Stephen Schneider: Scientist, Communicator

September 1, 2010 · 0 comments

by Peggy Lemone, AMS president (with thanks to Bob Chervin)

On 19 July, our community lost both a great scientist and a great communicator, Stephen H. Schneider.  Dedicating his life to quantitative analysis of the physics of climate and climate change while still a graduate student, he soon became a leader in and major spokesman for the field.  He spent most of his professional life at NCAR and then at Stanford.

My first real encounter with Steve Schneider was at an NCAR retreat in the 1970s.  He was presenting a “back-of-the –envelope” calculation (on a hand-drawn envelope on the transparency) on climate change at a retreat in the Colorado mountains.  He was energetic and enthusiastic, and able to distil his arguments into simple, easy-to-understand language.  In the coming years, we all began to recognize that here was not only a gifted scientist, but a gifted communicator.  It was not long before people in the media recognized that Steve had the ability to distil a complex problem into a short sound bite that was a lot more than “ear candy.”

Steve at the time was focusing on the cooling effects of aerosols, while his colleague Will Kellogg was investigating the warming effects of carbon dioxide. This inspired a display on our group bulletin board, with two newspaper articles, one about Steve and cooling, and one about Will and warming, beneath a copy of Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice.”   In his aerosol research, Steve rapidly moved on from “nuclear winter” to “nuclear autumn” and the impact of carbon dioxide.   Like a good detective, he refined his opinions as the evidence came in, and he drew in colleagues from multiple disciplines to track the causes and impacts of climate change.  He quickly became NCAR’s ambassador for climate change, writing several books, and continuing to explain the rapidly-evolving science to the public through the news media.

Sadly, he ended up having to do far more than simply explain the science to the public and policy-makers:  increasing resistance to the findings of climate-change science put him and other climate scientists on the defensive – not so much against other atmospheric scientists as to private citizens.  Indeed, in recent years, he, like other climate scientists, have received multiple threatening emails.  As in the title of his last book, climate science has in some sense become a “contact sport,”with confrontation rather than reasoned discussion.   In Steve’s words (from an interview in Stanford’s alumni magazine)

…in the old days when we had a Fourth Estate that did get the other side [of debates]—yes, they framed it in whether it was more or less likely to be true, the better ones did—at least everybody was hearing more than just their own opinion. What scares me about the blogosphere is if you only read your own folks, you have no way to understand where those bad guys are coming from. How are you going to negotiate with them when you’re in the same society? They’re not 100 percent wrong, you know? There’s something you have to learn from them and they have to learn from you. If you never read each other and you never have a civil discourse, then I get scared.

Only time will quiet the vigorous and sometimes unpleasant debate.  But, in the meantime, I hope that we in the community can also find times and opportunities to share this important science with the public in non-confrontational and user-friendly ways.  We owe that to Steve, the public, and ourselves.

For more details on Steve’s rich and productive life, see the Stanford University web site, and also the 13 August 2010 issue of Science, and the 19 August 2010 issue of Nature