APS News

Plans Afoot for Topical Group On the Physics of Climate

  During the summer, APS received two independent requests for the formation of a topical group focusing on the physics of climate. One was presented by APS Fellow Roger Cohen, who had privately circulated a petition to that effect and obtained the 200 member signatures needed to bring it to Council. The other came as an initiative of Council itself, which at its April meeting had authorized APS President Curtis Callan to poll the membership on their support for such a group; an email petition sent by him to the members of DCP, DBP, DCOMP, DAMOP and DFD in early August quickly received almost 800 signatures.  

“It’s clear that there is a great deal of enthusiasm among the APS membership for the formation of a topical group on the physics of climate,” said Kate Kirby, APS Executive Officer. “There are a number of opportunities for the physics community to make substantial contributions to science in this area.”

Although the language of the two petitions differs in detail, with the Callan proposal defining the scope as the physics of “climate and the environment”, and the Cohen petition emphasizing that the topical group should not be concerned with “matters of policy, legislation and regulation”, both expressed a common goal (quoting the Cohen petition) of providing  “a mechanism for physicists … to learn about and exchange views on the science, and to generally advance the physical understanding, of terrestrial climate.”. Since Council would certainly not approve two separate topical groups on this topic, the leadership decided that it would be best to attempt to form a “joint” topical group, focusing just on the physics issues inherent in climate science. According to Callan “We wanted to address what is obviously the core concern of our members. I also have no problem with leaving the policy issues for another venue: the science is challenging enough, and worthy of our undivided attention.”

A topical group is like a mini-division: it organizes sessions at the March and April general meetings of the society and often puts out a newsletter for its members. It has a governance structure similar to that of a typical APS unit and its officers are elected by the topical group membership. The next step in the creation of the new topical group is to constitute an organizing committee whose charge will be to define the precise “area of interest” (and name) of the topical group, draft its bylaws and determine how it will initiate its activities. Once these plans have been approved by Council, APS members will be invited to join (upon payment of dues of $8!) and once there are at least 200 paid-up members, elections for officers can take place and the new topical group can commence its independent existence.

Callan said that his first step in constituting an organizing committee was to recruit a distinguished and effective chair, and that he was fortunate in having been able to convince Nobel laureate and former APS President Jerome Friedman of MIT, one of the signers of the Cohen petition, to serve in this important capacity. With this key element in place, Callan proceeded to ask other signers of the two petitions to serve as members of the committee. The response has been very positive and he expects to have a committee of about eight members in place, representing a range of APS units.

Committee chair Friedman says that he is hopeful that it will be possible to submit bylaws for approval at the November meeting of APS Council. Given the enthusiasm for this initiative that has been expressed by APS membership, a new topical group on the physics of climate could be open for business sometime early in 2011. Callan commented that he hoped this TG would go a long way toward reducing the tensions that had been raised within the society by the climate issue …. and also that its services would no longer be needed by the time the year 2111 rolled around!


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