Oct. 18, 2019

UCalgary climatologist enters policy realm with Environment and Climate Change Canada

Shawn Marshall appointed as its first-ever departmental science adviser

Despite his status as one of Canada’s foremost climatologists, Dr. Shawn Marshall, PhD – a professor in the Department of Geography who recently began a two-year appointment with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) as its first-ever departmental science adviser – did not begin his career with a particular focus on climate. 

Rather, the avid outdoorsman was drawn from early childhood to glaciers. “Growing up in Ontario, biking and cross-country skiing on that amazing, glacially sculpted terrain, I was always fascinated that the landscape of Canada was shaped by the movements of these huge ice sheets which molded our world,” he recalls. 

While completing his BSc degree in engineering physics at the University of Toronto, Marshall attended a lecture by Dr. Garry Clarke, a professor of glaciology from the University of British Columbia. Inspired by Clarke’s talk, he made the move to UBC, where he pursued his PhD in geophysics, with a focus on glacier dynamics. 

“I started off in glaciology, not thinking of climate change that much,” he says. “I was interested in the cycles of the Ice Age more than anything. But eventually, most glaciologists are swept into climate change, because our glaciers are reacting so profoundly to these changes. 

“Glaciers are one of the clearest markers of climate change because they have no resilience,” Marshall asserts. “Ecological systems can adapt, to some extent, and species can shift and migrate, though eventually they’ll run out of space. Humans have an even great capacity to adapt, as we’re hammered by climate change. But ice and snow? Forget it. Glaciers, permafrost, sea ice, these are melting beneath our feet.” 

Arriving at the University of Calgary in 2000, Marshall’s work in ice sheet dynamics evolved to include glacier-climate processes and the troubling effects of melting glaciers on rising sea levels. In 2007, he earned a Canada Research Chair (Tier 2) in Climate Change, a position he held for a decade. His studies have taken him to Greenland, Iceland, Arctic Canada, and the Rockies, where he has documented a similar story of glacier decline at each stop. 

But despite his invaluable research contributions, not to mention his societal service, educating the public about the current and impending dangers of climate change, Marshall admits to feeling discouraged, wondering if his message was really being heard. 

“It can be frustrating,” he says. “I go in and out of optimism and pessimism about it. I’ve been working as a researcher in this area for a long time and when you’re publishing, lecturing, talking to the same people at conferences, you wonder after a while, is this going anywhere? Am I making a difference? It’s hard to measure. 

“When it comes to climate change, the questions and challenges to the science aren’t really valid anymore. It’s very clear what is happening. And I could work another 20 years and publish another 100 papers on this topic, but would it make a difference compared to trying to move the ball forward?” 

Marshall felt that to affect real change, he needed to shift his focus toward the realm of governmental policies. This led him to apply for the ECCC’s departmental science adviser position. 

The job is a two-year secondment (with the opportunity for a one-year extension) wherein Marshall will remain an employee of the University of Calgary, while based in Ottawa and dividing his time with ECCC. In his new role, he reports to the Deputy Minister of Environment and Climate Change, Christine Hogan, and the Chief Science Adviser of Canada, Mona Nemer, working across federal departments to promote the accessibility of evidence-based science and research to the public. 

“To clarify, I’m not working as a maker of scientific policies in this position,” says Marshall. “Rather, I’m helping to provide scientifically informed advice to the policy realm. 

“The federal government has networks of scientists and each department can be pretty siloed with their own internal work,” Marshall explains. “They don’t always connect with other departments as effectively as they could. And they don’t always connect with the outside world, such as university researchers, either. I’ll be working to create linkages and synergies to better capitalize on all of this expertise. This will help to leverage our government’s science priorities.” 

While embedded in Ottawa, Marshall will continue his UCalgary work, at a reduced capacity. Last summer he helped to teach a field school in Blue Lake, B.C., and he’s currently developing an online course on climate change, which he’ll deliver from Ottawa to UCalgary students. 

Marshall is stepping into his new position with a sense of purpose. “It’s about contributing to science-driven policies that are palpable,” he says. “I feel like changes are coming too slowly and we’re letting down future generations. I want to see more progress and I think it’s harder to make that happen as a scientist in the trenches.” 

He adds: “I want to see our glaciers survive, to see our climate re-stabilize. I want our future to be better than the trajectory we’re currently on and I want to contribute to national strategies on arctic policy, water resources, the environment. That’s why I feel the need to step out of my comfort zone and my own research world and breach the political and policy scene. Perhaps I can be a stronger voice for science on this side.”