APS News

New Scientific Coalition Targets Climate Change on the Hill

Whether or not human activity is adversely affecting the Earth's atmosphere and surface is a key unanswered question in scientific research. To help Congressional members and staffers sift through the often contradictory evidence, the APS is weighing in on global warming and climate change issues through a coalition of scientific societies, at the instigation of its Panel on Public Affairs (POPA).

POPA first became interested in organizing an effort focused on climate change two years ago, according to Francis Slakey, APS associate director of public affairs. To broaden the scope and effectiveness of the effort, the APS joined with four other societies to foster a plan of action: the American Chemical Society, the American Geological Society, the American Geophysical Union, and the American Institute of Physics. Since then, the coalition has grown to 10 societies, including, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Meteorological Society, the American Society of Agronomy, the Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America.

Last year, the coalition hired a firm, Fleishman-Hillard, to carry out a series of focus groups and one-on-one interviews with congressional staff, focusing on what role science plays in the debate, as well as what science is known, unknown or distorted. In addition, the firm identified several ways in which the societies could enter into the debate in a unified and meaningful fashion. Based on the Fleishman-Hillard report, the coalition agreed on a goal and structure for a pilot program. The program's primary goal is to develop a grassroots education effort that will provide a regular and objective source of climate-related scientific information to the Hill, with the intent of countering the plethora of misinformation. It is also intended to develop a reliable relationship with a group of key Congressional staff and members.

To achieve its goal, the program will specifically target approximately 50 members of Congress considered key to climate change issues, either because they have not yet taken a stand on climate change but are in a position to influence the debate, or are simply concerned about the science behind the issue. A constituent scientist will then be identified in each of the 50 districts or states to serve as a contact point with the members of Congress. On a regular basis, climate-related information from peer-reviewed sources will be organized into a newsletter called Climate Focus, whose contents will be reviewed by a 10-member panel of scientists with expertise in climate change. The newsletter will be emailed to each constituent scientist, who will then contact the key staffer for their Member of Congress with the information.

For example, the first issue of Climate Focus, disseminated on September 1, summarized the findings of the draft National Assessment Report on global warming, released this summer by the US Global Change Research Program. It is the first ever national assessment of the regional impact of climate change. It also presents scientific evidence that the earth is warming, and that the atmospheric concentration of CO2 is increasing, although accompanying commentary in the newsletter cautions that the evidence is insufficient to determine the degree to which natural climate variability and human influence are causing global warming.

The report also looked at the two most popular climate models used to evaluate the potential impact of climate change. A third newsletter item reported on the first precise measurements of the Greenland Ice Sheet, which indicate that its edges are melting at a rate of one million cubic feet per year, although the study only compares measurements carried out in 1994 and 1999, and hence it is unclear whether the recent melting is indicative of a long-term trend, or whether it is the result of global warming.

The second issue of Climate Focus was mailed on November 1, and Slakey reports that the program is currently reaching 39 of the targeted 50 offices, in addition to key committee staff. He expects to be reaching all 50 targeted offices by February 2001. Feedback from the Hill has been encouraging, he says, and the newsletter will become a two-story monthly publication. The entire pilot program will be evaluated after one year to determine its effectiveness, and whether to discontinue it, continue in its present format, expand the target list, or broaden the goal to include legislative advocacy in addition to the present goal of providing accurate information to Congress.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette