Annual AGU fall meeting in San Francisco provides thousands from across the globe scientific insights on what motivates — or should — the on-again/off-again COP talks on an international climate change treaty.

(See related posting.)

You’ve for sure heard by now about the huge, and hugely successful, week-long conference that attracted thousands from around the world to bat-around issues related to climate change and Earth’s long-term stability.

No, we’re not talking the Durban, South America, COP-17 meeting here. The give-away hint should have been in the use of “hugely successful.”

Instead, it’s the annual December coming-together of 20,000-plus earth scientists and others convening in San Francisco for the American Geophysical Union’s chock-full fall conference.


There are big conferences and good conferences, mind you. And then there’s the AGU fall conference. It’s both big and good … very good.

Picture a tray of thousands of marbles, but one with a consistent and persistent two-way flow which ever way the tray is tilted, a hither and yon movement of virtually unstoppable momentum and energy. Now picture the intersection of Fourth and Mission Streets in downtown San Francisco, not far from Union Square. Envision the sprawling and multi-floored Moscone Center West and Moscone Center South conference headquarters on diagonal corners, with a third corner of that intersection housing Moscone Center North.

Now picture science geeks representing tens of different cultures and different languages bustling back and forth for a full week, many with poster boards, tightly rolled-up, in hand.

One can shuttle from one concurrent technical workshop to another for hours on end only to hear of having just missed an extraordinary presentation down the hall by the likes of a James Hansen or Ben Santer while you were engrossed by an equally compelling lecture by a Richard Alley or Gavin Schmidt (both, of whom, were honored during the week for their prize-winning science communication skills). Oh my.

But well beyond the “big name” scientists present and accounted for at AGU each year are the hundreds and hundreds of less well-known scientists whose lab and field work may often go unnoticed by headline writers.  But whose ongoing contributions to our understanding of our changing, and warming, climate cannot be understated.

The 240-page spiral bound “Inspire” program book, handed out on-site to each registrant, does as much to overwhelm and bewilder as it does to inspire. Which of some thousands of officially listed authors and poster sessions in the index to catch next? E-posters anyone? How ’bout using that AGU Fall Meeting mobile app to help organize and plan your days? (Lots of luck using that, some ample number of hallway users seemed to be complaining.)

But then, of course, there are those invaluable impromptu hallway meetings and, not to be forgotten, the afternoon free-beer breaks. And the 170 or so official exhibitors.

Take one session, an admittedly somewhat randomly selected one and not necessarily representative of the countless more technical programs. Word spread of Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman’s having backed off from his position as the sole GOP candidate impressed by the accumulated scientific evidence that Earth is warming, and with a substantial boost from human contributions, i.e. the combustion of fossil fuels. That would leave none of the GOP candidates finding the evidence compelling.

Hearing of Huntsman’s suggestion to a conservative audience that climate scientists need to “provide more,” a sort-of “Occupy San Francisco (Occupy AGU?)” arose from the audience: Later that day, in fact at 4 p.m. sharp, let’s empty Moscone of AGUers and stand in quiet, but in unison, on the outside streets. Let’s call the local network affiliates to make sure they’re there too.

The idea, alas, fell prey to the AGU bureaucracy and also to its fear of being portrayed as mobilizing against a specific candidate. It went nowhere.

In fact, there certainly wouldn’t have been unanimity to take such a step, notwithstanding the seemingly overwhelming convictions of the vast majority of those attending that the problems are real and needing attention.

One suspects there might well have been more climate doubters in Durban last week than there were at the AGU meeting.

One thing appears most likely: Judging from AGU’s sessions, the science of climate change, perhaps unlike the politics of same, appears unlikely to slow to glacial speeds. In fact, the only thing moving more quickly than the glacial international movement on climate change … may be the glaciers themselves.

Bud Ward

Bud Ward is Editor of Yale Climate Connections. He started his environmental journalism career in 1974. He later served as Assistant Director of the U.S. Congress's National Commission on Air Quality,...