Research to Action: Why are climate solutions diffusing so slowly?

45 years ago, OSU Geography gave me all the tools needed for a successful research career and life of public service.

When I was getting my PhD with three powerhouse geographers (Larry Brown, Reg Golledge, and Kevin Cox), I designed a large NSF (National Science Foundation)-funded survey to analyze the diffusion of innovations. We studied four Appalachian counties in Eastern Ohio that were struggling with their coal economies. We tried to explain the slow uptake of superior and greener technologies. Some of the these were energy-efficient, some were regenerative, and others were financial. We spent a whole summer completing a few hundred mail surveys of farmers ­and interviewing a few dozen equipment dealers, bankers, and policymakers. We were testing Larry’s view that communications (the focus of Torsten Hagerstrand, Larry’s advisor) are just one of many triggers. There are also key incumbent firms, disruptive newcomers, change agents, and key infrastructures with non-ubiquitous footprints.

Marilyn Brown with other Ambassadors of Clean Energy, Education, and Empowerment

We were licensed to use SPSS (spatial statistics tool) to complete OLS (ordinary least squares) regressions and I did some original point pattern calculations to test our largely successful hypotheses. The resulting publications strengthened the science of technological change, helped my tenure review in Geography at nearby University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UI-UC), and resulted in yet another book by Larry.

Marilyn Brown at Georgia Tech, 2018

After 15 years in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Tech, I’m now a Regents Professor. Between Illinois and GT, I managed some large research projects at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. This included producing U.S. climate change technology and policy scenarios – one I presented at COP6 at the Hague. I worked on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Panels and completed a national review of the U.S. Weatherization Assistance Program.

Marilyn Brown and others at IPCC in 2007. Marilyn Brown contributed to the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment reports for which the IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

I also served 2 terms as a Senate-confirmed regulator of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where I helped bring about the retirement of 18 coal units, the largest single shutdown of coal to date.

Swearing in ceremony for TVA appointment in 2013 (second term)

Along with learning to teach again (!), at Georgia Tech I’ve worked for 3 years as the research lead of the Drawdown Georgia project. And last month, we launched a new survey to explain the laborious uptake of superior and greener technologies in Georgia (sound familiar?), which makes for some interesting flashbacks.


We’ve designed a Qualtrics survey to explore hypotheses about our science-based localized climate solutions. And we’ve infused this research with equity questions. Thanks to an on-line panel design, our survey was digitally completed by 1800 Georgia residents in 3 days, well balanced and including an embedded experiment. The data is being examined using open-source RStudio software and a multi-stage model of “willingness to pay” for climate innovations. Combined with the Drawdown Georgia Business Compact and Emissions Dashboard, the scope of our research is broad, creative, and replicable.

Still, many questions will remain unanswered about why climate change solutions are diffusing so slowly. Clearly, we need more OSU-trained geographers.


Marilyn A. Brown, PhD, Geography, the Ohio State University, 1977

Regents’ Professor, Georgia Tech

Marilyn Brown

Climate Change: The Largest Challenge Facing Humanity

This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity and so the theme for Earth Day 2020 is climate action. There are many ways that individuals and organizations can take climate action. As a climatologist in the Department of Geography at The Ohio State University, one of the ways that I am taking action is through helping to assemble, quality control, harmonize and disseminate high-quality climate observations. These data are essential for monitoring and detecting climate variability and climate change. Since 2010, I have been involved in developing the most comprehensive soil moisture database in the United States. With funding from the National Science Foundation, USDA and NOAA, we developed The map shown below indicates the locations where soil moisture measurements are currently being made in the United States. Data from many of these sites are being provided in near-real-time on This includes in situ measurements of soil moisture, satellite-derived soil moisture from NASA SMAP and model-derived soil moisture from NLDAS-2.

Figure 1. Locations of in situ soil moisture sensor networks across the United States from federal- and state-level networks. Credit:

These data fill a critical gap because unlike for other climatological and hydrological variables, there are no national databases for soil moisture. The 2008 report on “Future Climate Change Research and Observations: GCOS, WCRP and IGBP Learning from the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report” (WMO/TD No. 1418) recommended that soil moisture data should be assembled because of its importance for:

(1) improving our understanding of land-atmosphere interactions,

(2) developing seasonal to decadal climate forecasting tools,

(3) calibrating, validating and improving the physical parameterizations in regional and global land surface models (LSM),

(4) developing and validating satellite-derived soil moisture algorithms, and

(5) monitoring and detecting climate variability and change in this key hydrological variable.


Why is soil moisture important?

As we noted in Legates et al. (2011), “soil moisture is not just a process that is integral to climate, geomorphology, and biogeography – it truly lies at the intersection of all three branches of physical geography. A complete understanding of soil moisture and its spatial and temporal variability and impact draws upon interactions among and expertise gained from all three subdivisions. Soil moisture lies at the intersection of climatology, geomorphology, biogeography, and hydrology, thereby providing true integration of the subdisciplines rather than just supplying a common theme.” Soil moisture influences the exchange of energy and water between the land surface and atmosphere. Soil moisture controls the partitioning of rainfall into runoff and infiltration. It modulates vegetation growth and photosynthesis. It also influences mass movements, weathering, erosion and sediment transport. Therefore, soil moisture is a key climatological and hydrological variable. However, compared to precipitation and temperature, there are very few soil moisture measurements.


Current Efforts to Develop a National Soil Moisture Network

Significant progress is being made in the United States to address the critical gaps in soil moisture observations. As a member of the National Soil Moisture Network Executive Committee, I helped to draft “A Strategy for the National Soil Moisture Network: Coordinated, High-Quality, Nationwide, Soil Moisture Information for the Public Good” that was released in February 2020. This Strategy Document was called for in the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Reauthorization of 2018. It is intended to review the current status of soil moisture monitoring and reporting in the U.S., and to develop a strategy for a national coordinated soil moisture monitoring network, involving federal agencies, regional and state mesonets, data providers, researchers, user groups, and others. The strategy document identifies ten recommendations for how to implement a National Soil Moisture Network. The goal of this effort is to provide a unifying structure to enhance monitoring activities, establish partnerships for building out the network, develop an organizational structure that will collect, integrate and deliver transformative soil moisture products to the nation. This one tangible way that the Department of Geography at Ohio State is actively involved in climate change research. This effort provides better data for assessing how the climate is changing and to increase the resilience of the United States to these changes.


Dr. Steven Quiring,

Department of Geography

The Ohio State University