Some of the largest and most well-known science organizations are not signers of a letter to the President calling for a ‘national summit’ on climate change. Conspicuous omissions … but why?

Risks to biological and ecological resources took center stage in a February 8 open letter from six scientific societies asking President Obama to convene a “national summit on this urgent and important challenge” of climate change.

But sometimes it’s not the signers of a letter to the President that stand out. It’s the non-signers. Particularly when they might be considered “conspicuous omissions.” In this case, there appears to be an explanation for why prominent science organizations like the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, the American Geophysical Union, AGU, and others did not sign on to the letter.

Signed by the presidents or executive directors of six primarily ecologically and biologically oriented science societies — but including also the American Meteorological Society, AMS — the 2-1/2-page letter says the summit could identify “policies and actions that can be taken by each Federal agency and by state and local governments” to address climate change. It would bring together “leaders in the fields of climate research and modeling, mitigation, adaptation, and ecosystem restoration and resilience.”

Why no AAAS or AGU? And why no sign-on from major scientific organizations such as the American Chemical Society, the American Statistical Association, the American Geosciences Institute, or the Geological Society of America? Does it hint, climate contrarians might well gossip, of some kind of “split” in the science community?

They’d be disappointed, as that is not the case.

The ‘Back Story’ on Writing and Signing of the Letter

The draft letter was distributed widely among science organizations, including to those on their own informal climate science working group listserve.

Speaking for AGU, generally considered among the leading science groups expressing a forceful position in Washington on climate issues, Peter Weiss, public information manager, said the group had reviewed the draft and had found it “narrowly focused, and not as inclusive of many of the issues” AGU members primarily research.

Weiss said AGU officials were aware that “a number of other scientific groups had chosen not to sign” in part because of the letter’s lacking a “broader focus.” He pointed out that AGU two years ago had organized a scientific groups “climate leadership summit” in Washington on climate issues and said it remains a priority for the organization. Furthermore, the group is among a number of Washington-based science interests preparing for an end-of-February “Climate Science Day” with visits to Capitol Hill offices. In addition, the group’s executive director, Chris McEntee, at AGU’s annual fall conference last December expressed an intention of being highly active in Washington in 2013 on climate change outreach.

Among the larger organizations not signing on to the February 8 letter — but remaining fully committed to advancing the evidence-based scientific arguments on climate change — is AAAS, whose Joanne Carney said the timing of the signing effort proved awkward, coming just prior to AAAS’s annual meeting in Boston. With an AAAS focus during that same period on the federal government’s budget sequestration battles and feared impacts on federal research and development funding, she said, “several key staff” were preoccupied with sequestration, with the upcoming AAAS meeting, and with potential complications resulting from the intense New England snow storm.

Also not a signer of the letter is the Geological Society of America, one of the many science organizations active on climate change science and related policy matters. The group’s Kasey White explained that her organization found the letter “not as focused on geology” as it might like, and a bit “bio-focused.” White said her organization, like others in the Washington Beltway, gets asked to “sign a lot of letters,” and this one wasn’t sufficiently on-target for its interests.

The originator of the “national summit” letter is Society for Conservation Biology Policy Director John Fitzgerald, who took the lead in drafting the letter and in getting co-signers. Fitzgerald said in a phone interview that no group had refused to sign the letter because of substantive concerns over it. Instead, he said, some are focusing more on Capitol Hill, particularly over the next several weeks, than on the Executive Branch.

Fitzgerald, saying his organization’s goal was to have the letter to the President before the February 12 State of the Union (see related posting), acknowledged its heavy emphasis on issues such ecosystem adaptation and said he could understand that groups with different priorities might prefer a broader emphasis.

Yet for AMS Executive Director Keith Seiter, it’s the very difference and diversity among the signers — biologists, ecologists, forestry and fisheries experts — that gives the letter particular oomph.

“All of us are seeing the same kinds of things,” Seiter said in a phone interview. “If it was just physical scientists signing, you might expect them to all say the same thing.” He said the Society for Conservation Biology’s Fitzgerald had incorporated some suggestions on the draft from the AMS Executive Council, which approved his signing the letter, and he said he thinks those edits further strengthened the letter.

The Letter’s Substantive Points

In conceiving the letter, the Society for Conservation Biology’s Fitzgerald said the group’s members wanted to capitalize on the potential momentum from the President’s remarks on climate change in his inaugural address (see related posting). With many focused on communicating with legislators, he said he thought it prudent to also support the Executive Branch’s expressions of commitment.

“Bold and creative steps” could make climate change solutions “a signature part of your legacy,” the groups said in their letter to the President. They offered a number of suggestions:

  • “Bolster emergency response to climate disasters …
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions from land-use activities …
  • Reduce greenhouse gas emissions and black soot …
  • Coordinate climate adaptation responses …
  • Protect carbon stores and climate refugia …
  • Maintain benefits from high priority conservation lands … and
  • Reduce alternative energy sources.”

Reflecting meteorologists’ interests, the letter referred to mounting storm damages and “climate-driven weather extremes,” with damages from the 2012/2013 Midwest drought and from “Superstorm Sandy” likely to exceed $100 billion.

“You have a unique opportunity to make climate change solutions a signature part of your legacy,” the groups wrote.

The groups said they can act as “climate ambassadors to build supportive partnerships with science-based groups around the world.”

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