Consensus, Skeptics

Physics Society Quietly Reaffirms Climate Change Policy Stance

American Physical Society Reaffirms That Human Activities Affect Earth’s Climate.


There is a substantial body of peer reviewed scientific research to support the technical aspects of the 2007 APS statement….Greenhouse gas emissions are changing the Earth’s energy balance on a planetary scale in ways that affect the climate over long periods of time (~100 years)….While there are factors driving the natural variability of climate (e.g., volcanoes, solar variability, oceanic oscillations), no known natural mechanisms have been proposed that explain all of the observed warming in the past century.

– American Physical Society, Climate Change
Policy Addendum, April 2010


Over 100 hundred professional scientific organizations that span the globe have issued either singular statements of their own or have signed in concurrence to collective statements that recognize the impact of rising carbon emissions on the global climate and the global biosphere, but any one of them would be hard pressed to duplicate the drama that has followed the American Physical Society (APS).

In April of this year, the APS posted an addendum to its official policy stance on climate change. The addendum strongly reaffirmed the Society’s existing policy and support of the anthropogenic global warming (AGW) theory.

The posting was the last chapter in a fabricated controversy that started out with blustering, gale-force winds blowing throughout the endless corridors of the Internet and ended with hardly a whisper. That the APS was revisiting its policy received massive amounts of attention from the blogosphere as well as major media outlets in 2009. However, the actual result, borne from a year-long process that included the solicitation, review, and incorporation of comments from the Society’s 46,034 members, was barely noticed.

Originally issued in November 2007, the APS’ official policy statement on Climate Change concluded that “emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are changing the atmosphere in ways that affect the Earth’s climate” and that “if no mitigating actions are taken, significant disruptions in the Earth’s physical and ecological systems, social systems, security and human health are likely to occur.”

APS’ Consensus Rebellion is a Matter of Debate

Less than a year later, rumblings began when the APS Forum, a division of the APS dedicated to physics related debates, included an article in its July 2008 newsletter from notorious skeptic Christopher Monckton that called into question the conclusions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Skeptical blogs trumpeted that the APS had “declared that there is no scientific consensus that humans are causing global warming” and “reversed its stance on climate change”.

The truth was considerably less earthshaking.

Intended to facilitate debate, Monckton’s article was included alongside a contrasting paper that adhered to the AGW theory discussing the basic physics of climate change. The newsletter also contained a standard notice that it publishes “a combination of non-peer-reviewed technical articles, policy analyses, and opinion” and that all “articles and editorials published in the newsletter solely represent the views of their authors”.

Nevertheless, to quiet any doubt, the APS reaffirmed on its home page that its official stance on climate change had not deviated from its 2007 statement and placed an additional notice on the top of both articles in the newsletter noting that neither had been scientifically peer reviewed.

Motion to Council and Lots of Letters

2009. Another year, another round of manufactured controversy.

Robert Austin and William Happer

Drs. Robert Austin and William Happer; Credit: Beverly Schaefer

Enter Princeton physicists Drs. Robert Austin and William Happer.

Happer, former Director of Energy Research at the U.S. D.O.E. and current Princeton professor, is Chairman of the Board of Directors at the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think tank that has received hundreds of thousands in funding from ExxonMobil and was co-founded by Dr. Frederick Seitz of Oregon Petition fame. A long time climate change skeptic, Happer equated scientists supporting the AGW theory with Nazis while casting skeptics in the role of persecuted Jews in a January 2009 interview with “The Daily Princetonian”. The next month, in testimony before James Inhofe’s Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, Happer compared efforts to reduce carbon emissions to 1920’s Prohibition.

Austin, a biophysicist at Princeton and member of the APS Council, says he once subscribed to the AGW theory. However, he credits conversations with Dr. Harper for his transition to climate skeptic.

Throughout 2009, the two spearheaded a campaign to have the APS substantially revise its official policy on climate change.

At the end of the May 1, 2009 meeting of the APS Council, Austin introduced a motion to substantially alter the Society’s 2007 Climate Change policy statement. The Council tabled the motion and referred it to a subcommittee for consideration. Apparently, that was enough.

Like arsonists calling attention to a fire of their own setting, the calls for notice went out fast and furious.

The intervening months saw a flurry of activity from Austin and Happer, joined by fellow skeptics Drs. Fred Singer, Richard Lindzen, Hal Lewis, Larry Gould, and former ExxonMobil executive Richard Cohen proclaiming that a mutiny was afoot at the APS and that the Society was reconsidering its strong advocation of the AGW theory.

Over the seven months from June to December, innumerable letters, both private and public, were widely distributed by various members of the group to pretty much anyone who would listen, including the APS Council, the journals Science and Nature, media editors, the U.S. Congress as a whole, the U.S. Senate specifically, the APS membership, and the editor of APS News.

The letters were laden with well-worn skeptical arguments and disparagement. The globe has been cooling for a decade! (It hasn’t.) It’s been warmer than today! CO2 is good for plants! Ocean cycles and solar variability affect the climate! (None of which anyone is debating or conflicts with AGW theory.) They can’t predict the weather two weeks in advance! (Weather is not climate.) Science is guided by proof, and there is none! (Actually, science is guided by evidence. Proof is for math.) Scientific disagreement is not tolerated! (As evidenced by the APS’ decision to revisit its policy.) AGW adherents are just in it for the money! (When I think filthy rich, government scientist immediately comes to mind.)

As expected, skeptical blogs ran wild with each new development and each new missive from the intrepid revolutionaries.

And, despite representing less than one half of one percent of the APS’ membership, the building fire equivalent of a lit candle, the “uprising” also managed to gather the attention of willing participants in the mainstream media, including the Wall Street Journal, CBS News, and FOX News.

However, the letters also contained praise for the APS’ decision to revisit its policy “via a high level subcommittee of respected senior scientists”, praise which lasted exactly until the decision of that subcommittee was announced in November.

From Respected Scientists to Nazi Brown Shirts

After four months of discussion and review of existing compilations of scientific research leading up to the APS Council meeting on November 8, 2009, this subcommittee of “respected senior scientists” chaired by MIT Physicist Daniel Kleppner recommended to the Council that the petition to replace the Society’s policy stance on climate change be rejected.

The Council followed the recommendation and voted overwhelmingly at its November meeting to reject the proposal to replace its policy statement. Even Austin voted to reject his own proposal.

The subcommittee did however recommend a referral of the policy to the Society’s Panel on Public Affairs (POPA) for the generation of an addendum to include possible improvements in “clarity and tone”, and the Council concurred.
Brown Shirts
But, in rejecting the petition, the committee members had quickly transitioned from “respected senior scientists” to, at best, an IPCC rubber stamp and at worst the equivalent of Hitler’s Brown Shirts. Meanwhile, the news was simply ignored by the likes of skeptical news peddlers like Marc Morano, who had vociferously championed the petition’s issuance.

The POPA subcommittee drafted an addendum based on direct conversations with multiple climate scientists including Dr. Lindzen. With the draft approved by both POPA and the APS Executive Board, the POPA subcommittee engaged the entire APS membership that could be reached via email in late February of this year. Over the three week comment period, the draft was viewed by 5,805 members, and 1,767 comments were received. Each comment was read by at least one member of the POPA subcommittee, and those in favor of the proposed addendum outnumbered those in opposition by more than two to one. The comments received resulted in substantial revisions to the addendum, and the revised addendum based on member feedback was approved by POPA on April 2 and by the entire APS Council on April 18 with 31 in favor, 2 opposed (one being Dr. Austin), and one abstention. The approved addendum was subsequently posted to the APS web site.

It Was Never About the Result

The actual posting of the approved addendum occurred virtually unnoticed. There was no clamor amidst the blog community and no follow-up from the mainstream.

The following is an excerpt from the group’s letter to the U.S. Senate that was sent in response to a letter sent just over a week prior from the heads of 18 scientific organizations in the U.S. that called for drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

There is no consensus, and even if there were, consensus is not the test of scientific validity…We know of no evidence that any of the “leaders” of the scientific community who signed the letter to you ever asked their memberships for their opinions, before claiming to represent them on this important matter.
Drs. Hal Lewis, Fred Singer, Will Happer, Larry Gould, and Roger Cohen, Letter to U.S. Senate, October 2009

And they are right that science is not by popular vote. Someone should have told Dr. Austin.

[Input from APS members] should have been quantitative not qualitative. It was a very flawed poll…I think they should have had a professional pollster come in.
Dr. Robert Austin, June 2010

But, of course, it was never about the result. It was simply about generating a false appearance of dissension, the perpetrators of which achieving exactly what they set out to accomplish.

I wonder what 2011 will bring.

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