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By Michael Lucibella
In the weeks leading up to the November 8 Council meeting, APS Councilors were inundated with emails from the membership about proposed changes to the current climate change statement. The responses were prompted by an article in the October edition of APS News and an independent mass email sent to a large portion of the membership soliciting input. It has been the largest response to an action of the Council in recent memory.
In November of 2007, the Council adopted a national policy statement calling for action to curb greenhouse gases and prevent global climate change. At the Council meeting in May of 2009 Councilor Robert Austin proposed an alternate statement that said that current models were not reliable enough to support climate change predictions.
This sparked a debate within the Council and the general membership about the statement. APS News ran an article in October describing the controversy, and told members to contact their Councilors if they wanted to weigh in on the issue.
The article said, “Members who wish to provide their input on these issues prior to the Council meeting on November 8 can do so by contacting an appropriate member of Council.”
Council members said they soon started receiving a few emails following the publication of the article.
“There was a trickle for a while; then the floodgates opened,” Council member James Brasseur said. “It’s been overwhelming.”
On the morning of Monday November second, APS Fellow Harold (Hal) Lewis sent an email to a large number of APS members. The message contained the original statement the Council adopted in 2007, a link to the petition with the new statement, and the email addresses of 30 Council members.
“We urge you to let the Councilors know if you believe the Statement is a fair representation of the scientific position through an e-mail to any or all of them,” the message read, “Since the addressees of this note represent only a sample of the membership, we would also urge you to pass this on.”
Members of the Council were soon inundated with emails. Councilors Brasseur and Gay Stewart estimated that they each received around two hundred emails from members. Austin, whose name appeared on the original inciting email, figured he may have received as many as twice that.
Brasseur organized and categorized the first 180 messages he received to gauge the overall sentiments of the membership that responded. He found that 63 percent of respondents supported the existing statement with little or no change, while 37 percent said they opposed the current statement and wanted either no statement or the alternate statement adopted. Stewart and Austin said that while they had not crunched the numbers as precisely, they felt they had received a similar proportion of pro and anti statements.
“The number in support of the current statement is far larger than those against,” Stewart said, “At least two to one for.”
The message had the signatures of Hal Lewis, APS Fellow Roger Cohen, and Councilor Robert Austin at its bottom. The email was not an official APS-sanctioned action, and it is unclear where the senders got the email addresses of the membership. Austin said that he had nothing to do with the message’s circulation.
“It was really Hal and Roger that did it,” Austin said, “It [my name] probably shouldn’t have been on it I suppose.”
The controversy prompted debate among the Council about how national policy statements are adopted, and what role the general membership should play. Austin said that he thought it was positive that the membership took an active role in the debate over the statement, and that he hoped to see this level of participation continue.
“I think it’s very beneficial,” Austin said, “I think the Council needs to be aware of what the membership feels about the statements.”
He added that he hoped that the controversy over the statement would prompt the Council to amend the constitution to include a way to involve the membership before adopting an official statement. He said that overall he wanted to see more openness about the process and to let the membership weigh in on statements before they’re adopted.
Other Council members are concerned about too much general involvement. Brasseur said that while he supported better informing the membership on actions of the Council, he was uncomfortable with the idea of a membership-wide referendum on statements. He said that he was concerned that having a membership wide vote on controversial issues could lead to the adoption of scientifically unsound statements.
“Should [the process] be a democratic one or a science-based one?” Brasseur said, “I’m totally against the idea of a democratic poll of the membership.”
The Council asked the Constitution and Bylaws Committee to deliberate possible changes to the process of deciding official APS statements. Their recommendations are expected at the next Council meeting in April.
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