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STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER
1945 — 2010

[8.31.10]

Warming is unequivocal, that's true. But that's not a sophisticated question. A much more sophisticated question is how much of the climate Ma Earth, a perverse lady, gives us is from her, and how much is caused by us. That's a much more sophisticated, and much more difficult question.

Stanford climate researcher Stephen H. Schneider, a long-time friend, colleague and Edge contributor, died last month at the age of 65 of a heart attack while on a flight to London.

To remember him, Edge asked Andrew Revkin and Stewart Brand to have an email conversation about his influence on their thinking. From 1995 through 2009, he covered the environment for The New York Times and he continues to write his "Dot Earth" blog for The Times Op-Ed section. With his 1968 National Book Award-winning Whole Earth Catalog, Brand was one of the founders of the ecology movement. He is the author of recently-published Whole Earth Discipline.

Below, is a 20-minute EdgeVideo interview with Stephen Schneider from our April 2008 feature on his work, "Modeling the Future".

JB

STEPHEN H. SCHNEIDER, a climatologist, was Professor of Environmental Biology and Global Change at Stanford University, a Co-Director at the Center for Environment Science and Policy of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Senior Fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment. He was the author of Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Can't Afford to Lose.

Stephen Schneider's Edge Bio Page

REMEMBERING STEPHEN SCHNEIDER: Andrew Revkin & Stewart Brand

STEWART BRAND: What I appreciated most about Steve — along with all the significant work he did on climate science and climate policy — was his readiness to declare in public when his mind had been changed by new and better data.


He warned about global cooling when it looked like particulate aerosols were dominating climate change, and then as soon as more thorough models indicated that the effects from increasing greenhouse gases would swamp the cooling effects of aerosols, he reversed his position right away and explained why.

Likewise, several months after he first participated in warnings about "nuclear winter," he publicized new studies indicating that the initial fears were exaggerated.

That's intellectual honesty.


ANDREW REVKIN: I first got to know Steve while reporting a long cover story for Science Digest on nuclear winter (published March, 1985), followed soon after by our interactions while I was trying to determine the fate of Vladimir Alexandrov, a Soviet climate modeler and spokesman on nuclear winter (and probable spy for someone; it was never clear whether for the USSR, USA, or both) who had spent months working on supercomputers at the National Center for Atmospheric Research with Steve and others and vanished in Spain in the mid 1980s while attending a conference on nuclear-free cities.

I, too, was impressed with Steve's eagerness to follow the data, including his work with Starley Thompson of NCAR that concluded the cooling effect of smoke lofted from immolated cities after a nuclear war would be more "nuclear autumn" than nuclear winter. Some scientists, particularly Alan Robock at Rutgers, say Steve was wrong about that conclusion, although my sense is there's enough uncertainty in the science of post-war cooling that it'll never be a significant influence should someone be pondering pushing the button.

In my 1985 article, Steve was one of those who, along with Freeman Dyson, emphasized the importance of recognizing and acknowledging uncertainties as much as the established facts in considering policy options.

And as a communicator, of course, I was soon captivated by Steve's passion for diving into the public arena, but also for clarifying that, on policy questions, a scientist's views were as shaped by values as that of anyone else.

He was a frequent source of mine on climate science and policy from 1988, when I bumped into him at the first International Conference on the Changing Atmosphere, in Toronto, Canada, on through about one week before he died.

But I've already found it necessary to draw on his insights after his death.

A few weeks ago, an anonymous comment contributor on Dot Earth, "Wmar," asserted that there was now no need to press for policies to limit risks from global warming because the hypothesis "has been proved to have been falsifiable" — as if there is one simple question in play, as if decisions about such risks are a simple yes/no function of the data.

I responded by quoting from a 2006 e-mail message from Steve, which I'd never published:

"Wmar," you keep trying to set up the question of responding to the risks of human-driven climate change as if there is a single falsifiable hypothesis that determines — yes or no — whether action is justified (on emissions, separate from adaptation). This will never be that easy.

This is the way Steve Schneider put the situation in an e-mail to me in 2006 (I'll be publishing a "Schneidergate" collection sometime later this summer):

"...To be risk averse is good policy in my VALUE SYSTEM — and we always must admit that how to take risk — with climate damages or costs of mitigation/adaptation — is not science but world views and risk aversion philosophy — and whether you fear more the type one error (wrong forecast so you wasted resources by acting on it) or type two error (right forecast but too uncertain so you didn't act and it happened and you really got hurt by not hedging) is a value tradeoff..."

My guess is that your values shape your interpretation of the science (and the interpretations of your intellectual antagonists here), and also fuel your eagerness to portray the response question as subject to the certainty (or lack of it) in the science. Any chance that's right?

I guarantee I'll be drawing on my "Schneidergate" e-mail storehouse for a long time to come.


STEWART BRAND: Andrew, how would you compare and contrast Steve with other major players in the climate change drama?


ANDREW REVKIN: I saw him as more up front about the limited role of science in determining societal responses to global warming than most of his peers — many of whom, still today, seem surprised, almost affronted, that society hasn't jumped to respond to the message they see as so clearcut.

And of course he was one of a handful of scientists immersed at the interface of climate science and policy who stressed that the UNcertainties were the reason for action — even as others sometimes tried to downplay the uncertainties as a way to jog the public and policymakers.


STEWART BRAND: Do say more.

"Brash," "feisty," "outspoken" — those common adjectives about Steve mix interestingly with his willingness to change his mind when persuaded by broader data or deeper models. His normal conversational mode was argument, often in full rant. He put it right out front in his book titles — "The Patient from Hell" and "Science as a Contact Sport." Often under attack, he gave as good as he got.

I think what saved him and his science is that he argued just as ferociously with himself.


ANDREW REVKIN: Relentlessly energetic, feisty and in a hurry, but recognizing the realities of the world.


Andrew Revkin's Edge Bio Page
Stewart Brand's Edge Bio Page


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Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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