Report from the FPS Representative on the Panel on Public Affairs of the APS

The February 2016 meeting of POPA saw the arrival of a new batch of members to replace those whose terms had expired in December, and of a new batch of issues to address. I was one of those members due to be rotated off POPA, and had said my farewells to the APS staff at our last meeting in November. However, in our recent elections the FPS membership was kind enough to re-elect me for another term. I accordingly showed up again for the February meeting, to be greeted by a few raised eyebrows and suggestions that I had become "the permanent representative". Regardless of this jocularity, I was grateful that I had prior knowledge of the workings of POPA and of the history of some of the continuing issues we face.

The most common sentiment among the old hands at POPA was a huge relief that the most contentious question that we had addressed was, at least for the time being, off the table. In November the APS Council had approved the Statement on Earth's Changing Climate. This was the culmination of a project that had begun in 2013 with a discussion of whether to retain or rewrite the 2007 statement. Some will recall that the wording of that statement was considered "strong" at the time, and it soon became apparent that there was no shortage of POPA members eager to weaken it.

Early drafts of a proposed new statement focused fiercely on the inadequacies of existing climate science, reflecting a view later articulated by the then chair of the drafting sub-committee as "climate science is not settled". As late as mid-2014, the draft statement on climate science led off with a ringing, retrograde call to battle, stating, "While there has been significant progress in climate science, serious deficiencies remain in our abilities to observe, understand, and project the climate." It was an arduous struggle to move from this unfortunate starting point to the final product, which substitutes "challenges" for "deficiencies", and wraps the aggression in an emollient coating, so that the relevant section now reads "As summarized in the 2013 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there continues to be significant progress in climate science. In particular, the connection between rising concentrations of atmospheric greenhouse gases and the increased warming of the global climate system is more compelling than ever. Nevertheless, as recognized by Working Group 1 of the IPCC, scientific challenges remain in our abilities to observe, interpret, and project climate changes."

The overall final statement is, at best, unobjectionable. It is not the clarion call to action that some of us wanted, but it at least does no harm. Attempts to qualify our "call to support actions that will reduce the emissions .... of greenhouse gases" by insertion of the weasel word "prudent" in front of "actions" were narrowly beaten back. Our anodyne statement is now Hippocratic but no longer hypocritical.

Issues on the agenda for the coming year include a proposed study on the barriers women face in obtaining a degree in physics. Less formidable challenges include helium stewardship and the review of past APS statements on the use of nuclear weapons (thought to be a bad idea in 2006) and on the need for scientific review of the funding of research facilities (we were for it in 1991). The concern about "the possible use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states" that was widespread in the neo-con era of 2006 might seem to have abated in the following years. However, a leading contender for the U. S. presidency recently produced the utterance: "I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out". This suggests an attitude that goes far beyond the spirit of pure scientific investigation, and reminds us that renewal of our 2006 statement may be timely.

A more thorny issue may be a statement from 1996 on energy policy that is up for review. Those of us who are veterans of the climate wars, and still licking our wounds, approach this one with circumspection.

Philip Taylor
Case Western Reserve University

Live links:
statement approved by Council November 15
2007 statement
climate science is not settled
use of nuclear weapons
review of facilities funding
glow in the dark
energy policy

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.