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Moss ’77 asks ‘What do we need to know to act on climate change?’

<hard Moss, Carleton class of ’77, is a major climate change researcher and scientist who directed the US government’s climate research program from 2000 to 2006, spanning the Clinton and Bush administrations. He prepared a number of reports for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) during the 1990’s and attended the Nobel Peace Prize conference in 2007, when the IPPC shared the award with Al Gore. Moss’s April 23 convocation presentation involved discussing the increasingly critical situation of global climate change, as well as the challenges he has faced in the past in addressing the scientific aspects of the issue without becoming bogged down by political obstacles.

The main focus of his presentation was the role of paradigm shifts that resulted in scientific revolutions, which was prominently featured in understanding climate change. Moss emphasized how up until the 1960’s, scientists and politicians operated in a paradigm that dismissed humanity’s role in affecting global climate as insignificant, and that people thought the natural system would always stabilize and correct itself if perturbed. Moss then illustrated how the first paradigm shift that occurred, shifting blame onto human activity – a very shocking and controversial idea at the time – did not become fully accepted until the 1990’s.

Moss presented research that monitored the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere for the previous thousand years, saying that natural fluctuations were the main factor that convinced many people to conclude that climate change was nothing more than a natural phenomenon that occurred regardless of human activity. Moss argued, however, that there was other overwhelming physical and biology evidence already observed, such as the migration of birds, melting of polar ice caps and reappearance of certain insects taking place at much earlier times, as well as the increase in precipitation frequency and intensity. This research was mapped on a picture of the globe, which Moss presented while illustrating that regions near the equator produced almost no climate change findings and data, thus indicating the disparity of funds within the world dedicated for scientific study.

Moss highlighted that current research involves the study of human responses, which is divided into drivers and emissions. These include the population and government and the corresponding actions they take; vulnerability of communities around the world and what effects climate change would have on cultural practices and economic development and practices; and the responses triggered as a result of such a phenomenon, including international relations, policy design and public acceptance and attitudes around the world. Moss noted that in the current situation, climate stabilization requires unprecedented emissions reductions in order to contain global temperature increase to only two degrees Celsius within the next 50 years.

Moss commented on the decentralized structure of the IPCC, emphasizing its very small professional staff of around eight to ten members. The remaining workforce consisted of thousands of volunteers that ranged from authors to contributors to reviewers. Moss highlighted that climate science progress takes place through new findings and publication, then reproduction of that research by another party in order to confirm the validity of those results. He expressed his frustration with working in the IPCC, because frequent interpersonal tensions between workers often became known to the public, and these were commonly used to delegitimize the scientific validity of the Panel’s research. Moss therefore urged for science to not become so unfortunately tangled with such irrelevancies that had nothing to do with research. After leaving the IPCC, Moss worked with the World Wildlife Fund, where the lack of governmental intervention allowed him “to achieve much more than we ever had under the Bush Administration.”

In conclusion Moss said that currently the main issue involves two distinct sides, catastrophists versus deniers, and that both parties are in effect cherry picking from the available scientific information to support their own viewpoints without acknowledging the full picture and other valid perspectives. He also emphasized the general inactivity of the populace, illustrating that many are only concerned with how soon climate change would affect their immediate community, economic conditions and livelihoods, and not what implications it has for the world at large and the most vulnerable populations and natural habitats. He wrapped up the presentation by reinforcing the contribution of human output to climate change, and also that “warming is unequivocal” in light of our own impact.

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