by Judith Curry
The AAAS and affiliated professional societies just shot themselves in the foot with the letter to U.S. policy makers.
Last week, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) issued a press release entitled Thirty-One Top Scientific Societies Speak With One Voice on Global Climate Change. Punchline:
In a consensus letter to U.S. policymakers, a partnership of 31 leading nonpartisan scientific societies today reaffirmed the reality of human-caused climate change, noting that greenhouse gas emissions “must be substantially reduced” to minimize negative impacts on the global economy, natural resources, and human health.
The text of letter to Congress can be found here [link]. The main text of the letter:
Observations throughout the world make it clear that climate change is occurring, and rigorous scientific research concludes that the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are the primary driver. This conclusion is based on multiple independent lines of evidence and the vast body of peer-reviewed science.
There is strong evidence that ongoing climate change is having broad negative impacts on society, including the global economy, natural resources, and human health. For the United States, climate change impacts include greater threats of extreme weather events, sea level rise, and increased risk of regional water scarcity, heat waves, wildfires, and the disturbance of biological systems. The severity of climate change impacts is increasing and is expected to increase substantially in the coming decades.
To reduce the risk of the most severe impacts of climate change, greenhouse gas emissions must be substantially reduced. In addition, adaptation is necessary to address unavoidable consequences for human health and safety, food security, water availability, and national security, among others.
We, in the scientific community, are prepared to work with you on the scientific issues important to your deliberations as you seek to address the challenges of our changing climate.
The 28 June letter was signed by leaders of the following organizations: AAAS; American Chemical Society; American Geophysical Union; American Institute of Biological Sciences; American Meteorological Society; American Public Health Association; American Society of Agronomy; American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists; American Society of Naturalists; American Society of Plant Biologists; American Statistical Association; Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography; Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation; Association of Ecosystem Research Centers; BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium; Botanical Society of America; Consortium for Ocean Leadership; Crop Science Society of America; Ecological Society of America; Entomological Society of America; Geological Society of America; National Association of Marine Laboratories; Natural Science Collections Alliance; Organization of Biological Field Stations; Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics; Society for Mathematical Biology; Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles; Society of Nematologists; Society of Systematic Biologists; Soil Science Society of America; University Corporation for Atmospheric Research.
Whats wrong with this picture? Where to start is the main challenge.
This statement is a blatant misuse of scientific authority to advocate for specific socioeconomic policies. National security and economics (specifically called out in the letter) is well outside the wheelhouse of all of these organizations. Note the American Economics Association is not among the signatories; according to an email from Ross McKitrick, the constitution of the AEA forbids issuing such statements. In fact, climate science is well outside the wheelhouse of most of these organizations (what the heck is with the statisticians and mathematicians in signing this?)
The link between adverse impacts such as more wildfires, ecosystem changes, extreme weather events etc. and their mitigation by reducing greenhouse gas emissions hinges on detecting unusual events for at least the past century and then actually attributing them to human caused warming. This is highly uncertain territory – even within the overconfident world of the IPCC. And the majority of the signatories to this letter have no expertise in the detection and attribution of human caused climate change.
The signatories whose membership has some expertise on the detection and attribution of climate change are only a few: American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, Geological Society of America. The rest are professional societies who are not involved with the physics of climate but explicitly profit from the alarm.
Many professional societies have issued their own policy statements on climate change. One notable absence on the list of signatories is the American Physical Society. While I am not a fan of the APS statement on climate change (see my previous post here), their response as to why they did not sign the AAAS letter is interesting (see this WaPo article):
Of prominent U.S. scientific organizations, only the American Physical Society (APS) abstained from participating in both the 2009 and 2016 letter efforts.
“The American Physical Society did not sign the  letter because it was presented as a fait accompli, and there are significant differences between the letter and the APS Statement on Earth’s Changing Climate,” it said in a statement. “The APS statement went through a two-year vetting process involving multiple committees, the society’s 53,000-plus membership and the board of directors.”
Though the APS statement about climate change is more nuanced than the AAAS letter, stating — for example — “scientific challenges remain in our abilities to observe, interpret, and project climate change,” it in no way disputes the scientific consensus on climate change or the risks it poses.
Well, score half a point for the APS. At least they are thinking for themselves, and not mindlessly joining in the overt advocacy of the AAAS.
‘Scientists speaking with one voice’ on an issue as complex and poorly understood as climate change, its impacts and solutions is something that I find rather frightening. Well, I am somewhat reassured that this is not the population of scientists speaking, but rather the leadership of the professional societies speaking. How many members of the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists have an educated opinion, or even care very much, about climate change? And many of these society leaders (who were responsible for signing on behalf of their organization) are not scientists themselves, e.g. Chris McEntee, Executive Director of the AGU, whose background is in nursing (Masters in Health Administration). She is quoted in the AAAS press release:
“Climate change is one of the most profound challenges facing our society. Consensus on this matter is evident in the diversity of organizations that have signed this letter. Science can be a powerful tool in our efforts to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change, and we stand ready to work with policymakers as they deliberate various options for action.”
So, is this letter going to change the minds of ~50% of Congressional members who do not support President Obama’s climate change plan, either because they don’t like the proposed solutions, or don’t think climate change is dangerous, or don’t think humans are the dominant cause of recent climate change?
Those in Congress that disagree with Obama’s plan have clearly shown themselves not to be susceptible to pressures from scientist/advocates and their consensus enforcement. Further, by broadening the list of signatories to include societies that have little or no expertise in the physics of climate, this whole exercise reinforces the public distrust of these scientific organizations.
It seems that the primary motivation of this is for the leaders of these professional societies to be called to the big table to engage in the Congressional policy deliberations about climate change. So, if you are Lamar Smith or Ted Cruz, would you be calling any of these people to participate in Congressional hearings?
The AAAS and the affiliated professional societies blew it with that letter. They claim the science is settled; in that case, they are no longer needed at the table. If they had written a letter instead that emphasized the complexities and uncertainties of both the problem and the solutions, they might have made a case for their participation in the deliberations.
Instead, by their dogmatic statements about climate change and their policy advocacy, they have become just another group of lobbyists, having ceded the privilege traditionally afforded to dispassionate scientific reasoning to political activists in the scientific professional societies. With a major side effect of damaging the process and institutions of science, along with the public trust in science.
The AAAS et al. have shot themselves in the foot with this one.