Leading Climate Scientist, Steve Schneider, Dies at 65

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Stephen H. Schneider
Source: Patricia Pooladi, National Academies.

The world today lost a great climate change scientist, Stephen H. Schneider.  Schneider died at age 65 aboard an aircraft landing in London.  He strove throughout his life to advance the science of climate change; and to translate its complexity into terms that were engaging, meaningful and useful outside the science community. 

Schneider, who was a biology professor at Stanford University at the time of his death, received a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering and Plasma Physics from Columbia University in 1971.  He joined the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in 1972 and by 1975 had founded the journal Climatic Change.  In 1976 his first book, The Genesis Strategy: Climate and Global Survival, was published.

"I can remember my first hearing where policy was brought up," Schneider told WWF in an interview in 2008 (see Interview: Climate Science, Policy and Public Opinion).  He continued:

"It was 1979, with four or five of us testifying, including Roger Revelle who is arguably the founder of intellectual discussion on climate change. I was on the Carter-Mondale Science Policy Task Force; the administration had read my paper on climate, yet for the energy crisis they proposed oil shale – a major producer of CO2 that my colleagues and I opposed.

We testified about whether energy policy was driving climate policy rather than the other way around. I remember Roger told the panel that we humans were performing a great geophysical experiment and he was nervous about the outcome. That was our first really contentious hearing, and the memory of it is bittersweet for me: Carter was worried about energy security then, and here we are, 30 years later, still worried and still generating more and more greenhouse gases. "

The same year (1979) Schneider testified with Revelle, he was interviewed about the issue in the video below (posted by Peter Sinclair, from Greenman Studio LLC).  In it, all the qualities that served him so well during his career, are evident -- including a thorough knowledge of the issue, along with the capacity and desire to clearly explain the science and its implications

For the rest of his extraordinary career, even after being diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma in 2001, Steve never let up.  Thirty years after his 1979 interview, Steve discusses his last book, Science as A Contact Sport: Inside the Battle to Save Earth's Climate (2009) in the video below, recorded in 2009. 

In the book he explains why over the span of his career we have not solved the problem of climate change even though we have known since the 1970s "pretty much what could happen and even how to fix it."  "Why didn't we get the job done?" he asks rhetorically.  He adds that  "it takes a whole book to explain" and to describe what we can do now. 

In his final appearance before Congress, Schneider testified on 20 May 2010 before the House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming, at a hearing on “Climate Science in the Political Arena.”  He concluded his written statement [PDF] with the following:

“In my personal value frame, it is already a few decades too late for having implemented some climate policy measures, especially national standards for energy efficiency and public private partnerships in new technology development. Had we begun mitigation and adaptation investments decades ago, when a number of us advocated them, the job of remaining safely below dangerous thresholds would be easier and cheaper. Similarly, beyond a few degrees Celsius of warming—at least an even bet if we remain anywhere near our current course—it is likely that many “dangerous” thresholds will be exceeded. Strong action is long overdue, even if there is a small chance that by luck climate sensitivity will be at the lower end of the uncertainty range and, at the same time, some fortunate, soon-to-be discovered low-cost, low carbon emitting energy systems will materialize. For me, that is a high-stakes gamble not remotely worth taking with our planetary life support system. Despite the large uncertainties in many parts of the climate science and policy assessments to date, uncertainty is no longer a responsible justification for delay in either adaptation or mitigation policies.”

Stephen Schneider testifies before Congress for the last time, 20 May 2010.

Stephen Schneider testifies before Congress for the last time, 20 May 2010. Source: House Select Committee on Energy Independence & Global Warming.  See video of his closing remarks.

One of Schneider's last published articles was Expert Credibility in Climate Change, written with several colleagues and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on 21 June 2010.  The article concluded that 97-98% of leading experts are convinced that climate change is happening and that greenhouse gases from human activities are primarily responsible (see Researchers Report High Level of Agreement Among Leading Experts on Climate Change Basics, WWF Climate Change Blog, 21 June 2010). 

See this video interview of Schneider about the article with Rick Piltz of Climate Science Watch on 8 July 2010. The transcript is available from Climate Science Watch's posting, Interview with Stephen Schneider on climate science expert credibility study.

Earlier today, Peter Gleick, Director of the Pacific Institute in Oakland, California, said of Schneider (in Dr. Stephen Schneider, Climate Warrior, Huffington Post):

"His clear and comprehensive explanations of climate change, his encyclopedic knowledge of how the climate works, and his challenges to the fraudulent science that characterizes the arguments of the climate deniers, made it easier for politicians to understand the true climate threats that face us and to move the debate into the public arena. That debate continues, because the science and policy challenges are complicated, but the world is at least beginning to take key steps toward preventing a climate catastrophe because Stephen Schneider knew that the alternative was unacceptable and because he worked tirelessly to move us all in the right direction."

Carter Roberts, President and CEO of WWF, said:

“Steve Schneider was one of the most gifted scientists of his generation. He was that rare breed who combined academic prowess with a talent for communicating – Steve could explain the complexity of climate science to everyone from policymakers to the general public in a manner that was clear, compelling and memorable. His decades of seminal research have been instrumental in shaping not only our understanding of Earth’s climate, but also the role humans play in causing it to change in dangerous ways....The climate science community has lost a true champion.”

See the full WWF Statement on Passing of Dr. Stephen Schneider.

In closing, here is what Richard Moss, former Vice President and Managing Director for Climate Change at the World Wildlife Fund (currently at the Joint Global Change Research Institute in College Park, Maryland) said about Steve.  The two were friends and collaborators:

"Steve was an unparalleled scholar-advocate. He understood an incredibly wide range of the natural science, ecology, and social science of climate change -- in greater depth than most of us who specialize in only one of those areas.  He had the courage to speak out and apply what he knew to move society towards strategies to deal with climate change. He was a wonderful friend. While we have no one who can fill his shoes, he will live on by providing an example of the importance of acting on one's scientific beliefs."

Steve Schneider, 24 May 2007. Photo by Anne Polansky.

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