The Carbon-Climate Cul-de-sac

The Carbon-Climate Cul-de-sac

September 11, 2015 - 10:00am to 11:00am


  • Berrien Moore III, The University of Oklahoma, Norman, Norman, Oklahoma


We know for certain that human activity has altered significantly the fundamental biogeochemical cycle, the carbon cycle, at the planetary scale: the values of important state variables, such as the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) are moving into a range unprecedented in human experience. The increase in the atmospheric CO2 and CH4 concentrations (as well as other greenhouse gases) due to human activity has produced concern regarding the heat balance of the global atmosphere, and this shift in the heat balance will force the global climate system in ways that are not well understood, given the complex interactions and feedbacks involved. There is general agreement that global patterns of temperature will increase and that precipitation will change. The magnitude, distribution, and timing of these changes are far from certain. Stabilizing the increase in atmospheric CO2 is a particularly daunting task. First and foremost, the rise is due primarily to fossil fuel use, and fossil fuel consumption is at the center of the economies of all industrialized societies. Carbon dioxide is a very long-lived gas in the atmosphere, and stabilizing emissions, which we are very far from doing, does not stabilize the concentration in the atmosphere. Finally, even after achieving concentration stabilization of CO2 in the atmosphere, climate will continue to change, as the system comes back into balance with the “new heat balance”; it is, after all, a carbon-climate system with a multitude of feedbacks both positive and negative. There is a clear need to better understand and predict future climate change, so that science can more confidently inform climate policy, including adaptation planning and future mitigation strategies. Understanding carbon cycle feedbacks, and the relationship between emissions (fossil and land use) and the resulting atmospheric carbon dioxide and methane concentrations in a changing climate is an important and serious scientific challenge. To do this, the processes controlling the carbon sources and natural land and ocean sinks must be better understood, and the behavior of anthropogenic carbon sources and natural land and ocean sinks must be quantified. There are also important uncertainties in current anthropogenic emissions, and these uncertainties will likely grow as the proportion of future anthropogenic emissions shifts to developing countries. As important and difficult as this challenge is, it pales in comparison to the fundamental issue: How do we swap out the existing carbon-based energy system of the planet for one that is carbon neutral? This is a Social and Systems Engineering Grand Challenge. The issues are complex and compelling: What do we know; what do we think we know; what do we not know; what should we do, and what should we not do? How do we undo this Faustian bargain?

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About the Speaker

Dr. Berrien Moore III is an internationally recognized Earth scientist who has been honored by National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). He received his Bachelor of Science in Mathematics in 1963 from the University of North Carolina and his PhD in Mathematics in 1969 from the University of Virginia. Berrien Moore III joined the University of New Hampshire (UNH) mathematics faculty in 1969 and was named University Distinguished Professor in 1997. From 1987 to 2008, Moore served for as the Director of the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space at UNH. In 2008, Moore left UNH to serve as the founding Executive Director of Climate Central, a think-tank based in Princeton, New Jersey and Palo Alto, California, which is dedicated to providing objective and understandable information about climate change. In the summer of 2010, Moore joined the University of Oklahoma, where he holds the Chesapeake Energy Corporation Chair in Climate Studies. He also serves as Dean of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, Director of the National Weather Center, and Vice President for Weather and Climate Programs. He has published extensively on the global carbon cycle, biogeochemistry, remote sensing, environmental and space policy, and mathematics.


  • Joint Institute for Computational Sciences Auditorium
  • Building: 5100
  • Room: 128

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