Top Environmental Advisor Advocates Separating Climate Science and Public Policy


Leading climate change expert Richard Moss spoke at Carleton College's weekly convocation last Friday, advocating a new way of thinking about climate change science and its implications for public policy.  Moss, a class of 1977 Carleton graduate who has served in various leadership positions at the WWF, the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), and the UN Foundation Energy and Climate Program, among others, also argued that there is already enough scientific information for policy makers to begin putting climate change prevention measures in place.  

Shifting Paradigms and New Scientific Technologies

Early in his presentation, Moss acknowledged that most "paradigms of science" take a long time to be more widely accepted, so "the fact that there is so much controversy over climate change should not come as a surprise."  Nonetheless, he said, given the fairly overwhelming evidence of climate changes, climate change science should not be considered merely a "socially-constructed worldview."

Moss listed a number of relatively new technologies that have allowed the scientific community to draw more conclusive evidence of climate change, including carbon dating, climate monitoring stations, ice core samples, advanced climate models, satellite imagery, and field experiments.  This "explosion of data" is, for the most part, not comprised of distant projections, but of observations of already occurring changes in regional temperature and weather patterns, including snow and ice melting earlier in the season, earlier bird migration, and heavier precipitation.  "There's a very high level of comfort with our understanding with the impact of the human role," Moss stated, and this conclusion is based on "a whole lot of different studies, not just one or two.  This isn't something where you can negate one finding and have the conclusion go away."

While he said that some fluctuations in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were attributable to natural factors, following the industrial revolution, there was a "pretty dramatic" documented shift in CO2 levels.  Many skeptics point out that thus far there hasn't been a correspondingly dramatic spike in temperatures.  Moss acknowledged this, but said that this brief lag is very likely attributable to the cooling effect of the earth's oceans.  

"Climategate" and Its Implications

Moss also addressed the so-called "Climategate" scandal, in which notable errors were discovered in IPCC assessments on the environment, and several "incriminating" emails between top IPCC officials were hacked into and made public.  Skeptics have used the event as proof of a global warming "conspiracy," and Moss acknowledged that some of the documents contained "absurd" mistakes and that the email exchanges demonstrated a "real lapse in personal judgement."  However, he noted that the documents that contained inaccuracies were those from regional reports, which tend not to get as much scientific review.  While Moss said "Climategate" seemed a good indicator that the IPCC process needs to be reformed and said the incident was "not a great moment for climate science," he said that "the conclusion that human activities are altering the climate" should not in any way be called into question by "Climategate."

Increasing Public Access To Information

Moss did advocate changes in the way climate science is approached, and said that there should be an "absolute openness of data" on scientific studies of climate change, for both the scientific community and the larger public.  Accessibility of information, Moss said, is the only way for climate scientists to regain public trust.  Moss, who has worked as an environmental scientist for both Democratic and Republican Presidential administrations, noted that the U.S. government also has a tendency not to make information easily accessible to the public, which he says decreases the public's trust in the results of scientific work and also undercuts the credibility of the scientific community in the public's eye.  

Separating Science and Policy:  "Judge the Science on Scientific Terms"

Ultimately, Moss argued, "It's totally legitimate to have a question about what to do about climate change, and I even think it's totally legitimate to ask really hard questions about the science, but what I think is happening more than real skepticism, is people using cherry-picked facts to use pre-existing conditions and opinions and that's just not the way forward.  As long as we confuse these two debates-the science and the policy- we're going to keep degrading the science, and taking one of the few things that can give us objective information and destroying it."

Moss said that skeptics and believers alike should judge scientific results on their scientific merit by asking "is it reasonable methodology?  Can somebody else reproduce the results?  Is it clearly presented? Is the data freely available?  That's what we should be judging the science on... you may disagree on the policy, but with science, it's not well, on the one hand, on the other hand... the evidence doesn't really stack up that way."

Acting Now

In terms of the interaction between climate science and policy, Moss said that he hopes to see a shifting attitude about scientific information.  Currently, he says, there is a tendency to wait indefinitely for "more information" before even thinking about acting on the information.  Yet Moss said, "we have a lot of information already.  There's always going to be some scientific uncertainty... but on the main findings [of the existence of climate change and the role of human activity] it's pretty unanimous."  

Moss hoped to see a reformed interaction between science and policy, in which government officials and the public would no longer wait for "more information" before deciding on a "optimal" policy.  Instead, he hoped to see a system in which the government and public would request and finance new scientific studies to increase "the base of information," but would also start to "identify policies that fit the level of science we have," and then implement them.  "In other words," Moss argued, "we're locked in to the wrong kind of management and decision-making approach given the likelihood of improving the base of information."