world. So we wouldn’t have deserts if it weren’t for the tropics. I think that’s beautiful.
Your TED Talk focused on the role of clouds in climate change. What are you researching right now?
My research goes in two directions. One is this question of what does climate change look like and is it happening. That means how is climate change affecting the variables that we care about. Not just temperature, but things like rainfall, globally and locally, things like cloud cover. So a lot of my research is focused on understanding the changes that we are experiencing and putting them in context.
I’m also interested in something called climate sensitivity, which is basically: How hot is it going to get? The number one reason we don’t know how hot it’s going to get is we don’t know what we’re going to do. We don’t know what emissions are going to look like. Even if we were to remove that uncertainty, we still couldn’t say with 100 percent confidence how hot it was going to get. That’s because there is a lot we don’t understand about a changing climate.
What does your day-to-day look like?
I’m teaching in the Columbia master’s program in climate and society right now. I’m just teaching one class. And then I am mostly focused on my research. I am basically a computational and theoretical scientist. I work with models, I work with satellite observations, I work with paleoclimate reconstructions to look at what the climate was like millions of years ago or thousands of years ago. I am not a field scientist, I don’t go out and collect samples. I love teaching, but I really love talking to other scientists. I’ve been incredibly lucky where I am pretty much supported to do whatever is interesting to me. So I’ve been able to work on a really wide variety of different projects that interest me.
We often hear about how few women there are still in science, both in colleges and in the industry. What would help to get more women into fields like yours?
There are definitely structural barriers: the structure of the academic career track, where generally you are expected to move to wherever there is a job and you are expected to be very portable. And you are expected to do short-term contracts, during the time when a lot of people are interested in building families and settling down. It can be a major disincentive for not only women but anyone who is not economically comfortable or has a certain degree of privilege. I think there is so much focus on “how do we get girls interested in science?” Girls are interested in science! We need to focus on systemic changes.
You’ve done a lot of writing and talks and have a public profile. Do you ever encounter sexism in that realm?
I’ve definitely had gendered pushback. But I also think being a woman in climate, being a woman scientist, I am in just fantastic company. The other women scientists who work in climate who have public profiles, they’ve all had pushback as well, but we support each other. I’m just incredibly fortunate to know a lot of these people. It definitely helps when people are calling you ugly things on the internet.
How do you approach people who are climate change skeptics?
The more I’ve been talking about climate change in public, the more I’ve realized my urge to counter that by giving people facts and figures and graphs and equations, that doesn’t really work. People don’t reject climate science because they need more facts. A lot of times, rejection of climate science comes from another place, it comes from “this is fundamentally conflicting with some deep organizational principle that I believe, the story that I tell myself that makes everything make sense.” I’m really not always going to be able to change someone’s mind. I’ve also been kind of forgiving myself; you’re not going to get to everybody.
Are we doomed? Is there hope?
We can be doomed, if we choose to be. I think it is true that our choices in this coming decade really, really matter. We have to take drastic action A.S.A.P. That is true. A lot of people say catastrophic climate change is inevitable. Climate change is inevitable; it’s already happening. But there is a difference between bad, disruptive and completely catastrophic. And we still have time to prevent that catastrophe.