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

Philip Taylor

Now that the APS has finished its actions on corporate reform, and its new Board of Directors and Council of Representatives are in place, the most significant issue on the APS agenda is the reconsideration of the 2007 APS statement on climate change. Readers of this newsletter will recall that POPA is the unit charged with reviewing the 2007 statement, and, if necessary, recommending updates to it.  Those same readers may be wondering why they have not seen any recent reports from their FPS-elected member of POPA on how this operation is progressing. Is he asleep at the switch?

I hope that I can reassure you with an emphatic and wide-awake denial of any tendency to drowse during POPA proceedings (although some of my co-panelists might have wished I had taken a nap or two as the discussions became more pointed). The reason for my silence lies in the familiar sausage-factory analogy: if you want to have confidence in the final product, it is best not to observe the manufacturing process too closely. We were enjoined to silence on the minutiae of the discussions. My lips are thus sealed as far as describing the contents of successive drafts and iterations, and what relation they bear to the 2007 statement.

On the topic of the process by which our work advanced, however, mouths have not been so firmly zippered. There is much information to be gleaned in the public press and the blogosphere, as well as on the APS web site itself.  In 2013 a subcommittee of POPA was formed to review the 2007 statement. As stated on the APS Climate Change Statement Review page, “As part of the POPA-approved process, on January 8, 2014, the subcommittee convened a workshop with six climate experts.”

It is at this point that events took an unexpected turn.  As reported in Physics Today, “When Steven E. Koonin welcomed participants to the Climate Change Statement Review Workshop that he was chairing for the American Physical Society, he made a point of acknowledging ‘experts who credibly take significant issue with several aspects of the consensus picture.’ ”  This set the tone for much of what was to follow. Under the headline “American Physical Society sees the light: will it be the first major scientific institution to reject the global warming ‘consensus’?”, James Delingpole wrote “The American Physical Society (APS) has signaled a dramatic turnabout in its position on ‘climate change’ by appointing three notorious climate skeptics to its panel on public affairs (POPA).” This was not quite correct, as those three merely made presentations to a sub-group of POPA, but the comment was not a good portent.

Shortly after this, the Investors Business Daily put out an editorial under the banner “Mythical Climate Change Consensus Hits An Iceberg” in which they said “Climate change ‘deniers,’ as global warm-mongers call those who think empirical evidence is more reliable than computer models, may soon count among their number a 50,000-strong body of physicists. At the risk of being accused of embracing what alarmists call the flat-earth view of climate change, the American Physical Society has appointed a balanced, six-person committee to review its stance on so-called climate change....” Again, not a completely accurate statement, but an indication of the political problem that the APS faces in tackling this issue. Even now, in January 2015, a Google search on “American Physical Society” brings up as its third entry the unflattering portrait presented in the Delingpole article.

This rumbling drumbeat of public commentary continued through the summer, as an enlarged subgroup of POPA continued its efforts. An impartial observer with no inside knowledge of the inner workings of POPA might conclude that matters came to a head in September with the publication in the Wall Street Journal of an Op-Ed piece by no other than Steve Koonin himself. It was entitled “Climate Science Is Not Settled”. This was met with a forceful rebuttal from Raymond Pierrehumbert, a professor in geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, who then commented on the procedures that the APS had adopted for reviewing the 2007 statement. He opined that “The choice of its drafting committee indicates some serious problems with the APS process for its climate change statement, as the committee did not include a single physicist who was actually doing work in the area of climate science. Given that, one might think the committee would avail itself of the opportunity to become better educated through hearing from the best and most representative experts the field has to offer.” Eli Rabett, following an earlier post in which he says that the APS “might as well have picked a bunch of squeegee guys from off the street” for its review subcommittee, makes some even more forceful but less reprintable comments, and includes rumors of Steve Koonin's resignation from POPA, a conjecture confirmable by the disappearance of his name from the APS POPA web site.

And so where do we stand now? The revised statement is bouncing around between POPA and the Council, and will then be sent to the brand new APS Board of Directors. If they like what they see, then you, dear rank and file APS member, will get a chance to comment on it. I can't wait to find out whether you, in turn, will like what you see, whatever that turns out to be.

Philip Taylor
Case Western Reserve University

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