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Wits leads IUPAP Working Group on Climate Action

- Wits University

Two Wits academics lead international working group on physics for climate action and sustainable development

Professor Nithaya Chetty 600X300

The Dean of the Wits Faculty of Science, Prof. Nithaya Chetty, has been appointed as the Chair of the International Union for Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP) Working Group on Physics for Climate Action and Sustainable Development, and Visiting Professor Igle Gledhill from the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Aeronautical Engineering is serving as its secretary. These appointments, effective for an initial three-year term, were confirmed during the IUPAP General Assembly held on 9 October 2023 in Geneva. Chetty also serves as the Vice-President of the Union responsible for membership and development and oversees the global development of physics. Both Chetty and Gledhill are previous presidents of the South African Institute of Physics.

“Issues around climate change are set to grow in the coming years. These challenges are intimately connected with the need for energy security and sustainability of the environment, and if not addressed will impact negatively on poverty, inequality, mass migration, and the human condition,” says Chetty. “These are global problems that require a global effort, and a more focused quest for the green economy.”

He adds: “This is a multidisciplinary endeavour involving the basics sciences like physics, chemistry, mathematics, computing, engineering, human and social sciences, law and health sciences. This terrain is fraught with political influences, and it is essential to carefully differentiate between academic discourse on the one hand and political discourse on the other, and between climate action and climate activism.”

It is noteworthy that Syukuro Manabe, Klaus Hasselmann and Giorgio Parisi were awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing the basis for current climate models and for helping sound an early alarm on human-caused climate change. This highlights the importance of basic sciences for sustainable development which has been celebrated with the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development in 2022/23 whose proposal at the UN was led by the IUPAP. Read the statement on the global green economysigned by national physical societies around the globe.

Chetty says that the working group's primary objectives include promoting the distinct role of physics in addressing climate change and the energy transition. It aims to achieve this by:

  • advocating for an evidence-based approach to climate studies and the energy transition, collaborating closely with experts from various fields,
  • establishing robust global connections to engage the public in discussions on these vital topics, and
  • encouraging the integration of green economy and sustainability principles into university curricula and research training.

The working group, comprising of experts from around the world, will offer recommendations to the Executive Council of the IUPAP on actionable measures, tasks, and statements. Over the next three years, it plans to organise at least one significant international conference. The group is also committed to active participation in initiatives related to the United Nations' International Decade of Sciences for Sustainable Development, declared in August 2023, an initiative also led at the UN by the IUPAP. 

“Amongst other initiatives, our discussions revolve around the formulation of a comprehensive programme aimed at enhancing the field of physics in the Pacific Island nations,” says Chetty. “It is crucial to underline that one of IUPAP's core missions is the global advancement of physics. However, we hold concerns that island nations and economically disadvantaged countries, especially African countries, will disproportionately bear the brunt of the myriad challenges confronting humanity in this coming decade. Given that physics serves as a pioneering discipline, it becomes imperative that we foster its growth in these regions. This, in turn, forms the bedrock for the advancement of science, resulting in a deeper comprehension of societal issues and a more profound commitment to collaboratively devising solutions.”

Prof. Rudolph Erasmus, the current president of the South African Institute of Physics (SAIP) and associate professor in the School of Physics at Wits also attended the recent IUPAP meeting, supporting the resolutions of the working group. He congratulated Chetty and Gledhill on their appointments and proffered his full support of the Institute for the working group’s activities. He says: “I hope to see Climate Physics as a recognised sub-field at South African universities in the near future. South Africa is a founding member of the IUPAP, having been one of only 13 countries that formed the IUPAP 101 years ago, and has a record of being a strong voice in the IUPAP for the development of physics around the globe, a matter of strategic importance for the IUPAP.”