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Do Professional Science bodies speak for ALL their membership?

CrowdOn August 5th, 2013, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) released a ‘Position Statement’ on Climate Change, rather bluntly blaming humanity. The full Position Statement on their website requires a PDF reader and can be read here. The bottom of the AGU news release announcing their Position Statement makes mention that they are “a not-for-profit, professional, scientific organization representing more than 62,000 members in 144 countries,” – something which the media has gone absolutely delightfully overboard with, making a great deal out of the fact 62,000 scientists are represented by the AGU.

On the same day, Dr Roger A. Pielke, Sr. posted his response on the popular climate blog, (you will have to scroll about half way down to read Dr. Pielke’s statement). Dr. Pielke served on the AGU Panel to draft the updated Position Statement on “Human Impacts on Climate.” Dr. Pielke’s response is a very rational, detailed and I would personally argue, balanced statement on where scientists (should) stand with respect to Climate Change. Most of the Earth Scientists that I quickly polled (admittedly a small group so far..) all agreed with Dr. Pielke’s statement and all had considerable reservations about the Position Statement by the AGU.

I guess first, you as a member of the public, might ask why an Earth Scientist should have ANY opinion on climate change? After all, we deal with rocks, not the weather or the climate! Well, the answer is because the only reason scientists are really even aware that the planet if warming at all is because of the geologic record on the planet. Without that, we’d have no idea that (and you can search any of this online – I’m not making it up):

  1. Tthe planet was 10oC warmer when the dinosaurs roamed the planet
  2. When multicellular life exploded on the planet some 540 million years ago, glacial ice sheets almost reached to the equator.
  3. There is less CO2 in the atmosphere than just about any other time in Earth’s history except for the last few million years.
  4. The planet has been warming for the last 10,000 years
  5. As long as there is a polar ice cap, we are still in an ice age. We also know that as long as Antarctic remains at the bottom of the world, there may be some ice melt, but the East Antarctic ice sheet isn’t going to melt any time soon. That’s not to say coastal cities may not have to relocate in the future due to rising sea levels, but there are checks and balances which will prevent the entire world going ice free for a few 10’s of millions of years yet!

So Earth Scientists tend to have some thoughts on climate change, because it was only by looking to the past, we are aware of what is going on in the present. And that may make us sound skeptical, but in reality, many Earth Scientists are more alarmed that people seem to think that controlling one element, ie CO2 emissions, will stop the planet changing temperatures. Because before humans were on the planet, the temperature’s changed without our intervention and many of those variables are in play today, in addition to CO2 gas concentrations. So lets move on and start adapting – geologic forces maybe slow and lumbering, but they are pretty unrelenting and unstoppable!

However, I’m not speaking for all Earth Scientists, but Dr Pielke’s statement is more in line with my understanding of climate change than the one issued by the AGU. It is important people realise that because only when we identify what we can and can’t control, we can adapt accordingly. By focusing exclusively on man-made CO2 emissions, we ignore a whole bucket full of problems which will make our standard of living much, much worse and cause even more environmental degradation.

So why do I bring this up? Because the media makes out the 62,000 members of the AGU have all endorsed this Position Statement, and thus 62,000 scientists agree with the AGU’s view of climate change. Have 62,000 scientists endorsed this position statement?

I am aware that the Professional scientific bodies I am member of have committees set up to investigate climate change. I know that I was not able to get on the committee of one of the Professional Bodies as the criterion was so narrow that only an elite few would be eligible to get on the committee. The other committee is not based in the country I reside in, so I have am not so aware of the committee movements of that body. To date, neither body has put out a Position Statement on Climate Change (or really on anything that isn’t directly related to their mandate’s).

However, I have a fairly good idea that at least one of the Professional bodies is unlikely to put out a statement I, or a number of others might support in its entirety.

So if a Professional science body comes up with a Position Statement and implies that all its members support it (or the media makes that assumption), that probably isn’t the case. Personally, I haven’t seen too many Position Statement from many Professional bodies anyway, but I would only appreciate the statement if it was accompanied by some sort of language like “We have put this Position Statement to our entire membership of 10,000 and 72% of them approve the statement.”

However, we will likely never see that because even within any one Professional Science bodies, there are many different scientists. I am not a member of the AGU, but I would imagine over the years the scientists that have signed up membership with the AGU will be disciplined in many things including seismic activity, electrical conductivity in the ground, land or sea oil and gas exploration and extraction, mineral exploration and extraction, salt diapers, structural geology, palaeontology, engineering, business, ground penetrating radar, and probably over 100 other specialised disciplines which can be loosely associated with geophysics. Even if the members voted, most would have only have at best, a personal interest and probably well informed view of climate science. But very few would be involved in documenting past climates and modelling future climates. And that can lead this article into a larger philosophical discussion – but I’ll save that for another day!

So that means the Position Statement was most likely drafted up by a small committee with strong and hopefully, informed views within the Professional body, and it was never put to the entire membership before being released to the public. No statement will ever be fully endorsed by the membership – there will always be dissenting members. But a fairer process would be for the committee to draft up a statement, put it to the membership, accept feedback, revise accordingly – maybe do that two or three times,  then put the revised statement back to the vote, and then report how many support it. That should give members of the public (and members…) more assurance about how strongly the Position Statement is supported by the scientists that make up the Professional body.

What do you think – have you read both the AGU Position Statement and Dr Pielke’s statement? Which one do you agree with more?  And who is actually qualified to comment on such issues? Please post your thoughts below in the comments section!

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